High Country Noche Buena

Santa Fe, New Mexico, honors tradition and rejoices with local flavors on Christmas Eve.

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Santa Fe table

At Christmas parties and family dinners, the food is largely traditional fare, based on beloved ingredients such as chiles, corn, pork, and squash. New Mexico’s legendary green and red chiles bring Christmas color to the plate. Whether chopped fresh in the green form or dried and ground for the red, they can be equally hot because their piquancy depends on the variety of the pods and the growing conditions, not the hue. Sometimes the chiles are used as garnishes for extra flavor, but in other cases, as with enchiladas, they are simmered into sauces that become integral parts of the preparation. Locals often prefer the green or red variants with different dishes, but at any time of year, indecisive diners can order their food “Christmas” and get both styles together.

Posole sits at the center of the table at many Santa Fe holiday meals. This hominy-based stew has been a New Mexico favorite for centuries and is inexpensive to fix for a crowd. Native Americans taught early Spanish settlers their technique for drying and preserving corn as posole, and the Europeans, in turn, contributed the pork that rounds out the specialty’s robust character. The preparation often appears as a side dish throughout the year but is dressed up with more condiments for its role at Christmas.

Resembling little presents, cornhusk-wrapped tamales peak in popularity at Christmas, too. Because they are moderately labor intensive, people like to share the process of mixing and preparing the ingredients, wrapping the tamales, and then steaming them. Pork and red chile is the classic filling, but many cooks use other types of stuffing, as well, such as green chile, corn, and zucchini.

Carne Adovada, succulent pork cubes slow-cooked in a sauce of toasted, coarse-ground red chiles, generally is the spiciest dish on the table. You can cool down with an Ensalada de Noche Buena, a bright salad of citrus, crunchy jicama, and jewel-toned pomegranate seeds, or with Natillas, a custard-based dessert topped with meringue. And, of course, toast the holidays with a sparkling cocktail and a rousing “Feliz Navidad.”

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