The High Heel Race may be over and Halloween is just one night of revelry, but Dia de los Muertos extends the festivities through Sunday, allowing yet another excuse for outrageous facepaint, colorful masks and most importantly, food and drink that go way beyond candy corn and pumpkin juice.
The three-day Mexican holiday known as Day of the Dead that begins Oct. 31 is truly a food-lover’s dream. Rather than being a morose pining for those who are lost, the holiday is a celebration of everything they loved, especially the favorite foods and beverages of the dearly departed.
It’s a way to share happy memories with friends and family, as well as a great excuse for a party. Overindulgence is definitely the theme of any Dia de los Muertos gathering — brightly painted homemade altars are piled high with fruits, vegetables, sweets, pictures and trinkets, the music is loud, the clothes are wild and the food and drink are flowing.
Chef José Andrés hosts Day of the Dead festivities each year at his restaurant Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in Penn Quarter, honoring a dead Mexican celebrity with special culinary offerings. This year’s honoree is El Santo, a legendary Mexican luchador wrestler who died in 1984 just a week after publicly unmasking himself for the first time; slightly creepily masked Oyamel staff members serve up some of El Santo’s favorite dishes, including Ancas de Rana en Mole Verde, crispy frog legs with a tomatillo mole; Puerco en Chile Morita, spare ribs with chipotle salsa; and El Santo contra los Zombies, a zesty cocktail made with El Luchador Organic Tequila, orange liqueur and pomegranate juice.
If you want to host your own Dia de los Muertos celebration, consider first whom you want to honor — it could be someone you knew personally or a public figure you admire (or abhor). For instance, honoring Andy Warhol through food might encompass tomato soup, bananas and Coca Cola, all items that figured prominently in his art, or some of his professed vices, which included a bar of chocolate sandwiched between sliced bread (which he called cake) and Jack Daniels. Maybe your grandmother had a penchant for martinis and macaroni and cheese.
To go more traditional, look to the ancient Aztecs, where Dia de los Muertos finds its origins — a culture that yields rich possibilities for both food and drink. Corn tamales, candied pumpkin and chili-spiked hot chocolate can form the basis of any menu, then you can add tequila-infused queso, guacamole with fresh tortillas and turkey mole.
To add more authenticity, consider a pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a traditional sweet bread that is often topped with crossed “bones” made of dough and sugar skull cookies decorated with day-glo icing. There are several small Hispanic bakeries and markets across the D.C. area that are worth checking out for Dia de los Muertos treats, including Capitol Supermarket near Logan Circle, Panamericana Grocery in Columbia Heights and La Mexicana Bakery & Taqueria in Alexandria.
It’s always fun to get a little fancy, so impress your guests with Oyamel-inspired margaritas topped with their signature salt air (or foam). If you haven’t had one yet, you are missing out, because this is surely the way margaritas were meant to be made. Make your favorite margarita recipe, but not overly sweet, shake it over ice, then strain into a martini or cosmopolitan glass. To make the salt foam, you’ll need soy lecithin, which can often be found in health food stores or even at GNC. Alternatively, you can use Versawhip, Sucro or a combination of calcium chloride and xantham gum. This is a fun and easy way to try out a little molecular gastonomy and there are plenty of recipes and tutorials online.
Oyamel’s Salt Air for Margaritas
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup water
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon soy lecithin
Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Using an immersion (or stick) blender, whip the liquid, tilting the bowl so that the blender is not completely submerged and can whip more air into the liquid. When you have at least an inch of foam on the top of the liquid, after about a minute, scoop it off gently with a spoon and place on the top of the margarita. Serve immediately.
Kristen Hartke is managing editor of Edible DC and writes about cocktails at goodbooze.wordpress.com.