HALLOWEEN MEETS THE DAY OF THE DEAD
When I sent the invite for this year’s Halloween party in mid-september, it felt like I was jumping the gun. I am by nature a pretty optimistic person, and when the powers-to-be predicted the easing of lockdown restrictions in Sydney for October 23, I swung into planning mode for our annual Halloween dinner. All my guests must have been living on the same hope as I did, because everyone accepted the invite pretty much immediately. Since the party was to be at our house, it led to an anxious wait as to how many people could actually visit. For a while, I stressed about having to tell half my guests they could not come anymore ( how do you pick? ) until thankfully, numbers were increased days before the party and we were allowed to have 20 visitors in our home!
Not wanting to deal with extra stress, I picked the Mexican Day of the Dead theme, purely because it was easy, everyone loves the food and I figured that I could recycle the decorations and costume from last year.
That was without counting the lockdown effect of online browsing and falling down a rabbit hole full of new ideas and inspiration. I have spent the past few months obsessed with Mexican tradition and homeware, following Instagram accounts like Chef Marcela and This is Latin America. That’s meant hours of fun digging thru travel boxes in our attic,
to finally frame a leather Mexican almanach,
use blankets as table cloths,
and dust off the altar board.
For extra items, like papel picado (Mexican bunting ), yoga blankets, dog collar and oil table cloth, I called onto Colours of Mexico and Cactacea ( both Australian importers of Mexican homeware ). What I couldn’t source in Australia, I shipped directly from Mexico, thanks to Etsy.
As for floral decorations, marigolds are the most recognisable flower associated with the Day of the Dead. Their vibrant orange colour and strong scent are believed to guide the spirits from the afterlife to their altar at home. Altars in Mexico features thousands of these flowers, strung into garlands and decorations. Unfortunately in Sydney, finding marigold in the required quantities is challenging and I am not a good enough gardener to grow my own. They do look like daisies though, especially the native everlasting daisies, which are plentiful at that time of the year. So that’s my hack: I bought a few bunches of orange and yellow everlasting daisies from the market, to add to my exisisting collection of dried ones. When it came to picking a scent, I found the fragrance of sandalwood reed diffusers just as heady as marigold’s.
Now for the dress code. Let’s be honest, we’re very low-key dresser uppers in the family. Generally the kids will come dressed up, only to strip to swimming costumes and jump in the pool. This year was no different. Actually, the boys came in their swimmers this year.
The adults somehow dressed to the theme, meaning lots of black, make up and some head pieces for the ladies, casual attire for the guys. We’re more into the food than the costumes!
So, to the food. As always, I was my usual bossy self, writing my menu down so I could tell guests who asked, what they could bring.
Inspired by Chef Marcella, I wanted queso fundido with chorizo as well as cactus salad.
Everyone else was assigned with a dish to bring, even provided with a recipe when needed:
Tania made her own scallop and kingfish ceviche,
Danielle stuffed and smoked jalapenos poppers,
Leanne brought a gorgeous version of Chef Marcela’s crudites platter,
and Carolyn a giant bowl of her classic guacamole.
Shelley was charged with cornbread and honey chili butter, to go with Kathy’s meatballs.
And because we needed extra food, Sharon tried her hands at Chef Marcela’s (again) herb roasted butternut pumpkin with feta and pomegranate seeds and a corn salad.
What would dessert be without a red velvet cake from Rosalie, lovingly decorated by the girls.
And I couldn’t resist buying an assortment of Mexican sweets from Pancho Bakery, who hand delivered their freshly baked “fiesta basket” on the morning of the party. Andrea arrived just as I was putting the finishing touches to my altar and table decorations. I invited her in and she described how she and her family are from Mexico City and started the bakery business only recently in Sydney. I think they initially supplied cafes and restaurants in town, but now also sell online and deliver Australia wide. As I walked her thru the house, I told her how we used to live in Riviera Maya, explaining that though we’re not Mexicans, we like to celebrate the Day of the dead with an “ofrenda”, a family gathering and a feast. Standing on the patio, she paid me the best compliments by saying “ It feels like Mexico! ”
Happy Day of the Dead!
Onto some of the recipes. Please note that all recipes below serve 25 as part of a buffet. Adjust quantities accordingly.
These are the ultimate drinks snacks: salty and crunchy pork rinds made super crispy by roasting and deep frying. You can also substitute them for corn chips, as they do in Mexico, served along guacamole or some salad.
It takes planning and time to roast, but doesn’t require much hands-on tasks.
You will need fresh pork skin, ask your butcher a few days in advance. My local butcher procured me with 1.4 kilos, which was enough for 20 people. If you can’t get your hands on rind only, you can always buy a large piece of pork, shoulder or leg, and ask your butcher to cut the skin off. You can always slow cook and freeze the meat for later as a bonus.
