Return Again

We lost my Great Uncle Harry this year. He really was great. He always had a fun story to tell, or a perfect song to sing. He was a vegetarian and for decades built these wonderful, multilayered Dagwood sandwiches for Shabbat breakfast. We were all lucky enough to visit Uncle Harry and Auntie Julie about two months before he died, because we went to a family reunion in London right around New Year’s. We flew in from Boston; Sylvie, Miriam and Leo flew in from DC; my Cousin Larry and Ashley flew in from New Jersey; and my dad came in from Jerusalem. It was Sylvie’s idea, really. She wanted the kids to meet the British relatives before it was too late — a good call on her part.

Weinbergfest

We were only in London for a couple of days, but we were able to score a table at NoPi. We ordered every vegetable dish on the menu, and a perfect piece of fish. I had a kumquat and passionfruit mocktail and rhubarb Eaton mess. It was everything I wanted it to be. Pro tip: They only have two high chairs in the whole restaurant, and no changing table in their amazing mirrored bathroom, so plan accordingly.

Lilli and I caught something on the plane on the way over, and because I was 20 weeks pregnant and had no immune system, I couldn’t really do much touring. Or stand. Or make conversation. But Rich did get to see a real football match with my cousin Jonah. By the time I made it to my doctor’s office on New Year’s Eve, my temp had spiked to 102.8F. But the trip was still well worth it, and I really miss my Cousin Jenny. Hopefully we’ll get to see Jonah soon; he is in Philadelphia for the year studying at Temple and drinking American beer.

Nopi

It was never the right time to talk about finally eating at Ottolenghi’s restaurant, because it never felt right to talk about Uncle Harry. But it’s Day of the Dead on Sunday, and I’m looking forward to joining my friend Tania and her family for her holiday, so it seems appropriate to honor Harry, as well Rich’s Uncle Tommy and Auntie Ruthie and his professor Svetlana Boym, all of whom we lost far too soon this year.

If I find my blanched almonds in time, I’ll be making this horchata for the occasion. It’s a traditional Mexican sweetened rice drink, and it has become my litmus test of whether a Mexican restaurant is worth my time. Aleza introduced me to the beverage when we stumbled into a real hole in the wall in Williamsburg. This was in 2002, back when there were still holes in walls in Williamsburg.

mirrored bathroom

This particular recipe is from the Ultimate Nachos cookbook, also the cookbook for these pickled red onions I use all the time. The drink is vegan, and you need a blender and an overnight to make it work. Sure, it’s really meant for a hot summer’s day, but I think it will also work at the ofrenda.

Horchata from Ultimate Nachos by Lee Frank & Rachel Anderson

Ingredients

1 cup long-grain rice, rinsed and drained

1 cup blanched almonds

4 cinnamon sticks

1 quart water

¾ cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups ice cubes

Ground cinnamon, to taste

Ingredients

Put the rice, almonds, and cinnamon sticks in a blender. Blend the mixture into a powder.

Add the water, sugar, and vanilla and blend for 90 seconds.

Chill the mixture overnight in the fridge.

Strain the liquid into glasses over ice cubes and serve, sprinkled with ground cinnamon to taste.

Dia de los Muertos

When pressed to name my favorite holiday, I’m a little hesitant to answer. We’ve just had an entire month of really terrific ones which involve really good food and spending time with my family (oh, and praying). Springtime also has some really good ones, but the truth is, the holiday which holds a special place in my heart falls on November 2: Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

In Mexican-Indigenous tradition, there is a belief that our beloved ancestors and loved ones who have passed on – or returned to the source, as the Aztecs viewed it – come back to our world on this day. This return visit is celebrated with memories, blessings, good food and drink, flowers, candles, music, friends, family, and much more.  Every year, my Chicana friend and former neighbor extraordinaire Tania hosts a gathering at her home. Due to a new job she wasn’t able to host one this year, but I took piles of photos last year. I’m so happy to be able to share them with you.

Tania starts preparing for the feast long before the actual day. I’ve been lucky enough to join her and her family around the kitchen table to hand-stuff masa, a corn dough, into corn husks for tamales, a Mexican dish prepared for special occasions. She stuffs and folds hundreds of tamales, some vegetarian and some with chicken, which she then steams in huge pots on the stove. (Tania tells me that it’s traditionally made with lard, but luckily she is not an animal eater. Score one for the Jews!)

Tamales

On the evening of November 2, we arrive at her home. Bill, Tania’s wonderful husband, always prepares a trail of flower petals, which helps our beloved relatives find their way to the ofrenda, the community alter. The ofrenda is covered in pictures and symbolic memories; Tania always leaves out a cloth and water so our ancestors can wash their hands and do a little freshening up.

On top of the hundreds of tamales, Tania also prepares many more traditional Mexican dishes, including a mole, a chicken dish with a sauce made of dozens of spices including chocolate, chili and cinnamon; tomatillo salsa; nopales, an edible cactus; beans, rice; and of course, her father Oscar’s famous flan. Lots of flan, so much so that Rich and I would store eight or so in our fridge in the days leading up to the event. Our reward? An entire flan, just for us.

Chicken mole

Tomatillo salsa

Nopales -- cactus salad

Oscar's famous flan

As friends and family mingle and enjoy the Mexican feast, children spend time at the big kitchen table decorating sugar skulls.

As we finish up our meal, Tania gathers us around the ofrenda, shares words of wisdom, and invites us to share memories of our loved ones who have taken the long trip to join us for the holiday.