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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.
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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.
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)
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)
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
I learned how to make radiant blackberry-citrus table salsa 20 years ago in the mountains of Michoacán, due west of Mexico City. The late José Cacho, a tireless advocate of the state and force behind the restoration of the pueblo of Tupátaro’s important Templo de Santiago Apóstol (St. James the Apostle Church), was an avocado rancher and blackberry farmer. Thanks to a coveted invitation, I first tasted the salsa with other guests in his colonial home on Morelia’s historic walk street, Calzada Fray Antoniode San Miguel. The stone-paved, tree-shaded stretch runs between the Las Tarascas Fountain (three maidens holding a tray of fruit) and the deliriously embellished baroque Santuario de Guadalupe church dating from the early 1700s.
People could easily spot José out for a stroll along the walkway because he always wore the traditional huetameño, a local hat with a wide brim, ribbon tie and small tassel jauntily swaying in the back. The fountain, churches and José’s salsa recipe continue to be Michoacán revelations.
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Over the years I have taught the recipe again and again in myriad cooking classes. I fondly remember one class held in an imposing auditorium with steep stadium seating at the Culinary Institute of America in California’s Napa Valley. I walked on stage down at the very bottom, behind the longest La Cornue range I had ever seen — in fact, the brand new, burgundy-colored Rolls Royce-of-the-kitchen was specifically fabricated for the imposing room’s culinary arena. Rising vertically immediately in front of me was a sea of white chef-jacketed students, dead silent and perfectly still except for a few ruffling papers. I must have been a sight. On each side of me stood a chef assistant, standing easily more than 6 feet tall in whites, sporting a toque elongating him to 7 feet, versus my 5 feet 4 inches wearing a home cook’s apron and anxious smile. Wanting to come through with flying colors, I made a few impressive Mexican dishes that day, but it was José’s blackberry-citrus table salsa that had the crowd wildly applauding and then stampeding down all those steps for samples.
Here is the hedonist’s salsa, simply a miracle in a bowl of luscious berries with a detonation from the region’s fiery chile manzano (aka perón). Feel free to use frozen blackberries year round. If you can’t find a fresh manzano use a red-ripe jalapeño (for color) a quarter of a spicy habañero or a green jalapeño or serrano when there’s nothing else. Whatever fresh chile you use, this bowl of happiness will be your new best friend with poultry, fish, meats, grilled vegetables, rice pilafs and anything that can use a dollop of unrestricted joy.
Blackberry-Citrus Table Salsa
Makes about 2 cups
A chile manzano, or perón (Capsicum pubescens), looks like a huge habañero, so to be sure you have the right chile cut it open. Manzano seeds are black.
1 cup coarsely chopped white onion
Half a yellow/orange chile manzano, minced with stem and black seeds removed. (You can substitute a quarter of a spicy habañero or 1 stemmed, minced, unseeded jalapeño or serrano chile.)
1 cup blackberries (fresh or thawed frozen)
Juice from one orange
Juice from 1 Mexican (aka Key) lime (if possible)
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon organic agave syrup or sugar
¼ teaspoon sea or kosher salt
1. Put the onion and chile into a food processor and pulse 2 seconds. Dump in the blackberries and pulse 2 seconds more.
2. Pour in the orange and lime juices. Add the cilantro, sweetener and salt. Pulse 2 seconds, keeping a coarse, chunky texture.
3. Taste for salt and add more minced chile for a spicier salsa if desired and then pulse 1 second to stir everything together.
Top photo: Blackberry-citrus table salsa in traditional Michoacán bowl and carved wooden spoon. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
Stellar waves and sunsets attract surfers from around the world to Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s southwest coast, where beer is a major food group and simply grilled seafood comes along for the ride.
Years ago I tasted anise-flavored mussels at a nondescript joint overlooking the famous beach. As I watched cooks throw seasoned black bivalves onto an open-fire grill, I knew I’d be making this fast and easy recipe for years to come.
