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Easy festive additions to your Cinco de Mayo table

By Wolfgang Puck, Tribune Media Services on

¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

The May 5th celebration of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, a key turning point in Mexico's battle for independence from France, is actually celebrated more widely in the United States than in Mexico. Nowadays, it's an opportunity for Mexican-Americans to express pride in their heritage -- and for everyone to enjoy the spirit, and often the spirits, of our neighbor to the south.

I always enjoy Cinco de Mayo. It's a great opportunity to cook the wonderful foods of Mexico. In many ways, those earthy, spicy dishes make up the indigenous cuisine of the metropolis where I live, Los Angeles -- which was, of course, founded by the Spanish, belonged to Mexico until 1848, and today has a population in which almost 50 percent are of Hispanic heritage. And, as both news stories and restaurant reviews continue to dramatize, the Spanish-speaking community is a rich and growing influence in all of our lives.

So let's all observe Cinco de Mayo this year by enjoying Mexican-inspired foods prepared at home. There are so many choices: corn or flour tortillas filled with grilled or stewed meat, poultry, seafood, or vegetables, rich cheeses, spicy salsas, and other embellishments to make tacos, enchiladas, or burritos; crispy tortillas piled high with fresh lettuces and other topping to make refreshing tostadas; all kinds of chile-laced stews and braises; fragrant cornmeal tamales steamed in cornhusks or banana leaves; and so much more.

And then, of course, come those two familiar sides often summed up in a single breath as if they were one word: riceandbeans.

I could spend many columns on each of those topics. But, for the purpose of making Mexican-inspired meals extra easy, I'd like to focus here on the rice -- especially one of the easiest, most reliable ways to cook that staple today, with a rice cooker.

Countertop electric rice cookers are unbelievably convenient. Following the manufacturer's instructions, you measure the rice into the cooking chamber with a scoop that comes with the appliance; rinse the rice thoroughly to remove surface starch; add water or broth to a level marked on the side of the chamber corresponding to the number of rice scoops you're cooking; close the lid and press "Cook"; and then wait until the "Keep Warm" or "Ready" light comes on.

The undeniable ease of rice cookers makes it simple to get creative. As you'll see in my two recipes for red or green rice, you can include your favorite seasonings or other additions of your choosing (including a scoop of drained cooked beans) to produce all kinds of different colorful, flavorful sides.

So anyone can enjoy delicious Mexican-style rice not just for Cinco de Mayo this week but every week of the year.



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