Christmas, south of the border
The Christmas season holds different meanings for each of us.
For some, it’s a festive time of parties filled with food, carols and laughter. For others, it’s a quiet time for observing family customs. For most of us, though, Christmas is a combination of both — a season of special family times and good will.
Today, we look at the cherished memories and traditions of three local Hispanic families. As the holidays approach, they dust off recipes that are craved as much for tradition as flavor. They recall the familiar aromas and tastes of their childhood — cookies baking in the oven, hot chocolate on chilly nights, tangy vegetable salad on fresh corn cakes.
Here are their stories.
Tamales and Mexican hot chocolate
Lydia Vallejo Martinez — who with her mother, Paula Vallejo, opened Vallejo’s Restaurant in 1962 — has many fond holiday memories, but a smile crosses her face when she thinks back to the traditional Christmas dances of her youth.
“We kids would go to a Christmas Eve dance,” said Martinez, one of 12 children, “and Mom would start making tamales. When we’d get home around 2 a.m., there would be a big pot of tamales steaming on the stove. And she’d have mugs of Mexican hot chocolate ready.”
Paula died in 1990, but another tradition had taken hold by then, and has continued: the family chicken molé buffet, held at the restaurant on Christmas Day.
“We have more than 50 relatives who come for our molé feast,” Martinez said. “It’s our family reunion. I have a brother who is 90 and a sister who is 77. We’re all getting up there, and the Christmas Day dinner is a way for us to keep together.”
Martinez shared the hot chocolate recipe that has been passed from grandmother to mother and, finally, to daughter. She prides herself on keeping to the traditions of food preparation that her mother taught her.
“I learned so much from my mother,” she said. “Little tricks. I haven’t changed a thing. I make all the recipes from scratch just like we did from Day 1.”
Escabeche (vegetable salad)
Escabeche is a traditional Christmas dish in El Salvador that also is served on special occasions during the year, according to Monse Hines, owner of Monse’s Taste of El Salvador products.
The salad is a tangy combination of green and red bell peppers, carrots, onions, green beans, cauliflower and jalapeños, lightly sautéed in oil and seasoned with thyme, laurel, cloves, salt and black pepper. It’s usually served at room temperature but can be served cold.
“I love making this dish because the ingredients are pretty simple and easy to find year-round,” Hines said. “Plus, I love food from my country.
“In Salvador, when my mother orders a cooked turkey, she is given a choice of having escabeche or rice for sides. After Christmas, we make sandwiches with corn tortillas with turkey and escabeche. It’s delicious.”
Hines, who is married to an American and lives in Colorado Springs, grew up in Chalchuapa, El Salvador, and comes from a large family that typically gathered for special events and holidays.
“We would meet at my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve, at 7 at night,” she said. “The family would eat food together, pray and then we would celebrate outside until midnight.”
Her family then would walk to church for La Misa de Gallo (the Mass of the Rooster).
“They call it this because the rooster is the first sound you hear in the morning when you live in the country,” she explained. “So after the Midnight Mass service, it is the first morning when baby Jesus was born, and La Misa de Gallo is our worship service for that first morning when Jesus was born.
“After mass, we would walk back home and place a baby Jesus doll under the Christmas tree to symbolize the newborn, baby Jesus.”
Hines sells her unique foods — such as curtido (a Salvadoran coleslaw) and pupusas (Salvadoran corn cakes) — at Tabor Mountain Bakehouse.
— Watch a video of Hines making escabeche at gazette .com/food.
Bizcochitos (Spanish Christmas cookies)
Benjamin Gallegos — who with his wife, Katherine, and mother, Rebecca, own Cafe Corto Coffee Gallery — has been introducing Hispanic foods to his mostly American-style menu.
He serves dishes from his family’s various heritages: Colombiano arepas (corn cakes) with cafe con leche, a nod to his Colombian dad; Cuban sandwiches from a Miami-based cousin’s recipe; and empanaditas from his Spanish mother.
When it comes to Christmas, it’s his mother’s heritage that guides the celebration.
“My mom’s side of the family is proudly Spanish, rooted in New Mexico and the San Luis Valley for over 200 years, holding the same traditions and recipes over time,” he said.
“Biz-cochitos are the center of Christmas for so many of the original Spanish settlers of the region. We would go to my grandparents’ house every winter break to dine on freshly butchered lamb, empanaditas and of course enjoy hundreds of bizcochitos.”
Gallegos tells of his grandmother making thousands of cookies each year from her family’s secret recipe, which was handed down from his great-great-grandmother.
“Each family makes them from a base recipe, but, hands down, every primo (cousin) could not wait for my Abuela Rosa’s plate of bizcochitos,” Gallegos said.
“I used to go with my uncle to deliver cookies to all the friends and families of cousins. He and I would drive for hours through los campos (the ranches) to make a stop to deliver goodies.
“I feel bad for the last few houses we delivered to because he and I were munching on the cookies from each plate the whole time, so the last few only had ... well, not as many as the first lucky recipients.”
Christmas Eve also is full of food memories for Gallegos.
“We would go ice skating on the frozen Rio Grande river on Christmas Eve, and that night my grandma’s house would fill up with all the aunts and uncles, all the kids, all the cousins to eat posole, beans with chicos (rehydrated New Mexico dried corn kernels) in them, and red and green chili before my grandma led the kids in Christmas carols.
“Eventually the night would end with us opening all the presents.
“Christmas Day was reserved for church and a family meal, but the day was centered on the religious side.”
Contact Teresa J. Farney at 636-0271, Twitter @tffoodie, Facebook Teresa Farney