Cinco de Mayo and the Jewish connection
Photo: Dave Carlin

By Tina Wasserman

Cinco de Mayo celebration is coming up on the fifth of May. Yes, the festivities celebrate Mexican heritage but it is actually much more than a holiday to drink cerveza and margaritas. It is a celebration, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, of the Battle of Puebla and the military victory over the French forces that were trying to establish a monarchy under the leadership of Maximilian of Austria in Mexico to lessen the United States’ power in North America. In the mid-20th century, the holiday’s celebrations with parades and reenactment of the battle were encouraged to show pride in Mexican heritage, but it didn’t really become popular in the U.S. and in many parts of the world until advertisements flourished linking Mexican alcoholic beverages with the festivities.

The Jewish connection to Mexico goes back to the 16th century, when Jews escaped to South and Central America to avoid the inquisition. Many settled in northern Mexico and lived their lives as Crypto-Jews when the Inquisition followed them to Mexico. To this day, many traditions are carried out in Catholic homes that have their links to Jewish practices. And, today, many Jewish families live openly Jewish lives throughout many parts of Mexico because the country was very welcoming to Jewish émigrés before, during and after the Holocaust. So today we celebrate our Mexican neighbors’ tenacity in 1862.

Sopa de Elote — Mexican Corn Soup

I am including this iteration of a delicious soup that I once shared with you in all its dairy glory, for a number of reasons. It’s nice to have a thick, creamy soup that does not contain any dairy products. This accommodates your vegan or lactose-intolerant dinner guest, who will be very happy, and anyone that follows the laws of kashrut and wants to make my recipe for Chicken Sofrito, listed below, for their main entrée.

  • 6 cups almond or oat milk plus 2 or more cups for thinning soup later
  • 2/3 cup masa harina
  • 1 pound frozen kernels of corn or 2 12-ounce cans of vacuum-packed corn
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup water
  • 4 tablespoons filtered coconut oil or good quality pareve substitute, e.g., Earth Balance
  • ½ medium onion, diced
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon Ancho chili powder, or chipotle powder if you like spicier soup
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 20 grindings of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 ounce canned diced green chilies, optional
  1. Combine the first 4 ingredients in a large bowl and set aside while you sauté the onion.
  2. Sauté the onion in the coconut oil until lightly golden. Add the spices and seasonings and cook over low heat for 3 minutes.
  3. Combine all of the ingredients and purée in a blender.
  4. Place puréed mixture in a clean 4-quart pan and heat over low heat, stirring often until mixture is very hot and thick. If necessary, add more milk to get the desired consistency.
  5. Stir in chilies, if using, just before serving.

Serves 8-10

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Filtered coconut oil is preferred for this recipe because it will not have any coconut flavor. If necessary, vegetable oil may also be substituted.
  • This soup will freeze well and can be reheated, but it will probably need to be thinned out with water before serving.
  • The longer this recipe sits, the hotter it gets, so definitely add the optional chilies just before serving or let guests add some chopped chilies to their own bowl.
  • Masa harina means “dough flour” and it is made from lime-treated corn that is made into masa for tortillas.

Grilled Chicken Breasts with Sofrito

Many years ago, my husband and I, along with Jeff and Bonnie Whitman, led a medical humanitarian mission to Cuba for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. The cooks at Adath Israel in Havana told me that they had petitioned Castro to grant the Jewish community an allotment of chicken for Shabbat for religious reasons (not religious but traditional and a great way to include chicken in their meager diets!). They would either bake chicken with a simple marinade or make chicken fricassee with a basic sofrito.

I have adapted the marinade to use with boneless chicken breasts which are then grilled or sautéed. The sauce can be spooned on top of the grilled breasts or added to the skillet after the chicken is cooked. Either way, these are the flavors of old and new Havana commingled with American eating habits.

  • 1 to 1½ pounds boneless chicken breasts
  • ¼ cup lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  1. Remove the fillet from the underside of the chicken breasts. Lightly pound the chicken breast to achieve uniform thickness.
  2. Combine the lime juice, olive oil, cumin and soy sauce in a glass bowl or casserole.
  3. Add the chicken breasts and fillets and marinate for 2 or more hours in the refrigerator.
  4. Grill on both sides until chicken is done but still moist and tender, about seven minutes total. OR, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a skillet and sauté the chicken until golden on both sides and done in the center, also about 7-8 minutes. Reserve the marinade. Set aside and keep warm until ready to make and serve with the sofrito sauce.


