It all started with a blog post. On October 25, 2013, in anticipation of the annual Day of the Dead celebration, Austinite and recipe blogger Mariana Nuño-Ruiz McEnroe posted her recipe for pan de muerto on her blog Yes, More Please!, accompanied by her husband Ian McEnroe’s photography. Día de los Muertos, she wrote, helps people remember departed loved ones, and is part of the rich and colorful culture of the country where she was born. As she put it, “Mexico has a lot of traditions to share with the world.”
Now the McEnroes are indeed sharing the Mexican tradition with the world in their new cookbook, Dining With the Dead: A Feast for the Souls on Day of the Dead.
Aaron Downey, the book’s editor, approached the couple after seeing their pan de muerto recipe in a viral Day of the Dead post on BuzzFeed. Downey says he was stunned when he found out there wasn’t already a Day of the Dead cookbook in print, and knew instantly that Mariana and Ian were the perfect writer/photographer team for the job. “Mariana and Ian put so much work, thought, creativity, and accomplishment into this book,” he says. “I like to say that I gave them a spark and they built a bonfire.” It took a five-year journey to nurture that spark into a roaring blaze, but after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Dining With the Dead is out in the world just in time for its namesake holiday.
Celebrated October 31, November 1, and November 2, Día de los Muertos is a way to remember, celebrate, and connect with family members who have died. The book is an incredibly thorough exploration of the holiday, offering cultural context and history, artistic traditions, culinary technique instruction, a lengthy guide to Mexican ingredients, craft projects, and, of course, recipes.
Celebrations of the holiday vary from region to region and family to family, and the McEnroes were dedicated to capturing as many traditions as they could in one volume, drawing on research trips to Mexico and on their own family experiences. Regional specialties from across Mexico are represented here, from the posole verde of Guerrero to Oaxacan mole negro (“El Rey de los Moles”) to all manner of pan dulce to the tequila fruit punches of Mariana’s native Jalisco. “In Mexico, everything revolves around food,” she says. “Food is the way we remember people. Food is the way we celebrate. It’s a mighty celebration, not a little one.”
Día de los Muertos is a visually striking holiday, making for gorgeous photographic subject matter with its elaborate ofrendas (altars for honoring the dead) and daintily painted sugar skulls. McEnroe’s photography does it justice. The photographs in Dining With the Dead rejoice in the autumnal colors and shifting light of late October and early November, and instructional photography elaborates on the thorough recipes.
When asked what they prepare each year for their own Día de los Muertos celebration, the McEnroes say the pan de muerto is a must. Beyond that, they mix it up, often making a fish dish like the mole verde below in honor of Ian’s mother, who loved fish, or posole, which was Mariana’s father’s favorite. The holiday was especially important to the McEnroes during a pandemic year, when Ian says cooking these favorites helped make family feel closer: “Last year we didn’t get an opportunity to really share the celebration with anyone. So we share it with the beloveds that have passed.”
This mole verde tells my story as a cook—the way I’ve adapted and embraced flavors in a foreign country, and my eagerness to rescue my cooking memories. This recipe is my own translation of the traditional mole, not only in flavor but also with a simpler method and an updated way to prepare it at home.
With all the intentions of showcasing the pumpkin seeds’ flavor and herbaceous, distinctive smells and colors, I used what is best and available in Texas, where I live. I sought out herbs and ingredients that mimic the traditional flavor in a new way.
The unique flavor of toasted pepitas, chiles, corn masa, and herbs give this beautiful bright-green mole a lighter quality and a velvety texture with a hint of heat that will warm the back of your throat. It is an outstanding combination with any white fleshy fish, shrimp, chicken, or turkey. It also pairs well with many hearty vegetables, like zucchini, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, chayote squash, carrots, rutabagas, or parsnips. Because of the amount of fresh herbs in the recipe, this mole tastes best the day it is made, and it will hold for the next two to three days in the refrigerator.
—Mariana Nuño-Ruiz McEnroe
Serves 6 to 8
8 to 10 (depending on size) green tomatillos, cut into quarters
1 large or 2 small poblano peppers, chopped and deseeded.
3 to 4 serrano peppers, coarsely chopped
1⁄4 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 to 2 cups slightly packed, fresh epazote leaves*
1⁄4 cup fresh parsley leaves
1⁄2 romaine lettuce (use the light green leaves close to the heart, about 6-8 leaves)
2 cups baby power greens, like spinach, kale, arugula, mustard, or chard
1⁄2 teaspoon anise seeds, toasted
1⁄4 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 to 4 cups of warm chicken stock, divided
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3⁄4 cup raw pepitas, toasted and finely ground**
1 to 2 tablespoons white corn masa harina, diluted in 4 tablespoons water or chicken stock
- In a blender, add the chopped tomatillos, poblanos, serranos, onion, garlic, epazote, parsley, romaine, power greens, toasted anise, toasted cumin, peppercorns, salt, 1 to 1 1⁄2 cups of chicken stock, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and blend well for about 3 to 4 minutes until pureed.
- In a 7-quart pot (clay or enamel), drizzle some extra virgin olive oil. Once it starts to ripple, carefully add the green blended concoction. It might splatter, so wear an apron and use a ladle. Stir, and let simmer on low for 10 minutes. Remove any white foam that comes to the surface. Stir now and then.
- Whisk the pulverized, toasted pepitas into the green sauce little by little to prevent clumping. If the sauce is getting too thick, add one more cup of warm chicken stock, a little at a time. Chicken stock has to be warm so the mole does not break and separate.
- Gently whisk and add the diluted masa harina a little at a time. Add another cup of the chicken stock. Whisk gently. Cook the mole on a gentle slow simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring now and then, making sure you scrape the bottom to prevent sticking. As it cooks, the mole will thicken. If the consistency is too dense, add more chicken stock, a little at a time. You want a creamy consistency that will cover the back of a spoon.
- At this point I use an immersion blender and blend for 1 minute until smooth and velvety. If you don’t have an immersion blender, a regular blender will work (please use caution when handling hot sauces in the blender). Once it’s smooth and velvety, taste for salt level and adjust if necessary. Let cook at a low simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes.
- Serve warm over a piece of chicken, grilled or sautéed white fish, or any vegetables. Be generous with the sauce; cover the entire surface and maybe a little more. Garnish with toasted pepitas, a side of brown rice, or your favorite garlicky rice pilaf.
Variation: For a delicious adaptation for vegan and vegetarian guests, use roasted vegetable stock and serve over roasted cauliflower, zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, chayote, and sweet potatoes.
* Smell and taste the epazote. If this is the first time you’ve used it, taste it because it has a minty-licorice flavor. If it is too strong for you, start by adding half the amount and adjust to your taste.
**I use a coffee grinder dedicated to spices to pulverize the toasted pepitas. Pulsing in a food processor should work too.