Ken Morris, Cooking for Comfort in Napa Valley: Celebrating the Day of the Dead – Napa Valley Register

El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, in Mexico, uses food and flowers to welcome back the departed on a visit to Earth.
Day of the Dead bread is decorated with crosses and sprinkled with sugar. 
A Day of the Dead altar created with marigolds, the flowers for the dead.
Chicken tamales with salsa.
Special offerings created for the Day of the Dead include sugar skulls.  
For non-Hispanic readers, El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, sounds like a morbid zombie movie, maybe the sequel to Dawn of the Dead, but in reality, it’s a pre-Columbian celebration layered over the Catholic traditions of 16th century Spain.
The Spanish conquerors brought the Catholic celebration in early November of All Souls’ Day when the faithful prayed for souls in Purgatory so they would spend little time there on their way to Heaven. However, the ancient Aztec people held celebrations during the year that were very similar to Day of the Dead, including one that fell between Oct. 20 and Nov. 8.
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Nowadays this Mexican holiday is not a frightening visit by deceased family members but is a festive welcome home as they remember funny events and stories about the departed. The graves are decorated, splashed in color with bright flowers and the holiday encompasses three days, especially when you get outside of the major cities.
Oct. 31 is known as Day of the Little Angels (Día de los Angelitos) when the souls of deceased children return to earth. Families might place sweets, toys, flowers (marigolds are considered the flower for the dead) and candles the morning of Oct. 31 through Nov. 1 for the angelitos, who are said to rush back home quicker than the adults.
The little angels leave in time for the spirits of adults who arrive starting at noon on Nov.  2 to small altars at the decorated gravesite, lined with their favorite foods and other comforts they might be missing, such as bottles of liquor, toys and games. (Yes, I know this is a long explanation to get to the food, but we’re painting a picture here, so hold on)
As Chef Zarela Martinez explains in a section about the Day of Dead in her cookbook, “Food From My Heart,” what has not changed since ancient times is “the belief that the dead souls spend a brief period each year on Earth on a kind of holiday.”
In the Yucatán state of Mexico, the Maya harvest festival called Hanal Pixá, Feast of the Spirits, also coincides with the American Halloween and Mexican Dia de Los Muertos. Again, ancestors are revered but here all the foods are buried (cooked in underground pits) and then resurrected, paralleling the Biblical teachings that Jesus’ body was entombed and then raised from the dead. The feast is presented for everyone, living and deceased.
Food and life seem inseparable in Mexico. Even the dead are believed to wish for their favorite foods, so we’ll try three dishes that are popular for Day of the Dead.
(Bread for the Day of the Dead)
Makes 3 plain round loaves (about 6 inches across)
Adapted from “Food From My Heart” by Zarela Martinez
I first met Chef Martinez in New York City when I ate at her famous restaurant, Zarela, which offered a changing menu of various Mexican regional cuisines.
At that time, Americans only thought of Mexican cuisine as tacos and burritos. She was born and raised in Mexico and has worked hard to present an authentic, culturally aware Mexican cuisine. She’s gone on to write three books, hosted a PBS TV series, « ¡Zarela! La Cocina Veracruzana » and now co-hosts an entertaining podcast “Cooking in Mexican from A to Z” with her son, Chef Aarón Sánchez. The podcast explores one topic each program and introduces you to knowledgeable chefs, growers, and other experts.
2 envelopes dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
3 ½ to 4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour or more as needed
½ teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into small pieces, plus extra for greasing pan
3 large eggs (2 for dough, 1 for glazing the loaves
3 large egg yolks
½ of 1 can (14 ounces) condensed milk (about 7/8 cup
1 tablespoon orange flower water (available in gourmet stores or Middle Eastern markets)
Sugar or colored sugar crystals for sprinkling
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water and let sit in a warm place for 5 minutes.
When the yeast is foamy, stir in 4 to 5 tablespoons of the flour to start a sponge. Cover with a damp towel and let sit in a warm place until it’s full of bubbles and about doubled in bulk, roughly 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a scant 3 1/2 cups of flour and the salt in a large bowl or on a pastry board or clean counter. Cut or rub in the butter with a pastry blender or your fingertips until the dough resembles the texture of coarse cornmeal.
