When friends ask what I’m cooking for Christmas, the answer will be almendrado de pollo, not roast turkey.
Mexican Christmas dinners are a tradition in my house. It’s fun to hunt out interesting new recipes and to shop for ingredients and decorations while traveling. This year’s itinerary took me to from Mexico City to Puebla, then out to the gulf coast of Veracruz and over to Oaxaca--areas so rich in cuisine that I came back overloaded with ideas for dinner.
Because people are overwhelmed with elaborate food during the holidays, I settled on dishes that are light and easy to handle, both for the guests and the cook.
The main course, almendrado de pollo, is chicken in a tomato-almond sauce, from Oaxaca. This is not a complex Oaxacan mole but a simple combination of tomatoes, broth, ground almonds and sliced chicken. It’s not spicy. The only seasonings are salt and pepper. You can make it in the morning, then heat the chicken in the sauce just before serving.
The rice that accompanies the chicken will be tinted green with spinach--another Oaxacan concept. It will also contain corn--certainly not the juicy sweet corn that we get in the summer, but starchier corn, more like that of Mexico.
Instead of refried or boiled beans, there will be calabacitas--squash seasoned with oregano and thyme, two herbs that appear often in Mexican cuisine. I’ll use the pale green zucchini that is labeled “Mexican squash” in some Latino markets as opposed to “Italian squash,” which is ordinary dark green zucchini. The flavor is more delicate, in my opinion.
The appetizer will be guacamole, spread on toasted bolillo slices instead of tortilla chips. I’ll season it with anise-scented Mexican avocado leaves, ground to a powder. You can buy the powder in some parts of Mexico. Mine came from the market in Coatepec, Veracruz. Occasionally sacks of the dried leaves turn up in Oaxacan markets here, supplied by backyard growers.
There won’t be margaritas, because mixing them for company is a real chore. Each has to be composed separately so that the balance of flavors is perfect. I also shake them by hand, which requires spending more time with the cocktail shaker than with the guests. Instead, I’m serving Mexican wine, a Tempranillo from Bodegas de Santo Tomas in Ensenada. It’s a fruity red, a good match for the chicken.
We’ll end with a sumptuous fig ice cream flavored with mezcal, which is the smoky-tasting agave liquor produced in Oaxaca. The idea came from an ice cream parlor in Puebla that specializes in wildly original flavors.
Afterward, we’ll have cafe Americano, which is the Mexican name for black coffee. It will be the real thing, because my freezer is stuffed with coffee beans from Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas.
In Mexico, Christmas is celebrated with great fervor. Artificial trees and Christmas decorations were already on sale in October, just like here. Department stores displayed tortilla holders decorated with holly and bells, lengths of Christmas print fabric for tablecloths, Christmas potholders and many other things. Shops dealing in artesanias (typical crafts) offered nacimientos (nativity scenes), some small enough to cram into a suitcase already overloaded with cooking paraphernalia.
I’ll work several of these into my decorations. One, by a French Basque artist in Orizaba, Veracruz, consists of more than 30 copper-colored figures. They’re so small you can hold the entire set in one hand. Another, from Amozoc in the state of Puebla, is a complete Nativity scene constructed in a walnut shell--an amazing feat.
In Santo Tomas Jalieza, Oaxaca, I bought hand-woven red, black and white placemats that I’ll place on a plain red tablecloth, along with red napkins and red goblets. The tree will sparkle with Mexican tin ornaments, some picked up last spring at a fair in Tehuacan, Puebla. I’ll wrap the base in the boldly colored striped fabric called cambaya bordada, which some restaurants in Mexico use for tablecloths. The patterns, in brilliant pink, purple, blue, yellow and many other shades, look very traditional.
The nice thing about a Mexican Christmas is that it doesn’t end Dec. 25. Still to come is El Dia de Los Reyes Magos, the feast of the Three Kings, Jan. 6. That’s a food holiday too. You can buy a rosca de reyes, the special ring-shaped sweet bread for that day, at many panaderias in Los Angeles. Whoever gets the slice containing a tiny doll is obligated to entertain those present at yet another event Feb. 2, El Dia de la Candelaria. And so it goes--one excuse after another to celebrate with friends and family and, always, to eat well.