Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On Christmas Traditions from Mexico.....

There is nothing that fills us with more nostalgia or pride than the way Christmas is celebrated in our beloved Mexico. The variety of traditions which are so complete and satisfying, filling all of your senses completely, from the visual to the tactile, the sounds and most importantly the flavors of the season that many are transported back to childhood or a particular geographical location simply by a certain aroma which floats our way....

It would take much time and blog space to fully describe all of the traditions associated with this time of year, since every region has their own particular way of representing this most important celebratory time (although, Easter is the most religious time of year...), Christmas due to Mexico's long standing devotional ties to Catholicism and all things religious, ties the physical to the spiritual while bringing in some Aztec, Mayan or other traditions together as well... In some regions of the country where we've been able to maintain the Indian costumes, you can see these traditions represented, for instance in Merida, Yucatan or the towns surrounding Mexico City and Puebla, there are so many different descendants of the original settlers that they've managed to remain within the old and new worlds in such a way that is completely mystifying and amazing. We also have the traditions from Spain to include so you can see how rich this season can be for us.

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty culinary traditions, let me say that our country has contributed two of the most important details that conform this Christmas Season: Turkey and Poinsettias or La Flor de la Nochebuena (Flower of the Holy Night) which was also sacred in pre-Columbian times. They called it Cuetlaxochitl (leather petals) and considered it sacred to warriors who died in battle and who, as hummingbirds and butterflies, would return to earth to sip its nectar. Of course this only adds to the list of other items that we've contributed to the world, but since we're focusing our attention on the season at hand, we'll start here, ok?

Let me also say that if you're fortunate enough to find yourself within Mexico at Christmas time you are indeed a fortunate soul. Mexico City is truly elevated into the heights of even more beauty during this time and the foods that can be found there are incredible!!!! But each area has it's own, like in Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco (one of the most florid and rich states around with incomparable food, sounds and sights) I can remember making the procession to celebrate the official kick-off to the Christmas Season on Dec. 12th which is our Lady of Guadalupe's Day, with candlelit walks all along the ocean boardwalk (amazingly beautiful) done by all the unions, businesses and groups in town who end up at the Cathedral (Downtown in front of the square by the ocean) with our Lady's crown on top, to sing "Las Mananitas" to Her accompanied by Mariachi's at midnight..... later, you stay in the area since the square and surrounding restaurants set up tables on sidewalks and open their doors to offer local food specialties to everyone! This is just the start of the season's celebrations which are then open to the "Posadas" or "Pastorelas" which recreate the search for lodging done by the Holy Family (with a real Holy Family making the trip, sometimes with an actual donkey) through song and by knocking on house doors until being welcomed at the last home where a party awaits with popular foods like: tamales (chicken, beef, rajas de chile, pineapple, cinnamon, etc), pinatas, paper flags hung above your head, "ponche" (a dried fruit, alcohol spiced punch), "atole", (a maiz based hot drink with fruit and spices), traditional sweets, "Bunuelos de Viento" (Rosettes, flour fritters with sugar and cinnamon), and every family's special dishes for the occasion with lots to drink and eat, everything culminating until Christmas Eve and midnight mass.

For the most part you will see Nativity Scenes in every home but lately the presence of Christmas Trees has become a custom as well, yet the "Baby Jesus" is the one bringing the gifts and not Santa Claus, while on Jan. 6th, "Dia de los Santos Reyes" or Holy King's Day (the Magi) are the ones that leave nuts and small toys in a child's shoes which are left by the door. You have a "Rosca de Reyes" or King's Bread filled with candied fruit and nuts on a rich egg bread crown where a Baby Jesus is hidden and the lucky (or unlucky) person who finds him (you need to be careful or the loss of a tooth could occur...) has to hold the final party of the season on February 20th. He is also responsible for providing the christening dress for the infant Jesus. El Dia de la Candelaria, also known as the Day of Purification, is when, the obligatory forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take their new babe to the Temple to be blessed. The winter Holidays are finally over... but watch out for Easter and the rest of the year where many more celebrations await!

But we said we'd talk about the foods of the season, so here are some we love and try to include in our season's celebrations....

My guys aren't big on turkey, but we've been known to make "Pavo en Mole" (Turkey in Mole Sauce) which is lovely. The names comes from the Nahuatl (is a group of related languages and dialects of the Nahuan,traditionally called "Aztecan". Collectively they are spoken by an estimated 1.5 million people, most of whom live in Central Mexico. All Nahuan languages are indigenous to Mesoamerica and are very present today. Mole means "sauce made from many chiles, a concoction". In contemporary Mexico, the term is used for a number of sauces, some quite dissimilar to one another, including black, red, yellow, colorado, green, almendrado, and pipian, and while this is an elaborate sauce to complete, once it's done it has many applications.

