Chef Marcela Valladolid Shares Her Dia de Los Muertos Traditions

Plus, a easy and traditional mole recipe to honor the holiday

Chef Marcela Valladolid has a new hit show on  Food Network (The Kitchen), a popular food line at Safeway, her own tequila (Hacienda de La Flor), and is a devoted mother with a brand new baby on the way. And, she’s just getting warmed up. What Valladolid loves to do most of all is share Mexican traditions and culture—I caught up with her to discuss Dia de Los Muertos and see if she might share a recipe for this unique Mexican holiday that’s sweeping the nation.

Digest: How have you celebrated Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) over the years?

MV: It’s been very different throughout the years! Growing up in Tijuana, the school I attended had a big celebration every year. A huge altar was built in the auditorium of Colegio La Paz and we would go through all of the traditional elements: the 7 levels representing the 7 stages to get to heaven, the statute of the dog to lead the dead back, the cempazuchitl (marigolds), the brush and the mirror for them to clean up after the long journey, the glass of water to quench their thirst for the same reason, the traditional foods, etc. When my mom passed we started doing it at home in Tijuana and now in my home in San Diego I honor her every year. Her favorite foods that we always put up?–Chicles Pal (chewing gum), a can of Mountain Dew, and popcorn.

Digest: What do you think of how Dia de Los Muertos has become such a big deal in the U.S?

MV: I just love the fact that the culture and the traditions are so well embraced. I was looking for a costume for Fausto, my son, and on the front page of the catalog at Party City was a Calavera Catrina costume and I was so excited that people are asking for those items. More than anything I love that this idea of it being colorful and festive, as opposed to creepy and morbid. I know there are great celebrations in L.A. and for the first time I’m hitting the ones in San Diego! There are too many Mexicans here to not have these huge celebrations and it’s wonderful!

Digest: I know you’ve launched a food line at Safeway, and The Kitchen (Food Network) is going strong–what’s next for you?

MV: Well, giving birth to the nugget in my belly is a huge priority but, professionally, the list is kind of endless. I’m exploring to see which digital platform to go with so I can share more of my traditions and recipes as well as my love for all things home and decor. I think there’s space in the market for a kitchen equipment line that focuses on Mexican food and cooking methods. A book has been on the back burner for a while because I’d like to do some extensive travel through Mexico for the third one, just looking for the time!

Digest: Can you share a favorite recipe for Dia de Los Muertos?

MV: Easy Homemade Mole. It’s my mom’s recipe.

Easy Homemade Mole


Chicken Broth:
One 8-pound chicken cut into 8 pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 2 legs)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 medium white onion
2 teaspoons salt

Roasted Vegetables:
1 pound Roma tomatoes, halved
1/2 large onion, halved
1/4 head garlic, peel intact, wrapped in foil
Olive oil, for drizzling

1 cup plus 4 tablespoons lard
4 ounces chile negro, seeded and deveined
4 ounces guajillo chile, seeded and deveined
1 stale tortilla
1/4 bolillo roll
3/4 cup unsalted peanuts
3/4 cup pumpkin seeds
3/4 cup sesame seeds, plus more for serving
1/4 cup blanched almonds
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
3 coriander seeds
3 whole black peppercorns
1/4 cinnamon stick
4 ounces tomatillos, husked and halved
2 tablespoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoon sugar, plus more for serving, optional
1 1/2 disks Mexican chocolate, chopped
Mexican crema, for serving


For the chicken broth: Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Place all 8 pieces of chicken in a large heavy pot with 8 cups boiling water. Add the garlic, onion and salt. Bring to a boil again. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 1 hour. Remove the chicken and set aside. Maintain a medium heat under the broth as you’ll use it again for this recipe.

For the roasted vegetables: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the tomatoes, onion and garlic onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and roast until the skins are blistered and the vegetables softened, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven to cool. Once cooled, remove the foil and peel the garlic and the skins off the tomatoes.

For the mole: In a large heavy saute pan heat 1 cup lard. Quick fry the chiles in the hot lard, being careful not to burn them or they’ll become bitter. Add the chiles into the pot of chicken broth and simmer for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, add 2 tablespoons lard to the saute pan and fry the roasted onions and garlic. Add the tortilla and bolillo and cook for 5 minutes. Add the peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, blanched almonds, raisins, oregano, cumin, thyme, coriander seeds, whole black peppercorns and cinnamon stick. Saute for 4 minutes and remove from the heat. Cool slightly. Remove the cinnamon stick and discard.

Working in two batches, transfer half of the cooled nut and seed mixture into a large-capacity blender. Then transfer half of the simmered chiles, without the broth, into the blender. Add half of the roasted tomatoes and fresh tomatillos. Allow to cool before blending. Process until smooth. A paste will form. If the mixture is too dry, add 1 cup of reserved chicken broth at a time. Strain the mixture into a large mixing bowl. Then repeat with the remaining ingredients, processing until smooth and then strain.

Clean the saute pan and place over medium-high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons lard. Pour in the strained mole sauce and cook for 2 minutes. Season with the salt, some pepper and the sugar. Add 1 1/2 cups of the reserved chicken broth and stir to combine. Add the Mexican chocolate and stir to melt. Simmer for 15 minutes, uncovered. Return the chicken to the saucepan with the mole and cook until the chicken is warmed through, an additional 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a large serving bowl or platter. Sprinkle with some sesame seeds and a couple pinches of sugar if desired. Drizzle the Mexican crema over the chicken mole and serve hot.

When blending hot liquids: Remove liquid from the heat and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.

Recipe courtesy Marcela Valladolid