Festive foods spice up the Day of the Dead
One of the most important holidays in Mexico is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which begins November 1 and is a two-day celebration honoring deceased friends and loved ones. Aaron Sanchez, owner and executive chef of Paladar, in New York City, was invited on the “Today” show to share some traditional dishes from the holiday. Here are his recipes:
Serves 6 (2 tamales per person)
- 1 8-ounce package dried corn husks
- 2 cups masa harina (see note below)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1-1/2 cups warm chicken broth
- 1/4 cup lard (recipe follows)
- 1-1/2 cups Mole Amarillo (recipe follows)
- 1-1/2 cups shredded cooked chicken
- 2 large fresh or 5 dried hoja santa leaves, coarsely chopped (see note below)
Separate the corn husks and discard the silk. Be careful since the papery husks break easily when they are dry. Select 12 of the biggest and best-looking husks from the bunch and soak them in a large bowl or sink filled with warm water for 30 minutes to soften.In a deep bowl, combine the masa harina and salt. Pour the warm chicken broth into the masa a little at a time, working it in with your fingers. In a small bowl, beat the lard with a hand mixer until fluffy, add it to the masa, and mix until the dough has a spongy texture. Cover and set aside.To make the tamales, drain the corn husks and pat dry with paper towels. Lay a husk flat on a plate or in your hand, with the smooth side up and the narrow end facing you. Spread a thin, even layer of the masa mixture over the surface of the husk with a spoon that has been dipped in water. Down the center of the masa, add a spoonful each of the Mole Amarillo sauce, the shredded chicken, and the chopped santa leaves. Fold the narrow end up to the center, then fold both sides together to enclose the filling and pinch the wide top closed; the sticky masa will form a seal. Repeat with the remaining husks. Bring a large pot filled with two inches of water to a simmer. Stand the tamales up in a steamer or colander and put it into the pot, but don’t let the water touch the bottoms of the tamales. Lay a damp cloth over the tamales. Cover tightly with a lid and steam for 30 minutes over medium-low heat; keep the water at a low simmer. The tamales are done when the inside pulls away from the husk; they should be soft but still firm and not mushy. Shut off the heat, remove the cover and damp towel, and let cool in the steamer for 10 minutes before serving.
Dehydrated, powdered masa, often referred to as instant corn masa. Maseca is a popular brand and can be found in most grocery stores. The flour is made from cooked ground hominy and looks like white cornmeal.
Hoja santa leaves
Sometimes called acuyo or hanepa in some regions of Mexico; also known as Mexican pepper leaf. This aromatic herb, which means “sacred leaf,” literally translated, is much used in the cuisines of tropical Mexico. Unfortunately, it’s not widely available outside the region of origin (southern Mexico, Guatemala, Panama and northern Columbia). The flavor is loosely reminiscent of anise, black pepper and nutmeg; when fresh, the leaves look like big lily pads. Fresh or dried tarragon can be substituted (use 2 tablespoons fresh or 1 tablespoon dried).
Makes 1 quart
- 2 or 3 pounds fresh pork fatback
Place the fat in a large, heavy pot with 1 cup of water. Heat over a medium-low flame and cook slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon to avoid sticking and scorching. Try to push the raw fat under, so it can dissolve and doesn’t start to spit as it crisps. Continue to render for two hours, until the fat pieces have shrunk to small toasty bits and sink to the bottom of the pot. The rendered fat should be clear yellow.Let the lard cool and settle for 10 minutes, then strain through a sieve lined with two layers of cheesecloth. Cool for one hour, then pour in a heatproof glass container. Lard keeps for three months tightly covered in the fridge.
Makes 2 quarts
- 3 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded (see note below)
- 1 ancho chile, stemmed and seeded (see note below)
- 1 medium white onion, peeled and halved
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 4 medium tomatillos, husked and rinsed
- 1 green or red tomato, halved
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 5 whole cloves
- 2 tablespoons lard
- 2 tablespoons masa harina
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. In a dry cast-iron skillet, toast the guajillo and ancho chiles over medium-low heat for 2 minutes, until fragrant; turn them and shake the pan so they don’t scorch. Put the toasted chiles in a bowl, cover with the boiling water, and let soak until softened and reconstituted, about 20 minutes.Return the skillet to medium-high heat and let it get nice and hot, a good 2 minutes. Rub the onion, garlic, tomatillos, and tomato with the oil. Lay the vegetables in the hot pan and roast, turning occasionally, until soft and well charred on all sides, about 10 minutes. Put the vegetables in a bowl to let them cool a bit.Meanwhile, grind the peppercorns and cloves in a clean coffee grinder or spice mill.Put all the components together in a blender — the chiles along with their soaking water, the charred vegetables, and the ground spices. Puree in batches until completely smooth.Melt the lard in a skillet over medium heat and pour in the puree; be careful because it may spatter a little. Cook and stir for 5 minutes, until the mole deepens in color.In a small bowl, mix the masa harina with 1/4 cup of warm water until smooth and lump-free. Whisk the slurry into the sauce and continue to simmer for 5 more minutes until the sauce is slightly thickened and able to coat the back of a spoon.
“Ancho” is literally translated as “wide”; a brownish chile that is the dried form of the fresh poblano. It has a mild, sweet flavor and is a staple in Mexican cooking.
The dried form of the fresh mirasol chile. Commonly used to give sauces and marinades a bright red color, it is ferociously hot and is called travieso (“mischievous”) in parts of Mexico because of its bite.
- 1/2 cup masa harina
- 1 cinnamon stick, preferably Mexican canela (see note below)
- 3 cups whole milk
- 3 ounces Mexican or dark chocolate, grated
Combine the masa harina with 2 cups of water in a large saucepan and place over medium heat. Add the cinnamon and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens.In another saucepan, combine the milk and chocolate and place over medium heat. Simmer and stir until the chocolate has completely melted, about 10 minutes. Pour the chocolate milk into the masa mixture, stirring until well incorporated. Remove the cinnamon stick. With a molinillo or whisk, whip to froth the surface. Serve hot in mugs, spooning some of the foam on top of each cup.
Also called ceylon; the inner bark of the tropical laurel tree. The cinnamon in Mexico is flesh-colored and sold ground into powder or in whole quills, ranging from 6 inches to 1 foot long. The flavor is mild and sweet, without the astringent burn associated with powdered cinnamon (cassia). In the Latin household, canela is used in both sweet and savory dishes. If you must, substitute powdered cinnamon, but the dish will not be nearly as good or complex.
Recipes provided by chef Aaron Sanchez. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.