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Nancy Zaslavsky

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Los Angeles, California

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Nancy Zaslavsky is an author, cooking teacher, and culinary tour leader specializing in the foods of Mexico. Nancy wrote the James Beard Award-nominated "A Cook’s Tour of Mexico: Authentic Recipes from the Country’s Best Open-Air Markets, City Fondas, and Home Kitchens" (St. Martin’s Press), which was nominated for a James Beard Award, and "Meatless Mexican Home Cooking" (Griffin). Nancy has written for newspapers, food magazines and international publications on Mexican cuisine. Her culinary tours to her favorite food destinations in Mexico are designed for small groups of chefs, food professionals and food-and-fun loving people in search of dynamic tastes in spirited environments. Motivated by ongoing research into the cultural and culinary history of Mexico, she is the vice president and program chair of the Culinary Historians of Southern California. She is also an active member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the James Beard Foundation and a member of the International Slow Food Movement.

Nancy is a blonde gringa who loves Mexico, its culture, cuisine, and people. One of her greatest joys is to share this enthusiasm with those who want to learn more about a fascinating country. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.

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Sweet Gorditas Fight Hunger During Easter Pageantry Image

Forty days and 40 nights of vegetarian eating are underway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Don’t cry for us, Argentina; there’s no hardship here, as local Catholics look forward to meatless specialties known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods) reserved for the spring. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, cherished recipes are culled from handwritten family notebooks to feed legions of hungry pageant participants.

Pre-dawn firecrackers and skyrockets set off by priests in church yards get everyone up to take part in processions during Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter. The events are widely regarded as some of Mexico’s most elaborate, starring thousands of emotional believers dressed in costume without a single paid actor in sight.

Good Friday is the culmination of weeks of nonstop pageantry with long, unbearably slow and tortuous dragging of crosses through cobblestoned streets to the dispirited beat of a single drum. As they perspire in the hot afternoon sun, solemn men and women in dark dress with purple sashes brace heavy saint statues on their shoulders, but press forward. Children through seniors represent angels and ancient mourners, and wave after wave of their faithful parishioners trod onward in the depths of despair. Parade watchers are stacked along the route in hushed silence. Devotion runs deep and true.

Gorditas among the Lenten offerings

Marching like this brings on a mean hunger. Besides a gazillion bean dishes, most regional Lenten répertoires are rounded out by cheese-stuffed fat tortillas lovingly called gorditas, “or little fat ones”; pipiánes, protein-rich pumpkin-seed sauces poured over vegetables; patties made with countless nonmeat combinations; and soups galore. And then we have Gorditas de Piloncillo. Certainly not your typical gordita, and about as well known today as hardtack, its beginning is centuries old — with a bit of delightful religiosity thanks to the Spanish-Mexican addiction to tradition.

Generations of local women have sold them outside the San Juan de Dios church (a half block from the market) from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays only during Lent. Today at least a dozen ladies in embroidered aprons from surrounding neighborhoods sit, all lined up curbside, each pan-frying sublimely sweet, crisp tortilla turnovers. It’s hard to choose whom to buy from, but I look for sellers with smiling faces taking pesos with one hand and cooking with the other, or better yet, with an assistant handling cash. Another tip: Stay clear when the church school recess bell rings — chaos reigns as screaming kids stampede to be first in line.

For years I thought teeny, wooden tortilla presses I saw in Mexican markets were toys. Man oh man am I surprised as I watch grown women gently press out children’s tea-party-sized, 3-inch tortillas! Remedios Martinez, sitting under her signature shade umbrella, grabs a tiny ball of masa (corn dough) flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon), anise seeds and ground chile — she likes guajillo but says others use cascabel — and then presses it into a thin tortilla. She drops a teaspoon of crumbled piloncillo (raw brown sugar) in the center, folds it over and slides it into shimmering-hot vegetable oil to crisp and brown.

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Easter Week procession, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Credit: Steve Smith Photography

Not at all like the more usual regional offering — round, stuffed gorditas — these delicate mini tacos are really different. The spoonful of sugar dramatically transforms into a crunchy glaze as the gordita cools and hardens with an interior as brittle as a candied apple. God can definitely be found biting into a Gordita de Piloncillo.