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Back home in Southern California, I used to get huge black mussels at my Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market from a Santa Barbara aquaculture company that, alas, no longer exists. Another local company, Carlsbad Aquafarm, Inc., showed up one Wednesday with smaller mussels, similar to Prince Edward Island’s. It’s not that I have anything against the small, sweet-fleshed beauties (perfect for garlicky moules marinière), but big mussels are simply easier to cook on a grill. Tiny PEI mussels tend to fall through the grates. And grates are necessary in this recipe to keep the mussels flat so their precious juices stay intact. Recently I started grilling New Zealand green-lipped mussels for their herculean size and significant meaty mouthfuls of sea goodness.
Grilled mussels a fast and easy appetizer
As far as a recipe goes, Grilled Anise Mussels couldn’t be easier. Dump cleaned mussels in a bowl, mix seasoning all over and place on the grill. That’s it.
I have an indoor gas grill that makes cooking a snap. If I’m grilling throughout dinner or feeding a large group I may switch to a mighty outdoor gas grill or a kettle grill when wood smoke is part of my flavor equation.
Seafood lovers go nuts over Grilled Anise Mussels. This recipe is such a cinch I guarantee it to be your new go-to appetizer. The important ingredient is anise seed, with its subtle licorice taste and softer crunch than harder, bolder-flavored fennel seed. You can find anise seed in well-stocked supermarkets, specialty spice shops and mail-order Internet sites.
Grilled Anise Mussels
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer
2 pounds New Zealand green-lipped mussels or black mussels as large as possible
1 tablespoon anise seeds
1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the grill to hot.
2. To clean cultivated mussels, scrub them under cold running water with a brush and trim off their beards with a paring knife. As each is cleaned, set it in a colander and drain and dry for about 10 minutes. If there’s one that stays wide open and does not close, throw it away. Transfer the damp mussels to a large bowl.
3. Stir together the anise seeds, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Scatter over the mussels, and with your hands mix the seasoning throughout, deep into the bowl, covering each mussel all over.
4. Start grilling immediately, before the salt starts dissolving, by using long-handled tongs to quickly place each mussel on the hot grill with one of its flat sides down. (If an open edge is facing down, all the aromatic juices escape into the grill as soon as its shell opens.) In a minute or two, as each opens, place it on a serving platter, again flat side down. Some mussels take longer to open so turn them a few times with the tongs, being careful not to scrape off seasoning. Sometimes, too, tapping an uncooperative mussel with tongs encourages it to open. A few may char, and that’s fine. Throw away any that do not open.
5. Take the platter to the table to serve.
6. Here’s the fun part. Break off the top shell — it’s your spoon. With it, scrape the mussel meat from the bottom shell. Slide it into your mouth along with those valued juices while licking anise seasoning off the shell.
Top photo: New Zealand green-lipped mussels ready for serving. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
For a refreshing, raw Mexican table salsa, try this jade green marvel you can whirl up in a blender faster than it takes to hum a verse of “La Bamba.”
One of the most versatile cooked sauces in the Mexican repertoire is citrusy salsa verde, or green sauce. The primary ingredient is Mexico’s native tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa) — or Mexico’s small, wild variety (Physalis philadelphica) — a vegetable-like fruit many people think are green tomatoes but are nightshades related to the cape gooseberry. Common names are tomate verde and miltomate (Oaxaca), Mexican jam berry and husk tomato.
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The resemblance to smaller gooseberries is immediate as soon as you pick up a tomatillo and touch the inedible, tissue-thin, papery husk surrounding smooth, green (sometimes with hints of purple) fruit that is ranges from the size of pingpong ball to golf balls. Some say smaller fruit is tastier; I love the sweet-tart flavor of tiny, cherry-tomato-sized purple fruit and look for them in farmers markets every summer. Whichever color, husks should be green to light brown (sometimes with hints of purple); a good indication of ripeness is husks that are not dry and shriveled to the point they are dropping off the fruit. When husking, you’ll feel stickiness covering the firm fruit — a natural stickiness that can’t be rinsed away and does not affect texture or flavor. The creamy white-colored fruit is denser and meatier than a tomato. One more thing: Never peel tomatillo skin because it’s so delicate you’ll be peeling away fruit with it.
