El Mercado, the assemblage of Mexican shops, groceries and restaurants on East First Street, is decked with signs of the season. In the parking lot the other day, a painter was brightening the pink dress of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose portrait graces a back wall. The Virgin is La Patrona de Mexico--the patron saint of Mexico--and is honored at a little shrine inside the market.
Closely linked to the holidays because her day of tribute is Dec. 12, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a popular image for Christmas and New Year cards. Many of these are on sale at El Mercado. One of the musical cards presents a rather startling linkage of Christmas song with religious devotion. When the card is opened, red lights flash in the Virgin's crown and at her neck to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
A more sedate offering is a leaflet titled "Antigua Novena Para Posadas" containing the Christmas devotion that centers around the posadas observance. The cover of the leaflet shows Joseph leading Mary on a donkey as they search for shelter for the impending birth. It is this search that is re-created by the Mexican posadas celebration.
Christmas decorations on sale at the market include straw wreaths from Mexico that are banded with red and green, reflecting the Mexican national colors as well as those of the season. And of course there are pinatas to break for a shower of candies at posadas festivities. A bakery counter displays green sugar-sprinkled Christmas trees along with its campechanas, cuernos and other traditional pan dulce. And a shelf in the produce section of the market is lined with huge pots appropriate for steaming Christmas tamales.
Food is a major aspect of Mexican Christmas fiestas. Since tamales are obligatory, markets are stocked right now with such requirements as pork, corn husks and lard. Making tamales from scratch may be too great a challenge for the inexperienced, so a casserole version has been substituted in the following Mexican Christmas menu.
The other main dish is a festive version of Picadillo (Spiced Ground Beef) that is sweetened with raisins soaked in coffee liqueur. In this menu, the Picadillo is spooned over or alongside Mexican rice. But it could also be presented as taco filling, rolled in enchiladas, spooned onto nachos or placed on a tostada.
Bean soup topped with sour cream and cilantro starts the dinner. There is guacamole, too, and, for dessert, crepes filled with meringue and sprinkled with coconut. The beverage is Sangria, sparked with a dash of brandy.
For a non-alcoholic drink, it would be interesting to serve jamaica. This brilliant red drink is made by soaking dried jamaica flowers in water until they release their color, then straining the water and adding sugar. Jamaica flowers are available in most Mexican markets, and El Mercado also has large bottles of jamaica concentrate for an instant version of the drink that requires only the addition of water.
MEXICAN CHRISTMAS BUFFET
Sopa de Frijoles
Tamal de Cazuela
Ensalada de Nochebuena
Arroz a la Mexicana
Sangria SOPA DE FRIJOLES (Bean Soup)
1 cup finely chopped cooked ham
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup bacon drippings
2 (1-pound) cans stewed tomatoes
2/3 cup Mexican coffee liqueur
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 (15-ounce) cans pinto beans
1 cup beef broth
Finely chopped cilantro
Lemon or lime wedges
Bottled salsa picante, optional
Cook ham and onion in bacon drippings in 3-quart saucepan until onion is tender but not browned. Add tomatoes, chopping any large pieces. Simmer 5 minutes.
Stir in liqueur blended with brown sugar and vinegar. Drain beans and reserve liquid. Coarsely mash beans and add to saucepan with bean liquid and broth. Simmer 10 minutes or until heated through and flavors are blended.
Serve in small bowls. Top each with spoonful of sour cream. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with a lemon wedge. Accompany with salsa picante to add as desired. Makes 8 servings. TAMAL DE CAZUELA (Tamale Casserole)
1 pound ground beef
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons oil
1 (1-pound 13-ounce) can whole tomatoes
1 (10-ounce) can enchilada sauce
1/2 cup pitted black olives
1 (8-ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
1 teaspoon oregano, crumbled
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup water
1/2 pound Cheddar cheese, shredded
Cook beef and onion in oil in large saucepan until meat is no longer pink, stirring to keep crumbly. Add tomatoes, enchilada sauce, olives, corn and oregano and season to taste with salt. Cover and simmer 10 minutes.
Turn mixture into 2 1/2-quart baking dish. Combine cornmeal, water and season to taste with salt. Spoon over meat mixture. Bake at 325 degrees 50 minutes. Sprinkle cheese over top and bake 10 minutes longer. Makes 6 to 8 servings. PICADILLO (Spiced Ground Beef)
1/2 cup raisins, finely chopped
1/2 cup Mexican coffee liqueur
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons oil