HOLIDAY FOOD – Mes de la Patria

16 Sep 2002

Visiting Mexico during the month of September you see green, white and red lights and garlands decorating the streets and Mexican flags displayed in homes, public buildings, restaurants and store windows in every town and city in the country. Everywhere, street vendors sell Mexican flags of all sizes. Small ones are often attached to the antennas of trucks, buses and cars. September is called ‘Mes de la Patria’ (month of the fatherland) and festivities culminate on the evening of the 15th of September with the ceremony of the ‘Grito’, followed by a military parade on the 16th of September, Independence Day.

The tradition of displaying the flag started in 1825 when Mexican citizens were encouraged to display the new Mexican flag in their homes and businesses to commemorate the anniversary of the independence from Spain. The war of independence started in 1810 and culminated with the signing of the treaty of Cordoba by the last Spanish viceroy and Agustin de Iturbide in 1821.

Every 15th of September the Mexican President in the capital and governors and mayors in every city large and small, as well as Mexican ambassadors and consuls all over the world, celebrate a ceremony to commemorate what is popularly called ‘El Grito’ (‘The Cry’). This is a re-enactment of the call to arms by Father Miguel Hidalgo, who, in 1810, rang the bells of his church at 11:00 p.m. in the town of Dolores, encouraging Mexicans to fight, thus starting the War of Independence.

In Mexico City, many people attend this ceremony in the square in front of the National Palace, while others watch it on television. The President appears on the balcony where the Independence Bell has been hanging for over a century, and at 11:00 p.m. he rings the bell and then waves the Mexican flag while shouting: ‘Mexicans, long live the heroes who gave us a country’, followed by ‘Viva Mexico’ three times to which the crowd responds ‘Viva’ every time. Then, everyone sings the National Anthem. This ceremony is broadcast by every television station in the country.

Many people organize parties at home that evening or attend parties offered by restaurants, while VIPs and foreign ambassadors attend the party given by the President. Everywhere televisions are turned on a few minutes before 11 in order to watch the ‘Grito’ and join in the ‘Vivas’ and the singing of the National Anthem. After this, guests throw green, white and red streamers and confetti, make a toast to Mexico and dance to the music of mariachis until early hours of the morning. Many ladies wear rebozos, the typical Mexican shawl.

Restaurants offer special September menus which include ‘Chiles en Nogada’, a Mexican delicacy served only during the month of September when fresh walnuts and pomegranates are in season. This delightful dish was created in the city of Puebla by the nuns of the Convent of St. Monica. On his way back to Mexico City, after signing the Treaty of Cordoba, Emperor Iturbide stopped in Puebla on August 28, 1821, the feast of St. Augustine, his patron saint. The nuns had been asked to prepare a banquet for this occasion. Using seasonal ingredients, green Poblano peppers stuffed with a tasty mixture of meat, fruits and almonds served with a white ‘nogada’ sauce made with cream, goat cheese and fresh walnuts and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds, they presented Iturbide with a dish that had the colors of the Mexican flag. Iturbide loved it and so do millions of Mexicans who eagerly await for ‘Chiles en Nogada’ to appear in restaurant menus every year. Recipes vary – some have little to do with the original while others are more authentic. Many housewives prepare their favorite recipes, some more elaborate and others more simplified. The following recipe is based on the original ingredients used by the nuns of St. Monica’s convent in 1821, according to the information provided by historian Sebastian Verti in his book Tradiciones Mexicanas. Every time I make it my guests love it as much as I do. If you follow it to the letter I guarantee complete success.

It is a very long recipe, but everything can be prepared beforehand. The chiles can be stuffed several hours in advance. Add the sauce and the pomegranates right before serving. This dish is served at room temperature.

CHILES EN NOGADA (POBLANO PEPPERS IN WALNUT SAUCE)

Serves 12

THE PEPPERS

12 large Poblano peppers. (Make sure you use Poblano peppers and not green chilies)

You can either roast the peppers or fry the raw peppers in oil until the skin blisters and browns, put them in a plastic bag for 15 minutes and peel them. I prefer frying them. Cut a slit lengthwise, being careful not to break the pepper, remove the seeds and veins and rinse inside and outside. Pat dry with paper towels. Now you can put them in a covered plastic container and keep them in the refrigerator for two or three days.

THE FILLING

1/2 kg. loin of pork

1 small onion

1 garlic clove

3 sprigs of parsley

half a tablespoon salt

Put all ingredients in a large pan and cover them with water. Cook, covered for about an hour, or until the meat is tender. Drain, reserving the broth. Cook the broth over medium heat until reduce to about half. Let the pork cool and chop finely. Set aside.

One third cup oil

250 g chopped onions

2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 kg tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

one fourth cup chopped parsley

1 apple, peeled and diced

1 pear, peeled and diced

1 peach, peeled and diced

1 ripe plantain banana, peeled and diced

Half a cup raisins

Half a cup chopped blanched almonds

Half a cup candied citron, diced

Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until transparent. Add the tomatoes and cook for five minutes, stirring often. Add the parsley and cook 2 minutes more. Add salt to taste. Add the apple, pear, peach and plantain and cook over medium heat for five minutes. Add raisins, almonds and citron and cook three minutes more. Add meat and 1/2 cup of the broth. Cook for about ten minutes. Correct the seasoning adding more broth if mixture is too thick. Cook, uncovered, until the fruit is completely cooked and the flavors have blended. Let cool and keep in refrigerator until ready to use.

NOGADA (NUT SAUCE)

1 cup shelled walnut halves

1 cup milk

1 cup heavy cream

200 g goat cheese

2 tablespoons dry sherry wine

The seeds of two pomegranates

Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan, add the walnuts and let boil for 5 minutes. Drain and cover with cold water. Drain and peel the skin of the walnuts, putting the white flesh in a bowl with the milk Let them soak for about 12 hours. Discard milk.

Put the drained walnuts in a blender with the cream, cheese, sugar and sherry wine. Blend until smooth, adding milk if mixture is too thick . Taste seasoning, adding more sugar if necessary. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

THE FINAL ASSEMBLING

Stuff the Poblano peppers with the prepared stuffing. Put one pepper in a plate, spoon the nogada down the center of the pepper and sprinkle the pomegranate seeds over the sauce. Make sure the three colors show. Serve immediately.

Mari Angeles Gallardo is a f&w writer for the El Paso Times and the Mexican magazine Paula

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