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Cinco de Mayo salad. May 5, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s finally Cinco de Mayo, and it’s true confessions time here at the Poor Richard’s kitchen. My absolute favorite food for Cinco de Mayo is a special, super-indulgent salad. I guess you could call it a taco salad without the taco, but it’s so freaking delicious I could eat it every single day. Okay, maybe sometimes I’d have it with a baked potato, or red beans and rice, or a side of refried beans and tortilla chips. But really, it’s so filling and yummy, I think of it as a meal in itself.

Making it couldn’t be easier. Start with a base of shredded lettuce (preferably Romaine, but iceberg if that’s what’s available) and mix in plenty of arugula and fresh cilantro. Top this with loads of sliced green onions (scallions), chopped red, yellow, and/or orange bell peppers, diced paste tomatoes, halved yellow cherry tomatoes, black olives, and shredded cheese (white sharp Cheddar, mozzarella, or a mix of the two).

Stir well to mix, then top with sour cream and the salsa of your choice (red, green, hot, medium, you decide), adding some hot sauce (such as Tabasco chipotle or Pickapeppa) if desired. Of course, for you avacodo fans, if homemade guac isn’t enough, you can always add diced avocado (tossed first with lemon juice) to the mix before (or instead of) adding the sour cream.

Pick up your fork and dig in! The shredded cheese and sour cream (and avocado, if including) add the body that makes the salad so deliciously filling, and the other add-ins give it the most luscious flavor. Yum!!! Hello, Cinco de Mayo, we’re so happy you’re here.

‘Til next time,

Silence

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Queso dip: Skip the Velveeta. May 3, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. As Cinco de Mayo nears, what’s better than an ooey, gooey, hot cheese dip for your tortilla chips? Well, how about one that isn’t made with Velveeta so-called “cheese” and a can of Ro*Tel tomatoes and hot peppers? I was horrified to discover that this was the standard recipe for restaurant queso dip, and also the standard for jarred queso (Spanish for “cheese”) in groceries.

Admittedly, I’ve never had queso dip in a restaurant or out of a jar. But the thought of consuming Velveeta orange pseudo-cheese for any reason is more than I can bear. (It’s not cheese, people, it’s so-called “cheese product.” Eeeewwww!!!!) This Cinco de Mayo, let’s skip the gloppy pseudo-cheese and go for something truly satisfying.

Checking in with my good friend Google, I found a number of recipes for queso dip that didn’t involve Velveeta. Many used shredded Monterey Jack cheese instead, or some combination of actual Mexican queso blanco or queso fresco with Monterey Jack. They typically suggest melting the cheese in a double boiler, adding minced hot peppers, and serving it up as a dip with tortilla chips.

The point here is that the dip needs to be hot, ooey, gooey, and iminently scoopable. But yowie, a double boiler! That’s a lot of work for a simple dip, wouldn’t you say? No wonder people turn to the Velveeta option and just nuke the gross stuff. No way, I say. Don’t have a double boiler? How about one of those little dip-sized slow cookers (aka Crock-Pots)? They’ll melt your cheese and keep it hot and gooey without burning. I found one at a thrift store for about a dollar, and it’s worked perfectly for years. Just plug it in, melt your cheese, add whatever you like (minced jalapenos, sliced scallions, diced sweet onion, minced bell peppers, cilantro, mix and match), even that can of Ro*Tel. Grab your tortilla chips, and dig in! The texture will be perfect as long as the Crock-Pot’s plugged in.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Best-ever Cinco de Mayo snack. May 3, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. This Cinco de Mayo, want to set out a simple snack that everyone will love? Here’s one that’s guaranteed to please. It’s hot, gooey, and flavorful, just like a good snack should be, and you can set out all kinds of toppings so your guests can choose their own or just enjoy it as is.

