For those of you unfamiliar with the Day of the Dead, rest assured it is not another remake of Zombie Apocalypse. In Mexico, it is an annual fall celebration of remembering, honoring and communing with loved ones who have gone before. The holiday has its roots in a pre-Columbian summer festival that celebrated the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld. After the Spanish Conquest, the festival was moved to coincide with the Roman Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, which fall on October 31, November 1, and November 2, respectively. On those dates, many families in Mexico adorn their loved ones’ graves and decorate altars with ofrendas (offerings) of candles, incense, flowers (especially yellow marigolds), and sugar skulls (calaveras), as well as photos and personal items of the deceased. Their favorite food and drinks are also provided, so that returning spirits are able to experience the things they loved on earth and miss in heaven. It is a melancholy-sweet holiday, which, come to think of it, is an apt description of life itself. So gather all your loved ones around you and celebrate the many blessings we have and have had in our lives by sharing a favorite food of people past, present and future—enchiladas—including enfrijoladas al estilo de Oaxaca (Oaxacan style enchiladas with black bean sauce and queso fresco), enchiladas callejeras (street-style enchiladas with chicken and chorizo, vegetables and ancho/guajillo sauce), and enchiladas de camote (sweet potatoes with a tangy chipotle sauce). Add an ensalata de nopalitos (cactus salad) and some arroz amarillo (yellow rice), and you’ll have a complete meal. And how about a jalapeño margarita or three to go with it? There’s nothing like a little spirit to lift one’s spirits.
Callejeras are “street-style” enchiladas, often made and sold on the streets in many parts of Mexico. The chicken, chorizo, vegetables, and cheese make this a complete—and substantial—meal.
Makes 12 enchiladas
3 cups poached skinless, boneless chicken, shredded into bite sized pieces
Use your favorite method of preparation, moisten with broth, cover, and refrigerate until needed.
4 guajillo chiles or chiles de árbol, destemmed, deveined, and deseeded
10 ancho chiles, destemmed, deveined, and deseeded
1 medium white or yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 cup olive oil
Place the prepared chiles a few pieces at a time on a comal (or iron griddle) over medium heat and dry roast until fragrant, about 30 seconds per side. Place chiles, onion, garlic, salt, and 4 cups (1 liter) hot water in a blender. Let sit for 5 minutes to soften the chiles. With the blender running, add the olive oil in a slow steady stream and process until emulsified. Strain the sauce through a medium strainer into a wide sauté pan over medium heat. Warm through, taste, and adjust seasoning. Cover and set aside. (Sauce does not have to be kept hot).
8 ounces chorizo, casings removed
1 large Yukon Gold potato, peeled, medium dice, and simmered until barely tender, 5–7 minutes
1 large carrot, peeled, medium dice, and simmered until barely tender, 5–7 minutes
1⁄2 cup frozen green peas, defrosted
Crumble the chorizo into a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently to break up the chorizo, until it begins to brown, about 5 minutes.
Add the potatoes and carrots and gently stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the edges of the potatoes barely begin to brown. Remove from heat, stir in the peas, cover, and keep warm.
12 corn tortillas, preferably a day or two old
Jalapeño en escabeche (pickled jalapeños)
Gently warm the shredded chicken. Have the topping and garnishes ready and at hand. Warm 4 individual serving plates. Heat a 9-inch (23 cm) nonstick sauté pan over high heat. (The pan with sauce should be nearby.) Dip a tortilla in the sauce, making sure it’s well coated, place in the hot sauté pan, and quickly sear for about 3 seconds per side—just long enough for the sauce to begin to caramelize. Remove from pan, place 2 tablespoons shredded chicken on the tortilla, fold in half, and place on a warm individual serving plate. Wipe the sauté pan with a paper towel and reheat. Repeat the process with the remaining tortillas, slightly overlapping the enchiladas on the serving plates, 3 per serving.
When all the enchiladas are plated, top with a drizzle of crema Mexicana followed by a generous scoop of the chorizo/vegetable mixture and a sprinkle of queso fresco. Place the avocado slices and jalapeños en escabeche to the side of the enchiladas.
Rice dishes in Mexico range from plain white to brightly hued pilafs that include vegetables, herbs, spices, and flavorful stocks. Arroz amarillo (yellow rice) gets its stunning sunset look from oil that has been infused with achiote (annatto) seeds. The color is reminiscent of the Aztec marigold (cempasúchil), a fall flower associated with día de los muertos.