Gorditas de Piloncillo (Sweet, Crisp Turnovers)

Remedios Martinez miraculously cranks out 800 Gorditas de Piloncillo each day from her street-side, oilcloth-covered folding card table and mesquite wood-fired brazier; they remain crunchy for about four hours and then lose their glamour.

Makes about 30

Ingredients

2 cups masa harina

3 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon)

2 tablespoons anise seeds

3 tablespoons ground or flaked dried guajillo or cascabel chile

½ pound grated piloncillo (raw brown sugar available in cones), or dark brown sugar

Vegetable oil

Directions

1. Using a stand mixer, mix the masa harina, canela, anise seeds and chile with about 2 cups warm water to get a soft dough.

2. Pull off rounded tablespoons of dough and form into small balls about the size of Ping-Pong balls. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp tea towel to keep the balls moist until the dough runs out.

3. Using a freezer baggie, cut 2 squares of the thick plastic slightly larger than the diameter of the press and place one on the bottom part of a tortilla press. Center a masa ball on the plastic. Cover the masa with the other square of plastic. Lower the top of the press and gently push on the handle. Open the press, turn the tortilla (with plastic) 180 degrees, and push again to make a small, 3-inch round. Open the press. The tortilla will have plastic stuck on the top and bottom. Peel away the top plastic, then gently flip the tortilla over into your other hand and carefully peel that plastic away. Put 1 teaspoon piloncillo in the center, fold over and press the edges together. Lay on a tray. Repeat with a few others.

4. Pour vegetable oil ¼-inch deep into a wide skillet and heat to rippling hot 360 F to 370 F. Test the heat by dropping a small piece of dough into the oil. It should sizzle and turn deep golden within 10 seconds.

5. Slide three or four gorditas at a time into the hot oil. Turn until brown, less than 1 minute. Remove to an opened-up paper bag to drain and crisp.

6. Repeat in batches of three or four with the remaining dough.

Top photo: Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Huevos Tirados With A Zing A Must-Have At Veracruz Cafes Image

One of the most exciting cities in Mexico is the Port of Veracruz, with its lineage going back to the Olmecs and Aztecs before Hernán Cortés claimed the area for Spain in 1519. Today, two famous cafes sit smack in front of the port and are known throughout the region because of their locally sourced, house-roasted coffee beans and their waiters’ crackerjack pouring showmanship.

Gran Café de la Parroquía sits facing the Gulf of Mexico port like a proud matriarch welcoming one and all; just as Greek Sirens beckon sailors, it sends aromas wafting through thick sea air to summon mere mortals into its belly. The original café opened in 1808 on the zócalo (town square) a few blocks away. About 200 years later, the family split the business and two factions went their separate ways, but today oddly find themselves almost next to each other on the Malecón, Veracruz City’s waterfront walkway. Regulars have their favorite and wouldn’t think of entering enemy territory because animosities last a lifetime when it comes to coffee loyalty.

Stroll into Gran Café de la Parroquía and then La Parroquía de Veracruz simply to soak in the welcoming air-conditioned vibe of each. Mosey on up to the coffee counter and admire a huge, old brass Italian coffee maker at each location’s center stage, and while you’re there, inspect the day’s pastries. Choose your favorite of the two voluminous white-walled spaces filled with loads of natural sunlight and find a table in the noisy crowd. Someone is certainly playing Caribbean tunes on a marimba just outside the constantly opening door, while a local jarocho trio with a classic small harp performs at the room’s opposite end. An old woman wearing layers of aprons and shawls wanders by hawking lottery tickets as a musician winds his way through the activity offering up a güiro, an instrument made from a gourd, for tips. And you still haven’t had a chance to take off your hat and sunglasses.

A waiter in a spiffy white guayabera (a traditional shirt worn untucked, with vertical pleats and front patch pockets) comes by, and the first thing you say besides “buenas dias” is “un lechero.” He brings a tall glass, a spoon and a menu. You notice other patrons tapping the sides of their empty coffee glasses with spoons, but definitely not keeping beat to the music. It takes a while, but then you get it. The clanking beckons another waiter with two big, metal teapots filled with strong espresso coffee in one and hot milk in the other. He starts to fill your glass with coffee but slowly raises the pot to about 3 feet from the glass; he then repeats the action with milk, with the same aplomb. Not a drop spills. Quite a show. Bravo!

