Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Monday and goes through Oct. 15, grows bigger every year. (Once a weeklong celebration authorized by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, the designation was expanded to a month in 1988.)
It's a time of parades, street food and fiestas throughout southwest Detroit. Lectures, films and art shows also play a role to recognize the diversity, history and contributions of Americans who trace their roots to the Spanish-speaking nations of Central and South America, but as with most celebrations, it's the food that everyone appreciates the most.
Fifty years ago, Mexican food could be found only in Mexico, California or the Southwest, including small roadside stands where tacos were sold. Today, several Metro Detroit Hispanic restaurants bring urban sophistication and healthy options to the more classic taqueria fare and cheese-laden combo platters. Indeed, the number of Hispanics in Metro Detroit has more than doubled in the last 20 years, and according to the latest census figures available, Hispanics now make up more than 5 percent of the area's population.
The "taco" is mostly a generic way to describe a sandwich consisting of a corn or flour tortilla filled with beef, pork, chicken or fish, and a host of indigenous crops such as chilies, tomatoes, cilantro and beans, all folded into a luscious food packet. It's perhaps the most popular food item, as it's the quintessential food on the go and exceptionally affordable, but it also can be extremely creative fare.
In fact, the taco may date back as far as the Mayans and Aztecs, but with a choice of international ingredients such as wasabi, pickled onions, pumpkin seeds, butternut squash, roasted pineapple and the veggie of the year, kale, you can easily create variations on the theme at home.
But while tacos are a great way to celebrate Mexican cuisine, they aren't the only stars of the show. In her new book, "Tacolicious" (Ten Speed Press, $22), San Francisco food writer Sara Deseran, who is co-owner of the California-based Tacolicious and Chino with her husband, Joe Hargrave, loves to marry traditional flavors with modern influences. So, while you can still get a recipe for the classic carnitas taco, a nopal, egg and tomato taco made with fresh cactus paddles is featured one page away.
Deseran shows you how to toast whole spices and roast or grill vegetables to impart the best flavors and then offers a variety of salsas to serve as appetizers or to complement the meal of pork, beef and chicken. Snacks and sides are the requisite guacamole, but even better is one of the hallmarks of Mexican cuisine, a flavor combo of salty, sour, spicy and sweet that includes melon, mango and cucumber with chile, salt and lime. Of course, no fiesta is complete without a specialty cocktail, and Deseran likes to give watermelon a delicious tequila treatment to make a healthy, pretty and refreshing drink called Lolita Squeeze.
My favorite, however, is the recipe for butternut squash, with kale, the veggie of the moment, and crunchy pepitas folded into a taco and served with a cashew crema. Just be sure to leave room for the grand finale, a Mexican chocolate tart with cinnamon spiced pecans. You can find disk or tablet Mexican chocolate in the international aisle of most major groceries, but a trip to southwest Detroit to visit the many markets and shops is a great excuse to go in search of chocolate.
Of course, you don't need a reason or even an official celebration designation to put on a great party or visit a Metro Detroit Hispanic restaurant to see what great signature dishes are being prepared. "Tacolicious" is guaranteed to inspire you to do both.
Butternut Squash, Kale and Crunchy Pepitas Taco
To prepare the butternut squash, use a sharp peeler to remove the tough skin before slicing it in half and scooping out the seeds and fibers. Some markets sell butternut squash already peeled and seeded and ready to go. Recipe from "Tacolicious" by Sara Deseran
2/3 cup raw cashews
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 3 limes)
¼ cup water
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
¾ cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups ½-inch-diced butternut squash
1 teaspoon chile powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 cups finely chopped kale
Corn tortillas, warmed for serving
Chopped white onion, chopped fresh cilantro and salsa of choice, for serving (optional)
For the crema: Soak the raw cashews in room-temperature water to cover for at least 1 hour. Drain and reserve.
Toast the cumin in a small, dry, heavy skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute, until fragrant. Transfer to a spice grinder, let cool and grind finely. In a blender, combine the cashews, cumin, lime juice, water and salt. Start the blender on the lowest speed and gradually increase to the highest speed.
Blend for at least 1 minute, until a creamy consistency. Pour into a serving bowl and set aside.
To make the pumpkin seeds: Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat.
When the oil is hot, add the pumpkin seeds and sauté for about 2 minutes, taking care that they do not burn. The seeds will begin to puff up and pop. Once they appear toasted, immediately pour them into a bowl. Toss with the cayenne and salt and set aside.
For the filling: Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 3 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute more. Add the squash and sauté for 6 to 7 minutes, just until the squash begins to soften. Season with the chile powder and salt.
Add the kale and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute, until it begins to wilt.
Remove from the heat, taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt if needed.
Serve with the tortillas, crema, pumpkin seeds, onion, cilantro and salsa. To assemble each taco, invite guests to spoon about ½cup of the warm filling into a tortilla and top with some crema and pumpkin seeds. If guests want more toppings, they can finish off their tacos with onion, cilantro and salsa.
Makes about 12 tacos.