Beat 2 of the whole eggs and the 3 egg yolks and add to the dough. Gradually add the condensed milk and orange flower water, working them in with your fingertips. Add the sponge and work it in, adding flour as necessary to make a soft but kneadable dough.
Knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface until smooth and silken, about 10 minutes. (Alternatively, use the dough hook of an electric mixer.) Lightly butter a large bowl and place the dough in it, turning to coat it with the butter. Let sit in a warm place, covered with a damp cloth or piece of plastic wrap, until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Punch the dough down. If making undecorated loaves; shape the dough into 3 equal-size round loaves. If making decorated loaves; cut off about one-eighth of the dough and set it aside.
Divide the rest of the dough into 2 equal portions, shaping each into a ball. Place side by side on a buttered and floured baking sheet, remembering that the loaves will expand during baking.
Fashion skull and crossbones with the remaining dough by first dividing it into four portions. Roll 2 pieces between your palms into long, narrow strips for crossbones. Cut each strip in half and then crisscross 2 strips over each loaf.
Shape the two remaining pieces into 2 small balls and lightly press them into the loaves above the crossbones, trying to shape them into skulls. (If you have difficulty in getting them to stick, make gashes in the loaves with a small, sharp knife and press the balls into the gashes.)
Cover lightly with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Beat the remaining egg and brush lightly over the loaves and decorations. Bake the bread for about 40 minutes, until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped.
Sprinkle the loaves with sugar or, if desired, sesame seeds and return to the oven for about 1 minute to melt. Let cool slightly before showing off the loaves and slicing into.
Serves 8
Adapted from “Mexico’s Feasts of Life” by Patricia Quintana with Carol Haralson
I met Chef Patricia Quintana when she gave a two-day cooking class on Mexican cooking at the Rancho Manzana Bed & Breakfast in the tiny village of Chimayó outside of Santa Fe.
Since the class was in September, she was teaching us the traditional dish for Mexican Independence Day, Chiles en Nogada. (A great dish with the green, white and red colors of the Mexican flag using chilies, pomegranate seeds, and walnuts but, sorry, not part of this story.)
When we returned home, I purchased this book, which is filled not only with beautiful photography of the dish but also incorporates the settings of Mexican feast days, such as for christenings, Christmas, birthdays, and the Day of the Dead. She wrote more than 25 books and was an official culinary ambassador of her country. Sadly, she passed away in 2018. In the book, she notes this hearty Oaxacan recipe was a favorite of her great-grandmother.
Lentils
8 cups water
1 pound lentils
1 medium white onion, peeled and quartered
1 head garlic, cloves peeled
4 whole cloves
8 black peppercorns
Salt to taste
To cook the Vegetables
½ cup olive oil
5 garlic medium cloves, peeled and minced
11/2 medium white onions, peeled and finely chopped
3 slices fresh pineapple, peeled and finely chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
4 whole cloves, ground
10 allspice, ground
Salt to taste
½ cup chopped parsley
Prepare the lentils. Wash the lentils in a colander under running water. Place, water, lentils, onion, garlic, cloves, peppercorns, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for approximately 20-30 minutes, until lentils are tender but still retain their shape. Note: cooking time for lentils varies widely.
While lentils are cooking, heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Brown the garlic, then add the chopped onions and brown.
Stir in plantains and pineapple and fry until light brown. Add the tomatoes and cook until the mixture releases its juices.
Season with the ground cloves, allspice and salt.
Add cooked lentils and a little of its broth. Continue cooking until the mixture thickens. If it becomes too thick, add more lentil broth. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve hot.
Makes about 30 tamales
From Food & Wine October 2012. Anna Zepaltas learned to prepare these light and fluffy tamales from her Mexican-born mother.
I’ve made tamales when I took a cooking class in Oaxaca and quickly figured out why homemade tamales are reserved for holidays, since you really want several family members to help with their construction. The whole process, including cooking time for the chicken and the tamales, will take about 6 hours. When tamales are made for Day of the Dead, they are offered to the living and the dead.
6 ounces dried corn husks (about 35; available at Mexican grocery stores)
1 1/2 pounds tomatillos, husked and halved
1 Spanish onion, cut into 1-inch wedges
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 serrano chiles, stemmed
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves
Salt
Freshly ground pepper
One 4 1/2- to 5-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
6 cups tamale dough (Buy fresh dough or make your own using fresh masa)
Tomatillo-Cilantro Salsa (recipe below or use your favorite salsa)
Soften the corn husks: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the corn husks, remove from the heat and let stand, turning the husks once or twice, until softened, about 2 hours. Drain the corn husks and shake off as much water as possible.
