Since Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country, and proud of it, Christmas there revolves around the birth of Christ, or "El Niño Jesús." The festivities and traditions bear little resemblance to ours in the United States. Santa Claus and Christmas trees aren't a big deal-except perhaps in the larger cities. The focus is religious; the atmosphere joyous. It's one of the major fiestas of the year and just about everyone takes off the last two weeks of December-to spend time with their families, to visit old friends, to make new friends and to celebrate.
The Christmas season jumps into gear on December 16, with Las Posadas nine days in a row of candlelight processions and parties. After sunset each night, in villages, towns and cities throughout the country, children gather to reenact Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem. The procession is led by a young Virgin Mary, often atop a live burro, with a tiny Joseph at her side. They're followed by children dressed as angels, The Three Kings or "Reyes Magos" and an assortment of shepherds and livestock. Singing traditional Christmas hymns and carrying candles, they proceed to the first designated house, where they plead to be admitted. They are turned away. They're refused admittance at the second home as well. At the third home, they are told that while there is no room for them in the inn, they are welcome to take shelter in the stable. At this point, the doors are thrown open and the children are bid a jubilant welcome. Everyone kneels around a manger scene, or "Nacimiento." Prayers and songs are offered in thanks to God.
Immediately after this in every Posada, is the time of the "Piñata or Pinata," a papier maché container filled with candy and toys. It's hung from a tree or from the ceiling, and one at a time, the children are blindfolded spun around and given turns to try smashing the Piñata open. When it breaks, goodies scatter to the ground and the kids dive in, scooping up as many as they can.
At midnight on Christmas Eve or "Noche Buena," the birth of Christ is proclaimed with fire works, the ringing of church bells and the blowing of whistles. After the final Posada procession, the people surge into the churches to attend the Mass of the Rooster or "Misa de Gallo." Afterward, families head home for an exotic Christmas feast of dishes like tamales, rice, chiles rellenos, menudo or roast pig or turkey, along with hot fruit or cider punches and other spirits such as rompope. They gather around their personal nativity scene, or "Nacimiento" a recreation of the stable where Jesus was born, complete with Mary, Joseph, the baby in the manger, angels, the Magi or "Los Reyes Magos, the ox and ass, shepherds and their flocks and even perhaps a serpent representing the forces of evil lurking in the shadows. The nativity scene is constructed with loving care throughout the days preceding Christmas Eve, and is not completed until that night. It is here that each family pays homage, once again, to the miracle of Christ's birth. The evening ends with the opening of gifts, another Piñata and sparklers for the kids. Christmas Day is obviously a day of rest in Mexico-after the festivities that precede it.
While you may not be Catholic, Christian, or even religious, you may want to celebrate this Christmas Eve with a traditional Mexican Feast. If you do celebrate Christ's birth, you just may be interested in staging any of the festivities mentioned above. Improvise! Add bits and pieces (or even most or all) of the Mexican rituals into your own family festivities. And here is a wonderful, authentic meal you can make for Christmas Eve or Noche Buena:
FIESTA DE NOCHE BUENA:
Set up your Christmas table much as you would every year. If you do it formal with a lace table cloth and your best China-do that this year as well.
For our FIESTA DE NOCHE BUENA we'll be serving up Chimayo Cocktails and Steaming Hot Apple Cider. For the main meal, we'll make an easy-to-serve-yourself buffet of Chiles Rellenos, Menudo or Pozole, Beef Tamales, Chicken Tamales, Tamales de Dulce and Mexican Rice. We'll leave out dessert-it's bound to be late by the time everyone finishes opening presents and eating-especially if the kids have been sneaking candy canes off the tree or been taking whacks at a pinata!
Here's your midnight feast:
CHIMAYO COCKTAILS-Chilled or Steaming
You can make these ahead of time and refrigerate. The apple cider used in this authentic but little-known Mexican cocktail makes it perfect for Noche Buena. This recipe serves eight. If you want to make it less potent, use less tequila and more apple cider (to taste). To serve it hot, leave out the ice cubes, double the amount of apple cider and heat to nearly boiling in a saucepan, pour into cups and garnish with apple wedges.
