Cinco de Mayo: Good excuse to celebrate

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With Cinco de Mayo on Saturday this year, it's a good excuse to celebrate.

Even if you don't know how to fill a burrito or shake a margarita, pick up "Mexican Cooking for Dummies.'' It's from the Too Hot Tamales (Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, co-owners of the Border Grill) and Helene Siegel.

Mexican cooking is "one of the most relaxed cuisines of the world and once you get the feel of it, you can have a blast with it,'' says Milliken. "You aren't going to make big mistakes. It's a very casual cuisine, packed with flavor and really interesting. It's party food.''

"For Cinco de Mayo, we never get fancy,'' chimes in Feniger. "We use brightly colored cloths, colorful paper flowers from a Mexican market and get some great Latin music. The biggest thing for us is color.''

For party starters, they suggest crab and cheese nachos and margaritas.

"Nachos are one of those dishes people tend to love because they are familiar with them,'' says Milliken.

"The trick to a great margarita,'' advises Feniger, "is to squeeze your own fresh lime juice don't buy a mix.'' Although Feniger and Milliken prefer making their margaritas shaken not blended with anejo tequila (which is costly and has been aged in wood at least a year), they say a middle-of-the-road tequila (which doesn't need to be extremely expensive) with a smooth texture will suffice.

Once the celebration is under way, offer guests an informal, attractive buffet spread laden with Mexican chopped salad, carnitas, warm tortillas, green tomatillo salsa, fresh tomato salsa, beans and rice.

Carnitas Nortenas is a good entree option for a party gathering. The pork chunks are first cooked in fat, then removed, shredded, mixed with onion, cilantro and chiles and heated in the oven. Serve hot with plenty of warm corn or flour tortillas, an assortment of colorful salsas, preferably homemade, and mashed avocado or guacamole alongside, and let diners assemble as desired. Accompany with plenty of black or refried beans and rice, both of which can be whipped up the day before and reheated.

If time is at a premium, instead of making carnitas, opt to pick up roasted or barbecued chickens at the store, shred, mix with onions, chiles and chopped cilantro, heat and serve with the above-mentioned accompaniments. Barbecued beef, shredded, is another possibility.

When it comes to salsas, they are the heart and soul of the Mexican kitchen. A delicious salsa can be tossed together speedily.

They prefer homemade to store-bought to accompany the carnitas or simply serve with chips.

"With a handful of simple ingredients and no tricky techniques or precise timing, Mexican cooks can toss together sauces as diverse as chunky fresh tomato and onion salsa, smooth, tart green tomatillo sauce and mysteriously complex dried chile salsa in minutes,'' says Feniger.

If you must use prepared salsas, their hands-down favorites are the bottled Frontera Chipotle Salsa and Frontera Tomatillo Salsa (available in gourmet shops and some markets), from restaurant chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago.

For dessert, serve a couple of kinds of homemade cookies along with assorted ice creams or sorbets.

Feniger and Milliken

Partners for 20 years (when they opened City Cafe, which has since closed), Feniger and Milliken are big believers in "simple, straightforward foods with really heightened, strong flavors.''

When they're not in their restaurant kitchens (Border Grill in Santa Monica and Las Vegas and Ciudad in downtown Los Angeles) coming up with Latin-inspired dishes, you may find them experimenting with Indian, Thai or another culture's cuisine.

"We both eat and like all kinds of food. We are equal-opportunity eaters.''

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