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A Mexican Melting Pot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time Margarita Malpica’s family celebrated Christmas in Mexico City, a crowd of 80 relatives showed up. Drop-in guests added to the throng, and the partying continued until the early hours of the following day. In Mexico, Christmas is not just a one-day event.

The season starts early, on Dec. 16, with the first Posadas procession. Repeated nightly until Christmas, the pageants depict Mary and Joseph as they search for lodging. After numerous rejections, the participants are at last welcomed by a kindly host, and that is the occasion for a party and the breaking of a star-shaped, candy-filled pinata.

Christmas Eve is traditionally spent in worship. On Christmas day, children rise early to open their gifts. Late in the afternoon, families gather for an elaborate lunch. The days after Christmas are quiet, allowing celebrants to rest up for New Year parties. On Jan. 6 comes the feast of Los Reyes Magos (The Three Kings). Children receive their main gifts this day, so stores stay open late the night before, cutting their prices to lure last-minute shoppers. The eve of the feast calls for a party highlighted by cutting the ring-shaped sweet bread, rosca de reyes . Tiny dolls are concealed in the loaf, and those who receive a slice with a doll are obliged to give a party Feb. 2, the final day of the extended holiday.

This is the way Malpica, who now lives in Huntington Park, remembers celebrating Christmas in Mexico. Her family’s diverse origins--Ireland, Spain, Italy, Mexico--resulted in an international conglomeration of holiday foods. The three essentials for Christmas were bacalao-- salt cod prepared Spanish-style with tomato sauce; roast turkey with potato stuffing; and revoltijo , a complex dish of shrimp fritters combined with romeritos , a leafy green, in mole sauce.

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Ancestors on one side of her family had spent some time in the United States before settling in Mexico, so the table also held Waldorf salad and cranberry jelly. Along with bolillos (rolls), there were tortillas, which traditionally accompany revoltijo. Desserts included crystallized fruits from Puebla, Veracruz-style bunuelos topped with brown-sugar syrup, and plum pudding with brandy-butter sauce. Adults drank wine, and children had lemonade or soda.

Instead of buying dressed birds in the market, families purchased live turkeys and fattened them at home. Some fed the birds walnuts and almonds, claiming this would improve the flavor of the meat. Her parents sent the children away when the bird reached its last day, but the kids always managed to view the procedure from a neighboring roof.

Today the family has scattered and Malpica celebrates more modestly. She is director of public relations and catering for the El Gallo Giro Mexican restaurants in Santa Ana, Huntington Park, and soon, in downtown Los Angeles.

Malpica has assembled some of her family’s Christmas recipes, adjusting the ingredients to what is available in Los Angeles. Tamales may be the quintessential Mexican Christmas dish, but bacalao is very popular around Mexico City and on the Gulf coast. Malpica’s version includes potatoes, pimiento-stuffed olives and hot yellow chiles. Generously topped with pimiento strips, parsley and more olives and chiles, it’s as colorful as the holiday. The flavor improves when the dish is prepared in advance and reheated. “If you make a sandwich of it the next day, it’s delicious,” Malpica says.

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Throughout December, Mexican homes are perfumed like potpourri with Christmas punch. Spiced with cinnamon and richly flavored with fruits, the drink is served hot in clay mugs called jarritos. Rum or wine might be added for adults, and a nonalcoholic version served to children. Guavas and a Mexican fruit called tejocote appear in the traditional recipe. Malpica replaces these with apples and pears and suggests adding dried fruits too.

MEXICAN CHRISTMAS FRUIT PUNCH

16 cups water

4 cups brown sugar, packed

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2 cinnamon sticks

6 apples, cored and cut in chunks

4 pears, cored and cut in chunks

1/2 (8-ounce) package dried figs, cut up

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1/2 (7-ounce) package dried peaches, cut up

1/2 (6-ounce) package dried apricots, cut up

1/2 cup cut-up plums

1/4 cup raisins

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2 cups Port

2 cups rum

Combine water, brown sugar and cinnamon sticks in large pot. Bring to boil. Add apples, pears, figs, peaches, apricots, plums and raisins. Boil 15 minutes.

Add wine and rum and boil 10 minutes. Ladle hot punch with fruits into mugs or cups. Makes 20 to 25 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

375 calories; 16 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 70 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 1.5 grams fiber; 1% calories from fat.

BACALAO A LA VIZCAINA (Cod Fish With Tomato Sauce)

2 pounds dried salt cod

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1 1/2 quarts milk

2 cups olive oil

13 medium cloves garlic, peeled

7 1/2 large tomatoes

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3/4 large white onion, peeled and cut in wedges

2 1/4 large white onions, peeled and finely chopped

3/4 pound small whole potatoes, boiled and peeled

1 cup pimiento-stuffed green olives

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4 canned pickled guero or other hot yellow chiles

1 cup finely chopped parsley

Pimiento strips for garnish

Pickled yellow chiles for garnish

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Pimiento-stuffed olives for garnish

Finely chopped parsley for garnish

Soak fish overnight in water, changing water 3 or 4 times to remove excess salt. Drain. Soak fish in milk 2 hours. Remove fish and clean, discarding skin and bones. Tear into strips and set aside.

Heat olive oil in saucepan. Add 10 cloves garlic and cook until browned. Remove garlic and reserve oil.

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Place tomatoes, onion wedges, remaining 3 garlic cloves and browned garlic in food processor. Process until pureed. Strain mixture.

Reheat olive oil, add chopped onions and cook until lightly browned. Add pureed mixture to onions. Simmer 2 hours or until sauce thickens and has caramelized aroma. Stir often. Add fish, potatoes, olives, chiles, little chile liquid and 1 cup parsley. Simmer 1 hour. If mixture becomes too thick, thin with little water. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve generously garnished with pimiento strips, chiles, olives and parsley. Makes 8 to 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

1,012 calories; 8,578 mg sodium; 170 mg cholesterol; 61 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 77 grams protein; 3.1 grams fiber; 54% calories from fat.

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