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Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Start with a plate of perfectly ripe tropical fruit and a squirt of lime. Pan dulce (sweet rolls, but not buttery rich like Danish pastry) are morning favorites, so ask the waiter for a basket of the day’s assortment. Hungrier? Try Huevos Tirados, “thrown together” eggs. The dish is certainly odd looking but make no mistake, it’s a delicious Veracruz eye opener. A few eggs are scrambled with black bean purée and then rolled into a streaky grayish-golden oval lump that is served alone on a white plate. Strew on a few pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños from the bowl that appears out of nowhere and dig in for a spicy, vinegary, zingy breakfast.

Of course you’ll have another lechero, if only to engage one more time in the charming Veracruz coffee ritual.

Huevos Tirados (Puréed Black Bean Omelet)

Makes 1 tirado

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion

2 large eggs

¼ cup cooked and puréed black beans, a little on the wet side, seasoned with sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Heat the butter in a small nonstick skillet and sauté the onion until barely golden brown.

2. Lightly scramble the eggs into the onion with a fork. While the eggs are still wet, pour the beans across the eggs in a strip. Delicately drag the fork through at a few zigzag angles to get a loose marbled effect. Cook until done as you wish.

3. Have a plate ready. Hold the skillet by its handle and raise it to an angle. Using the fork, roll the omelet from the top down onto the plate and arrange it into an oval shape.

Top photo: Pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños to strew over Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Sangrita Best Enjoyed With A Glass In Each Hand Image

This crazy weather demands a two-fisted cocktail. I’m a huge fan of the Mexican bar classic, the Sangrita cocktail, even though the drink has stiff competition from its fancier tequila cousin, the margarita. I can’t figure out why the Sangrita isn’t more popular, especially for those who don’t care for sweetened drinks and prefer a cocktail to a shot.

It’s time to warm up to Sangrita’s seduction because, simply, it’s a blast to drink.

In Mexico, always ask the bartender for a Sangrita Cóctel separado (separated) and then say which tequila you prefer. He or she pours your tequila of choice into one glass and a spicy juice blend into another, rather than mixing them in the same glass. You sip from each separately, hence the two-fisted cocktail.

Good tequila the key to making a Sangrita

To make your own, start with good tequila. Then you mix into the second glass tomato and orange juices, hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. No kidding. Just try it.

Of course, I can easily get obsessive. Grab your favorite tequila reposado (100% agave, lightly aged in oak barrels for a smooth drink) and accept no substitute. Orange juice must be freshly squeezed, no discussion here. Tomato juice is from freshly squeezed summer-red-ripe beauties or as a last (winter) resort use bottled, organic, low-sodium juice. Hot sauce has to be made from red Mexican chilies and will be a Mexican import such as Cholula, Búfalo or Tapátio brand. Fresh Mexican (aka Key) lime is a must, and a variation is not open for discussion. Taste, and sprinkle in a pinch of sea salt if needed.

Put on ranchera music and bring out copitas, the tall pony shot glasses from your last trip south of the border. Now, where are those souvenir sombreros?

Sangrita Cóctel

Makes 2 drinks. You will need 4 tall pony shot glasses, small snifters or similar glasses.

Ingredients

2 shots tequila

¼ cup orange juice

¼ cup tomato juice

Bottled Mexican hot sauce

1 Mexican lime (aka Key)

Sea salt to taste

Directions

1. Pour a generous shot of tequila into each of two glasses.

2. Measure the orange and tomato juices in a clear measuring cup with a pour spout. Shake in a few squirts of hot sauce. Squeeze in the lime juice. Stir. Taste. Need salt? It should be brightly sweet, acidic and definitely spicy!

3. Pour the juice mixture into the two empty glasses. ¡Salud! Sip from the juice glass and the tequila one.

Top photo: The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Beat The Winter Diet Blahs With Easy-To-Make, Dazzling Salsas Image

Say hello to winter salsas that warm both tummy and spirit.

