You Say Farolitos, I Say Luminarias: Christmas Eve in New Mexico

Christmas Eve Dishes from New Mexico (Original)

Dave DeWitt Cooking with Chiles at the Holidays Leave a Comment

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By Nancy Gerlach, Fiery Foods & Barbecue Central Food Editor Emeritus

Christmas Eve in New Mexico is a very special night steeped in tradition and probably no other image symbolizes the season more than the flickering lights from the brown paper bags called luminarias or farolitos, that line the walkways and outline buildings and houses throughout the state. They are only lit on December 24th and in many areas, such as the Old Town area here in Albuquerque, electric lights are turned off, motorized traffic is restricted, and people bundle up and stroll the areas and let the luminarias weave their spell.

Luminarias or Farolitos are
lining the walkways and houses
throughout New Mexico

The tradition of lighting small bonfires, called luminarias, on La Noche Buena was brought from Spain to Old Mexico in the 16th century by Franciscan monks. They were set alongside roads and churchyards to guide people to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This custom then traveled northward with the Spanish into what was to become New Mexico. Here the crisscross fires of pinon wood came to symbolize lighting the Christ child’s way on December 24th. So how did luminarias go from being small bonfires to lights in small paper bags?

By the early 19th century, sailing ships brought Chinese paper lanterns from the Philippines to the port of Vera Cruz in Mexico. From there, they were brought to New Mexico where, because they were easier to use, they were hung in plazas and patios and began to replace the bonfires or luminarias. But for the residents of New Mexico, who were dependent on annual trade caravans for their lanterns, they proved to be too expensive to use. As an alternative to Chinese lanterns, people began to make small paper lanterns out of paper sacks and the translucent wrapping papers that came with imported dishware. “Farolitos” is Spanish for “little lanterns” and the luminarias evolved into farolitos. In 1872, the first square-bottomed paper bag was patented in Boston and eventually they made their way to Santa Fe. These were easier to use and they quickly replaced the homemade sacks used for farolitos.

Today, strings of lights with brown plastic bags are available commercially as an alternative to the traditional paper bags. Although they are easier to assemble and can be used for multiple nights, I prefer the old-fashioned type. There is something about assembling the bags in the morning and lighting them at sundown, that adds to the magic of the night. Farolitos are easy to make and can add a Southwestern tradition to your Christmas celebration. All that is needed are brown paper lunch sacks, sand, and votive candles. Fold the sack outward from the top down about two-inches, put an inch of sand in bottom of the bag, and place a candle in the bag. Line the bags in rows on the edges of sidewalks, driveways, on porches, or in patterns on lawns.

Christmas Eve at our house begins with our setting out our luminarias along the roof of the house, front porch, and driveway. At dusk we light the candles and then head to Old Town, where the plaza is closed to cars, to enjoy the lights, carolers, and the good cheer of hundreds of fellow strollers. We return home to welcome friends with a buffet that always includes a traditional pot of posole, biscochitos, and some or all of the following recipes.

So which is the correct nomenclature, farolitos or luminarias? They both are correct. It just depends on where you are. In Santa Fe they are called farolitos and in Albuquerque, luminarias.

And wherever you are, I wish you a Feliz Navidad and a Prospero Año Nuevo.



