To celebrate Dia de los Muertos without food would be impossible, as tradition calls for offering favorite dishes to departed loved ones. Chef Agustín Gaytán showed a little of what goes into these gifts at a Nov. 2 celebration hosted by Fresh Starts Chef Events.
A native of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, the chef grew up in a large family where everyone cooperated to make meals. His mother and grandmother imbued a love for food that led Chef Agustín to run a catering company and a restaurant before discovering his spark in teaching others to cook.
His recipes for the authentic mole sauce and tamales require a long list of ingredients — chiles, seeds, herbs and spices that must be roasted, grilled, toasted and/or ground — and multiple steps to completion. Many home cooks might not tackle them, but learning the effort required made each dish all the more tasty.
His menu began with Cebiche Estilo Yucatan Mini-Tostadas using calamari, scallops and halibut. By marinating 1½ to 2 hours in lime juice, the chef denatures the protein and “cooks” the fish. Salt, olive oil, tomatoes, habanero chiles, onion, cilantro and mango are added after the lime juice is drained.
The chef uses stale tortillas to cut small circles for the mini-tostadas, frying them to crispness. The fresh, tropical flavors made a perfect opening for the complex mole to follow.
Mole Negro Oaxaqueño con Guajolote, one of Oaxaca’s signature dishes, requires commitment of time and labor. The spice and herb mix lists 15 ingredients, which combine with chiles, chocolate and other ingredients for a unique and delicious taste. The chef prepared it with turkey; chicken can be substituted.
Tamales con Chiles, Vegetales & Queso, served alongside the turkey and mole sauce, also involves a lot of prep time, including 30 minutes to steam the tamales once they’re made. Chef Agustín demonstrated how to roast chiles over a gas flame; he said they can also be cooked on an electric range in a sauté pan, moving the pan constantly.
Because queso fresco, a fresh cheese, does not melt, the chef advises mixing it with Monterey jack or Oaxaca cheese. His list of vegetables includes shiitake mushrooms, carrots and zucchini, but he says any vegetables can be used.
For dessert, Chef Agustín turned his attention to Flan de Chocolate y Café, and promptly demonstrated why devoted attention is important — his milk mixture boiled over. He reminded guests that just below boiling is the optimum point. He goes an extra step to ensure a smooth texture by straining the flan before baking to remove any egg solids.
With each forkful, guests had an appreciation for the planning and care expended to honor loved ones at Dia de los Muertos. In this case, students and staff at Fresh Starts Culinary Academy prepared the recipes for guests with sponsorship from The Republic of Tea, which also provided iced tea at each table. (Contributed by Carol Inkellis with photos courtesy of Neely Wang.)
Flan de Chocolate y Café – Serves 6
1 cup espresso or 2 tablespoons instant coffee
½ cup cocoa powder
¾ cup sugar
3 cups milk
½ cup half and half
1½ teaspoons vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
4 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
Coffee liqueur, such as Kahlúa, if desired
Preheat oven to 350°F. To make the caramel, heat the ½ cup sugar in a skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until it turns dark brown and turns into caramel–about 2 minutes. Pour the caramel over the bottom of the baking dish or ramekins.
In the saucepan, combine coffee, cocoa powder, milk, half and half, vanilla, the remaining sugar, and salt. Bring to a slow boil over medium heat and cook for 15 minutes, stirring from time to time to prevent the milk from boiling over or scorching on the bottom. Cool for 15 minutes.
Thoroughly beat the eggs and egg yolks in a bowl. Gradually add the egg to the warm milk mixture while constantly whisking.
Pour the mixture into a 1½-quart baking dish, cover with foil, and bake in a hot water bath for about 1½ hours or until flan is firm around the sides of the mold and a thin knife inserted off-center comes out clean. Chill at least three hours before serving.
To serve: Invert the baking dish or ramekins onto a serving plate. To each serving with 1-2 teaspoons of coffee liqueur if desired.