If you are not going to use tomatillos within a few days, keep the husks intact and refrigerate, but not in plastic bags or they quickly become mushy. You can successfully freeze them in airtight containers, cleaned, husked and left whole or chopped. Frozen tomatillos are great alternatives when fresh are not available. Don’t waste your money with canned.
Unlike cooked green sauce, this raw version doesn’t have a whiff of cumin or toasted garlic’s richness so popular in central/northern Mexican states — it’s all about bright green herbal freshness.
Fresh Tomatillo Table Salsa
Just about any Mexican food tastes better with a squirt of lime juice. Uncooked Fresh Tomatillo Table Salsa works the same way because of tomatillo’s innate citrus tang.
Makes about 1 cup
8 green tomatillos, ranging in size from pingpong balls to golf balls
1 medium (3 inches) white onion
2 green jalapeño chiles
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
¼ cup coarsely chopped mint leaves
1 teaspoon sugar (or more depending on taste)
½ teaspoon sea or kosher salt (or more depending on taste)
1. Remove and discard the papery husks from the tomatillos and rinse off any soil stuck to the naturally sticky fruit. Cut each tomatillo in half and put in a blender jar.
2. Peel and cut the onion into large chunks. Stem one chile and coarsely chop (include half to all the seeds depending on how spicy you like salsas). Add both to the blender with the cilantro, mint, sugar and salt. Purée until smooth and foamy, scraping down the blender sides if necessary, at least 30 seconds and up to 1 minute.
3. Adjust the salt and sweetness to your taste. If you like spicy table salsa (Mexican table salsa should be spicy!), this is the time to add more finely chopped chile and re-blend another 30 seconds.
4. Serve immediately at room temperature while the salsa is a fresh, citrusy masterpiece.
Top photo: Tiny purple-tinged tomatillos at the Sunday market in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
We met more than 20 years ago in a bar in Guadalajara. It didn’t matter that Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city, sitting square in the middle of the state of Jalisco. Or even that the city is famous for charreada, rodeos where powerfully costumed cowboys, or charros, display high-velocity horsemanship for a legion of adoring fans. In the West Central highlands, what matters is pride — pride in the long tradition of the charros, the universal symbol of this place. Pride is was what I remember most about Bo-Bo, that and his magnificent margarita.
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Bo-Bo (short for Bonifacio) was a bartender in Tlaquepaque, a section of Guadalajara now considered the sweetheart of interior decorators because of their warehouse-sized shops and overstuffed galleries. But in those earlier days, things were not so precious. On one night, I wandered around El Parián, a festive city block ringed with casual cafes designed for good times and late nights. Looking around, it was difficult to choose where to go; every place was enticing. Laughter and candlelight and brightly colored clothing made each space seem more provocative than the last. The locals found it easy, as they warmed up to the place where family members waited tables or perhaps had visited for generations. I just let the spirit of the night guide me, and I walked through the next doorway I saw.
I could not have guessed from its modest entrance all which would appear before me. The otherwise dimly lit space opened up to an open-air patio, with a large gazebo where a full mariachi band played. Later I would hear that some of the best musicians in the country frequented this spot, and over the years I would raise a glass to many of them as trumpets and voices filled the space.
That night, I must have really looked out of place, a wide-eyed gringa, overstimulated with all the sights and sounds, and Bo-Bo extended a hand and a smile. He took me on a tour of El Parián, pointing out the places with the best tacos and bar snacks. He showed me where I could grab a table under shady porticoes and pull up an equipale, the locally made, rustic leather-and-wood barrel chair, and stay for tequila and music. We paused near the gazebo stage to watch the mariachi wail “Guadalajaaaaara” wearing the same traditional outfit as the charros: skin-tight pants and jackets with heavy silver-studded adornments and huge, elaborately detailed sombreros. Here, Bo-Bo told me, “Weekend afternoons have remained unchanged for generations, and nights are forever young.”