24 ice cubes
10 ounces Cuervo Gold tequila
2 tbsp Creme de Cassis
1 cup apple cider
4 tbsp lemon juice
8 apple wedges for garnish
Fill a blender with ice cubes. Add tequila, creme de cassis, cider and lemon juice. Shake well and strain into eight glasses. Add the ice cubes and garnish each glass with an apple wedge.
STEAMING HOT APPLE CIDER-Non-alcoholic
This recipe takes less than ten minutes to make, and is a real tummy warmer on a cold Christmas Eve! Just have everything ready to assemble before your guests arrive!
1 ½ quarts apple cider
1 whole cinnamon stick (about 3 inches)
3 whole cloves
3 allspice berries
10 pieces of Orange peel, cut into 1 by 2 inch strips
10 Orange slices
Combine the cider, cinnamon, cloves, allspice berries and Orange peel in a large saucepan and heat. Simmer about 5 minutes, or until the flavor of the spices and Orange peel are infused into the cider.Pour into mugs and serve immediately, garnished with sliced Orange.
CHILES RELLENOS - THE AUTHENTIC MEXICAN WAY
We're offering up two ways to do this dish. The first way uses fresh chiles. It is authentic, but time-consuming. The second way uses canned chiles and takes a whole lot less time. It's still certifiably delicious, however! Allow yourself a good half hour to prepare these rellenos, and solicit the help of a dear friend or family member so that your job is easier. Recipe serves eight.
8 large pasilla (also called ancho chiles in American supermarkets) -or-
8 large Anaheim chiles or Green Chiles
3/4 pound Monterey Jack cheese, thinly sliced
1/3 cup flour
8 raw eggs, separated
3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups Herdez Salsa Verde (for a tangy green sauce)
-or- 3 cups La Costena Homestyle Mexican Hot Sauce or Traditional Mexican red sauce.
1 cup corn or canola oil
Rinse the chiles. Preheat your oven to broil. Place the chiles in a 9 x 14 baking dish and place on the top shelf of your oven. Watch and listen closely. When the skins start to make popping sounds and to char and turn black in places, take the chiles out and flip them over. Be sure and use a potholder so you don't burn your hands!
When both sides are fairly evenly charred, remove them from the oven. Wrap each chile in a moist paper towel or place in a sealed plastic bag to steam. After a few minutes, check them. Once the skin comes off easily, peel each chile.
Cut a slit almost the full length of each chile. Make a small "t" across the top, by the stem. Pull out fibers and seeds (this is where the heat is) and replace with a slice of cheese. You can set these aside, for a few minutes or a few hours if you put them in the refrigerator.
Whip the egg whites at high speed with an electric mixer, until stiff peaks have formed.
Heat the oil in a skillet until a drop of water sizzles when dropped into the pan. Beat the egg yolks with one tablespoon flour and salt. Mix the yolks into egg whites and stir until you have a thick paste.
Roll the chiles in flour and dip each one in the egg batter. Coat evenly. Fry, seam side down on both sides until golden brown. Place on paper towels to drain.
Meanwhile, heat the salsa in a medium saucepan (either one or some of each). Place one or two Rellenos on each plate and pour salsa over them. Serve them immediately and brace yourself for major compliments!
CHILES RELLENOS-THE EASY WAY
You can tell by the brief directions, how much less time consuming this way is!
All you do differently here is use canned chiles!
We recommend either:
a 27 ounce can of Embasa canned Mild Whole Green Chiles
Drain the liquid from the can and place the chiles on paper towels to drain. Pat dry.
Pick up at paragraph three on the previous recipe and save yourself some work! That's all there is to it!
We can't even begin to tell you how good these are! The recipe serves three as a main course and six as a side dish.
This is a basic, easy recipe for Tamales. There are so many variations on these you would be amazed. While they are traditionally wrapped in corn husks, you can also wrap them in banana leaves. They can be made with most any kind of meat or vegetarian fillin. You can even make fruit tamales for dessert! You can make these ahead of time-even a few days ahead of time. They refrigerate well. Be sure to begin steaming them about an hour before you're ready to sit down and eat. This delicious recipe t will delight your friends and family. Be sure to serve with some salsa fresca on the side for those who love to spice things up a little! Serves eight.