Thanks to weeks of holiday stuffing, little is more welcoming during the January blahs than bright dishes to guide you through bland diet foods. Yep, you know what I mean. Almost-fat-free proteins read like a who’s who of boring: the dreaded boneless, skinless chicken breast, flavorless fish fillets and soulless tofu — to say nothing of kale everything — are prime examples of depression triggers for our sins of holiday indulgence. Tasteless is one thing, but lovingly prepared, insipid homemade food is intolerable!

You can warm up from inside out with these easy-to-make salsas that bedazzle almost any low-cal dish. Dried chiles are available year round and aren’t so spicy as to cause a burn, but are definitely hot enough to ignite a grin — a wild, wacky grin — as your mouth does the Macarena.

Winter Pear Table Salsa

Makes about 2 cups

Ingredients

2 dried guajillo chiles

2 dried ancho chiles

1 dried d’arbol chile

3 (8-ounce) firm but ripe pears

¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice from Mexican (aka Key) limes, if possible

1 medium (3 inches) white onion, coarsely chopped

½ cup chopped cilantro

2 teaspoons sugar

Sea or kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Using scissors, cut the guajillo and ancho chile stem ends off along with the seed clumps. Cut the chiles vertically and open flat. With a spoon, scrape out the seeds and veins.

2. Bring a small saucepan of water with the guajillo and ancho chiles to a boil. Immediately remove from the heat.

3. Stem and seed the d’arbol chile and add it to the hot water. Let the chiles reconstitute and soften at least 20 minutes or up to a few hours.

4. Drain the chiles and put them in a blender jar. Add just enough fresh water to make blending possible. Purée until smooth. Remove about a third of the chile mixture and reserve in a small dish.

5. Peel, core and chop the pears into coarse chunks. Put them in the blender with the chiles. Pour in the lime juice. Blend 10 seconds. Add the onion and blend again. Finally add the cilantro, sugar, salt and pepper and pulse to mix. Taste. If you want the salsa to be spicier, pulse in some or all of the remaining chile purée; otherwise, discard it.

Toasted Pumpkin Seed and Sesame Seed Table Salsa

Makes about 2 cups

Ingredients

1 large (about 4 inches) white onion

8 cloves garlic

2 plum tomatoes

2 small, dried d’arbol chiles

¼ cup pumpkin seeds

¼ cup sesame seeds

½ teaspoon sea or kosher salt

½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano (McCormick brand is good)

Directions

1. Heat a griddle or heavy skillet to medium-hot.

2. Cut the unpeeled onion lengthwise through the root and stem ends into 8 wedges. With the skin on, place on an ungreased griddle to toast. Put the whole, unpeeled garlic cloves and the whole tomatoes on the griddle to toast until black spots appear all over each. Cool enough to handle and peel the onion and garlic.

3. Core the tomatoes and cut off the onion and garlic root ends. Put in a blender jar or food processor, adding only enough water to make blending possible, and blend about 10 seconds.

4. Toast the chiles for about 10 seconds on each side, just until their color changes. Stem and crumble one of the chiles into the blender (with seeds) and blend again.

5. Heat a small, ungreased skillet to medium-hot. Dump in the pumpkin seeds and stir until they puff, turn golden and jump around in the pan, about 4 minutes. Pour into the blender. In the same skillet, quickly toast the sesame seeds until they turn medium golden brown. Add to the blender.

6. Add the salt and oregano to the blender jar. Blend, adding water only if necessary. The goal is a chunky, rustic table salsa. Taste. Adjust the seasonings if necessary. Now is the time to crumble the other chile into the blender if you want more spice and blend to mix.

Top photo: An ancho chile (top), a guajillo chile (middle) and a d’arbol chile. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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How To Make A Fabled Mexican Turkey Dish On A Wood Grill Image

It was a hot morning in Mérida, Mexico, and ballroom dancers were flaunting their stuff in Santa Lucía Park (nothing out of the ordinary). As a non-dancer trying to stay cool while sweat dripped down my spine in the pre-noon heat and humidity, I searched out shade and an icy drink.

