Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), November 1 and 2, is observed throughout Mexico and among communities of Mexican heritage elsewhere. The festival honors loved ones who are deceased with altars, offerings and special menus.
Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa Cocina Mexicana in New York City, describes Día de los Muertos as “a festival of intimate melancholy and strange gladness…an exuberant, sensual and remarkably life-affirming fiesta for the dead.”
Born and raised in Mexico City, Sibley shared these memories: “On the days leading up to Día de Los Muertos we make a family altar of offerings to remember those who have passed away. This tradition comes from the mixing of the Mesoamerican indigenous traditions and Spanish Catholicism.
“Our belief is that once a year the spirits of the dead come back to visit. It is important that they see that we are happy so they can be at peace and return to the other world. On the altar we place water in case the spirits are thirsty when they arrive, photographs and images of the departed, sugar skulls, tamales, fruit, papel picado, candles and burn copal sap incense.
“On the evening of the second of November, I make this dish in my father’s honor and remember the joyful times we would spend. On Día de los Muertos his spirit will follow a path of marigold petals to the offering of barbacoa and a shot of tequila. In Mexico we believe the spirits will inhale the scent and sprit of the food while friends and family gather to feast on tacos and drink tequila.
“This recipe was a favorite of my father’s and is also excellent with lamb, goat, chicken or pork. We use the chiles anchos to wrap each piece of chicken.”
Tacos de Barbacoa en Chile Ancho
Ancho Chile Chicken Tacos
12 chiles anchos
3 cloves of garlic
6 avocado leaves
½ teaspoon salt
4 skinless chicken thighs
2 skinless chicken breasts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 quart of low sodium chicken stock or water
- Wipe chiles clean and toast gently in a large heave skillet or griddle. This prevents the chiles from making the sauce bitter.
- Place them in a glass or non-reactive bowl and pour 2 cups of boiling water over the chiles. Allow chiles to soften in this water.
- Remove the stems, veins and seeds while keeping the chiles as intact as possible. Blend 6 of the chiles and the roasted garlic with a few tablespoons of the soaking liquid, just enough to allow chiles to become pureed. Add salt.
- Season the chicken with salt and pepper.
- Set apart the remaining 6 chiles to wrap around the chicken.
- Preheat the oven to 325˚.
- Place olive oil in a medium roasting pan or dutch oven. Cover each piece of chicken with chile ancho and garlic paste and one avocado leaf, then wrap with one or more chiles anchos. Wrap with the skin of the chile facing out and the pulp side touching the meat being careful to cover the entire surface of the meat.
- Transfer the chicken to the roasting pan. Pour in the chicken stock so that about 2 inches of the chicken is covered.
- Cover the pan with foil creating a tight seal so that steam does not escape during the braising. Braise the chicken in the oven until tender, about 1 1/2 hours
- Transfer the chicken to an oven proof serving dish and spoon the braising liquid over the chicken. Reserve the braising liquid to serve on the side.
- Traditional Mexican barbecue uses maguey leaves to wrap meat. Using the chiles anchos allows us to achieve the same results with an ingredient that is readily available in the United States while intensifying the chile braise.
- The chile paste may be made the day before to shorten preparation time.
- Using roasted garlic adds sweetness.
La Palapa Cocina Mexicana is located at 77 St. Mark’s Place, New York City (212) 777-2537. Sibley also owns La Palapa Taco Bars with locations at Gotham West Market and Urbanspace Vanderbilt Food Market. Photo of tacos: Gabi Porter