A few general tips on making rice: A heavy saucepan with a well-fitting lid is essential for the rice to turn out well. Once the lid is in place, it should not be removed until the cooking time has elapsed. The rice should also rest before serving for half the time it was cooked (for example, rice cooked 20 minutes should rest 10). And though rice will cook well on a stovetop, many professional chefs suggest it is even easier to bake for the same length of time in a 375 degrees oven.
Makes 8 to 10 cups
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons annatto seed
2 cups long grain white rice
1⁄3 cup onion, small dice
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the oil in a heavy 4 quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the annatto seed and stir until the oil has been infused with a deep yellow color. Remove and discard the annatto seed. Add the rice and onion to the saucepan and sauté, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 additional minute.
Add 4 cups (1 liter) water and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a low simmer, cover, and place in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. Add butter, fluff the rice with a fork, cover, and let rest 10 minutes before serving.
Note: The rice can also be cooked for the same length of time on a stovetop, but pay close attention to the heat level to avoid boiling over or scorching.
Enfrijoladas al Estilo de Oaxaca
Enfrijoladas, which traces its origins to pre-Columbian times, is still one of the most popular versions of enchiladas in Mexico. This recipe, which comes from the state of Oaxaca, features frijoles, or beans.
Makes 12 enchiladas
3 Oaxacan pasilla chiles (or morita chiles), cleaned, destemmed, and deseeded
3 cups cooked black beans, plus bean cooking liquid as needed to thin the sauce (recipe below)
2 dried avocado leaves, if available
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (lard is traditional) for frying the sauce
Kosher salt to taste
Place the prepared chiles a few pieces at a time on a comal (or iron griddle) over medium heat and dry roast until fragrant, about 30 seconds per side. Place the chiles in hot water and soak for 10 minutes, or until soft. Drain and discard the soaking liquid. Place chiles, beans, avocado leaves (if using), and 3⁄4 cup bean cooking liquid in a blender. Purée, adding a little more cooking liquid or water as needed to make a smooth, light sauce.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the bean sauce and bring to a simmer. Season with salt to taste. Reduce heat to very low, cover, and keep warm. (Stir occasionally to keep a skin from forming on the surface. A little more bean cooking liquid or water may need to be added from time to time to maintain a light sauce consistency.)
Black Beans (Frijoles Negros)
1 pound dried black beans
1 medium white onion, peeled and chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon lard or vegetable oil
Kosher salt as needed
Optional: 1 dried avocado leaf, a sprig of epazote, 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, or crushed dried chile pequins, to taste
Sort and rinse the beans. Place in a deep pot and cover with water. Bring the beans to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Skim off the foam that rises to the surface. When all foam has been removed, add the chopped onion and garlic.
Simmer uncovered about 2 hours, or until tender, adding water as necessary to keep the beans barely covered with liquid. When the beans are tender, salt to taste and stir in the lard or vegetable oil. (If using optional avocado leaf, epazote sprig, dried Mexican oregano, or dried chile pequins, add during the last half hour of cooking.) Continue cooking until the beans are very tender and broth slightly thickened.
1 medium white onion, peeled, small dice
1 cup queso fresco, crumbled
Chopped cilantro, to taste
Place diced onion in a sieve and rinse with cold water. Blot dry with paper towels. Mix onion, queso fresco, and cilantro together for the filling. Set aside until needed.
12 corn tortillas
Avocado slices, to taste
1⁄3 medium white onion, peeled and thinly sliced into rings, rinsed and blotted dry
1⁄3 cup (40 grams) queso fresco, crumbled
Cilantro leaves, to taste
To soften the tortillas, wrap them in a clean kitchen towel, place in a plastic storage bag (do not seal), and microwave on high for 45–60 seconds. Place a spoonful of warm bean sauce on a tortilla, sprinkle with filling mixture, roll, and place on a warm individual plate, 3 enchiladas per serving. When all enchiladas are plated, top generously with more sauce. Garnish with avocado slices, onion rings, queso fresco, and cilantro leaves.
Ensalada de Nopalitos (Grilled Cactus Paddle Salad)
People in Mexico have eaten various species of cactus since pre-Columbian times, and it continues to be one of the healthiest foods in their diet. According to nutritiondata.com, 1 cup of chopped cactus (nopalitos) contains 22 calories and provides 2 grams protein, 3 grams fiber, and no fat.
