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FYI: Recipe Note Tips - Host a Fiesta

Host a Fiesta! The weather's getting warmer and the days are getting longer. What better occasion than Cinco de Mayo to pull the barbeque out of storage, string up some lanterns, and throw a backyard fiesta! We've got pointers for some favorite Mexican and Mexican-American foods to make your fiesta a screaming success.

Salsa. Go all-out for your Cinco de Mayo fiesta and make your own salsa. It's not difficult to do, and once you taste homemade salsa, you may never want store-bought again! Your basic fresh salsa has tomatoes, chiles, onions, garlic, cilantro, lime juice or vinegar, and salt. You can save time by chopping the tomatoes in the food processor. Core them and cut them into quarters, and then pulse them in the food processor just until they've reached the consistency you want for the base of your salsa. Use Roma tomatoes for a drier, chunkier salsa and round tomatoes for a juicier salsa. Use white onions; they taste better than yellow ones for eating raw.

Try some variations: replace the tomatoes with diced mangoes, cucumbers or tomatillos. Try adding fresh, raw corn or a can of drained and rinsed black beans to your salsa. Adjust the heat in your salsa by switching the kind of peppers you use. Anaheims are mild; poblanos are a bit hotter, jalapenos a bit hotter still; serranos are even hotter, and habaneros will set your mouth on fire!

Margaritas. Give that syrupy-sweet bottled margarita mix a rest and make your margaritas from scratch. There is no single definitive recipe for the perfect margarita, but most connoisseurs agree that there are three main components that belong in every frosty salt-rimmed glass: tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice. First, the tequila: choose a moderately-priced bottle. There's no need to buy premium brands; the superior flavor will be covered up by other ingredients. Next comes the orange liqueur. There are several different kinds you can use, from the more straightforward sweetness of triple sec or curacao to the rich complexity of Cointreau or Grand Marnier. The orange liqueur is what gives a margarita its sweetness. Then, of course, there's the lime juice. At least once, you should try squeezing your own limes and taste the difference! To save some time and mess at your fiesta, mix up your tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice in a big pitcher beforehand. When you're ready to make a batch of margaritas, just pour some of your magical mix over ice and blend or shake!

Fajitas. Just like thousands of people who will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo, fajitas have a mixed Mexican-American heritage. They were first made by Mexican and Texan cowboys, who developed this signature method for grilling the rations of skirt steak they received for the trail, although nowadays it's just as common to make fajitas with chicken, seafood or even tofu. There are two factors that give fajitas their distinctive flavor: the marinade and the cooking method. Fajita marinade always contains lime juice and garlic, and often onion, cilantro, oregano cumin, chiles and sometimes tequila. When it comes to cooking fajita meat, there's just no substitute for grilling. If you are using skirt steak, pound it thin, cook it no more than medium-rare and slice it across the grain for maximum tenderness. And don't forget -- no fajita feast is complete without sauteed onions and green peppers, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, guacamole, sour cream and a big pile of soft, warm flour tortillas!

Flan. This traditional Mexican dessert of creamy custard crowned with rich, toasty caramel looks complicated but is really very easy to make. Many recipes call for individual custard cups, but if you don't have any you can just as easily use a pie pan and slice the flan into wedges for serving. Customize your flan recipe by replacing 1/4 cup of the milk with rum or your favorite liqueur, or try mixing in orange zest or shredded coconut. To provide gentle, even heat, flan recipes will ask you to bake the custard in a water bath -- a roasting pan full of water, in which you set the flan dishes. Bring the water to a boil before you pour it into the pan or it will take a very long time for the oven to heat it up. When it's done, the flan will be firm around the edges, but it will still be wobbly in the middle; the texture will even out as it cools.

FYI: HOW-TO'S, WHAT-TO-DO'S & ANY-HOO'S # 28

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