Tradition Without Tamales
When my family and I moved to this country from Mexico City, we were often surprised by the assumptions people made about Mexicans and our cuisine. One recurring question always came up at Christmas. “You’re having tamales, right?” This leads me to Myth No. 3 in my series about Mexican food:
Not all Mexicans eat tamales for Christmas dinner.
It is customary in the central part of Mexico — mainly Mexico City — to enjoy a Christmas dinner that reflects the country’s most enduring cultural influences of the Spanish, Indian and French. So, our menu on Christmas Eve always features a cream of oyster soup followed by a simple romaine salad with a light vinaigrette. And then comes the star attraction: salted cod called bacalao, in a tangy tomato and garlic sauce garnished with olives, peeled baby potatoes and chilacas (known here as peperoncini).
The next dish is an elaborate black mole, revoltijos, prepared with shrimp cakes and an herb called romeritos. And finally a simple roasted turkey — seasoned with salt and basted only with a little butter and broth.
The tradition of eating bacalao in Mexico City is centuries old, probably beginning when the Spanish first conquered the country in the 16th century. The tradition continued as the influx of Spanish immigrants continued into Mexico. The dry, salted bacalao originally would come from the Bay of Biscay in the rocky, northern coast of Spain. (Fresh cod gives the dish a much different flavor, less intense than the salted cod.) But there are other places of origin such as Canada.
With the exception of the turkey, finding the right ingredients in the United States for our Christmas Eve dinner at first proved tricky. Luckily, we found the exact kind of cod at Dona Juana’s Spanish store, La Espanola, in Lomita, Calif., La Espanola, which has been around for nearly 40 years, is the premier supplier of authentic Spanish cheeses, chorizo, olives and other Iberian specialties in the United States. The shop also has distributors in Miami, Seattle, San Antonio, San Francisco, New York and Puerto Rico.
To feed 10 to 12 people, we buy nearly four pounds of Canadian salted cod that has been de-boned. The fish must be soaked in water for at least two days to remove much of the salt. Soaking it also softens its flesh. On the day before Christmas Eve, our entire family gathers in the kitchen to get to work. We peel two heads of garlic, two large yellow onions, roast and peel six tomatoes and clean one bunch of parsley. The biggest task is shredding the bacalao, which must be done by hand and takes two people nearly an hour to complete. We take shortcuts by chopping the garlic and onions in the food processor and then pureeing the roasted tomatoes and parsley.
The bacalao is well worth the work — Christmas would not be the same without it, and it has become a new tradition for our friends and family in this country. My vegetarian friend who has joined us for Christmas Eve dinner breaks her diet just for the bacalao. If any is left over, we freeze it and enjoy it in the late spring.
The revoltijo, on the other hand, cannot be found here. Or at least we have never found it since it is a specialty common only to the indigenous villages surrounding Mexico City. Years ago, my grandmother would pack up a large container of homemade revoltijo (made by her excellent cook Dona Lore) and send it to us with any friend who planned on visiting the U.S. One friend placed the container inside a foam cooler and labeled it “Grandmother’s Christmas Mole.” Passing Immigration and Customs back then was a breeze. In today’s world of security checkpoints and Transportation Security Administration dog sniffers, nobody is willing to bring in our revoltijo anymore. So this year, we will try to make the mole and the shrimp patties ourselves. Stay tuned …
Serves 10 to 12
- In a very large and deep dutch oven or pot, pour in the entire liter of olive oil, onions and garlic.
- Puree the tomatoes and parsley in the food processor.
- Once the onion and garlic are soft, add the tomato sauce and the fresh tomato/parsley puree to the oil mixture.
- Stir and let it come to a boil. Add the bacalao and let it cook for at least 1 hour.
- Add in the 24 baby yellow peeled potatoes until they are soft.
- Add the small olives and garnish with the peperoncinis.
Lorenza Munoz teaches Mexican cooking clases in Los Angeles and travels frequently to her native Mexico to write about its food culture. She covered news and entertainment for 14 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Photo by Lorenza Munoz