If you’re lucky enough to be visiting New Mexico during the December holidays, you’re in for an extra culinary treat. Especially if you’re sharing one of the holidays with a local family. Or you can re-create New Mexico traditions in your own home.
A food-laden dining table is the real gift every Christmas at the Placitas home of Adrienne and Ron Rivera.
When the contingent of in-laws and siblings, cousins and aunts and uncles arrives for this favorite of holidays, they know they’ll find a steaming kettle of posole, green chile chicken tamales, red chile beef tamales, slow-cooked pinto beans, homemade tortillas and mouth-watering bizcochitos. It’s always the same, and they never tire of it. The feast starts in the morning and lasts all day.
“We might have a turkey or ham or prime rib for later in the evening,” says Adrienne. “But really, everyone’s too full to eat it.”
Traditional New Mexican foods take the top spot on many tables during the holiday season, with the humble posole — a hominylike stew — garnering praises and a reputation for bringing good luck for the coming year.
“Many of these holiday foods are unique to New Mexico,” says Jane Butel, an internationally recognized authority on Southwestern cooking and author of 19 cookbooks, including a half dozen best-sellers. She operates Jane Butel’s School of Cooking in Albuquerque.
Reading and research over the years have convinced Butel that the Rio Grande Valley was the first culinary hotbed for much of the cuisine of the Americas. The processes of preparing and consuming holiday food fare in modern times have morphed into family traditions, she notes. For many New Mexicans, that means posole, tamales, heaping platters of enchiladas, and the satisfying sweetness of bizcochitos at the meal’s conclusion.
Cookie preparation starts early in the season for Rivera, who makes thousands of bite-size bizcochitos for family and friends. She uses a recipe shared 30 years ago by her high school home economics teacher in Santa Fe, although a few undisclosed modifications on Rivera’s part make it her own and tasty enough to have won a blue ribbon at the State Fair.
While the cookies are baked early, the posole and beans cook all night in a slow roaster on Christmas Eve, and her extended family brings the tamales for the big Christmas Day meal.
Along with the tantalizing flavors, Butel loves the histories of these traditional foods, and has written about them extensively in her cookbooks and other publications.
Posole, she writes, is a popular Southwestern stew originally made by the “ancients” in New Mexico and Mexico. Corn was a staple crop, and the Corn Goddess a revered giver of life. Posole, made from dried corn kernels, was a staple foodstuff, a preservable commodity essential for survival.
Butel says posole evolved as Meso-American people learned they could soak corn in a mixture of ground limestone and water, allowing it to soak for several days before draining it and drying it. The corn became well preserved and would remain fresh tasting and vermin-free for several years, vital longevity in a time when crop success and harvest were unpredictable from year to year.
“In New Mexico, it was too far north to easily get ground limestone, so they used the ashes from wood fires to cover the corn for a week or so to ‘cure’ it,” she says.
With the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s, pork became a popular addition to this hearty stew.
“Posole has a lot going for it,” writes Butel. “If properly made, it is delicious and satisfying. Also, it is very economical. A pound of dried posole feeds 15 to 16 people as a main dish. With all these benefits, it is not surprising that it became the dish for the celebrations or feasts to commemorate generally joyous occasions.”
As a Christmas or New Year’s dish, posole is thought to bring good luck for the coming year, she adds.
Bizcochitos, or shortbread cookies, are another New Mexico holiday favorite. So popular is the tender delicacy flavored with anise and cinnamon that it was adopted as the official state cookie of New Mexico in 1989 by the state Legislature.
Butel traces the roots of the pastry to Mexico’s Battle of Puebla in 1862 when the Mexicans overthrew the French-backed Emperor Maximilian, celebrated today as Cinco de Mayo.
“The Mexican women decided what could be better to celebrate getting rid of the French than to come up with a commemorative cookie, and the cookie was the bizcochito,” she says.
Butel takes the French connection a step further by using metal fleur-de-lisshaped cookie cutters for her shortbread cookies, but says the Mexican women used tin cans to symbolize stamping out the French. The cookie symbolizes freedom and victory, she adds, yet has become strongly associated with the Christmas season.
Butel offers several tips for perfecting bizcochitos, starting with the traditional use of lard rather than the butter used by many cooks today.
“It’s critical,” she says. “Lard has the ability to hold air and moisture — it makes for a lighter, more tender cookie.”
Rivera agrees, “Oh yes, I use lard. Otherwise you just have a sugar cookie.”
Other Butel-proffered tips for making good bizcochitos include chilling the dough, then rolling it out between two layers of wax paper to avoid over-flouring. She also adds a few tablespoons of brandy or Spanish sherry to the dough batch to enhance the flavor.
While some cooks like their posole plain for mealtime, adding garnishings ranging from red chile to chopped onions or sour cream before eating, Butel prefers to cook the posole with pork and chile. She uses dried posole, but says it is interchangeable with the frozen posole available at New Mexico markets. Don’t used canned hominy, she cautions, as the taste will be extremely different than intended.
Some traditional year-round favorite foods take on an added twist for the holiday season. Northern New Mexicans may make a yeast-bread empanada filled with a mincemeat and dried green chile filling. More recent Mexican immigrants might serve up Chiles en nogada, a specialty that has the three colors of the Mexican flag. It consists of poblano chiles filled with a mixture of ground meat, aromatics, fruits and spices that are then topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds.
Baking time: 10 to 12 minutes
Yield: 4 dozen cookies
1½ cups lard, chilled
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 teaspoons anise seeds
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
About 3 tablespoons brandy, apple juice or milk
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350°F. Beat lard and 1 cup sugar in a bowl until fluffy. Add eggs and anise seeds, and beat until very light and fluffy. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add to creamed mixture along with the brandy. Mix thoroughly to make a stiff dough. Place dough on a three-foot piece of waxed paper. Bring one end of waxed paper over the top and press to about one inch or slightly less in thickness. Refrigerate until chilled.
Roll out dough between waxed paper to just under ½-inch thickness. Cut with flour-dusted cutters into the traditional fleur de lis shape or into 3-inch rounds. Combine the 3 remaining tablespoons sugar and the cinnamon in a shallow bowl; dip unbaked cookies into the sugar-cinnamon mixture on one side. Place cookies on ungreased baking sheets. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until tops of cookies are just firm.
Cool cookies on wire racks.
Notes: Butter or margarine can be substituted for the lard, however the cookies will not be as crisp and moist. Apple juice or milk can be substituted for the brandy, however they are not quite as good.
Yield: 15 to 16 servings
1 pound dried posole
1 quart water, or more
2 pounds pork, steak or roast, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 tablespoon salt or to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon cumin, or to taste
½ cup caribe chile, or to taste
Simmer the posole in unseasoned water until it becomes soft and the kernels have burst open; it usually requires 1½ to 2 hours.
Brown the pork in a cold, well-seasoned frying pan; adding no fat or oil to the pan. Saute until very browned, then add to the posole. Deglaze the frying pan with 1 cup water, stirring to loosen the brown bits sticking to the pan. Also add to the posole.
Add remaining ingredients, using one-half the cumin and cook the stew for 1 or more hours, to blend the flavors. Just before serving, add the remaining half of cumin. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Ideally, this dish should be started the morning before it is to be served, to allow the flavors to develop.
Notes: You may serve this as a side dish or main dish. I like to layer toppings such as fresh shredded cabbage, fresh lime juice and fresh chopped onion.
Recipes courtesy Jane Butel