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced into ½-inch dice
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 green pepper, diced into ½-inch dice
  • 4 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed dried oregano
  • 1/3 cup cream sherry
  • 3½ ounces pimento-stuffed green olives, coarsely sliced
  • ½ cup dark raisins
  • Salt to taste
  • Heat a 10-inch skillet over high heat for 15 seconds. Add the olive oil and heat for another 10 seconds. Add the onion and sauté for 4 minutes or until lightly golden.
  1. Add the diced green pepper and the diced tomatoes to the pan and continue to cook for another 4 or 5 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Add the remaining ingredients except the olives and raisins and let it cook over low heat for 3 more minutes. Set aside. May be made in advance and refrigerated until needed.
  2. After chicken is cooked, re-heat the sofrito and add the marinade.
  3. Bring to a boil over medium heat and then add the olives and raisins. Simmer for 3 minutes.
  4. Return sautéed chicken to the pan with the sauce to warm and serve. Alternatively, serve grilled chicken on a platter topped with sauce.

Served traditionally with rice.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • The fillet of the chicken breast has a white pearlized tendon running through it. The fillet needs to be separated from the breast to ensure even cooking of both parts.
  • To seed a tomato, cut the tomato in half crosswise and hold the tomato over the sink, cut side down. Gently squeeze and shake once and all of the seeds should fall out.
  • Leftover chicken can be diced and added to the sofrito for a great meal alternative; or NOT leftover, diced, mixed with the sofrito and placed into soft tortillas for a great meal alternative.


The head of Cordon Bleu for North America came to Marshall Field’s as a guest at my weekly Chef Fields cooking program in the store (yes, that was me in the early ‘80s). One of the recipes he demonstrated was Crème Caramel, the French name for flan. This recipe is as good as it gets — smooth as silk and firm, but not hard and with a caramel that is dark and rich but not burnt.

  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 cups milk
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. To make the caramel, place the sugar and the water in a saucepan and cook over moderate heat until the sugar becomes an amber color.
  3. Using an 8-inch cake or pie pan or individual ramekins, pour the caramel immediately into the pan or cups and turn the pan around to coat the bottom and sides thoroughly. Set aside while you make the custard.
  4. Heat the milk and sugar in a small saucepan.
  5. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and the yolks until smooth.
  6. Pour the hot milk SLOWLY into the eggs, stirring constantly. Flavor with the vanilla and strain the mixture into the caramel-coated molds.
  7. Place the mold(s) in a roasting pan that has water to a depth that is halfway up the sides of the mold. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the custard is firm and has shrunk slightly away from the sides.
  8. Remove from the water bath and allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
  9. Unmold before serving. If necessary, run a sharp knife around the edge of the mold before inverting.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Egg whites give the flan a firm edge; the yolks provide richness and weight.
  • As water evaporates from a sugar solution, the bubbles are bigger and slower. After that the mixture will begin to caramelize.
  • Sugar syrup is VERY hot. Always use a pot holder or glove on the hand that will be holding the ramekin when you add the syrup.
  • Cooked flans can be refrigerated for 1-3 days, covered tightly with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Unmold only when ready to serve. The ramekin preserves its shape and the syrup’s integrity.

Watermelon Agua Fresca

One does not need to have cerveza or margaritas at their Cinco de Mayo. Here is a great thirst quencher that goes along with the festivities and, if you must, can be spiked with your favorite alcohol.

  • 1 4-pound seedless watermelon, cubed (approximately 7 cups)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon rosewater
  • Mint for garnish
  • Gin, vodka or tequila (optional)
  1. Place watermelon cubes in a blender container and blend until mixture is smooth. Place in a clean jar and refrigerate until cold.
  2. Combine the sugar and water in a 1-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring only once to combine the sugar and water.
  3. When mixture is clear, remove from heat. Stir in rosewater, place syrup in a clean jar and refrigerate until needed. To make a drink, re-stir watermelon purée and pour 1 cup of purée into a 12-ounce glass.
  4. Add 4-5 tablespoons of syrup, depending on sweetness of melon, and stir well.
  5. Add ice cubes and an optional jigger of gin or vodka.
  6. Garnish with mint and serve with a straw.

Serves 4

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil until sugar is dissolved is what cookbooks refer to as a “simple syrup.” This syrup lasts for weeks in the refrigerator and can be flavored with Kirschwasser, orange blossom water, a cinnamon stick or even (as I do at home when my fig trees have leafed out) a fig leaf steeped in the hot liquid for 10 minutes.
  • A few tablespoons of simple syrup can be spooned over fruit salad, especially berries if they aren’t too sweet or even pound cake.
  • The Mediterranean countries have perfected the use of simple syrup in their many pastry traditions using a cold syrup on a hot pastry (think baklava) so the pastry absorbs the syrup and becomes very delicious!

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