Totol de Nochebuena (Christmas Stuffed Turkey)- Marinate the turkey with an ancho chile sauce before stuffing it with a delicious dressing that contains the classic combination of almonds, olives and raisins.

Lomo de Puerco Mechado (Studded Pork Loin)- Pork is always present in Mexico in all types of dishes and this presentation is a visually attractive one with the loin studded with olives, jalapenos, sweet red peppers and almonds which when sliced, show the colors of the season. This can be served alone with any one of the dozens of sauces available.

Lomo Relleno (Stuffed Pork Loin)- The stuffing is a classic one made from all the dried fruits and nuts which have been macerated with tequila or rum or brandy, then wrapped inside the loin which is then seared and braised. Additional stuffing is made to be served as desired.

Ensalada de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Salad), while this dish is open to interpretation the basic ingredients are usually beets and lettuce but with the addition of "jicama" and any one or all, tropical fruits. A vinaigrette made with olive oil and lemon with a sprinkling of peanuts over top completes it.

Camotes Enmielados (Candied Yams)- These are done with our "piloncillo" (dark sugar cones made from sugar cane) which we also use for many sweets and coffee.

Pechugas Navidenas (Christmas Chicken Breasts), made from Huitlacoche and Flor de Calabaza stuffed chicken breasts (corn smut and squash blossoms) with a sauce made from poblano chile, white wine, white roux and sour cream which are topped with Pomegranate seeds.

Bacalao a la Vizcaina (Codfish Spanish Style), The Spanish made the most of the New World ingredients they found in Mexico, using potatoes, tomatoes and chiles in this dish, in addition to the olives, capers and anchovies they imported from Europe and the salted, dried cod that accompanied them on ocean voyages. The dried cod piled up in the markets at this time of year undergoes an almost magical culinary transformation from a rather unappetizing looking ingredient to an outstanding dish with an inspired combination of flavors. Always present on our Xmas table yet I try to find fresh Cod which imparts a sweeter flavor to this dish.

Torta Azteca (Aztec Torte)- A lasagna type dish made from breaded corn tortillas dipped in green salsa alternating with cheese and chicken layers, covered in more salsa and topped with cheese and sour cream gratin. This can also be done "red" with a guajillo chile based sauce or any one of a number of chile sauces, spiced tomato or even mole.

Ponche Navideno (Holiday Punch)- In addition to being served in Mexican homes during the Christmas and New Year holiday season, hot ponche is sold at night by street vendors who ladle it out from steaming cylindrical vats. I can recall this being "spiked" with pot stems in the mountains of Oaxaca which made for an even more magical

Rompope (Mexican eggnog)- This beverage was first made by the colonial-era nuns at the Convent of Santa Clara in Puebla, and the Santa Clara brand is still one of the most popular plus containing 96 proof grain alcohol so you know it packs a "punch". These are the same nuns which refined the Mole Poblano and were known for the Chiles en Nogada too. They were recognized as having very sophisticated culinary knowledge.

Polvorones (Mexican Wedding Cookies)- These traditional cookies, which I don't remember seeing in any weddings, are popular year round but made special during Christmas with the addition of orange zest which is a bountiful tropical fruit in winter.

The sweets, breads and candies associated with any Mexican celebration are far too numerous to mention as anyone who has either been in Mexico or walked into a Mexican bakery or mercado can attest. Plus Mexico's tropical climate contributes mightily to more ingredients usually not found in other countries winter celebrations yet in our country, it's in addition to the vast array of foods, spices and condiments available making such dishes possible. Don't forget that Mexico has all climates within it's borders as well, from snow capped mountains of great elevations to the deserts and from the balmy beaches to the plains, all contribute to the diversity of foods available.

These are but a few of the best known Christmas dishes you'll find in Mexico and usually in the major regions towards the center and north. We have so many vegetable dishes that can also be served that once I start it would be hard to finish and I haven't even touched the foods of the South or the Yucatan Peninsula with it's Mayan roots and exotic ingredients, I'd need a lot more space but maybe this can be my next post and I can assure you it will be most fascinating for this region with it's traditions and history is truly a world all onto it's own.

I hope I have given you an idea of the vastness of the Mexican table and some of the applications that our regional ingredients can contribute not just during celebrations but our daily lives. To me it becomes somewhat of a frustration when seeing the limited selection of dishes found outside of the country and the poor representation made of these. Our culinary heritage is very rich, filled with sophisticated and flavorful dishes served with a never ending list of sauces and condiments that trying to find "the real thing" has gotten harder to find for we are so much more than just tacos, burritos and enchiladas. It would be such a loss to permit this culinary heritage to continue to erode so we must do our best to protect it.

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