It’s easy to get caught up in the creepy parts of Halloween while forgetting that the holiday originated as a way to honor and remember the dead, rather than fearing them. The Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, may be the best-known of the many global festivals that revolve around remembrances of dead loved ones. Celebrated in Mexico and in the Mexican diaspora, the Day of the Dead can actually last as long as three days.
Food is a huge part of the Dia de Muertos. People make pan de muerto, a sweet bread that looks (kind of) like a pile of bones, and exchange elaborately decorated sugar skulls. Picnics are held in cemeteries, and some families build small altars to the dead that include candles, photographs and offerings, or ofrendas, of favorite dishes.
We both adore Mexican food, so we were thrilled to have a chance to add a few new dishes to our repertoire. Longtime fans of the rich sauces known as moles, which can include nuts, chiles, and even chocolate in the traditional Oaxacan mole negro, we’d never had a green mole that quite measured up until we tried this one. Enriched and thickened with a mixture of toasted , ground pepitas and cumin seed, it is so delicious we could eat it by the spoonful. Dolloped over brown sugar-marinated chicken and roasted squash, it’s irresistible.
Tortilla soup is an old favorite, but this recipe from Amanda Hesser is thicker and richer than any we’ve tried before, as it incorporates crisped, golden tortillas into the soup itself. The dried chilies that form its base are easier than ever to find in supermarkets, and you can substitute other varieties if you like.
As Ina Garten said when we heard her speak at her recent cookbook launch, cooking isn’t just about the food, but about bringing loved ones together around a table. What better way to honor happy memories of the past than by creating new memories around a delicious meal like this one?
Mexican Chicken and Roasted Squash with Pumpkin Seed Mole
Adapted from Diana Kennedy, A Bird in the Hand
1 tbsp dark brown sugar
leaves from 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp dried oregano
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground allspice
6 tbsp olive oil, divided
Juice of 1 lime
Juice of half an orange
Salt and pepper
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces, or 4 lb chicken pieces
2 lb winter squash (butternut or acorn work well), peeled, seeded, and cut into ¾” wedges
Two cups green mole (recipe below)
Mix together first eight ingredients in a medium bowl until sugar is dissolved. Place chicken in a shallow pan in a single layer and pour marinade over, turning pieces until all are coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours. Leave some time to bring it to room temperature before cooking.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 375℉. Take a large baking sheet with sides and line it with parchment paper. Place chicken pieces on sheet, leaving liquid from marinade in dish, and then fill in the spaces with squash wedges, trying to keep everything in one layer as much as possible. Brush squash wedges with olive oil, then sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper. Cook for 45-60 minutes. If the squash pieces need more time after the chicken is cooked–some squash are more dense than others–remove chicken to a platter, cover loosely with foil, and raise oven temperature to 400℉ for a few more minutes until squash is tender and starting to brown at edges.
Heat mole in a small saucepan or in the microwave and serve with chicken and squash.
Green Pumpkin Seed Mole (Mole Pipian)
From Leites Culinaria
1 cup shelled pumpkin seeds (the green ones, also called pepitas)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
1 onion, cut into wedges
5 tomatillos, husked and halved
5 garlic cloves, halved
2 jalapeño peppers, sliced
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup packed coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
1 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 teaspoon salt
In a large skillet with high sides or in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, toast the pumpkin seeds, cumin seeds, and oregano until fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Toss frequently to make sure they don’t burn. Remove from the heat and transfer to a spice grinder or a food processor and process until finely ground.
In the same skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, tomatillos, garlic, and jalapeños and cook until slightly browned, 4 to 5 minutes, tossing a couple of times but not too much. Place the vegetables in a blender or food processor, then add the broth, cilantro, parsley and salt and process until puréed.
Pour the mixture back into the skillet and add the ground pumpkin seed mixture. Let simmer gently until the flavors are melded, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately. (Extra sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a couple of days, or frozen.)
From Amanda Hesser, The New York Times
1 dried ancho chili, split, veins and seeds removed
1 dried guajillo chili, split, veins and seeds removed
1 tablespoon corn oil, plus additional for frying
6 corn tortillas, cut into 1/4″ strips
1 small onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with the side of a knife
8 ounces plum tomatoes (about 3), coarsely chopped
8 ounces cherry tomatoes
3 to 5 cups chicken broth
Juice of 1 lime, plus 1 lime cut into wedges
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and sliced lengthwise into long strips
In a skillet over medium heat, preferably cast iron (not nonstick), toast the chilies on all sides until the skins bubble and turn color; don’t let them burn. Transfer to a bowl and cover with water (about ¼ cup).
Fill the skillet with ¼” oil and heat until the oil shimmers. Fry the tortilla strips in batches until golden, about 2 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Let the oil cool, then discard.
Place a saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon corn oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes, then transfer into a blender. Drain the chilies and coarsely chop; add about half of each kind to the blender, along with all the tomatoes. Blend until smooth. Add about ⅘ of the fried tortillas and pour in 3 cups of the broth. Blend for a minute. Season to taste. The soup should have a gentle, smoky heat. If it is too mild, blend in the remaining chilies to taste.
Pour the soup into the saucepan and simmer, continuing to stir in broth until the soup is like a light bisque. Season to taste with salt and lime juice. Ladle it into bowls, garnishing it with avocado and tortilla strips. Serve with a wedge of lime.