Panuchos, stuffed corn tortillas, were the main attraction of the food-and-drink cart hogging the nearby shade, so I squished myself into the slightly cooler, compact area, bought a drink and tried a panucho. Alongside me, a woman with a stunning Mayan profile directly off a pre-Columbian sculpture casually turned her gaze from the dance floor and asked what I thought of the food — nothing about rhumbas or cha chas. We chatted about local dishes: what’s best bought off carts, elaborate street stands or at market fondas vs. home-cooked specialties. This lady knew her stuff.

Rosario Chávez and I agreed to meet for drinks while she was in her Yucatán, Mexico, homeland to enjoy a long-planned Christmas holiday vacation. The following evening, even before frosty mojitos touched our lips, we’re back at food talk — this time with her two sisters, both outstanding home cooks. It was at this culinary roundtable that I soaked up glories of the region’s fabled Turkey Escabeche. They swooned over how every street corner would soon be heady with aromas escaping from ovens and outdoor wood grills on Christmas Eve. Wood grills? My ears snapped to attention.

Turkey escabeche grilled whole to crisp and brown the skin

The sisters explained that to achieve intoxicating fragrance and flavor, a small, whole trussed turkey (or pieces of a large bird for easy maneuvering) is simmered in seasoned water, but before it’s done it’s whisked off the stove, cooled a bit, thoroughly massaged with recado de bistec (Yucatan’s peppery spice paste), taken outdoors and plopped onto a hot grill. Yep, the whole thing. A whole turkey’s skin is browned first on the back and then turned over to the front, finally turning twice more to brown each side, all the while basting generously with more recado de bistec. Only when the turkey is fully cooked — deep, chocolate brown and crisp in every nook and cranny — is it lifted off the grill.

A chile vendor at a   market in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, with habañeros (green and orange). Credit: My Mexico Tours

A chile vendor at a market in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, with habañeros (green and orange). Credit: My Mexico Tours

Not more than a few months had passed when I called Rosario to invite her to lunch in Los Angeles, where it turned out we both lived. (How lucky was I?) In no time we were fast friends and met regularly for lunch at various restaurants, where we talked food and recipes. Afterward we’d go back to her home kitchen to make supper for the family. I’d help prep, wash dishes, take notes and watch like a hawk as Rosario’s swift hands transformed simple ingredients into masterpieces from childhood memories.

She interwove stories about growing up on a ranch in Espita, in the countryside east of Mérida, where food was prepared outdoors in a thatched-roof cooking hut with homemade longanista sausages drying from rafters. Christmas Eve Turkey Escabeche was certainly made there, like clockwork, every Dec. 24.

In 1999, Rosario’s husband, Estabán, and kids were busy with work, college and/or married life with babies, and important family dinners were left up to Mom when she suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Festive family meals with home-cooked Yucatecan food came to a screeching halt.

A tradition that won’t fade away

Now their daughters, Analuisa, Diana and Adriana, keep tradition alive with cherished recipes from their father and mother’s ancestral homeland. I’m tickled to say that I wrote down a number of them for the first time (in English, no less! … as Rosario liked to joke) for my cookbooks — recipes the daughters cook from along with their mom’s sauce-splattered, handwritten recipe cards that are even more coveted. Rosario died much too young, but her spirit will last forever along with flavor memories of her beloved Yucatán.

These days, Estabán, a terrific cook himself, enjoys making Turkey Escabeche for the whole family — not on Christmas Eve but in September for Adriana’s birthday, simply because it’s her favorite dish, a new Chávez family tradition. If you decide for the holidays to go the usual baked, deep-fried, smoked or indirect heat-grilled method of turkey cooking, consider Turkey Escabeche for another meal. The classic process is time consuming though shockingly simple for such an intense taste reward. This time of year is when you get the largest selection of birds (especially locally sourced) at the best prices — truly win-win all around — so freeze one and make Turkey Escabeche on the birthday of someone you love.

Turkey Escabeche

Serves about 8 to 12

Ingredients

For the Recado de Bistec, Peppery Seasoning Paste:

Makes about 1 cup

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 head garlic, coarsely chopped

1 (4-inch) stick of canela (soft Mexican or pure Ceylon cinnamon)

6 dried d’arbol chiles, stemmed

8 ounces black peppercorns

2 white onions, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano (McCormick is good)

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground cloves

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Sauté the garlic until golden, and then scrape into a blender jar. Put the canela and chiles in the same skillet and cook a few minutes to lightly brown and release their aromas. Slide from the heat onto a plate.

