Cinco De Mayo Meets Derby Day: The Menu
*Update: Here are Pictures from the actual Cinco De Derby-
Right after this next shot was taken, he went on to win the race. He sure was tiny!
Here is the start of the food and cocktails portion of this post:
Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve been a little distant lately. It’s not because I’m not cooking- I am. Like, a lot. It’s been hard to document it all to share with you because another big project (I’ll tell you about it very soon!) is consuming my life and at the end of the day, my therapy is my time in the kitchen, rather than on the page. It’s hard when you have two true loves to figure out how to balance them. I imagine that’s why polygamy isn’t more popular. For me right now, cooking is winning, but next week writing may once again seduce me with her wily, assonant charms.
I have a third love: holidays that encourage dress-up and drinking. Good god, I’m a polyamorous slut. And I would be utterly remiss in my duties as a suitor if I didn’t share with you what I’ve done to commemorate tomorrow. Tomorrow is Cinco De Mayo. Tomorrow is also Derby Day. Both holidays promote bodily beautification-sombreros and brimmed hats, anyone? Both holidays also pay homage to Coctalica- the indigenous goddess of cocktails. Her apparition has visited me in the night a time or two usually when I’m praying to her whilst bent prostrate over the porcelain throne in my bathroom. She looks suspiciously like a very fast horse wearing a sombrero whilst grasping a Mint Julep in one hoof and a margarita in the other. She told me to honor her with a feast tomorrow, but since I’ll be on the (local) racetrack betting on horses and hitting on jockeys, I prepared it in advance.
I did a little research about Mexico and Kentucky so that I could properly fete Coctalica for Cinco de Derby Day. This research led me to the bottom of two cavernous bottles, one of tequila, and the other of bourbon. It was then that I had a vision. The vision was of a many headed creature (this was probably because of the alcohol, I can’t be sure) who spoke in tongues that I couldn’t understand (also due to the liquor?). I finally closed one eye and concentrated really hard and I gathered that I was meant to cook something that could move as swiftly as a racehorse along with accompaniments from Southern and Mexican traditions.
Naturally, I started my feast off with a cocktail. It is composed of Maker’s Mark bourbon, Mexican Coke, a Serrano pepper that I candied using bourbon syrup, sliced jalapenos, cilantro, and a Luxardo cherry- you know, because Italian maraschino cherries have so much to do with Mexico and Kentucky. Oh, and I topped it with a fancy hat, because how could I not? The problem with this drink was its sheer drinkability. Especially in the early afternoon. But a loyal minion of the goddess Coctalica remains true to the cause, and so I soldiered on, if with a little swagger in my step.
Mexico and the South both have a special kind of corn in common that has been treated in lye. The difference is that in the South it is then dried and ground into grits, whereas Mexicans tend to keep the kernels whole, in which case they are called hominy. A hominy-based dish that originated in Guerrero, Mexico called “posole” is eaten every Thursday in posoleria’s across the country. So I chose posole, but with a Derby twist. I wanted to use horse because that would have been truest to the races, but horse is tricky to find in the United States, unfortunately. The U.S. has a funny idea of where to draw the line on the ethics of meat-eating. It’s ok to keep chickens in windowless shoe boxes, and cows and pigs wallow in two feet of their own shit, yet our delicate dispositions fight humanely-raised horsemeat and foie gras because some old, white suit who is on the take from Monsanto and every CAFO imaginable told us they were bad.
So instead of horse, I used rabbit. Rabbits are fast and I love watching them race. I made dark stock from rabbit bones, vegetables, star anise and cinnamon. I cooked the rabbit legs and thighs in syrup of bourbon and sorghum- another staple of the South- overnight at 146°F using an immersion circulator. If you have any experience with sous vide cooking, you may appreciate the irony of this photo, but if not, I’d better not explain it in order to spare feelings:
I found dried purple hominy that I’m told was grown in the South. It excited me as usually posole is either white or yellow. Most people start with canned hominy because it’s easiest to find and takes less time to cook, but I prefer dried where fresh is not available because the longer and slower the hominy stews, the deeper the flavor of the resulting posole. I stewed the posole in rabbit stock for about eight hours, at which point it was very tender and full of flavor. Then I added paste made from ancho chilies, and shredded the soft rabbit meat into the soup. I served the rabbit posole with all the traditional accoutrements along with homemade tostadas fried in Southern Mangalitsa lard.
The second entrée I created also makes use of rabbit and corn, this time in the form of rabbit saddle roulade and Mexican epazote grits. I wrapped the rabbit saddles in pancetta and briefly cooked them en sous vide. Then I lacquered them in bourbon-sorghum glaze and seared the pancetta crust. The resulting bites of roulade are what I would like to eat in heaven. Or hell. Wherever I end up, preferably where it’s more fun and lively.
The real kicker of this course was the giant cauldron of mole rojo I slaved over for many splattered, burned, disheveled hours. Mole is about the least intuitive thing I ever cook. Sometimes as I’m cooking I wonder about the first person who ever decided to risk their life by tossing hot chilies into a sizzling pool of lard. And then to add raisins, chocolate, and all manner of other things that play rather vigorously with hot oil. I came out alive after losing two shirts to chile stains in the process, but the good thing is that I decided to cook in the buff for the rest of the day. I imagined myself like a prized Derby pony and pranced around the kitchen.
I made the grits in the style of Mexican rice. The epazote was just the right touch. If you’ve never played with epazote, you ought to. It’s a Mexican herb that smells like an inner-city gas station on a smoggy day, yet it is inexplicably delicious.
Finally, I blended huitlacoche with quesadilla cheese and cream, heated it to fondue-like consistency, and whipped it with lime meringue to make huitlacoche chiffon mousse. Huitlacoche is yet another thing that makes me sad about food and the United States. It’s a fungus that grows on sweet corn, widely recognized in Mexico as a delicacy. Our country, by contrast, spends millions of dollars trying to eradicate this fungus from our crops, giving it unsavory names like corn smut and Raven’s scat. Sure, it’s not very pretty to look at, all black and sinewy like a viscous oil slick booger, but its delicate flavor is so prized that the James Beard Foundation dubbed it “Mexican truffle.” I’m told huitlacoche is somewhat hard to find, although here in Seattle I can get it at various Mexican grocers. It comes in a jar unless you’re in Mexico or your Rick Bayless, in which case you can commission farmers to grow it for you so that you may serve it fresh to your admiring fans.
I garnished this entrée with nopales chopped into brunoise, some sautéed, some raw. A nopal is a cactus pad that tastes to me like a mashup between okra and aloe. Plus I picked up a few extra nopales to use as paddles to spank the horses with tomorrow at the races.
I’d like to think that bourbon-lacquered rabbit with mole, Mexican grits and huitlacoche chiffon plus rabbit posole along with a signature cocktail was enough to appease Goddess Coctalica, but I’m not sure. Tomorrow is, after all, the greatest double-header drinking holiday we’ve had in a long time. What are your plans for Cinco De Derby Day? Maybe I’ll see you on the track. I’ll be wearing a very Southern yellow dress. With a sombrero, of course.
And I’ll be smoking one of these Maker’s Mark bourbon-seasoned cigars. How terribly chic.