pinwheels
Green Chile Tortilla Pinwheels
Votes: 8
Rating: 3.75
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These are very popular appetizers New Mexico and are served at just about every holiday party. A number of fillings can be used, but green chile cream cheese is by far the most favored. This is an all-purpose filling that goes well on crackers, as a dip with chips or vegetable crudities, as well as on tortillas. For those watching their fat intake, substitute light cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese. It is important to tightly roll and refrigerate the rolls or they won’t stay together after they are sliced.
Servings
2 to 3 dozen
Servings
2 to 3 dozen
pinwheels
Green Chile Tortilla Pinwheels
Votes: 8
Rating: 3.75
You:
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These are very popular appetizers New Mexico and are served at just about every holiday party. A number of fillings can be used, but green chile cream cheese is by far the most favored. This is an all-purpose filling that goes well on crackers, as a dip with chips or vegetable crudities, as well as on tortillas. For those watching their fat intake, substitute light cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese. It is important to tightly roll and refrigerate the rolls or they won’t stay together after they are sliced.
Servings
2 to 3 dozen
Servings
2 to 3 dozen
Ingredients
Servings:
Units:
Instructions
  1. Combine all the ingredients, except the tortillas, in a bowl and mix well.
  2. Spread the filling on the tortillas, sprinkle the cilantro over the top, and roll the tortilla in a jelly-roll fashion and tightly wrap in plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.
  3. Place the tortillas in the refrigerator for at least 2 to 3 hours. Just before serving, unwrap the tortilla rolls and slice into 6 to 8 pieces.
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jicama
Chile de Arbol Salad
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
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Jicamas are a bulbous root vegetable with thin brown skin and a crisp, crunchy, sweet flesh rather like a water chestnut. In Mexico, jicamas are a popular snack food sold by street vendors who cut them into sticks, douse them with lime juice, and sprinkle them with chile. Sometimes called a Mexican potato, it’s good both raw and cooked, although it is usually served raw as an appetizer or in salads such as this one. This spicy salad dressing goes well with a number of fruits and vegetables so experiment with your own combinations.
Servings
4 to 6 servings
Servings
4 to 6 servings
jicama
Chile de Arbol Salad
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Jicamas are a bulbous root vegetable with thin brown skin and a crisp, crunchy, sweet flesh rather like a water chestnut. In Mexico, jicamas are a popular snack food sold by street vendors who cut them into sticks, douse them with lime juice, and sprinkle them with chile. Sometimes called a Mexican potato, it’s good both raw and cooked, although it is usually served raw as an appetizer or in salads such as this one. This spicy salad dressing goes well with a number of fruits and vegetables so experiment with your own combinations.
Servings
4 to 6 servings
Servings
4 to 6 servings
Ingredients
Salad Dressing
The Salad
Servings: servings
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Instructions
  1. In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the dressing, except the oil, and allow to sit for 30 minutes to blend the flavors. Whisk in the oil in a slow stream and mix until creamy.
  2. In a large serving bowl, combine the fruits, jicama, and onion, and drizzle the dressing over the top., and toss to mix. Sprinkle the nuts over the top, garnish with the cilantro and serve.
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Posole (Pork and Posole Corn)
Posole (Pork and Posole Corn)
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This dish is traditionally served during the Christmas season in New Mexico, when a pot simmering at the back of the stove provides a welcoming fare for holiday well-wishers. I can't remember any holiday party or dinner that I've attended that this stew hasn't been served. At my house this is a staple on Christmas Eve. I always have a pot ready to warm my husband and I up after strolling Old Town and enjoying the luminarias. Similar to, yet different from the "pozole" served in Mexico, this popular dish is served as a soup, a main course, or a vegetable side dish. Posole, the processed corn, is the main ingredient of this dish of the same name. If posole corn is not available, you may substitute hominy--the taste won't be the same, but it will still be good.
Servings
6 servings
Servings
6 servings
Posole (Pork and Posole Corn)
Posole (Pork and Posole Corn)
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
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This dish is traditionally served during the Christmas season in New Mexico, when a pot simmering at the back of the stove provides a welcoming fare for holiday well-wishers. I can't remember any holiday party or dinner that I've attended that this stew hasn't been served. At my house this is a staple on Christmas Eve. I always have a pot ready to warm my husband and I up after strolling Old Town and enjoying the luminarias. Similar to, yet different from the "pozole" served in Mexico, this popular dish is served as a soup, a main course, or a vegetable side dish. Posole, the processed corn, is the main ingredient of this dish of the same name. If posole corn is not available, you may substitute hominy--the taste won't be the same, but it will still be good.
Servings
6 servings
Servings
6 servings
Ingredients
Servings: servings
Units:
Instructions
  1. In a large saucepan or stockpot, cover the posole with water and soak overnight. Bring the water and posole to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Add more water if necessary.
