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Christmas Eve Dishes from New Mexico PDF Print E-mail

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




Green Chile Tortilla Pinwheels

Chile de Arbol Salad

Posole (Pork and Posole Corn)

Red Chile Sauce

Biscochitos (Anise-Flavored Cookies)


By Nancy Gerlach, Fiery-Foods.com 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.


Green Chile Tortilla Pinwheels

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..

  • 1/2 cup chopped green New Mexico chile

  • 1  8-ounce package cream cheese

  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

  • 2 teaspoons chopped cilantro (optional)

  • 3 to 4 flour tortillas

Combine all the ingredients, except the tortillas, in a bowl and mix well.

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.

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.

Yield: 2 to 3 dozen

Heat Scale: Mild to Medium

Chile de Arbol Salad

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,.

The Dressing:

  • 2 tablespoons orange juice, fresh preferred

  • 1 tablespoon lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground chile de Arbol

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil

The Salad:

  • 2 oranges, peeled and sectioned

  • 1 small grapefruit, peeled and sectioned

  • 1 small jicama, peeled and cut into 2 by ½-by-1/4 sticks

  • 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced, and separated into rings

  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

  • Garnish: Chopped fresh cilantro

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.

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.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Posole (Pork and Posole Corn)

Posole refers to the dish as well as the main ingredient of this dish. Treating corn with lime to remove the tough skins was probably a technique the early Meso-American cultures passed on the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. The corn that is used is the same kind used to make hominy, but the processing of soaking the corn in lye imparts a different taste. This is a traditional stew that is served during the holiday season. A bowl of posole is welcoming, warming fare for "luminaria strollers" and other holiday well-wishers. Hominy corn can be substituted for the posole corn, although the taste will be different. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 3/4 cup dried posole

  • 1 pound lean pork, cut into 1 ½-inch cubes

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 cups pork or chicken broth

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons ground red New Mexico chile

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • Salt to taste

  • Garnish: Chopped fresh cilantro, minced onions, red chile sauce (see recipe below)

  • 4 to 6 flour tortillas

In a large saucepan or stockpot, cover the posole with water and soak it overnight.

The next day, bring the water and posole to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the kernels start to become tender, 1 to 1 1/2- hours. Add more water if necessary.

In a heavy skillet, brown the pork over medium-high heat, adding a little oil if needed. When the pork is browned, add it to the posole. Add the onions to the skillet and, if needed, additional oil. Saute the onions until they turn a golden brown. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Transfer the mixture to the stockpot with the posole.

Add the broth to the skillet, raise the heat, and deglaze, being sure to scrape all the bits and pieces from the sides and bottom. Pour the broth into the posole.

Add the chile and oregano to the stockpot and salt to taste. Bring it to just below the boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is very tender and starts to fall apart. Add more broth if necessary.

Place the garnishes in small serving bowls, ladle the stew into large soup bowls, and serve immediately with warm flour tortillas.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Mild to Medium

Red Chile Sauce

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.

  • 10 to 12 dried red New Mexican chiles

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1 medium-sized onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 2 cups beef or vegetable broth

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • Pinch of ground cumin

  • Salt to taste

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.

Cover the chiles with hot water and allow them to steep for 15 minutes to soften. Drain the chiles and discard the water.

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.

Place all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Strain the mixture for a smoother sauce.

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.

Yield: 2 to 3 cups

Heat Scale: Medium to Hot

Biscochitos (Anise-Flavored Cookies)

Photo by Aaron Sandoval

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.

  • 3/4 cups sugar

  • 8 ounces vegetable shortening or lard

  • 1 egg

  • 1.5 teaspoons vanilla

  • 1 teaspoon anise seed

  • 3 cups flour

  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • Cinnamon Sugar:

  • 1/4 cup sugar

  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

To make the cinnamon sugar, combine the ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

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.

In another bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together.

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.

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.

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.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, remove, and cool the cookies on a rack.

Yield: 3 to 4 dozen, depending on the shape


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