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Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.
The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.
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In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.
In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.
The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.
Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor
Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.
MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:
“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.
Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).
Not just a Mexican holiday anymore
Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.
You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants. The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.
Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.
I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.
Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls
Prep time: 10 minutes
Drying time: 8 hours
Yield: 5 medium skulls
For the sugar skulls:
3 cups granulated sugar
3 teaspoons meringue powder
3 teaspoons water
For the royal icing:
1 pound powdered sugar
⅓ cup water
¼ cup meringue powder
Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors
For the sugar skulls:
1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.
2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.
3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.
4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.
5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.
6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.
7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.
8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.
For the royal icing:
1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.
2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.
3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.
Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
Ramen noodles, the staple found in college dorms worldwide. As a student, my future culinary career was not even a thought, but I learned to dress up my ramen noodles, which I would buy whenever there was a “10 for $1″ special at the local supermarket.
There was an entire repertoire of ramen dishes that I made:
- Ramen soup with frozen peas
- Ramen soup with frozen corn
- Ramen soup with frozen peas and corn
- Ramen soup with leftover chicken
- Ramen soup with deli meat
- Stir-fried ramen noodles with hot dogs
- Stir-fried ramen noodles with spam
- Stir-fried ramen noodle with frozen peas and corn and spam
You get the idea, cheap and filling. It was and is every broke college student’s idea of a bargain answer.
But the packaged, sodium-laden noodles you find in the average supermarket aisle are not where the ramen noodle story ends. It is not even where it begins.
Ramen noodles have been a staple of the Japanese diet for ages, usually prepared as a soup. But ramen noodles are much more versatile than that, lending themselves to pan frying a la yakisoba, or in a salad such as this one below.
Four ramen types near you
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In major cities, you can find authentic ramen restaurants serving incredible bowls of soup, layered with flavors. In Japan, each region has a special way of preparing ramen, but there are four types that are found everywhere.
Shio or salt: Originally made with sea salt, this is a lighter, clear broth often served with chicken or seafood.
Shoyu or soy sauce: Used to flavor lighter broths and heavier, dense broths.
Miso: Salty, fermented miso paste makes a thick, sweet and salty broth, robust enough to stand up to fatty pork belly.
Tonkotsu or pork broth: Creamy, slightly cloudy pork broth. Thick with umami flavor, with an unctuous mouth feel, it is comfort in a bowl.
Toppings for ramen soup cover all taste preferences, including but not limited to pressed fish cakes, mushrooms and fungi, pickled ginger, seafood, fresh and dried seaweed, braised pork belly and soft boiled eggs.
Ramen has broken out of its soup bowl and become so mainstream a chef has substituted a hamburger bun with a ramen noodle bun. The Ramen Burger is actually quite tasty, with a sweet shoyu glaze, arugula and scallions.
Chefs realize that the unique process of making ramen noodles is what makes their texture ideal in dishes other than soup. Ramen noodles are made using Kansui, or alkaline water, which results in a firm and chewy noodle that will not become mushy or sticky.
This salad uses sweet baby eggplant and mild shishito peppers, but almost any kind of vegetable or meat can be substituted. Experiment with adding roasted kabocha squash, snow peas, shredded carrots, steamed Chinese broccoli, bok choy, leftover chicken, pork, fish or shrimp. Boiled eggs, tofu or seitan make great vegetarian meat substitutes.
Ramen Salad With Roasted Eggplant and Shishito Peppers
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 pound Indian or baby eggplant, stem removed and halved
½ pound Shishito peppers
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 bundles (3 ounces) ramen noodle
¼ cup sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 teaspoons Yuzu No Sui juice
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Place the eggplant and Shishito peppers onto a sheet pan.
