From the Perfect Mexican Shredded Chicken to her special taco seasoning to the Ultimate Queso, no matter what you're cooking up for May 5 gatherings, Sara Stirs has got you covered. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Stirs: Take Cinco de Mayo ‘beyond the basics’ with these Cali-style Mexican classics

Editor’s note: Enjoy this special Sara Stirs column! Subscribe to My Buckhannon to get new articles and recipes from Sara twice a month!

BUCKHANNON – One of my favorite eating and entertaining holidays is just around the corner, Cinco de Mayo.

First, an abbreviated history lesson as a reminder that the day has meaning beyond discounted tacos and margaritas. The fifth of May is observed to commemorate the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. This day is often confused with Mexican Independence Day, which is September 16. Cinco de Mayo has morphed into a celebration of Mexican-American culture, as it has more popularity in the United States than in Mexico.

Mexican cuisine, deep rooted with family traditions, can be complex and laborsome. The majority of “Mexican” food in the U.S. is Tex-Mex or Cali-Mex. I have been a Mexican (all kinds) junkie for years; I adore it all. True Mexican food is a labor of love, slow simmering of sauces and tedious assembly are requirements for various dishes. Ingredient lists can appear intimidating. Mole sauce consists of ingredients ranging from chilies to chocolate. Tamale assembly is a lesson in patience, but worth every minute.

Tex-Mex, the most readily available Hispanic cuisine in the U.S., is typically found in hometowns across the country. These are the cheesy, saucy dishes we are all familiar with. If you are dreaming of red sauce enchiladas (and the endless bowl of chips and salsa on the table), bingo! This is Tex-Mex. There are many advantages of Tex-Mex cuisine: ease of preparation, affordability, and countless options for feeding a family.

Now, Cali-Mex (also known as west coast Mexican, Fresca Mexican), is my personal obsession. This approach was born in Southern California where beautiful produce is plentiful year-round. It stays authentic to California as it presents the lightest fare of the three. It’s typically overflowing with bright veggies, herbs, and lighter sauces. Dense rice and beans are replaced with bountiful veggies and avocado (of course). Fish and seafood replace beef and pork. This method is catching on and gaining popularity, as I believe the focus on healthy eating is increasing.

Taco night has exploded over recent years. This weeknight friendly dinner even has a day dedicated to the cult following, “Taco Tuesday Night.” Enjoyed by both children and adults, this meal is an ideal entertaining spread. The big decision of taco night used to be hard or soft shell tacos. Seasoning packets, pre-shredded cheese, iceberg lettuce, bottled taco sauce, and ground meat all can be placed on the back burner. Ground beef crunchy tacos will always remain a classic, but today I encourage you think beyond the basics.

First, select a protein. The toppings you choose will set your new tacos apart from the old. Lettuce, tomatoes, and occasionally onion have been the golden standard for years, but there are new combinations awaiting your tastebuds. My go-tos are sliced chilies, radish, fresh herbs, cabbage, and avocado. Pickled vegetables are also delicious. Finally, a taco deserves a sauce. Fresh salsa, creamy cilantro, or a blitzed avocado are examples of delicious drizzles. Dairy is an option, but not crucial. A squeeze of citrus over the meal before serving will round it out precisely.

For the recipes, I will start with a heavily seasoned shredded chicken. As is, the chicken may effortlessly be molded into Tex or Cali-style Mexican cooking. Ease of the slow or pressure cooker keep this primarily hands off. The chicken is extremely versatile and is scrumptious in tacos, enchiladas, burritos, nachos, quesadillas or salads. The cooked chicken can also be utilized in assembly for freezer friendly burritos. Honestly, it is the best, and it is staple in my house. Adjust the heat levels to any desire.

Next, I am sharing a homemade taco seasoning recipe. You will never have the need for store-bought packets again. This allows you the ability to control salt and heat while delivering an enhanced flavor, and it’s a fantastic coating for any protein, including beans. Taco night will be enhanced by simply using a homemade seasoning blend and salsa.

My final recipe today is house-made queso. A touch smokey from chipotle with brightness from fresh chives and cilantro, trust me this dip goes quick.

A shout out to one of my favorite herbs, oregano, which is ideal in Hispanic dishes. Oregano is a perennial, low maintenance, and a great place to start with home herb cultivation. Cilantro receives all the glory, so let’s give oregano some love. Aim high for flavor and freshness with your next Mexican-style dinner. And who doesn’t love a taco bar? As I am slowly and cautiously reopening my home, I take a pause to feel gratitude for my health, science, and the many minds that continue to work diligently to deliver improved health and public safety to our communities.

The pandemic has proven the value of human interaction and communication. While the need for safety remains crucial, I urge you to remember kindness when stepping back into society as we are still healing.

Stay well. Happy cooking. Peace.

Perfect Mexican Shredded Chicken

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb boneless skinless chicken breast
  • 1 onion sliced thinly
  • 2 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 jalapeño diced (optional)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes and green chilies
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons oregano
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro chopped

Directions:

For the slow cooker: Add all ingredients (including juice from tomato can) and 1/4 cup of water. Cook on low for 6-8 hrs, or low high for 4-5.

Remove and shred chicken, return to cooking liquid.

Stir in cilantro.

For the instant pot: add all ingredients (including juice from tomato can) and 1/2 cup of water. Pressure cook on high for 10 minutes.

Remove and shred, return to cooking liquid.

Stir in cilantro.

Taco Seasoning***

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon coriander
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne

Directions:

Combine all ingredients and keep in an airtight container. This is more seasoning that you will need for a lb of meat.

Larger quantities of this blend may be made and stored for up to 6months.

***There is no salt in this blend, remember this when seasoning your meat. For 1 lb of meat, add 1- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in addition to the amount of spice blend you are using.

Ultimate Queso

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 ounces cream cheese, cubed
  • 5 ounces mild cheddar, shredded
  • 3 ounces pepper jack, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1 garlic clove grated
  • 1 chipotle pepper finely chopped( or 1/2 for milder)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes and green chilies
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Directions:

In a saucepan sauté butter and garlic. Add cornstarch and whisk. Once a paste forms add milk and continue to whisk until it starts to thicken. Add cheese, tomatoes and green chilies, chipotle, and paprika. Continue to whisk until all melted and combined. Stir in cilantro before serving. Enjoy immediately.

Serving this in a crock pot will keep it warm and melty.

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