Start with a large (9-by-13″), ovenproof dish. (You can use a second and double the recipe for a big crowd.) Layer cantina-style white tortilla chips on the bottom. Top them with loads of shredded white sharp Cheddar cheese. Thinly slice a jalapeno pepper and spread it out over the cheese. Mince a green onion (scallion) or two and sprinkle them over the chips. Add a second layer of chips and repeat the process. Heat in the oven at 250 degrees F. until the cheese has melted. Cover with minced cilantro and serve.

You can set out fresh and/or jarred salsa, sour cream, sliced black olives, and strips of red, yellow and/or orange bell pepper, as well as your favorite hot sauce(s), if you wish, so guests can customize their plates. I like to use pasta tongs to help guests pull out their portions. We’ve never had leftovers when we have guests, but if you do have any, they reheat beautifully.

‘Til next time,

Silence

A quick trick for store-bought salsa. May 2, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I love salsa, and I always try to have at least three kinds on hand: fresh hot salsa from the produce aisle of our grocery and jarred, i.e., cooked, red and green (salsa verde) salsas. They’re especially handy to have on Cinco de Mayo, when you can set them out, along with homemade guacamole (see my earlier post, “Great guacamole,” on that for a great recipe), and a big bowl of warm tortilla chips. Guests can grab their margaritas and small plates and graze contentedly while you put the final touches on the fiesta.

OFB and I are just fine with jarred red salsa, and it doesn’t have to be gourmet for us to like it. Chi-Chi’s and Tostitos medium-hot brands are okay with us. (OFB has been known to kick up the heat factor in his salsa with a splash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco Chipotle.) But a couple of years ago, I discovered how to really up the flavor ante in jarred salsa. It’s so easy, and so incredibly good!

A couple of years ago, OFB and I were staying at a hotel in Nashville. Like most hotels these days, it had a breakfast bar. OFB, a big fan of breakfast, was loading up his plate with Velveeta-stuffed omelettes, waffles, bacon, and cubed potatoes. My own appetite’s a bit more, let’s say, finicky, especially in the morning. Wondering if there was any hope that the potatoes might be edible, I put two spoons of them on my plate. But a taste confirmed that they were bland and mealy. Eeewww!!! How to give them some flavor and disguise that ghastly texture?

The answer lay in the condiment packets provided by the hotel. They’d set out salt and pepper, of course, but also salsa and ketchup packets. Surely either salsa or ketchup would perk up those pitiful potatoes! Grabbing salt, pepper, two salsa packets, and a ketchup packet, I returned to our table. Which to try first? Seized by an inspiration, I sprinkled the salt and pepper over the potatoes, then mixed the two salsa packets with the ketchup packet.

The result was extraordinary. I won’t say it brought limp, lukewarm hotel potatoes to life, though it certainly improved them. What it did was bring the salsa to life, merging the texture and complexity of the salsa with the depth and tomatoey goodness of the ketchup. After I started telling OFB about my discovery, he tried it on his omelettes and potatoes and proclaimed it a miracle as well.

Try it and see for yourself! Mix jarred salsa 3/4 to 1/4 ketchup, or as I did, 2/3 salsa to 1/3 ketchup. Yum!!! Suddenly, you have the richest, most delicious salsa this side of the Border. And no guest will ever know, since you don’t taste ketchup, just richness. When they proclaim your salsa the best ever, you can modestly reply that you just bought a jar at the store… or you can share the simple secret of great salsa, as I’ve done with you.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Cinco de Mayo: red beans and rice. May 1, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Call us simple, but we love the combination of kidney beans and rice. If you start with canned beans, it’s so easy to make, and we think it’s simply delicious. You can use dark red, red, or light red kidney beans, or a combination, and heat them up (preferably rinsed) while the rice is cooking.

We like to dress the beans up with some diced sweet onion sauteed in olive oil, along with a small can of Ro*Tel diced tomatoes with jalapenos, some salt (we like Real Salt or Trocomare), Tabasco chipotle sauce, and lots of minced fresh cilantro. With the aromatic cooked rice as a base, for us, this is heaven.

But if you’d prefer, you can also top red beans and rice to make your idea of heaven. You can top the beans and rice with shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped scallions (green onions), the hot sauce(s) of your choice, herbs from oregano to epazote, shredded lettuce, arugula, you name it. Experiment and see what works for you!