As we wandered back to his bar he proudly proclaimed that he served, “the world’s best margarita, hands down.”
Smiling at my proud guide, I said, “OK, prove it.”
And he did.
World’s Best Margarita
Makes 1 drink
Guadalajara is known for tequila. The actual town of Tequila is about an hour to the west, and it is the place where Mexico distills its finest in countless factories. Tequilana Weber blue variety agave plants (Agave tequilana) run up and down kilometers of hillsides in perfect blue-gray waves of neat rows from the lowlands to the nearby mountains. Ancient volcanoes in the distance provide the background where they push against sapphire skies.
Bo-Bo’s perfect storm of spirits is still the recipe I use today. Here is his original formula with my alternate ruby-red suggestions. But first, a few rules of a great margarita:
1. Use only 100% agave tequila because others are mixtos, cheap blends of 49% something else — mostly cane alcohol and/or sugars. My preference is clear (aka silver, blanco, white) because of its clean agave flavor unaltered by aging.
2. Never use a pre-made, artificially flavored and colored, headache-inducing, neon chartreuse “margarita mix.”
3. No slushy blender drinks. Serve “on the rocks” in an old-fashioned glass or “up” shaken with ice and strained into a martini glass.
4. Serve with or without a salted rim, but without is like a kiss where the lips never touch.
1 lime wedge
A few tablespoons slightly coarse sea or kosher salt on a small plate
1½ parts 100% clear agave tequila
½ part Cointreau
1 part freshly squeezed Mexican (aka Key) limes
Simple syrup or bartender’s super-fine sugar, if needed
1. Moisten the rim of an old-fashioned glass (or martini glass) with a lime wedge. Dip in the salt to coat the rim.
2. In a small pitcher, mix the tequila, Cointreau and lime juice. Stir and taste; if it’s too sour stir in a little sweetener, but the drink should be sour.
3. Either fill an old-fashioned glass with ice cubes and then pour in the tequila mixture or pour the mixture into a cocktail shaker with crushed ice, shake 10-15 seconds and strain into a martini glass.
Ruby-Red Pomegranate, Cranberry or Jamaica Margarita
Makes 1 drink
Thick slice off lime end
¼ cup slightly coarse sea or kosher salt
1½ parts 100% clear agave tequila
½ part Cointreau
1 part unsweetened, sour pomegranate juice, cranberry juice or strong-brewed jamaica tea (pronounced ha-MY-ca, dried flowers of the hibiscus family, found in Mexican markets)
Simple syrup or bartender’s super-fine sugar to taste
1. Moisten the rim of an old-fashioned glass (or martini glass) with a lime wedge. Dip in a dish of salt to coat the rim.
2. In a small pitcher mix the tequila, Cointreau and juice. Stir in sweetener to taste, but keep it sour!
3. Either fill an old-fashioned glass with ice cubes and then pour in the tequila mixture, or pour the mixture into a cocktail shaker with crushed ice, shake 10 to 15 seconds and strain into a martini glass.
Like it hot? Quarter a fresh green jalapeño chile, remove the seeds and then slide it into the drink. Like it smoky? Float 1 tablespoon Del Maguey mezcal on top of the finished drink. !Salud!
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Store in a sealed glass jar in the refrigerator for up to one month. Makes about 1½ cups.
Top photo: The World’s Best Margarita. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
We’ve gathered around a rustic wooden table at Don Alfredo Pollos al Pastor, a country restaurant sitting 7,000 feet in the Nahuatzén Mountains, an hour west of Morelia, Michoacán, in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico. The wait for the Mexican food is a torment. Aromas of grilling meat hit us hard and make us pant through the thinner air in anticipation of what’s to come.
I sip an amber Victoria beer and drift into memories of the restaurant in the late 1980s, when the place was nothing more than a roadside shack with a dirt floor and corrugated metal roof. Then we sat at wobbly metal tables on rusted chairs boasting Cola-Cola logos for decor.