Some recipes ask for separate lard for frying. I don’t bother with it, instead I trim the fat from underneath the rind with a fish filleting knife, so as to end up with the thinnest slice of skin as possible. It is a little time consuming ( especially with 1.4 kilos of the stuff ) but with the right technique, easy enough to do. Do not discard the bits of fat, they are lard! I render them and use that liquid gold to deep fry the skins.
This recipe serves 20 people, it’s deliberate as I don’t see the point in cooking these in small batches. Most people will devour them, and in the unlikely event you have leftovers, they will keep well in the fridge in an airtight container for about a week ( if you hide them from the sneaky people after a midnight snack! )
1.5 kg pork rind, some fat attached
Cooking salt ( not fine salt )
Pepper or spicy seasoning ( optional )
- Cut the skin in long wide strips. Place on a cutting board, fat side up and trim as much fas as possible. Reserve the fat for later.
- Preheat the oven to 120C/250F. Place the pork skin on a rack, fat side down, on a wire rack, over a baking tray and roast in the oven for at least 3 hours, until the skin is dried out and hard to the touch. Leave out to cool ( or place it in the fridge overnight until ready to fry )
- In the meantime, place the reserved fat in a heavy sauce pan ( I use my cast iron dutch oven ) and melt over a low heat. This process can take up to 3 hours, do not rush it by increasing the heat, you will end up with burnt crispy bits ( not a bad thing, but that’s not the golden lard you need ). Most of the fat will liquefy, leaving some remaining solids. Scoop these out with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper. These are pure cubes of fat that taste like bacon with a puffy texture, sprinkle with salt and sprinkle on salads as you would croutons.
- When ready, heat the lard/liquid fat until smoky but not bubbling, and cook the pork skins in batches. They will curl and puff up in about 3 minutes. Do watch them to make sure they do not burn. Remove with a deep frying spoon ( or similar ) and drain on a plate lined with paper towel. Salt and season immediately.
This recipe is based on Chef Marcela’s Cactus Paddle Salad I found on IG. I couldn’t find fresh cactus paddles in Sydney, so bought a jar of cactus strips in brine instead. Cactus is one of these superfood, full of fibers and nutrients, but very maligned in Australia. The taste is mildly sour, not unlike green beans, with the soft crunchy texture of okra, though not as slimey.
The addition of other raw vegetables and creamy avocado dressing, makes this a great accompaniment to grilled meat or fish, or make it a full vegetarian meal with mangoes and served in a tortilla wrap!
1 760g jar of cactus strips in brine ( 420g drained )
2 large heirloom tomatoes roughly chopped ( roma tomatoes are good too )
1 cauliflower, trimmed and sliced thinly
1 white onion, peeled and sliced thinly
1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds ( pepitas )
6 large radishes, trimmed and sliced
1 mango, peeled and diced ( optional )
1 cup coriander leaves
1 jalapeno chile, stemmed and seeded ( leave the seeds if you like it hot )
4 tbsp olive oil
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 tbsp water
- Drain the cactus strips and place in a large bowl
- Add the chopped tomatoes, sliced cauliflower and onion, toss gently.
- For the avocado dressing: blend all the ingredients together and season to taste, adding water if the mixture is too thick.
- When ready to serve, fold in the avocado dressing and transfer to a serving platter or bowls.
- Top with radishes, mango ( if using ) and sprinkle with pumpkin seeds.
There are many version of “Arroz Mexicano” from the simple to the elaborate. This one is on the easy side, adapted from a RecipeTin Eats recipe for Mexican Fried Rice. Basically, this makes very good use of a store bought jar of salsa sauce, a tin of corn, some capsicums, and leftover rice. The original recipe calls for black beans, but Mr T is not keen on beans, so I left them out. I did add extra spices and guajillo chiles, for an extra kick though.
3 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
3 white onions, diced
1 each red and green capsicum, diced
3 cups tinned corn
12 cups cooked rice, preferably leftover from the day before ( 4 cups uncooked )
3 guajillo chiles, soaked, seeded and chopped
1 375g jar of medium thick and chunky salsa sauce ( I used Old El Paso )
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp oregano
2 tsp salt
- In a food processor or blender, combine the guajillo chiles, cumin, paprika, oregano, salt and salsa sauce until well mixed.
- In a large sauce pan, heat olive oil over high heat. Add diced onion and cook until translucent , about 5 mn. Add crushed garlic and diced capsicum, cook for a further 2 minutes.
- Add the corn and heat through.
- Add the cooked rice and the sauce mixture, stir to coat the rice evenly
- Season to taste and serve.