This Cinco de Mayo, while your guests are digging into the burritos and tacos and dipping tortilla chips into the homemade guacamole and salsa, you may find yourself sneaking off to enjoy classic red beans and rice, maybe scooping up some sour-cream-topped shredded lettuce and arugula on the side. Ole!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Refried beans: homemade vs. canned. April 30, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Cinco de Mayo is fast approaching, and when we think about tacos, burritos, layered dips, or a simple, hot, filling lunch with tortilla chips and salsa, our friend Ben and I think of refried beans (a lot). We love refried beans. A lot. We even like canned refried beans, you know, that stuff you pry out of a can that looks like really bad dogfood.

It’s not that canned refried beans taste bad. Some brands—our favorite is the, gulp, Taco Bell brand, which we can no longer find in our local groceries—are quite flavorful and even vegetarian-friendly, which, since I’m a vagetarian, is key for us. It’s just that they have no texture and look horrible.

I confess to grabbing a can on super-busy nights and wrestling some of the horrid-looking glop out of it and onto some burritos, where it can be hidden beneath chipotle hot sauce, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, fresh salsa, guacamole, shredded lettuce, and the like. Then you get the flavor and protein of the beans without dealing with the appearance. By the time I’ve wrapped up the burritos, topped them with sour cream and salsa verde, and popped them in the oven, I feel pretty good about our meal, especially when I serve it with extra cilantro, shredded lettuce, chopped scallions (green onions), and sliced tomatoes, jalapenos, and olives for toppings.

However, it is easy and incredible to make your own refried beans from scratch. They taste delicious and, unlike canned refried beans, look appetizing and have great texture as well. Bearing in mind that no “refried” beans are actually even fried, much less refried, despite their name, refritos, let’s take a look at making them yourself. You will never taste more flavorful, delicious beans, I promise you!

Silence’s Best-Ever Refried Beans

canola oil
2 large sweet onions (Vidalia or WallaWalla type)
1 large green bell pepper
3-6 paste tomatoes
1 tablespoon lemon juice (we like Key lemon)
1 heaping tablespoon black mustard seeds
1 heaping tablespoon whole cumin seeds
1 heaping tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon salt (we like Trocomare or RealSalt)
1 tablespoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco Chipotle or Pickapeppa
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed

Heat a generous amount of oil in a capacious, heavy pot. (I love my Le Creuset Dutch ovens for this.) Add finely minced onions, diced bell pepper, and chopped tomatoes. When the vegetables have cooked down, add lemon juice and spices, salt, hot sauce, and cilantro. Then add the pinto beans. Stir well to blend, then use a potato masher to smash the beans. You’ll get a semi-smooth, semi-chunky texture, which is fine. Stir well to blend, let the beans get hot, and serve or turn off the heat, covering the pot, until you’re ready. The beans will keep well refrigerated, too, for future meals and snacks.

‘Til next time,

Silence

The great taco debate. April 29, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Continuing our run-up to Cinco de Mayo here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, let’s talk about taco shells. You wouldn’t think that taco shells could be a cause for controversy, but taco lovers tend to find themselves on one side of two great divides: Hard or soft? White or yellow? Which sides are you on?

For me, both issues are clear-cut. If I want a soft shell, I’ll eat a burrito or a quesadilla. If I’m eating refried beans with all the fixings (more on this tomorrow), I want crispy-crackly taco shells. And I want them made out of white corn. (Mind you, I don’t eat a taco the way most people do, with all the stuff shoved inside the clamshell-like taco shell, which will inevitably break up and/or explode when someone bites it, spewing food everywhere. Eeeeeewwwww!!!! Instead, I crack my hot taco shells in half and use them as scoops, or layer ingredients on top. Works like a charm as long as you keep that half-taco over your plate!)

White corn wins for me every time over the heavy, bitter yellow-corn alternative. The delicate, luscious flavor of white-corn taco shells and tortilla chips enhances everything they’re eaten with rather than overpowering it, and there’s no bitter, oily aftertaste.

