A PROCESSION OF FOOD Mexicans preserve 'posadas' tradition with 9 nights of feasting


Christmas has been celebrated in Mexico since 1587 when Brother Diego de Sorio of the Acolman Convent near Mexico City received papal permission to officiate nine daily masses from Dec. 16-24 to commemorate the birth of Christ.

It was fortuitous for the Catholic Church that the Christmas season coincided with indigenous festivities in honor of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Thus, its evangelical labors were made easier and Spanish traditions were soon intertwined with local ones.

Central to the holiday customs here are the nine "posadas," or the re-enactment of the nine-day wandering from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Joseph and Mary in search of a birthplace for the blessed child.

While "posadas" have generally lost much of their meaning in the larger cities of Mexico with Santa Claus and imported Christmas trees are every year more in evidence, in smaller towns throughout the country the people still celebrate the holiday the way their forefathers did.

Marcela Lara of the village of Santiago Tilapa in the State of Mexico says that every year a committee is chosen from the local inhabitants to plan the nine-day processions and the food that will be served.

Starting on Dec. 16 Joseph and Mary and a crowd of pilgrims nightly entreat entry, in song, at the door of a chosen house. They are at first turned away and then allowed to enter.

Then the festivities begin. A pinata, bearing fruits, sugar cane, hard candies and nuts, will noisily be broken. Food is offered to one and all, generally followed by dancing.

The "posadas" continue for eight days, culminating on the 24th when the procession moves to the church where the baby Jesus is placed in his cradle in the "nacimiento," or nativity scene. There is a Christmas mass, followed by a late supper.

Each town chooses the foods it will serve on each of the nine nights, but almost always there is atole (a corn-based hot drink) and bunuelos (a light cruller). Also served are hot punch, tamales, enchiladas or whatever the speciality of the town might be.

In the cities, Christmas Eve dinner is a more elaborate mixture of Spanish and Mexican dishes. It is almost always served near midnight and presents are opened afterwards. Christmas Day is a time for rest and leftovers.

Roast stuffed turkey, suckling pig, codfish and beet salad are favorites, as well as a strangely exotic dish called "revoltijo" -- fritters, made from dried shrimp, which are cooked with potatoes and cactus leaves in a sauce of rosemary and "mole." (Because of the difficulty in finding these ingredients, this recipe is not included in the ones below.)

Roast stuffed turkey

Turkey, or "guajolote," is native to Mexico and was one of the few animals domesticated by the Aztecs. The Spaniards took such a liking to it that they soon introduced it into Europe, where it replaced the peacock as succulent banquet fare.

Turkey is very popular on Christmas Eve and is generally stuffed with a combination of ground meats, fruits and nuts. This version is called Guajolote relleno al horno.

1 15-pound turkey

2 tablespoons butter or oil

1 onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

3/4 pound ground beef

3/4 pound ground pork

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup almonds, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup olives, sliced

salt, pepper

1/2 cup sherry

2 eggs, well beaten

butter for basting

Wash the turkey well, pat dry and make the following stuffing:

Heat butter or oil in a large frying pan and saute the onion and celery for five minutes. Mix the ground meats together in a bowl and add to the pan. Cook slowly until browned, breaking the meat into small pieces with a fork. Add the raisins, almonds, olives, salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Turn off the heat, sprinkle with sherry and add the beaten eggs. Mix well.

Stuff the inside and neck cavity loosely and sew both openings with needle and thread. Brush turkey with melted butter and wrap in tin foil. Roast at 325 degrees for approximately four hours, or 15 minutes per pound, basting frequently. Remove foil for last 30 minutes of cooking time to brown skin well. Make gravy from drippings.

Note: If you're concerned about using eggs in the stuffing, just be sure that when the turkey is done, the dressing temperature )) reads 160 to 165 degrees on a meat thermometer. (Stick the thermometer directly into the stuffing through the cavity to test.) that temperature, the eggs are thoroughly cooked.

Turkey stuffed with dried fruits

The following version is called Guajolote relleno de orejones.