3. Drizzle the olive oil and sprinkle the salt over the vegetables.
4. Toss to coast evenly with the oil and salt.
5. Arrange the eggplant halves cut side down on the pan.
6. Roast the vegetables for 30 to 40 minutes, until the peppers are lightly charred and the eggplant is soft.
7. Let the vegetables cool. (Can be made a day ahead)
8. Pull the stems from the peppers, and then slice into rings.
9. Cut the eggplant into small pieces.
10. Place the peppers and eggplant into a large bowl.
11. Cook the ramen noodles according to package directions.
12. Drain the ramen, then rinse with cold water to cool them.
13. Add the noodles to the bowl with the vegetables.
14. In a small bowl whisk together the sweet soy, mirin, lime juice and Yuzu juice.
15. Pour the dressing over the noodles and vegetables, tossing to coat.
16. Add the sesame seeds, toss again to mix well.
17. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Main photo: Ramen Salad With Roasted Eggplant and Shisito Peppers. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
Fig season is here! Farmers markets and grocery stores have baskets of plump, juicy figs, drops of sweet sugary nectar often found oozing from them. Living in California has many advantages, including the ability to have fruit trees in your yard. Fig trees are scattered everywhere in my city. Many people just ignore the fruit, leaving it to the birds and squirrels. That means a lot of fat, happy birds and squirrels.
My introduction to figs was, naturally, a Fig Newton. I learned to love the taste and texture of a cooked fig from that cookie. My mother enjoyed fresh figs, and soon I loved fresh figs too. But I really loved the cookies.
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As I got older and began to go to fine dining restaurants, I would often find unique and appealing fig dishes on the menu. There were sweet desserts, savory entrées and interesting appetizers. I realized the flavor of a fig complements so many other flavors: aged and fresh cheeses, salty cured meats, dessert wines and many nuts.
Fresh figs can be roasted, grilled, stuffed, used as a pizza topping, wrapped in salty cured meat, tossed with a salad or pasta, cooked down into a sweet sauce or baked in a tart or cake. I have even sampled a fig cocktail. But don’t forget you can eat them as nature made them, sweet and plump and juicy. If nothing else, figs are versatile little fruits that have been enjoyed for thousands of years.
Types of figs
My fig of choice is the California Mission fig, with its purple-black skin and deep red flesh. The Mission fig gets its name from the Spanish missionaries who planted them as they traveled up the California coast from Mexico.
Depending on your location, there may be different varieties of figs at your local market:
- Brown Turkey figs are large and pear shaped, with brown skin.
- Calimyrna figs are rather round and green skinned. They are often found dried, but when fresh they are honey sweet.
- Kadota figs are green skinned, with luscious amber-colored flesh when ripe.
- Black Mission figs are black skinned with amazingly deep red flesh.
- 4 bone-in pork loin chops, about 1-inch thick
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- 4 to 6 fresh figs, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup Cambozola cheese, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 egg, lightly beaten with about a teaspoon of water
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- Heat the oven to 350 F. With a sharp knife, cut a pocket into the chop starting from the end farthest from the bone. Cut carefully through the middle of the chop, almost to the bone. Repeat with the remaining chops.
- Season the chops with salt and pepper on both sides and inside the pocket.
- Place a small amount of figs into the pockets of the pork chops.
- Cover the figs with a good amount of cheese, pressing it down into the figs.
- Close the top flap of the pocket over the figs and cheese, adjusting as needed to seal the seam.
- Place the flour, egg and panko bread crumbs each into a separate shallow dish or plate.
- Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
- Coat each chop with flour, patting to remove any excess.
- Dip each chop into the egg mixture, making sure to coat them evenly.
- Place the chops into the panko breading, pressing lightly and turning them to cover the chops completely. Make sure the seam is well coated with panko to prevent the cheese from oozing out while cooking.
- Place the chops onto the prepared baking sheet.
- Bake for 30 minutes, or until the juices run clear.
Main photo: Mission figs and Cambozola cheese. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas or field peas, are a staple of many cultures around the world. Black-eyed peas have been cultivated in Africa for thousands of years and traveled to the New World with slaves who were brought to the Americas.
Every New Year’s Day, I am sure to have black-eyed peas and rice on my table. They are considered good luck, just as greens represent money. The greens can be collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard, even cabbage. There would usually be a couple of meaty smoked pork hocks simmered with the black-eyed peas and the greens when I was growing up, a tradition I still follow, although I may substitute the hock with smoked bacon. Commonly known as Hoppin’ John, the mix of black-eyed peas and rice is a Southern staple that has spread nationwide.
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Guyana, a small country in South America, has a dish called Cook-Up Rice, which is eaten on New Year’s eve. Like Hoppin’ John, it is a mix of rice and legumes, such as black-eyed peas or pigeon peas. Simmered with coconut milk, meat and aromatics, the rice and peas cook up into a flavorful meal.