2. Scoop the peppercorns into the blender with the garlic and blend to grind. Break up the canela and chile (using gloves if needed) into the jar and grind again. Measure in the remaining ingredients and blend about a minute until smooth, adding a little water as necessary. Scrape into a bowl using a pliable spatula to get every last bit. May be made weeks in advance and kept refrigerated.

For the turkey:

Ingredients

2 heads garlic, broken apart but not peeled

2 fresh habañero chiles

1 turkey, either a trussed 12-pounder to cook whole or a larger bird cut into a dozen pieces

3 tablespoons sea salt or kosher salt

6 large red onions

8 tablespoons Recado de Bistec paste

1 cup white vinegar, divided

4 bay leaves

Charcoal (mesquite if possible) for the grill

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Corn tortillas and/or baguettes

Directions

1. Toast the unpeeled garlic cloves and chiles on a medium-hot, ungreased griddle (or heavy skillet) until black spots show on all sides.

2. Put the turkey (whole or pieces) in a large stockpot. Cover with cold water, salt, garlic and whole chiles. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat to a strong simmer with the cover askew. Cook until the internal temperature of the thigh is 150 degrees Fahrenheit and rosy at the bone, about 45 minutes, but time depends on size of bird.

3. Peel and thickly slice the onions about ¼-inch thick. Put into a very large bowl and cover with cold water for 15 minutes. Break into rings, drain and return to the bowl.

4. In a small bowl, whisk 8 tablespoons recado paste in ⅔ cup of the vinegar to dissolve. Pour over the onion rings. Break up the bay leaves, add to the onions and stir.

5. Start a charcoal fire. Place the grill about 4 inches from the coals.

6. When the turkey is ready, remove it from the broth, drain and put on a plate to cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Keep the broth at a slow simmer for the onions.

7. Rub 2 tablespoons recado paste dissolved in 4 tablespoons vinegar and rub over the turkey. Marinate at room temperature meanwhile the grill is heating.

8. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot, dump in the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring, 10 minutes. Set the pot aside off the heat. Keep the onions a bit crisp. Toss the garlic on top of the onions. Place the whole chiles on a separate small dish for spicy food lovers to break into tiny pieces at the table, and set aside.

9. With a large spoon or bulb baster, remove as much fat as possible from the surface of the broth. Slowly ladle broth over the onions until they are covered with liquid. (Strain, cool and reserve the remaining broth for soup or another use.) Pour the remaining vinegar over the onions and mix. Taste for salt. The broth should be a little sour.

10. Place the turkey on the grill to brown. Thin the remaining recado paste with water to baste with a brush. Baste generously, turning the whole bird (or pieces) as it cooks. Bring the internal thigh temperature to 165 F. Be sure to brown every part and crisp the skin. Remove from the grill and let it rest 20 minutes.

11. Transfer the warm escabeche (vinegared onions) to a large bowl with some broth. Cut the crisp turkey into serving pieces and arrange on a platter. Serve with corn tortillas and/or baguettes to break apart and soak up juices.

Top photo: Turkey escabeche is flavored by onions, garlic, peppercorns, chiles, cinnamon and other seasonings. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Best Foods And Mexican Hot Chocolate For Day Of The Dead Image

Modern Mexican Day of the Dead festivities stem from indigenous religions intertwined with Spanish colonial Catholicism. Día de los Muertos is one of Mexico’s most beloved holidays, where traditions run deep in pueblos of the southern state of Oaxaca as they reflect ancient Zapotec and Mistec cultures.

Families plan for the celebration weeks, even months, in advance. Anticipation mounts while bank accounts get stressed as people buy hundreds of specialty candles, fancy sugar skulls, incense and burners, and sheets of brightly colored tissue paper with cutout designs to embellish homes, grave sites and altars. Loyal patrons swarm their favorite bakers far in advance with huge holiday bread orders. Kilos of cacao beans, sugar, cinnamon and almonds are stone ground, dried and then formed into disks for drinking chocolate and Oaxaca’s famous mole.