Makes 8 servings
2 pounds whole cactus paddles, edges trimmed and thorns scraped off (see note)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for brushing the cactus paddles for grilling
Salt, as needed for sprinkling on the cactus paddles
1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
Pico de gallo, to taste (recipe follows)
Crumbled queso fresco cheese, to taste
Prepare a barbecue grill for medium-heat direct grilling. Brush both sides of the prepared cactus paddles with vegetable oil and sprinkle with salt. Place the paddles on the grill and cook until grill-marked and tender, 6 to 8 minutes per side. Set aside to cool while you make the pico de gallo.
When ready to serve, slice the cactus paddles into ¼ inch wide sticks, toss with the 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, minced garlic, and pico de gallo to taste. Divide between plates and garnish with crumbled queso fresco.
Makes 2 cups salsa
Pico de Gallo
1 1⁄2 cups Roma tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons white onion, small dice
2 tablespoons cilantro, minced
1–2 serrano chiles, or to taste, finely minced
3 tablespoons lime juice
Kosher salt to taste
Mix the ingredients together and add salt to taste.
Other Recipe Ideas for Nopales
For a quick appetizer: Top whole grilled cactus paddles with slices of panela cheese and return to the grill just long enough to soften the cheese. Serve immediately.
To make a high-fiber, low-calorie breakfast smoothie: Place ½ cup prepared and roughly chopped raw cactus paddles in a blender along with 2 cups orange juice and a handful of ice cubes. Blend at high speed until smooth.
Makes 1 margarita
1 ¼ ounces silver tequila
¾ ounce Cointreau liqueur
4 thin slices of fresh jalapeño chile, or to taste
2 ounces agave nectar
4 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice
1 lime wheel for garnish
Rim a chilled 16-ounce margarita glass with salt. Place ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with crushed ice and shake until well mixed. Pour into the glass and garnish with a lime wheel.
Enchiladas de Camote (Sweet Potato Enchiladas)
Ceasar Zepeda/La Fonda on Main, San Antonio
A large number of interior Mexican enchilada recipes feature vegetables. In this version, corn tortillas are stuffed with pureed sweet potatoes, fried until crisp, and topped with a smoky hot chipotle sauce.
Makes 12 enchiladas
3 medium sweet potatoes
Kosher salt to taste
Cut the tip off the narrow end of each sweet potato to keep it from bursting. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet in a 400°F oven for about 1 hour, or until fork-tender. Cool for a few minutes.
Once the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and pass through a food mill or ricer to achieve a smooth consistency. Add salt to taste. (You should have about 2 cups, 460 grams, mashed sweet potatoes).
2 ¼ pounds very ripe tomatoes
1 ounce canola oil
½ medium white onion, coarsely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons garlic, peeled and minced
2 large canned chipotle chiles en adobo, destemmed and minced
Kosher salt to taste (about 1 tablespoon)
Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Place tomatoes in a single layer on a foil lined baking sheet. Roast in oven, turning occasionally, for about 20 minutes, or until skins begin to burst and tomatoes are soft. Place under a broiler for about 5 more minutes to blacken the skins in spots. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, place the canola oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and chipotle chiles and cook for an additional minute.
Place the onion mixture and the roasted tomatoes in a blender and puree until very smooth. Add salt to taste.
Strain the sauce through a medium mesh strainer. Pour the sauce into a saucepan placed over medium low heat and simmer until slightly reduced. Cover and keep warm.
Vegetable oil as needed for frying
Fried sweet potato strings or chips (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 140 degrees. In a deep skillet or Dutch oven, pour oil to a depth of 2 1⁄2 inches and place over medium-high heat. Bring oil to medium frying temperature (about 350 degrees).
To soften the tortillas, wrap them in a clean kitchen towel, place in a plastic storage bag (do not seal), and microwave on high for 45–60 seconds. Place 2 tablespoons sweet potato purée on the lower third of a tortilla, roll, and skewer with a toothpick. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.
Deep fry the enchiladas a few at a time (do not crowd) until crispy. Drain on paper towels and place on an ovenproof platter in the oven to keep warm. Continue frying the remaining enchiladas (allow the oil to reheat to frying temperature between batches).
When ready to serve, remove the toothpicks, place 2–3 enchiladas per serving on warm individual plates, top with the chipotle sauce, and garnish with crema Mexicana, queso fresco, and fried sweet potato strings or chips.
Fried Sweet Potato Strings or Chips
1 sweet potato
Oil as needed for deep frying
Salt to taste
Using a mandoline slicer, slice a peeled, raw sweet potato into very thin, long chips or shred into strings. Just before serving, place in a deep fryer at 350 degrees, until golden. Drain on paper towels and season with salt to taste.