BASIC MASA DE HARINA FOR TAMALES
3 cups packaged Masa de Harina for Tamales
2 cups lukewarm broth (from beef)
1 tsp baking powder
2/3 cup solid vegetable shortening
Combine masa for tamales and baking powder in large mixing bowl. Mix in broth. Beat shortening in separate bowl with electric mixer until slightly fluffy. Add to masa mixture and beat until it develops a somewhat spongy texture.
BEEF FILLING FOR TAMALES
1 large package corn husks - about 24
4 lb Chuck Roast
4 cups water
10 dried red Poblano chile peppers
¼ cup ground cumin
¼ cup pepper
4 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ cup salt
Early in the morning (up to a few days before Christmas), place the roast and water into a large pot or crockpot and slow cook four to six hours, or until it shreds easily with a fork. Remove the meat from pot. Place in large bowl, add salt and shred, reserving broth for the masa and the filling.
Remove the seeds (using gloves so you don't burn your eyes!) and stems from chiles. Boil in a pan with one cup water for about five minutes. Transfer chiles to food processor and add cumin, pepper, garlic and enough of the chile broth to make a paste when all spices are blended together.
Add spice paste to shredded beef and mix thoroughly. Add as much of the remaining broth as necessary to make a delicately moist, but not watery filling.
MAKING THE TAMALES
Now comes the fun part. Divide the masa into 16 balls. Open up the corn husks and tear 16 1/4 inch wide strips off husks for typing up the tamales. Lay a corn husk on your counter and pat dry with paper towel. Place a ball of masa on it and flatten into a square shape. Put a heaping spoonful of filling inside.
Pick up the two long sides of the husk, fold them over into the middle and enclose. Roll the flaps of the husk in the same direction around the tamale. Fold the small, pointy bottom end up to close off the bottom and secure the tamale by tying it up in a bow. Repeat for all 16 tamales.
These can keep in the refrigerator for a few days before being steamed. To steam, line a steaming pan (Mexican or vegetable steamer) with extra corn husks. Put about two inches of water in the bottom of the pan. Gently place tamales inside and cover pan. Simmer until steaming hot-about an hour. (Short cut: You can also microwave them, a few at a time for about three minutes.)
MENUDO or POZOLE
While Menudo is a traditional Mexican soup that claims to be the nation's number one cure for hangovers (or whatever else ails you!), not everyone can deal with the fact that it's made from tripe. That's okay. There are alternatives, such as Pozole, which is essentially the same soup, but made with chicken and pork in lieu of tripe.
Whichever way you make it, this is a soup that will warm your innards on a chilly Christmas Eve, and leave you feeling full and satisfied, even if you're in Akron, Ohio and not a deserted, windy bluff on the edge of the Pacific Ocean watching the sun sink into the cobalt sea as the last visible pod of gray whales for the day makes their way south in the fading light ....
3 lb tripe
2 lb lean pork roast
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
From here on out it's the same for both:
3 onions, chopped
4 - 6 cloves garlic, minced
2 - 4 tbsp American chili powder
3 whole cloves
1- 3 tbsp oregano
6 cups water
4 tbsp chicken bouillon (or more, to taste)
2 16 ounce cans white hominy
salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, chopped
1/4 cup oregano
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1 cup serrrano chiles, finely diced (hot! optional)
a sampler of salsas
In a large Dutch oven or crockpot, place first nine ingredients. Heat to boiling and then cover and simmer for four to six hours. Add hominy and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook an additional hour.
To serve, place each garnish in a little bowl and let everyone add whatever they want to their bowls of soup. Sit down and chow down!
This traditional Mexican side dish is super easy to make and always tastes good. If you're using brown rice, allow about 20 minutes to prepare. If using Minute Rice, it'll take you a lot less time! Serves eight.
3 cups quick brown rice (or Minute Rice if desired)
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups salsa fresca
salt to taste
In medium sized saucepan bring two cups water and salsa to boil. Add brown rice. Stir well. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until fluffy. Add salt to taste. Serve immediately.
Recipe and tips provided by Ann Hazard.