Santa Claus rarely—if ever–makes an appearance in the zocalos in Mexican cities. But Christmas Cod does, because not everyone eats tamales on Christmas eve, especially in Mexico City, where tradition holds that revelers celebrate the legacy of the various culinary influences of the Native Americans, French, and Spanish. So it’s not unusual to find a Christmas Eve menu that includes a roasted turkey with mole negro, a French onion soup, and Spanish bacalao, the classic salt cod that was eaten during colonial times and is still enjoyed.
Christmas Eve, or course, is Noche Buena, the last night of Las Posadas (“the shelters”), which begins on December 16 and continues each night. This custom began with Spanish missionaries who wanted a dramatic way to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child by recreating Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging.
Usually the faithful hold a candlelight procession, usually led by a priest, with musicians, and also with children acting the roles of Mary and Joseph. The procession, singing carols, visits Nativity scenes and stops at houses where “Mary and Joseph” ask for posada, or shelter. They are turned away each night with a “no room at the inn” rejection until Noche Buena, where they are welcomed inside for a midnight mass, then a fiesta with music, dancing, the smashing of piñatas, and finally a dinner that often includes bacalao.
Spicy Noche Buena Bacalao Estilo Vizcaina
This is the classic salt cod dish from the Spanish province of Vizcaya but reinterpreted to omit the Spanish cured ham, red bell peppers and dried red chiles, replacing them with olives and chilaca chiles, the fresh version of pasillas. If you can’t find chilacas, just use the pickled güeros in jars. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.
1 pound salt cod (available online at LaTienda.com)
1 white onion, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
Olive oil for frying
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, roasted over open flames or in an iron skillet, chopped fine
1 pound peeled and cooked potatoes, diced
Pinch each of sugar, salt and pepper
3/4 cup olives
5 pickled chiles güeros, chopped
Chopped Italian parsley to taste
Soak the codfish in water for 12 hours, changing it several times to remove excessive salt. Then add it to a pan, cover with water and gently boil it until it starts to fall apart. Remove it and drain off the water, and shred it completely, removing any bones.
Heat the olive in a large skillet and fry the onion and garlic until soft. Add cod, tomatoes and potatoes, stir, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with the sugar, salt, and pepper. And the olives and chiles and cook for 5 minutes. Serve and sprinkle each serving with the parsley.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
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