Make the filling: Preheat the oven to 500°. In a medium roasting pan, toss the tomatillos, onion, garlic and chiles with the oil.
Roast for about 30 minutes, stirring twice, until the vegetables are very soft and browned in spots.
Transfer the vegetables and any juices to a blender or food processor. Add the lime juice and cilantro and puree until smooth. Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°.
In a large enameled cast-iron casserole or Dutch oven, pour the sauce over the chicken. Cover and braise in the oven for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken from the pot and let cool slightly.
Set the pot over moderately high heat and boil the sauce, stirring frequently, until reduced to 2 1/2 cups, about 15 minutes.
Discard the chicken skin and shred the meat into bite-size pieces. Add the chicken to the sauce and let cool completely.
Fill, fold and steam the tamales:
Select 30 of the largest husks without tears or large holes. Arrange 1 husk on a work surface with the narrow end pointing away from you.
On the wide end, spread 3 tablespoons of the tamale dough in a 5-by-3-inch rectangle, leaving a 1/2-inch border of husk at the bottom.
Spoon 2 tablespoons of the cooled filling in the center of the tamale dough. Fold in the long sides of the husk, overlapping them to enclose the filling. Fold the narrow end toward you, over the tamale; it will be open at the wide end. Stand the tamale, open end up, in a very large steamer insert. Repeat with the remaining corn husks, tamale dough, and filling.
Fill the bottom of the steamer with 4 inches of water and bring to a boil. (Some cooks add a quarter that will keep tapping away as long as there is water in the pan to alert you when the water has evaporated).
Add the tamales, spread some of the remaining corn husks over the top and cover with the lid; wrap foil around the edge if necessary to make a tight seal. Steam the tamales over moderately low heat for 1 1/2 hours. Uncover and let cool for 15 minutes before serving.
Note: The uncooked tamales can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 1 month; steam them while still frozen.
Food & Wine magazine suggests using a “lighter, green salsa like this one for poultry or vegetables. With a strong-flavored red salsa, you would lose the taste of the chicken.”
1/2 pound tomatillos (about 4), husked
1 large beefsteak tomato or 2 medium ones (about 1 pound)
2 serrano chiles, stemmed
1 dried pasilla chile, stemmed and seeded
1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch wedges
1 garlic clove, peeled
1/2 cup packed cilantro sprigs
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Salt
Preheat the oven to 500°. On a rimmed baking sheet, spread the tomatillos, beefsteak tomato, serranos, pasilla, onion, and garlic. Roast the vegetables in the center of the oven for about 15 minutes, turning them once or twice, until softened and lightly browned in spots.
Peel and core the beefsteak tomato and cut the flesh into quarters. Crumble the pasilla chile into a blender or food processor and add the remaining roasted vegetables and any juices. Add the cilantro sprigs and lime juice and puree until smooth. Season the salsa with salt.
The tomatillo-cilantro salsa can be refrigerated overnight.
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
A neighbor takes a photo of the Rodriguez’s home in north Napa. Find it at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » See it at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » See it at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez (pictured here standing above the skeleton’s arm) have decorated their Napa home with 61 skeletons. The house is located at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. The decor is partly inspired by the movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » Find them at 4412 Rockwood Ave. 
Skeletons have overrun Frank and Jennifer Rodriguez’s house in north Napa. The spooky scene features 61 bony creatures plus lights, smoke and music. 
Skeletons have invaded this Napa family’s front yard for Halloween. The scene is inspired by vintage movie « Jason and the Argonauts. » Take a tour here.
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Ken Morris
Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email [email protected].
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Celebrate Día de Muertos by visiting the Calistoga Art Center’s Altar honoring the tradition on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. 
El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, in Mexico, uses food and flowers to welcome back the departed on a visit to Earth.
Day of the Dead bread is decorated with crosses and sprinkled with sugar. 
A Day of the Dead altar created with marigolds, the flowers for the dead.
Chicken tamales with salsa.
Special offerings created for the Day of the Dead include sugar skulls.  
Ken Morris
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