Per serving: 196 calories; 11 g fat (1.5 g saturated fat; 51 percent calories from fat); 23 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 741 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 3 g fiber.
Fresh watermelon juice is easy to make but doesn't keep well, so make only as much as you can use within a day or so. Recipe from "Tacolicious" by Sara Deseran
Chile salt (see recipe), for coating glass rim and flavoring
4 or 5 sprigs cilantro
2 ounces watermelon juice (see note)
2 ounces 100 percent agave tequila, preferably blanco
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
½ ounce agave syrup (see note)
Coat the rim of a 10-ounce tumbler with the salt, then fill the tumbler with ice. Put 3 or 4 of the cilantro sprigs and a pinch of the salt in a cocktail shaker and muddle together with a muddler or a wooden spoon. Fill the shaker with ice, add the watermelon juice, tequila, lime juice, and agave syrup and shake vigorously. Strain into the tumbler. Garnish with the remaining cilantro sprig and serve. Makes 1 cocktail.
Note: Agave nectar is incredibly sweet, so it must be mixed with equal parts water, in the same way that sugar and water are combined to make simple syrup. You can mix up just the amount of agave syrup you need for one drink, but it's much easier to keep a bottle of diluted agave nectar on hand. That way, you'll have the syrup ready to go when the party starts. If you decide against mixing up a big batch, you can replace the 1 ounce agave syrup in any drink recipe with ½ ounce agave nectar mixed with ½ ounce warm water.
Per serving: 212 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 13 g carbohydrates; 11 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 279 mg sodium; 0.5 g protein; 0.5 g fiber.
Fresh watermelon juice
To make the watermelon juice, scoop flesh from a ripe seedless watermelon, puree it in a blender until liquefied and strain it through a fine-mesh sieve. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for no more than a day or two.
Makes a scant ½ cup
4 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon chile powder
In a small bowl, whisk together the salt, paprika, cayenne, and chili powder, mixing well.
Per serving (per ¼ teaspoon): 1 calorie; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); trace g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 276 mg sodium; 0 g protein; 0 g fiber.
Melon, Mango and Cucumber With Chile, Salt and Lime
Success here is all about finding the best fruit available. Slice your fruit and cucumber into spears and plunk upright into tall glasses, so people can pick them up with their fingers. Recipe from "Tacolicious" by Sara Deseran.
1 small, ripe melon (such as cantaloupe, seedless watermelon, or honeydew), chilled
2 ripe Kent or other large mangoes, or 3 ripe Manila or other small mangoes
1 English cucumber, chilled
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons chile powder of your choice
2 or 3 limes, halved
To prepare the melon, cut it in half. If it has a seed cavity, scoop out and discard the seeds. Cut the rind away from the flesh, and then cut the flesh into spears.
To prepare the mangoes, hold a mango on one of its narrow edges, with the stem facing you. Position a sharp knife just to the right of the stem end (or to the left of it if left-handed) and cut downward, running your knife as closely as possible to the pit. Repeat on the opposite side of the pit. Using a paring knife, peel away the skin from each mango "cheek," then slice the flesh into spears.
To prepare the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise, then cut each half lengthwise in half again. Cut crosswise into spears. Put the melon, mango, and cucumber in a large bowl, or individual tall glasses, sprinkle with the salt and chile powder, and toss to coat evenly. Taste and adjust with more salt or chile powder if needed.
Serve with the lime halves for squeezing in juice as desired. Serves 6.
Per serving: 87 calories; 1 g fat (0.2 g saturated fat; 10 percent calories from fat); 21 g carbohydrates; 18 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 1,964 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 3 g fiber.
Mexican Chocolate Tart with Cinnamon Spiced Pecans
Recipe from Bon Appetit
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 large egg white
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon golden brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 ½ cups pecan halves
1 cup chocolate wafer cookie crumbs (about half of one 9-ounce package cookies, finely ground in processor)
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup heavy whipping cream
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 (3.1-ounce) disk Mexican chocolate (such as Ibarra), chopped
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
Lightly sweetened whipped cream
For pecans: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray. Whisk all ingredients except pecans in medium bowl. Stir in pecans. Spread in single layer on sheet, rounded side up. Bake until just browned and dry, about 30 minutes. Cool on sheet. Separate nuts, removing excess coating. Do ahead: Can be made 2 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.
For crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend first 4 ingredients in processor. Add melted butter; process until crumbs are moistened. Press crumbs into 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom, to within 1/8 inch of top. Bake until set, about 20 minutes. Cool on rack.
For filling: Bring cream to simmer in medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chocolates; whisk until melted. Add butter, 1 piece at a time; whisk until smooth. Whisk in vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Pour filling into crust. Chill until filling begins to set, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Arrange nuts in concentric circles atop tart. Chill until set, about 4 hours. Do ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover loosely with foil and keep chilled. Serve tart with whipped cream. Makes 12 servings.
Per serving: 424 calories; 34 g fat (14 g saturated fat; 72 percent calories from fat); 29 g carbohydrates; 19 g sugar; 60 mg cholesterol; 228 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 2 g fiber.