A Home-Reared Chef: Cook by Instinct, Recipe #10
Christmas in Latin America, in El Salvador, holds vivid memories for my mother growing up during the 1940s. She was almost out of breath recalling the fun days of festivities that included eating a variety of foods! I, too, remember my Christmases there—though few—and hearing her tell her stories instantly transported me back, to another time, another era, far away from today’s fast-moving commercialized holiday. The memories haunt me to nostalgia, even now.
On the eve of the twenty-fourth, right around midnight, we would all sit to eat and enjoy hot, freshly made tamales de pollo, chicken and tamales dulce de puerco, sweet with pork. Oh-yum! And on Christmas day, the twenty-fifth, pavo (chumpipe), roast turkey would be sauced with Salsa de Chumpipe; a savory harmonizing of flavors.
It wasn’t until my mother was about twelve-years old that the first Christmas tree was placed at the very large window of her home’s grand living-room. Those with money—the rich, like the Roas—could afford to decorate their homes just like in America; a very large tree with fancy lights and decorations. They were the talk of friends and the neighborhood. And though it was beautiful to look at, most impressive when lit and all the presents appeared at the foot of the tree on Christmas morning, and the reason for envy from other children, my mother says the feeling of Christmas curiously changed. Placing the tree and following more modern [American] traditions, well, it just wasn’t the same feeling after that.
Christmas, before the tree, meant setting-up their large nativity in the living-room, the heavy curtains pulled back so that all could see, and Baby Jesus was found lying in the manger on Christmas morning, the twenty-fifth. The presents, usually just toys, were placed—once it was known the children were fast asleep—at either the foot of their beds or under, or both. In the homes of the wealthy, the children woke-up in a sea of colorful bows and wrappings. You’d hear them screaming with joy at such a sight. Soon after the parents would come running in, acting with great surprise, and reminding them that Baby Jesus had not forgotten them that year because they’d been good children.
“But Doña Estevana used to set up the largest and best looking nativity in the neighborhood,” my mother recalls. “She was a widow, and obviously very wealthy, and people would come from every corner of the country to see her life-sized nativity through her panoramic window. She would open her magnificent drapes so that all that came could see. They would see the empty manger and the Three Wise Men, cows and horses and trees, and little rivers that had actual running water; very beautiful and very spectacular.”
My memories of Christmas in El Salvador are the fireworks and the food. On the eve of the twenty-fourth, at midnight, we could hear a symphony of crackling and popping firecrackers mingled with the whistling and swishing of fireworks exploding in the air. My brother and I would jump from the table—because we were having a late dinner—and run outside to see the glittering lights and displays of colors. What a sight that was!
Here is a very old, traditional sauce used often during the Christmas and New Year holidays. The Mexicans have their treasured Mole, and we have this one.
Salvadoreño Salsa de Chumpipe
2 cans (28 ounces each) tomato sauce
1 dry pasilla chile
1 dry guajillo chile
4-6 cloves of garlic (less or more to taste)
1 bag (1 1/2 ounce) pumpkin seeds (shelled)
14 cup Sesame Seeds
1/2 bag (1 oz size) Menudo spices (more to taste)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion
4 tablespoons chiles’ water
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
1/4 butter (room temperature)
Salt (to taste)
1 bay leaf
Cooking the sauce:
1. On a medium-low heat, heat a medium-size cast iron, or non-stick fry pan and place the pasilla and guajillo chiles to warm up, turning them often so that they don’t burn. When you hear them popping turn off heat and remove them to a waiting bowl of cold water to soak for a couple of minutes. Working with the chiles in the bowl of water tear them open and remove the stems and seeds. Set the cleaned chiles aside. Reserve the chiles’ water.
2. Using the same fry pan set to a medium-low heat warm the whole cloves of garlic, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and menudo spices, turning them often. When you start to hear popping—some seeds may even jump in the pan–turn off the heat immediately. Remove this mix to a separate bowl until ready to use.
3. In the same fry pan, on a medium-low heat, fry the onion with the olive oil until translucent. Turn off heat.
4. In a blender add 1 can of tomato sauce, half the cleaned chiles, half the spices mix, half the onions, and a couple of tablespoons of the reserved (strained) chiles’ water. Blend well. Add this tomato concoction to a 3-quart heavy sauce pan. Repeat this same process with the second can of tomato sauce.
5. To this Salsa de Chumpipe add the remaining 5 ingredients: Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, butter, salt, and bay leaf. On a medium heat, stirring often, begin to heat this until large bubbles begin to surface. Cover and simmer on low for at least 2 hours (3 hours is even better), stirring once in a while.
NOTE: Serve this thick, spicy and tangy sauce over roast turkey or pork, or salchicha, sausage on French or Kaiser Roll, nestled with leaves of fresh, crisp lettuce, thin slices of red onion and tomato. Oh-yeah … this is living!