Of course, I come from the South, where yellow corn has traditionally been regarded as a field crop (i.e. winter food for horses and cows), while the milder white corn was the food of the people. In the North, however, yellow corn is king, its superior nutritional content often cited.

I’ll never forget my shock when I first moved to scenic PA and was offered “cornbread,” a yellow, soggy, heavy, bitter conglomeration that had been sweetened (!!!) to offset the bitterness. Where was the light, luscious, crusty cornbread that I loved, a savory, not a sweet, split and topped with melting butter? Who would call this yellow stuff cornbread, much less pass additional sweeteners like syrup and molasses to drown it in more sogginess and sugar?! Yikes. Ditto for yellow corn-on-the-cob versus the likes of ‘Silver Queen’ and its more modern descendants.

I hate the supersweet corn/candy corn era accordingly. I don’t want my corn to taste like candy, I want it to taste like corn. Like good, luscious, aromatic corn, a vegetable, a savory dish. Not bitter. Not sweet. Just corn.

I was beginning to despair that I’d lost the opportunity forever when it came to taco shells. The trend in light, airy, delicious white-corn tortilla chips seemed to be on the rise, with Tostitos introducing its cantina-style super-light white corn chips. But the Old El Paso white corn taco shells, the only ones I’d ever been able to find, suddenly vanished from local market shelves. Now, there were hard yellow taco shells and soft white corn and white flour taco shells, as well as soft yellow taco shells. I scoured the shelves desperately, month after month. Where had my crisp white taco shells gone?!

Finally, last week I found some at a nearby Giant. I was tempted to buy their entire stock, in case they, too, were planning to discontinue them, but controlled myself and only bought two packages, more than enough to get me and our friend Ben through this Cinco de Mayo. But the second they’re gone, believe me, I’m rushing back. Please, Old El Paso, please keep them coming! As the license plates used to say, you have a friend in Pennsylvania.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Great guacamole. April 28, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Not being a fan of slimy textures (and that goes for you, too, eggs and peas), I hadn’t realized that guacamole (or anything avocado) could be good until a couple of years ago. I’d been reading more and more about the good fats in avocados, and kept thinking I should find a way to include them in our friend Ben’s and my diets, weekly if not daily.

So when we went to a favorite local Mexican restaurant and I saw a server prepare fresh guac tableside for some other diners, I decided to go for it. (Though I skipped the tableside prep since our server assured me that it was made the exact same way in the kitchen for $3 less. Always pays to ask!)

The guacamole turned out to be a revelation. It was chunky and creamy, not slimy. It was room temperature, perfect with hot tortilla chips. And it got a big flavor boost from chopped onion, tomato and lime juice. Yum! It was good enough to eat as a meal in itself. The restaurant offered containers of fresh-made guac to go, but they were pricey. Could I create a homemade version that would compare?

In a word, yes. With a step-saver thrown in the mix. I think it, and serving the guac right away at room temperature, are key. But since I want to get the most nutrient power possible out of those avocados, and almost all of an avocado’s nutrients are located just under the peel (not counting the fats, of course), the way you peel an avocado makes a big difference, too.

For guacamole, you want to buy blackish, wrinkly Haas (now usually called Hass) avocados, not those big, smooth, green “alligator pears” from Florida. To peel them and keep all their nutrients, rather than cut them open and scoop the flesh out with a spoon (leaving the nutrient-rich green layer behind), do this: Cut the avocado in half lengthwise, then twist the halves apart and pop out the seed. Next, cut the halves in half. Take a quarter, insert a finger under the peel at the top, and peel it off like a banana skin. Voila! The dark green, nutrient-rich layer stays on the flesh, not the peel. Repeat with the other quarters.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because avocados are quick to discolor, turning a super-unappetizing brown at every opportunity, you’ll want to deal with them last. So let’s go back to the beginning. Of course, you’ll want to adjust quantities to suit your crowd. This is what I made for me and a typically hungry OFB, and we ate it as an appetizer with chips one night and in burritos another:

First, chop 1/2 a large sweet onion (such as a Vidalia or WallaWalla); reserve the other half for another dish. Chop a half bunch of fresh cilantro (or to taste) and add it to the mix. Douse with a good splash of lime or lemon juice (we like Key lime or Key lemon juice for this).

