The Fifth of May is to Mexicans what the Fourth of July means north of the border. Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday, is a day of parades, parties, fiestas and lots of good eating.
The holiday commemorates the 1862 victory of a vastly outnumbered Mexican army over the invading French army at Puebla. The stunning triumph gave immediate cause to celebrate that still continues.
With the great popularity of Mexican food, a Cinco de Mayo fiesta seems a great way to kick off the summer entertaining season. Besides, there are two months still to go before we celebrate our independence, so tip a sombrero to our neighbors south of the Rio Grande.
Mexico is a sunny country and it vibrates with color. So set the mood right at the beginning by writing the invitations on bright paper -- use a vibrant red -- and write with either gold or canary yellow inks. No white envelopes, please.
If you can't find colored envelopes at the stationery store, check out novelty shops and print/copy companies that keep a wide variety of paper supplies.
The table decorations carry on the multicolored theme. Use either a print or solid-color fabric for the cloth, but dig into your linen drawer for napkins in a whole kaleidoscope of hues.
If yours will be a buffet party, roll the napkin around the cutlery and stand the packages up in a pretty straw basket.
Straw baskets, in fact, should be used as much as possible. Use them to hold pots of blooming flowers. Even cut flowers in any old jar can be prettily disguised when plunked into a deep straw basket.
Shallow straw baskets can be used for passing hors d'oeuvres at the beginning of the evening and cookies at the end.
The margarita, of course, is the national cocktail of Mexico. Traditionally, the liqueurs are vigorously shaken and poured, neat, into a chilled glass. Purists also rub the rim of the glass with a wedge of lemon or lime, then dip it into salt for a gritty rim that adds piquancy to the drink as it is sipped. More than one of these drinks can be lethal.
Frozen margaritas dilute the strength of the drink by whizzing the mixture with ice cubes. For each drink use 1 1/2 ounces tequila, 1/2 ounce Curacao (or other orange-flavored liqueur), and juice of half a lemon.
For the main course serve pozole, a rustic pork and hominy stew that improves when prepared a day or so in advance and reheated at fiesta time. Below is an easy-to-do recipe from the wonderful Border Grill in Los Angeles. This is typical of the authentic flavors that Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken imbue into their dishes.
Use shredded jicama for salad and mix it with watercress, shredded lettuce or orange wedges. Put just a touch of fire into the salad dressing with a few drops of hot red pepper sauce.
Beer is the beverage of choice with Mexican food. Buy several brands and allow guests to pick their own. Iced coffee would also be a welcome beverage.
Smooth flans are popular for dessert. Either plain, with a caramel sauce or flavored with coconut, orange or coffee, these sweet endings must also be made in advance. Since the cook's work is mostly finished before the party, that leaves plenty of time to join the fiesta.
Border Grill's pozole
Makes 6 servings.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2-pound pork shoulder, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2 -inch cubes
1 large onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
5 cups chicken stock or canned broth
10 tomatillos, husked, cored and quartered (See note)
1 bunch fresh cilantro, stemmed
1 (15-ounce) can hominy, drained and rinsed
2 dried red chilies, stemmed
freshly ground pepper
1 medium onion, finely diced
thinly sliced radishes
Heat oil in heavy large skillet over high heat. Add pork and cook until brown on all sides. Reduce heat to medium. Add large onion and cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add 3 cups stock. Simmer until meat is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
Puree tomatillos and cilantro with remaining 2 cups stock in blender. Add puree, hominy and red chilies to pork. Simmer 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Discard chilies. Serve pozole, passing diced onion, lettuce, radishes, and lime separately.
Note: Tomatillo is a green tomatolike vegetable with a paper-thin husk. Its flavor is not at all like a tomato. It has a citrus tang, plus a hint of parsley. Available at Latin American markets, specialty food stores and some supermarkets.
Carol Cutler is the award-winning author of eight cookbooks, including "Catch of the Day."