Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas flavors

The holidays are underway.  Stores are crammed with seasonal ingredients to make Mexico’s traditional holiday dishes.  A trip to a central market fills your senses with the smells and colors of this favorite time of year.  Unlike north of the border where Christmas essentially ends on December 25, the Mexican Christmas season will extend until Dia de la Candelaria on February 2nd, Candlemass Day.  In between there are many special feast days with their own traditional foods and customs.

December 16th is the beginning of nine nights of posadas.  The reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s Bethlehem search for an inn (posada) is celebrated in small towns and urban neighborhoods throughout Mexico. Some posadas are modest, others quite grand.  In many an image of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by a statue of St. Joseph, leaves the local church on the night of December 16th

Although an event especially designed for children, many adults participate.  In some posadas a child dressed as Mary sits atop a burro led by a young boy dressed as Joseph.  Accompanying children may be dressed as shepherds, wisemen, angels, even King Herod.  The procession passes through the streets singing songs celebrating the Virgin.  At homes along the way the children sing and beg for lodging.  Those inside the home sing traditional replies and send them on their way.  Finally, at the house appointed for that night, the people inside welcome the saints or their diminutive representatives. If it is the saints from the church they will remain there until the following night when the posada resumes from that home. 

After the saints have been carefully lodged for the night, celebration begins.  Hot ponche is served to all. A syrupy, sweet drink, it combines many seasonal fruits as well as sugar cane and cinnamon.  If the “innkeeper” can afford it, sweet tamales accompany the ponche.  For the children there are also piñatas with toys and candy.  Though considered a great honor to house the Virgin and St. Joseph for a night it can be an expensive proposition! 

The posadas continue each night until Christmas Eve when Mary and Joseph return to the church and the nativity scene where the birth of Jesus is celebrated in a special mass.

Christmas Eve dinners don’t usually start until late in the evening and extend until the wee hours of the morning.  For some the dinner will be simple tamales and atole but, depending upon the economics of the family, it is usually a more extensive meal with a number of dishes particular to Mexico.

Perhaps the most unusual of Mexico’s Christmas dishes is romeritos.  Romeritos are an essential part of Mexican Christmas and Lenten cooking and by now huge baskets of romeritos have appeared in the markets.  Though some think the romerito is related to rosemary, it is in fact a wild herb, one of many quelites.  Quelites are the edible, tender parts of wild (though in some cases now cultivated) plants.  Quelites can be buds, flowers, shoots or even new leaves. The word quelite comes from the Nahuatl quili-ti.  In ancient times romerito grew in the swampy areas of the lakes of the Valley of Mexico.

In addition to romerito, there are many other quelites common to the Mexican marketplace and kitchen.  A sampling of those found in the market include the delicious verdolagas (Mexican watercress), flor de calabasa (squash blossom), and hoja santa (used for seasoning and tamales).  Quelites, generally high in nutritional value, are frequently gathered from public land. 

Though the romerito itself has a distinctive, pleasant peppery flavor, it can be hard to detect in the traditional Christmas Eve dish that includes so many other ingredients.  Tender poached romerito leaves are mixed with nopal, nuts, and chiles, served over fried patties of potato and dried shrimp, and covered with a spicy mole.  It’s my suggestion that before trying to prepare this complex dish you sample it to be sure you like it enough to have it on your holiday table.  Some say it is an acquired taste.  I’ve had it every Christmas Eve for 37 years and I’m not there yet.

Another popular Christmas Eve dish is bacalao a la Vizcaina, the base of which is salted cod.  The cod requires several days of soaking and draining.  If you skip that step it will be unbearably salty.  Cod was probably brought to Mexico by Spanish sailors.  Bacalao, in one form or another, is a celebratory dish throughout the Spanish and Portuguese world.   

Guajolote con Mmle poblano (see 12/6/2011 Digs) is another ubiquitous Christmas Eve dish.  By now you'll probably need an antidote to the rich and savory dishes of the night.  Jicama  (Nahuatl  xicamatlla) salad is a Christmas favorite.  Sweet and savory recipe variations are available.  The jicama with its crisp apple flavor combines well and is a welcome contrast to some of the heavier Christmas plates.  

Cidra (sparkling cider), ponche, or other spirits accompany this gala meal. In between attacks on piñatas, sparklers (luces de bengala) are lit by children – perhaps to recreate the star leading the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  

This is just the beginning of the holiday celebrations.  Pace yourself; you’ll still be celebrating until February 2.

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