Fanciful foods part of Dia de los Muertos

When great-grandma’s treasured tablecloth finally gets unfolded, meticulously ironed and then draped over a simple table to metamorphose into a home altar, the magic begins. Similar in spirit to decorating a Christmas tree, convention rules in most homes a few nights prior to Oct. 31 as everything from heirloom candlesticks to beloved kitschy knickknack skeletons get pulled out of storage to be placed here and there by excited children.

A tall arch made from 10-foot sugarcane stalks slides into position behind the table and is smothered with flower garlands. Intensely yellow fruits are arranged in precise position on the cloth. Bread may be next, but not just any old bread. Egg breads similar to challah but elaborately decorated with dough bones, skulls, icing and tiny saint faces painted on flour and water paste and dried, are called pan de muertos, bread of the dead, and are specifically destined as altar offerings and not to be eaten. In fact, altar foods — whether brightly colored fruits, bottles of beer or mezcal, chocolate disks, prepared bowls of mole, and other favorite foods of the dead — are rarely consumed by mere mortals. These foods are oblations for dead souls returning during the holiday to check on the family, and after long journeys their spirits must be starved. It is widely acknowledged that altar items become flavorless after angels indulge in the abundant display. Finally, cherished photos of beloved deceased round out altar decor and candles are lit.

Day of the Dead traditions run bright and deep

Thoughts change gears from altars to grave sites Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 as relatives crowd into cemeteries to clean and decorate graves, especially those of children on the 31st. On the 2nd, deceased adult graves are again embellished with fresh candles, armloads of fluorescent orange marigolds, magenta cock’s combs and teeny white and gold wild field flowers. Candlelight and DayGlo colors guide souls back to exactly the right spot. Families often spend both nights graveside among hundreds of candles, where a smoky scene transforms to surreal as copal sap frankincense wafts through inky midnight air. Fires are lit in huge metal drums to provide warmth, additional light and yet more smoke. Later, middle-of-the-night cemetery picnics are common — mesquite blazes provide fuel for feasts of grilled meats, vegetables, tortillas and hot chocolate.

Elaborate, creative sand paintings are also popular grave art. Huge examples are meticulously done by church and school groups around town and on cemetery grounds, where they are judged and awarded prizes. From classic saint depictions to contemporary relief images of skeletons, many take days to make and are often there at dusk one day and gone the next, like a whisper of copal smoke in the night.

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A Day of the Dead altar in Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

At sunrise, everyone staggers off to church before heading home for a quick nap. Families will soon begin to visit one another’s altars with bread offerings. Some callers bring flowers or a candle, but everyone places something on the altar of each house visited. Holiday foods of turkey in black mole, tamales and hot chocolate make their way onto a buffet table for visitors to enjoy as they travel from house to house. The scene is festive, with music, mezcal and reminisces of good times with departed loved ones. This is Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead, as it was hundreds of years ago and as it remains today.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

Mexican hot chocolate is a rustic drink made with water (or milk) and retains an earthy, coarse texture from being stone ground.

Makes 1 quart (4 to 6 servings)

Ingredients                                                                                        

1 quart water (or regular, low-fat or nonfat milk)

1½ cups Oaxacan, Mexican or Mexican-style chocolate (such as TAZA, Ibarra or La Abuelita), coarsely chopped (about 4 disks)

Directions

1. Warm one cup of the water (or milk) with all the chocolate in a deep saucepan over medium heat, stirring, to melt the chocolate.

2. Pour in the remaining liquid, stir and bring the water to a boil (or the milk to a simmer).

3. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Beat the hot chocolate in the deep saucepan with a whisk, hand mixer, electric hand mixer or immersion blender until the top is covered with lots of bubbles or, best, with a thick foam.

4. Ladle into cups and serve immediately.

Or, pour the chocolate into a jarro de barro (a Mexican clay pot with a bulbous bottom and narrow top to keep chocolate from splashing out) and beat the liquid vigorously with a molinillo (Mexican hand-carved wooden chocolate foamer). Pour directly into cups with some foam in each cup.

Traditional flavor variations: Add ground canela (Mexican, or pure Ceylon, cinnamon), Mexican vanilla, powdered almonds or ground chile powder to the chocolate along with the cup of water or milk.

Top photo: Day of the Dead breads at the Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Sunday market. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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