Next, add the “secret ingredient,” 1/2 container of fresh hot raw salsa. These are available in the fresh produce section of our local supermarkets, and contain finely diced onion, tomato, green bell pepper, and jalapeno peppers. The key here is to make sure you’re getting HOT salsa, and to make sure you can see the diced ingredients clearly. You definitely don’t want to get a pureed or cooked salsa, and you don’t want to end up with something like pineapple or black bean and corn salsa. Keep your eyes open and read your labels!

And don’t forget to drain that salsa well before you use it, so your guac is rich, not runny. (If you happen to like bloody Marys, or tomato or V8 juice, the liquid from the salsa will give them a nice kick.)

The beauty of this is that you can add a second layer of oniony goodness, the tomatoes, bell peppers, and jalapenos without having to chop them and in a much finer dice than you could ever manage. I’ve noticed lately that my local Giant also offers micro-diced onions and tricolored bell peppers (green, red, and yellow) in plastic-wrapped packages in the produce aisle, which you could add along with or instead of the salsa. But if instead of, you’d still need to dice a couple of paste tomatoes and at least half a seeded jalapeno!

Now, it’s time to add a splash of Tabasco Chipotle Sauce, just to kick the guac up a notch. And finally, cut and peel your avocados, toss the quarters in a bowl, and use a fork to mash them ’til chunky, then fold them into the guac, give it a good stir, and serve immediately. Cinco de Mayo will never taste so good!

Incidentally, if you inadvertently made too much and it sat out long enough for the avocado to turn brown (this shouldn’t happen if you’ve added enough lime or lemon juice, but still), don’t panic. The guac is still good even if it looks gross. Tuck it into a burrito or quesadilla or soft taco where people will enjoy the flavor without seeing the color.

‘Til next time,

Silence

What, no limes for Cinco de Mayo? April 27, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. You’ve probably heard about the lime shortage that’s causing soaring prices and a lot of heartache to Mexican, Thai, and other restaurants that rely on limes in their cuisine and drinks. A whopping 95% of our limes are imported from Mexico, and winter downpours there have set back the lime crop, resulting in late ripening. The fact that druglords charge the lime growers outrageous “export fees” (and, Godfather-like, make them “offers they can’t refuse” if they don’t pay them) doesn’t help prices, either.

The remaining 5% of limes in the U.S. are grown in California and Florida. A three-year drought has literally dried up California’s lime crop, and Florida’s has been hit with a citrus disease that keeps the fruit from ripening. It’s predicted that the Mexican lime crop won’t arrive here in time for Cinco de Mayo, that great celebration of all things Mexican (and margarita). What’s a margarita lover to do?!

The few cases of limes that have managed to make it into the U.S. are so expensive that they’re forcing restaurateurs to get creative. One Mexican restaurant in California now offers patrons margaritas for 25 cents if they’ll bring in limes from their own backyard trees. Others have raised the prices of their top-shelf margaritas or refrained from adding slices of lime unless they’re specifically requested by the customer. Still others are experimenting with substituting lemon juice in dishes like ceviche and guacamole.

What does this mean for your Cinco de Mayo party? Probably not that much. Limes are going for 99 cents each or $2 a bag at Wegman’s, a high-end grocery, so they’re probably less at your local store. It’s not a huge sacrifice to splurge on a few limes for your fiesta. Or you could go for a paloma, a drink that’s more popular in Mexico than margaritas.