  2. Heat a heavy skillet over high heat, add the oil, and when hot, reduce the heat to medium, add the pork, and brown. Remove the pork when it is browned, and add it to the posole. Add the onions to the skillet, and fi needed, additional oil. Add the onions to the skillet, and if needed, additional oil. Saute the onions until they turn a golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Transfer the mixture to the pot with the posole.
  3. Add the broth to the pan, raise the heat, and deglaze the pan, being sure to scape all the bits and pieces from the sides and bottom. Pour the broth into the posole pot.
  4. Add the remaining ingredients to the stockpot, bring to just below boiling, reduce the heat, and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the posole is tender and the meat is starting to fall apart. Add more broth or water if necessary.
  5. Place the chopped onions for the garnish in a sieve and rinse under cold water to remove the sharpness.
  6. Place all the garnishes in small serving bowls, ladle the stew into individual soup bowls, and serve accompanied by warm flour tortillas.
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Red Chile Sauce
New Mexico Red Chile Sauce
Votes: 1
Rating: 5
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The chiles that are traditionally used for Chile Colorado (red chile sauce) are the ones that are plucked off the ristras. Ristras, those strings of dried chiles that adorn houses in New Mexico are not just for decoration they are used for cooking also. This is a basic sauce that is used in any Southwestern recipe that calls for a red sauce such as enchiladas or tamales or as in the above recipe for Posole.
Servings
2-3 cups
Servings
2-3 cups
Red Chile Sauce
New Mexico Red Chile Sauce
Votes: 1
Rating: 5
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The chiles that are traditionally used for Chile Colorado (red chile sauce) are the ones that are plucked off the ristras. Ristras, those strings of dried chiles that adorn houses in New Mexico are not just for decoration they are used for cooking also. This is a basic sauce that is used in any Southwestern recipe that calls for a red sauce such as enchiladas or tamales or as in the above recipe for Posole.
Servings
2-3 cups
Servings
2-3 cups
Ingredients
Servings: cups
Units:
Instructions
  1. Arrange the chile pods on a baking pan and place them in a 250 degree F. oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the chiles become very aromatic, being careful not to let them burn. Remove the stems and seeds and crumble the chiles into a saucepan.
  2. Cover the chiles with hot water and allow them to steep for 15 minutes to soften. Drain the chiles and discard the water.
  3. Heat the oil in a saucepan and when hot, add the onions and saute until they are soft. Add the garlic and saute for an additional minute. Add the chiles, broth, oregano, and cumin and simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Place all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Strain the mixture for a smoother sauce.
  5. If the sauce is too thin, place it back on the stove and simmer until it’s reduced to the desired consistency, if too thick, add additional broth or water. Adjust the seasonings and serve.
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biscochito
Biscochitos (Anise-Flavored Cookies)
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Although history doesn’t reveal the origin of these cookies, it’s believed that they were created by the descendants of the early Spanish settlers in New Mexico. Traditionally they are served at the holiday season and can be found gracing tables after the lighting of the luminaries on Christmas Eve. They are so popular that they have been declared the Official State Cookie. New Mexico is probably the only state that has one! These flaky cookies with a hint of anise must be prepared with lard for the traditional taste, although shortening can be substituted.
Servings
3-4 dozen depending on shape
Servings
3-4 dozen depending on shape
biscochito
Biscochitos (Anise-Flavored Cookies)
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
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Although history doesn’t reveal the origin of these cookies, it’s believed that they were created by the descendants of the early Spanish settlers in New Mexico. Traditionally they are served at the holiday season and can be found gracing tables after the lighting of the luminaries on Christmas Eve. They are so popular that they have been declared the Official State Cookie. New Mexico is probably the only state that has one! These flaky cookies with a hint of anise must be prepared with lard for the traditional taste, although shortening can be substituted.
Servings
3-4 dozen depending on shape
Servings
3-4 dozen depending on shape
Ingredients
Cinnamon Sugar
Servings: dozen depending on shape
Units:
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. To make the cinnamon sugar, combine the ingredients in a small bowl and set it aside.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, cream the sugar and shortening together. Add the eggs, vanilla, and anise seed, and continue beating until the mixture is creamy.
  4. In another bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the shortening mixture, a little at a time, and beat to mix well after each addition. Continue until all the flour has been incorporated and a stiff, smooth dough. Do not refrigerate as the dough needs to be warm to hold together.
  6. To roll out the cookies, place a ball of dough about 3 or 4-inches in diameter on a lightly floured surface. Roll out using a very light stroke with a rolling pin. The dough should resemble pie pastry more than cookie dough.
  7. Using a sharp knife or cookie cutter, cut the dough into the desired shape. Dust with the cinnamon sugar and place on a lightly oiled baking pan.
  8. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, remove, and cool the cookies on a rack.
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