1 15-pound turkey

1/2 cup dried apricot slices

1/2 cup dried peach slices

1/2 cup dried pear slices

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup plums, pitted and sliced

1 cup sherry

salt, pepper

1/2 cup almonds, peeled and sliced

butter for basting

Soak dried apricots in cold water overnight. Drain and put in a bowl with other fruits, the sherry and salt and pepper. Mix well.

Stuff inside and neck cavity, sew up and cook according to TC directions for the roast stuffed turkey. Before serving sprinkle with almonds.

Spanish-style codfish

This dish, called Bacalao a la viscaina, came to Mexico from Spain. Since codfish does not come from local waters and thus has to be imported, the cost is high. It is, therefore, more commonly prepared by middle and upper class families than by poorer ones. In the villages a fish labeled "bacalao" is sold, but it is actually shark.

The preparation for the dish has to be started the night before in order to remove the excessive salt from the fish. Spaniards use a lot of olive oil and garlic to flavor their foods. You can reduce the quantities if desired.

2 pounds dried, salted codfish

1 cup olive oil

1 pound small new potatoes, cooked (with skins on)

2 onions

3 cloves garlic, finely diced

1/4 cup parsley, chopped fine

6 tomatoes, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup water or stock

salt and pepper to taste

15 green olives

1 can pimiento slices

Soak the fish, cut into small pieces, in cold water for 24 hours, changing the water constantly to remove the salt. Remove the skin and pick out all the bones.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and fry the cooked potatoes until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towel.

In the same oil saute the onion and garlic for five minutes. Add the fish, parsley, tomatoes, stock, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until it starts to dry out, adding potatoes and olives for last 10 minutes of cooking time.

Garnish with pimiento slices.

Christmas Eve salad

This colorful salad, Ensalada de Nochebuena, is a traditional part of Christmas Eve menus. "Nochebuena" is the word for Christmas Eve in Mexico. It also calls to mind the poinsettia, the brilliant red plant that flowers so profusely here during the Christmas season. The poinsettia's name owes its origin to Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. envoy assigned to a newly independent Mexico in the 1820s. Poinsett introduced the plant, native to Mexico, into the United States.

4 small beets

2 tablespoons sugar

2 pomegranates

1 red apple, thinly sliced with peel on

2 small ripe bananas, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 head romaine lettuce

1 jicama, peeled, sliced and cut into small wedges

1 orange, peeled and thinly sliced

1/2 cup roasted peanuts, chopped

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup orange juice or 3 tablespoons vinegar mixed with 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt

Scrub beets and place whole in a small saucepan. Add water to cover and 2 tablespoons sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes, or until tender. Drain and rinse in cold water. Remove skins and thinly slice.

Cut the tops off the pomegranates and cut fruit into quarters. Place in a bowl of cold water and separate seeds from the membranes. Drain seeds and pat dry.

Dip the apple and banana slices in lemon juice to prevent discoloration.

Line a shallow salad bowl with six lettuce leaves. Shred the remaining lettuce and place on top of the leaves. Arrange the slices of beet, jicama, orange, apple and banana in a decorative pattern over the lettuce. Sprinkle with peanuts and pine nuts and top with pomegranate seeds. Just before serving drizzle orange juice or vinegar mixture over the salad.

Christmas punch

If you can find the ingredients for this wintertime punch, Ponche Navideno, you will be well rewarded. Its flavor improves with age. Many households here make it all during the cold months, and there is nothing more pleasant than coming in from the cold to a welcoming cup of hot punch. It can be served with or without the rum, although a splash of alcohol (or what Mexicans call a "piquete") makes it taste even better.

4 quarts water

10 crab apples

10 guavas, cut in quarters

10 prunes

1/2 cup raisins

2 stalks sugar cane, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 cups sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

rum to taste

Cook the crab apples for 10 minutes in boiling water. Peel them while still warm.

In a large pot bring the water to a boil with the sugar and cinnamon sticks. Add the crab apples, guavas, prunes, raisins and sugar cane and cook over a low heat for 1 hour. Add rum to taste and serve piping hot.

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