A feast for the living on Day of the Dead

By Lucy Herrman
Posted 10/30/19

Although celebrated in many countries around the world, here in New Mexico, and especially in Taos, Day of the Dead is special. For some private, and for others public, Día de los Muertos is welcomed with festivities all around town. Ofrendas (altars) spring up, decorated with flowers, sugar skulls, photographs, candles, tissue paper flags and the favorite foods of the departed.

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A feast for the living on Day of the Dead

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Although celebrated in many countries around the world, here in New Mexico, and especially in Taos, Day of the Dead is special. For some private, and for others public, Día de los Muertos is welcomed with festivities all around town. Ofrendas (altars) spring up, decorated with flowers, sugar skulls, photographs, candles, tissue paper flags and the favorite foods of the departed. Each family observes the holiday in ways especially meaningful to them. And public altars are often community based and quite inclusive, inviting all to contribute a photograph or object of their own.

I am quite taken with Day of the Dead. For me, it is an opportunity to remember with love and an open heart those who have died. And as a cook, I can't resist creating an intimate feast for the living. In the fall, we look forward to the change of the seasons, when leaves turn and the whisper of winter lies ahead. What more perfect time to celebrate our departed loved ones with memories and food.

Día de los Muertos originated in pre-Columbian Mexico, and today is still one of Mexico's most vivid and mystical holidays. And in all of Mexico, festivities in Oaxaca are among the largest and most jubilant. Oaxaca, which is prized for its authenticity, has also emerged as a culinary capital. And no wonder -- mole sauces may have been invented there. The so-called Seven Moles of Oaxaca deserve their fame.

While in the Yucatan, I had a chance to try delicious pavo en relleno negro, turkey with a deep black sauce -- mole negro. Although at the time I did not realize this mole originated in Oaxaca, I discovered the fact when I looked for the condiment back home.

Mole negro is a thick black paste made of several types of chiles and a dozen spices. The good news is that you don't have to grind the many ingredients yourself. All you have to do is simmer some of the premade paste with broth or even water for a sauce you won't forget. (Note: While you may be able to find it in specialty or ethnic grocery stores, I bought it online.)

The original Yucatecan recipe is complex and involves stewing chunks of turkey for many hours in the sauce. But mole negro is so good, I wanted to showcase its aromatic essence. So in my simplified take on a traditional recipe, I bake the chicken in the oven and then serve it in an exquisite pool of mole. Cilantro rice, sautéed roasted corn and my favorite cooked beans accent the dish. Based on the compliments at the table, I think the ancestors would approve.

For dessert, I decided on a Mexican chocolate flourless cake. Made with just a few ingredients, flourless chocolate cake is more of a custard than a cake. By adding cinnamon and clove, you can capture the distinctive flavor of Mexican chocolate. The good news for some people in Taos is that it is also gluten-free and nut-free. For many others, of course, it's just a delectable and elegant indulgence.

Día de los Muertos customarily means baking a batch of biscochitos -- traditional anise sugar cookies decorated with white icing and candies to resemble skulls. Although I don't include a recipe here, there are many available. If you'd like to explore the fun of customizing your own, use your favorite recipe or buy cookies at the store, and go from there.

Whether celebrating around town in full-on costumes and makeup, or reflecting on your history and welcoming back your ancestors in the quiet of your own home, Day of the Dead offers a chance to honor and commune with your beloved forebears and experience a joyful reconnection. A magical holiday for all!

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