With Cinco de Mayo rolling around again, a quick glance at social media can provide a stark reminder of how easy it is to serve up boring dishes.
Consumers are looking for exciting flavors they haven’t been able to access during COVID. Let’s run through some ingredients and presentations to help stand out from the competition.
Spice Is Nice
Cumin has a rich earthy flavor key to many Mexican dishes, and it can be easy sometimes to fall short on using the right amount. Consider adding powered onion and garlic, sweet or hot paprika, cayenne, and of course, oregano to the mix to balance out the earthy base.
Chili powder can also be used, but depending on the mix of spices, it can throw off the balance or make it taste too much like, well, chili. Consider instead a single ingredient chili powder, like ancho or chipotle – it’s a great way to add subtle heat and keep the flavors authentic.
Spices are also great in queso but must be applied carefully lest they create a weird color. Finely chopped tomato or peppers, jalapeños or hatch, can add just the right amount of flavor. Of course, if you’ve got an adventurous clientele, a little social media buzz can be created with the addition of diced ghost peppers or any other available super-hot additions.
Braising Is Best
Slow and low cooking times are best for developing just the right flavors. Low and slow cooking also opens up the possibility of using cheaper, tougher cuts of meat and making them shine. Both fattier cuts, like chuck, or leaner cuts, like round, can come out tender and juicy when done right.
For braising liquids, use water or stock, or even beer to add a little complexity. All this can be done in advance for ease of service and pre-portioned for quick reheating or held on a steam table. While most braises will remain covered for the entire cooking times, there can be an advantage to lifting that lid. Cut pork shoulder into cubes, braise in beer and citrus with lots of cumin, and after a couple of hours sweating it out in the braising dish, you can put it on the stovetop sans lid. Turn that heat up and reduce the liquid down till the pork is all but frying in its own fat. Shred it up, and right before serving, put it under the salamander broiler to naturally crisp up — easiest carnitas ever.
Slice of Life
Avocado prices fell as the country went into lockdown. Recent weather has led to price increases, but they are still below pre-pandemic levels. Adding slices will bring color to your dishes, and there’s never a good reason to skimp on the guacamole.
Remember, today’s diners are pretty savvy these days. They can tell the difference between a bland dish and something a little more exciting. Keep the dishes authentic and well-conceived so you can go viral for the right reasons.