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Celebrate Cinco de Mayo With a Food Fiesta

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Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, is a Mexican holiday celebrating the 4,000-troop Mexican army's unlikely victory over the 8,000-armed French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

The day is not to be confused with Mexican Independence Day, September 16, 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest, called on the country to revolt against the Spanish colonial government.

As Native Americans, we should not forget that the Mexicans are descended from the Aztec and Mayan people.

In many ways, we are all connected.

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. did not become popular until 1967, when activists, mostly in California, were anxious to build a good relationship between the two countries. The holiday's popularity in this country seems to increase each year, as Mexican restaurants offer specials and hire Mariachi bands. People here typically enjoy the food and drink, the dancing and the festive atmosphere.

It is important to note that the Aztec and Mayan's early traditional cuisine was beans, maize, squash, chili peppers, and later avocados, papayas, tomatoes, manioc and peanuts. They prepared these foods in a wide variety of ways. The Maya were the first to harvest and develop ways to use peanuts. They also discovered the vanilla bean, which comes from an orchid plant, was a great flavor enhancement for their corn and cocoa drinks.

There are many classic Mexican and Southwest recipes which are prepared to honor Cinco de Mayo. My favorite fiesta recipes: salsa and nachos.

Basic Salsa

2 large tomatoes, seeded, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 green chili, seeded and chopped

2 scallions, sliced thin or ½-cup red onion, chopped

1 4-ounce can chopped jalapenos

1 teaspoon good olive oil

1 tablespoon lime juice or red wine vinegar

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 light dash oregano

2 tablespoons tomato juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Chop, chop, chop and put everything together in a medium bowl. If you want to make the consistency tighter, chop some more. If you put ingredients in a processor or blender, you run the risk of getting a puree. True salsa lets you see the vegetables. Serve room temperature or chill. Either way, let the mixture sit and get acquainted for a little bit. Feel free to add hot sauce, after tasting, if needed.

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A package of tortilla chips (You can try artisan chips with black beans, garlic, chipotle or other flavors. As always, homemade tortilla chips are the best.)

Refried beans, canned or homemade, or substitute bean dip

Monterey Jack cheese, or packaged shredded Mexican blended cheese

Chopped jalapenos, raw or canned

Place two dozen chips on baking sheet, fairly close together, and spread refried beans or bean dip on top. Sprinkle cheese and jalapenos over the top of the chips. Broil lightly until the cheese melts. Watch them closely—this only takes a minute or two.

Serve right away with dips of salsa, guacamole and/or sour cream.

Options: Add chili con carne, or shredded chicken or pork. Remember the chips will get soggy with too much moisture, so add sparingly.

Cheesy Corn & Chicken Dinner

Preheat oven to 375

2 roasted large chicken breasts (5-6 ounce), deboned, shredded (You can substitute an equal amount of shredded pork.)

2 cups green chili salsa, homemade or jarred

¼ cup chopped, fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 10-ounce package of frozen corn kernels

2-1/2 cups of tortilla chips, unsalted

2 cups Monterey Jack cheese or Mexican blend

Put green chili salsa in a bowl and add chopped cilantro and cream to salsa. Set aside. Spread half the tortilla chips in a deep glass baking dish and cover with half the salsa, then half the chicken, corn and cheese. Now, another layer of tortilla chips and repeat the layer ending with the cheese.

Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove cover and bake for 5 to 7 minutes longer until bubbly. Serve with knobby fry bread or soft, warm corn tortillas.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.

For more of Dale Carson's Aztec-inspired recipes, read Avocados: Ripe in Aztec History.