This delicious, refreshing drink is traditionally made with tequila and a Mexican white grapefruit soda (the drink’s golden color caused its originator to name it for the beautiful golden paloma horse). But as white grapefruit soda isn’t that easy to find in my part of rural PA and I happen to love pink grapefruit juice, I devised my own version. Allow me to present the Pink Paloma:

Fill a tall glass 1/4 full with golden tequila; add a splash of Triple Sec. Add pink grapefruit juice (no pulp, no added sweetener!) to bring the glass to half full. Top it off with mandarin orange seltzer water (again, unsweetened). So delicious! And it’s much less heavy and syrupy than most margaritas. Add a slice of lime at your discretion.

‘Til next time,

Silence

A new twist on Cinco de Mayo. May 6, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. I’ve written many posts about wonderful recipes for refried beans, guacamole, margaritas, and the like for Cinco de Mayo in the past; search Cinco de Mayo or refried beans, margaritas, burritos, salsa, fiesta, guacamole, palomas, etc., in our search bar at upper right to find a wealth of options. Yum!!! I’ll share a couple of quick, luscious options in a minute.

But for now, I’d like to talk about my latest Cinco de Mayo escapade. Our local library has an area outside the actual library where you can drop off books and pick up books for free. I wanted to drop off a book, and persuaded our friend Ben to let me run into the library yesterday while we were doing our usual weekend errands. Unfortunately, I saw that someone had dropped off their entire Spanish-language library, from Gulliver’s Travels and Ivanhoe to War and Peace to The Iliad to Love in the Time of Cholera. Let’s not even try to picture OFB’s horrified expression when I staggered back to our car with a dozen Spanish-language classics.

“Uh, Silence, what are you doing with all those books? What are they?!” a horrifed Ben asked.

“They’re classics in Spanish, Ben! Even The Iliad!” I replied with some false bravado, given that our books already overflowed from our wall-to-wall bookcases.

“Silence, can you even read Spanish?”

Well, no. I’d been making good practice with the Pimsleur Spanish CDs, until I got derailed by Pimsleur’s Japanese series. I’d studied French, Italian, even a little Latin, Spanish’s sister Romance languages. But, ahem, no, I couldn’t really read Spanish. I’d been hoping that having read these books in English might help me advance in Spanish, especially when I take up the Pimsleur Spanish language CDs again.

Can’t hurt, might help, right? Er, assuming OFB doesn’t consign this latest giant book pile to the burn pile.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to two simple and scrumptious treats for Cinco de Mayo: nachos and guacamole.

The best nachos I know how to make are also the simplest ever. Layer some Tostitos round tortilla chips in a 9-by-6 ovenproof pan. Spoon over lots of shredded white Cheddar, diced scallions (green onions, including the white part), and sliced jalapeno to taste. Repeat. Heat in the oven at 250 degrees F. until the cheese is thoroughly melted. Top with fresh cilantro and sour cream, if desired, before serving. Enjoy.

As for guacamole, here’s everything I’ve learned about making fast, fresh, amazing guac that can take on the best any restaurant has to offer. Best of all, it’s super-quick and easy! Get two ripe Hass avocados, a container of fresh hot salsa, half a sweet onion, a bunch of cilantro, a tomato, scallions, and some Key lemon juice, Key lime juice, or fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice.

Put half the container of fresh salsa in a bowl. Mince the sweet onion and add it. Chop the cilantro and add it. Chop the scallions and add them. Dice the tomato and add it. Add lots of lemon or lime juice. Mix all well, and add a spalsh of hot sauce (we like Tabasco’s Chipotle Hot Sauce for this) and a dash of salt (we like Trocomare or RealSalt). Stir all well.

Then take two avocados, split them in half lengthwise, and pop out the seeds. Next, cut each avocado half in half, so you have four sections. Now, using nothing more complicated than your fingers, peel off the avocado peel and add it to your compost bucket. Chop the flesh into coarse dice, then mash it with a potato masher until half is mashed and half is still chunky.

Add the avocado to the other ingredients and stir well to mix. It’s essential to make sure the avocado is coated with lemon or lime juice so it won’t brown, so mix well. Now you’re ready to break out the chips and enjoy Cinco de Mayo anytime! Spanish translations of classic works optional.

‘Til next time,

Silence