Black-eyed peas, which are actually legumes, are usually found in the supermarket dried. But during summer and fall you can often find fresh black-eyed peas in the pod at your local farmers market. When fresh, they quickly become tender when cooked, making them a good source of protein for a cool summer salad.
The inspiration for this salad is Hoppin’ John. Rice-shaped orzo pasta is used instead of actual rice. The addition of a variety of fresh vegetables and a Creole spiced herb vinaigrette make this vegan salad perfect as a main dish or as a side dish with an assortment of grilled foods.
- 1 cup orzo pasta
- 4 cups cooked black eyed peas
- 1 cup sweet corn
- 1 chopped bell pepper
- 2 scallions, sliced on diagonal
- 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- ½ cup champagne vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ teaspoons Creole seasoning
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
- Cook the orzo according to package directions, drain and rinse with cold water.
- Place the cooked pasta, black-eyed peas, corn, bell pepper, scallion and tomatoes into a medium bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, Creole seasoning, salt and thyme.
- Pour the dressing over the other ingredients, mixing well to distribute the dressing.
- Let the salad sit for at least an hour to let the flavors meld.
Main photo: Black-eyed peas fresh from the pod. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
My journey to being healthy has been one long and twisted adventure, basically covering my entire life. I’ve never been thin, nor do I want to be. I like my curves. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat healthy and exercise so I can live the best life I can. That means leaving behind old flavorless “diet” foods from another generation and embracing tasty healthy superfoods.
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As a child I remember my mother joining Weight Watchers, and I would sometimes go to meetings with her. I also remember eating some absolutely horrible “diet” food with her. One of my mother’s favorites was toast with cottage cheese on top, sprinkled with cinnamon and Sweet’N Low.
These days, I am now a member of Weight Watchers. I am not on a diet, just being mindful of how I eat and what I eat. For me, this is a logical step on my journey to improving my well-being. I was a caregiver to my mother and single mother to my daughter for so many years I stopped taking care of me. Now it is my turn.
Recently, I discovered mushrooms are a superfood, or a food that is nutrient dense while being low in calories. Some superfoods, such as mushrooms, pomegranates and blueberries, are being studied for their ability to help fight cancer and other diseases.
I was not always able to eat mushrooms. I have a very distinct memory from childhood of mushrooms being sautéed on the stove, and when I smelled them I became nauseated. I hated mushrooms so much they turned my stomach. As an adult, I lost my aversion to mushrooms and enjoy cooking with them often.
Making soup with the superfoods
Rustic Mushroom Soup is very simple and fast to prepare, making it an ideal weeknight meal. Most markets now offer an organic baby leafy greens salad, usually with a mix of chard, spinach and kale. These mixes are great as a salad, but also perfect for tossing into a soup for added nutrition and flavor. And you do not have to prep anything, just open the bag.
Although kale is “so over” for many people, I enjoyed it before it became a superfood and will enjoy it after its 15 minutes of fame are over. Almost any leafy green can be substituted for the baby greens, including collard, mustard and turnip greens, Swiss chard or arugula.
A variety of mushrooms can also be used in this soup. Just chop them into bite-size pieces, then follow the recipe as written.
This soup is healthy, filling and satisfying, and the Weight Watchers Points Plus value for one serving is only 1 point.
Rustic Mushroom Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ medium onion, thinly sliced
4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound crimini or brown mushrooms, quartered or cut into six pieces if large
1 container (32 ounces) vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 cups baby kale, chard or spinach salad mix
1. In a medium soup pot or saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium flame.
2. Add the onion, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper. Stirring occasionally, cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until the onion is softened.
3. Add the mushrooms and stir well to coat them with the aromatics. Cook 5 to 7 minutes until browned and the mushrooms have released their liquid.
4. Add the vegetable broth and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
5. Add the baby greens, cook for 1 to 2 minutes until wilted.
6. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.
Top photo: Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each. The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.
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The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.
But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.
Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.
Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round. If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.
The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.
Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style
Makes 2 to 3 quarts
10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed
1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)
2 cups water
1½ to 2 cups raw sugar
1 cup honey
1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)
Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)
1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.
2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.
3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.
4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.
5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.
6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.
7. Turn the flame to low.
8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.
9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.
10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.
11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.
Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee