Photography: MIKKEL VANG1 of 8
A Modern Mex Fiesta
For some partygoers, Cinco de Mayo is an excuse to knock back a few too many tequila shots. We prefer our celebrations more low-key. A fresh and flavorful Baja-inspired spread will help you and your amigos channel the same carefree feeling you'd get from a day at the beach. We'll drink a Pacifico to that.
This is the kind of meal where you don't have to iron out every wrinkle. Just spread it all out on the table, inside or outside, for family or friends. People can come and go -- the food won't suffer if it sits for a little while. Do your part by putting on flip-flops and pouring yourself an icy beverage before frying up some spicy bites.
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So you don't get schooled by a tequila snob at your own table, here's a quick 101. Gold tequilas, or mixtos, have added sugars and colorings and are for mixing only. Platinum or silver tequilas are 100 percent agave and unaged; they're a mixing upgrade. Reposados, literally "rested," are aged in casks for up to a year and are nice for sipping. And extra-aged, or anejo, tequilas spend three to four years in barrels -- quaff these in a snifter.
Less expected than a margarita but just as easy to make, our Paloma Cooler is lively and laid-back at the same time. It gets its light, bubbly flavor from Mexican grapefruit soda (which is also great on its own) and a platinum tequila. The "drunken lime" floater is a cored-out half lime filled with a shot of a reposado tequila. And a cold, crisp Mexican beer always goes down suave.
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Hot appetizers paired with chilled cocktails will set the no-hurry mood. These snacks are best served right out of the skillet, when they're piping hot and oozing with cheese. You can stuff the green chile and sweet piquante peppers with the tangy goat-cheese-and-cilantro filling the day before and stick them in the refrigerator until ready to start frying. (The olives come prestuffed with pimiento, jalapeno, or -- ay ay ay! -- habanero peppers, the hottest kind.) After you've cooked the first batch, set your skillet out on a trivet with a spatula. When everybody's picked it clean, fry up another batch.
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Fish tacos are the best kind of fast food: fresh and filling, but of course more festive. You can prepare and set out the sides before you even fire up the grill -- and don't forget the hot sauces.
A fish taco is about clean contrasts and fresh, bright flavors. When it's all put together, you end up with a little bite of everything. The magic starts with perfectly fresh fish. Rather than double-fry it as they do in Baja, we rubbed ours with three spices and then grilled it. Try a tender, flaky variety such as red snapper (shown here) or striped bass.
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This is a hands-on meal that can be passed around family-style or set out and lingered over during a long afternoon. Either way, all you have to do is provide the flavors and textures. Guests are on their own after that.
To build a perfect taco, a warm tortilla is key. Make (and take) one taco at a time so your second is just as satisfying and flavorful as the first. Flake off just a few forkfuls of fish, so you have room for the other ingredients. Then add the rest: smooth avocado (use a melon baller for perfectly sized scoops), tangy pickled veggies, and crunchy cabbage. Top with a sprinkling of cilantro, a squeeze of lime, and creamy crema (make your own by thinning 1 cup sour cream with about 3 1/2 tablespoons lime juice and 1 tablespoon water). Finish off your taco with a fiery habanero sauce, or a milder serrano version.
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Trust us, there's no crazy canning procedure involved here -- these pickled vegetables are just simmered in a vinegar solution for 10 minutes and cooled. The mildly hot jalapenos, sweet carrots, and red onions can be nibbled on pre-meal, or thrown into a taco. For an extra twist, add pickled cactus to the mix. These savory, slightly sweet dark-green strips are often found atop Mexican salads.
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Grilled corn always elicits oohs and aahs, even though it takes only minutes to make. Imagine, then, how doubly impressed your friends will be when you toss the corn with a spicy seasoning. Roast the ears until they're lightly blackened, then cut them into smaller pieces. Transfer corn to a sturdy paper bag, sprinkle with lime juice, chili powder, and salt, and shake to coat.
8 of 8Juicy, tropical fruit is a refreshing finale to a meal high on flavor. Cut the fruit in the morning and refrigerate, then sprinkle on tequila an hour before eating. Skewer right before serving.