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We were there for the food. We didn’t have to think about it. The menu was simple: chicken, handmade corn tortillas, soupy pink beans and a fresh table salsa made with the local heat-packing chile manzano (Capsicum pubescens), onions and sour oranges. If we were lucky and there on a weekend, they’d have a few baby lamb legs over a fire. As time has passed, the lamb has become so popular the restaurant’s simple terracotta serving plates now boast a new hand-lettered name: Don Alfredo Pollos y Borrego al Pastor (chicken and lamb over coals).
Before entering the larger space today — now with a real concrete floor and solid roof — we gape at the main attraction, a trench 20 feet long and 4 feet wide filled with a long, center mound of glowing embers of white mesquite. On either side of the trench are a few dozen 4-foot spiked metal rods, each impaling three chickens, lined up in two neat rows. The bright yellow flesh of the birds comes from their diet of fluorescent orange marigolds. Combine this and the high temperature of the coals, and you have incomparable flavor and beautifully charred crisp, golden skin.
A flamenco twist to a Mexican surprise
The biggest surprise lies at the far end of one row — 10 additional steel rods with a few kilos of marinated pork hanging from each rod, pouring out aromas the way only pork can. The chunks of meat appear dark from the mesquite, but not a speck of blackened pork is anywhere in sight. Roasting meat is in the blood of these cooks; they rotate and swivel the rods like turns of flamenco, flourish and sizzle, flourish and sizzle.
It has been a long, dry season for lovers of flesh in this part of the world. Pork is celebrated after a Lenten stretch and the Easter lambs have all been eaten. I’ve had my share, perhaps more than my share, of succulent carnitas over the years here in Michoacán, the carnitas capital of the world, but this young pork is primal perfection. These pigs are Mexicans, raised to be fat and placed upon a hot fire, not like their American cousins bred to be lean, mean and articulated muscle machines. Their flavor comes from mesquite smoke and bubbling fat-basted meat cooked lowly and slowly to achieve a moist interior and a mahogany-colored, stunningly brittle skin.
As orders fly in, the cooks select chicken or pork from the spikes and transfer it to a chopping block. A few precision hacks with a machete, a squirt of sour orange juice over the crunchy spitting skin, a sprinkle of salt and the platter is on its way to the table. The torture is over, the waiting is complete and satisfaction is imminent.
Not more than 10 minutes and a half bottle of beer have been swallowed since we passed through the doorway, but they were slow Mexican minutes and we have the patience of hungry Americans, which is to say none.
We ravenously descend on our platters. The waiter has brought pork, chicken and warm corn tortillas. There is a growling silence until, one by one, tortillas are piled with copious quantities of meat and that sweat-inducing table salsa to make perfect tacos. One bite says everything; the wait was worth it. Full grinning mouths smile at each other across the table. We are reduced to happy noises, for there are no words worth the pause.
Fresh Chile Manzano and Sour Orange Table Salsa
You may substitute one juice orange and one Mexican (aka Key) lime to achieve a similar flavor to Don Alfredo’s sour orange, a type of Seville orange primarily used in marmalade. A chile manzano, rocoto or perón (Capsicum pubescens) looks like a huge habañero, so to be sure that you have the right chile cut it open, manzano seeds are black.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 white onion (3 inches), peeled and finely chopped
½ chile manzano, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 Mexican sour oranges, juiced
Sea or kosher salt to taste
Stir all the ingredients in a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature.
Don Alfredo Pollos y Barrego Al Pastor, Tanganxuan intersection on the Periférico (aka the lower end of Libramiento, before it enters the Glorieta opposite the Bodega Aurrerá supermarket), Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Telephone: (434) 342-3151. (The original location, and still the best.) A second spot is on the autopista Morelia-Pátzcuaro, Km. 6. Telephone: (443) 132-5975.
Top photo: Pork and chickens over mesquite in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky