The Dead

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” —James Joyce, “The Dead”


As I’ve confessed to in the past, I like holidays — particularly other people’s holidays. Our neighbors to the south, Mexico, for example.

We often celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a Mexican meal and an assortment of friends. But I’ve never mustered up the energy after Halloween to celebrate what may be the best Mexican holiday of all, Dia de Los Muertos — “Day of the Dead” — that is, until this year.

On November 1 in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, families head to the cemetery with bouquets of marigolds, candles, sugar skulls, fruits and other offerings, and celebrate the lives of those who have passed on with elaborate meals and festive drinks. Since I had an important person pass on recently, it seemed the perfect opportunity to initiate a new tradition at Casa Colgin.

The altar

The altar

I shopped for the meal, purchasing both things you would expect for a Mexican feast — limes, tomatillos, chiles, corn and epazote — and things you would not — pork belly, grits, wagyu beef, ahi tuna, octopus. I also shopped for decorations, including the requisite marigolds, various skull paraphernalia and papel picado paper cutouts, as well as loteria cards and boards for the kids, who were charged with figuring out how the heck you play loteria.

We constructed an altar around a cigar box of skull salt & pepper shakers, candles and herbs that our friend Shoba had brought us, flanked by sugar skulls, marigolds, more candles, toasted pepitas and at the center, a photo button of myself as a child with my late father, for whom we dedicated the altar.

The chef and friend Bianca, channelling an extraordinary Frida

The chef and friend Bianca, channelling an extraordinary Frida

And then, as mariachi music streamed through the house and margaritas were poured, it was on to the food.

There was a slight French detour as friend Brian had brought several contraband raw milk cheeses smuggled from Paris with him that were too beautiful to ignore, which paired well with some extraordinary pinot noirs various friends had come in hand with.

The Mexican portion of the menu began with a ceviche of ahi tuna, halibut and octopus, served on crispy won ton wrappers that represented a delicate stand-in for tortillas and drizzled with a spicy chile crema.

Pork belly mole

Pork belly mole

Next we moved on to a rather contemporary riff on Oaxaca’s classic mole — a beautiful cube of Japanese pork belly, braised and crisped up, then served on top of corn grits cakes with a deep, dark, complex sauce redolent of chiles, chocolate and memories.

Finally, I had defrosted some lovely strips of wagyu beef which I pan seared, sliced thinly and folded inside handmade corn tortillas with a citrusy cabbage slaw and a dollop of smoky roasted chile crema that was less Oaxaca than avant garde Tijuana but I’m sure we would be forgiven.

Wagyu tacos

Wagyu tacos

For the kids, who had enjoyed quesadillas, mini-tacos and taquitos, there were brightly colored pan dulce for dessert, while the adults moved on to sipping tequilas and more wine. Standouts among the tequilas were the gorgeously caramelly Don Julio 70 clear anejo, and a favorite I bring back from Mexico — Pueblo Viejo “Orgullo” anejo.

Temperance had been thrown to the wind for that one chilly autumn evening as we celebrated the living and the dead. Conversation wound at various points to the assertion of tequila’s magical ability to leave one feeling fresh and clear the next day — a theory that was put to the test the following morning as I attempted to jog off my dizzying hangover, wondering if it was the tequila that was at fault, or my poor execution. (Beer + tequila + wine…)

Besides the usual miscellaneous pleasures of enjoying interesting ethnic foods and drink with the company of dear friends, I found the experience of building the altar with the kids and talking about Grandpa surprisingly touching. And Dad would’ve liked being at the center of such an evening.

I guess sometimes there’s more to a regional tradition than pork belly and tequila.

*    *    *

Pork belly mole with corn grits, cracklings and pan-fried zucchini
serves 4

1 lb. pork belly
1/2 cup reposed or anejo tequila
1 cup mirin Japanese cooking wine
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup dried grits
1/2 fresh corn kernels
1 jalapeño chile
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup grated Monterey jack cheese
1 large egg
1 lb. zucchini, cut into 1-inch-long batons
1 tbsp. chiffonaded epazote
2 tbsp. cold butter

Mole sauce:

1/4 cup pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds), toasted
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted
3 dried ancho chiles
3 dried pasilla chiles
1 tbsp. lard (or vegetable oil)
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small white onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. raisins
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
2 oz. dark chocolate
1 tbsp. sugar

Make your mole ahead of time:

(Note: Mole sauces in Mexico, Oaxaca in particular, are as varied as meat ragus in Italy or chicken soups in America. You can adjust seasons or change ingredients to your liking. But this is a good basic, simple mole.)

If they aren’t already toasted, toast your pepitas and sesame seeds in a medium-hot pan until golden. Remove from heat.

Place chiles in hot pan and toast for about 30 seconds per side, until the chiles begin to puff. Remove from heat, let cool, and remove stems and seeds. Place in a bowl with chicken stock.

Into the medium hot pan, place the lard, and sauté the garlic, onions and raisins until soft. Add chicken stock with chiles and spices. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 40 minutes, until soupy and incorporated and liquid has reduced by about 1/3. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate and sugar.

Let cook and then puree in a blender. Return to a pan and cook over low heat until thickened to desired consistency. Set aside. Mole can be kept in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or can be frozen.

Make your grits cakes:

Heat 1 cup of water in a pan over medium high heat. When water comes to a simmer, add dry grits, stirring with a wooden spoon. Lower heat to medium low. Continue cooking, stirring frequently and adding water as needed, for 30-40 minutes, until soft. The last 5 minutes of cooking, add corn kernels.

While the grits are cooking, sear the jalapeño in a cast iron skillet over high heat (or do the same under the broiler) until the skin is black and blistered. Remove, let cool, and peel off skin, remove stem and scrape out seeds from inside. Chop into small pieces.

When grits are cooked, remove from heat and stir in jalapeño, cilantro, egg and cheese. Scoop grits out into a small, square or rectangular baking dish lined with parchment paper. Smooth top, and place in fridge to cool.

Make your pork belly:

With a sharp knife, cut top 1/4-inch layer of fat off pork belly, and slice into thin strips. Salt lightly and place on a piece of foil in a 350-degree oven. Cook until crispy and remove, saving for later.

Heat a small ovenproof pot or deep skillet that just fits the pork belly over medium high heat. Place the pork belly into the hot pan, fat side down. Sear for about 90 seconds, until fat is crisp and golden. Turn over and do the same to the other side. Then add chicken stock, mirin and tequila. Bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and place in a 350 degree oven, lightly covered with foil. Cook for 45 minutes. Remove foil, and cook for another 45 minutes, until liquid has reduced by half. Remove from oven and let cool.

Return cooking liquid to the stove over medium-high heat and reduce to about 1/4 cup — about 20-30 minutes. Place in a small bowl in the fridge to cool.

Slice your pork belly across the grain into four 1/2-inch or so thick slices.

Finish your dish:

Preheat the oven to 320 degrees. Place your rectangle of corn grits into the oven, along with your four thick pork slices on a piece of foil. Heat for 10 minutes.

Remove the cooled reduction sauce from the fridge. Scrape the fat off of the top and place in a skillet over medium high heat. Stir fry the zucchini batons for about 5 minutes, until golden and beginning to brown. Toss in chiffonaded epazote and remove from heat.

While the zucchini is cooking, put two small pans on the stove. In the first, over medium low heat, warm up some of your mole sauce. In the second, over medium high heat, bring your reduction sauce to a simmer and turn off. Place the two cold tablespoons of butter in the reduction sauce and stir constantly, until butter is incorporated and sauce is velveted.

To plate:

Onto each of four plates, place about 2 tbsp. mole sauce.

Remove the corn cakes from the oven. Cut the rectangle into four squares, and place one square on top of mole sauce on each plate. Remove pork belly from oven, and place one pork belly slice on top of each corn cake. Scoop a tablespoon of zucchini batons onto each plate, beside the corn cakes. Drizzle each pork belly with some of the reduction sauce, and top with a few of the crispy pieces of fat. Serve.

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. andreathompson2
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 00:07:59

    Steve rarely says F&%K, but he always does if he drinks tequila so he’s not allowed to anymore. I don’t care if he says it, I just don’t want tequila anger behind it.

    I think it’s awesome that you honored your father in that way, Dude, and it’s such a great education for your kids in culture.

    Where is my post on fast food you deem worth eating??


    • scolgin
      Nov 04, 2014 @ 13:50:04

      I can understand you not wanting to hear Steve barking the f-word. I get tequila happy. So many posts, so little time… actually I forgot about your fast food post. I’ll try to remember to do that soon.


  2. timoirish34
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 00:59:04

    This is a great entry–I have never myself made an acceptable mole sauce, but now I shall try again.

    I had no idea that your father had died–though I was aware of his great age and frail health. I had known him for more than thirty years. I recall with vivid warmth his fondness for good food and drink–and his pride in you and your many gifts–gastronomy being but one.

    I grew to know him best after his retirement, when we would dine out every couple of months. In addition to refining my table manners, he taught how to savor better food and drink–and moments in time as well. What patience I can now manage in my chaotic life was his gift to me.

    Long after I had moved back to upstate New York (now a decade gone), we continued to correspond with regularity. Nearly every month, he would send me a hard copy of each new short story he had written. I responded by shipping him the odd bottle of hard-to-find wine–Champagne at Christmas. I knew he was declining when, first, the stories stopped coming and, later, when the acknowledgements of the wine ceased.

    Over the years and across the span of many changes of address, I had lost every piece of your father’s fiction. I had always planned on eventually collecting the stories in one volume for RWC’s interested friends, but of course mere paper is a fragile means of preserving thoughts. One day in September, I was astonished to discover that a woman (with whom I used to live) had secretly saved all the stories in a file in her extensive writing archive. This was an unlikelihood verging on the miraculous.

    I enjoy you blog very much, Mr.Colgin. I envy your culinary skill, and (even more) your great fortune in having chosen such interesting parents. Be well. –Tim


    • scolgin
      Nov 04, 2014 @ 14:04:50

      Wow Tim, thank you so much for that. What a great comment — I had no idea about all of that.

      Yes, he passed away about six weeks ago after a rather long, slow decline. We found many manuscripts of his fiction when we cleaned out the house, most of which I’d never read or seen. But he used to tell me about whatever he was working on when we would be lunching. I’m glad you were able to enjoy that kind of quality time with him too.

      Thank you for reading my blog, I hope it will remind you often of the good times dining and drinking that you enjoyed with my father, and in that way we will keep his memory alive in the way that would have pleased him most. Now… get on that mole. 😉


  3. "Cheffie Cooks"
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 01:40:36

    Very nice homage to an old tradition! Cheryl


  4. apriljulianne
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 14:36:34

    Just the mention of James Joyce took me breathlessly somewhere else. To times in my life it seems I’d tucked away.
    JJ – like no other.

    Lovely post Sean!


  5. apriljulianne
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 14:40:49

    Just the mention of James Joyce took me breathlessly somewhere else. To times in my life it seems I’d tucked away.
    JJ – like no other.

    Lovely post Sean.


  6. Michelle
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 21:35:46

    I’ve always thought that Dia de Los Muertos sounds like the best holiday ever, though I’ve only read about it. Hey, and your Mexican-French fusion is a great idea food-wise (even if the French intervention in Mexico didn’t turn out so well back in the 19th century). Sorry about your dad.


  7. Greggie
    Nov 08, 2014 @ 04:40:20

    Condolences on your father’s passing. I remember meeting him at your house. Your Dia de Los Muertos tribute was very fitting and the menu sounds delicious.


  8. Trackback: Thankful (But Not for Grasshoppers) | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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