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Latin Countries Honor Rich Traditions

Picture a big roast beef or a goose with all the trimmings, followed by pies, puddings, sugar cookies sounds a lot like Christmas dinner, doesn’t it?

Now how about cod in the style of the Basque country? Or maybe a chocolate-cinnamon porridge called champurrado? Or a whole roast pig?

Drawing their inspiration from Spain, not Dickensian England, the Latin countries across the Caribbean and into South America celebrate Christmas with a taste all their own.

Mexico has one of the richest traditions, says Maricel E. Presilla, author of “Feliz Nochebuena, Feliz Navidad: Christmas Feasts of the Hispanic Caribbean” (Henry Holt, 1994).

“The holiday celebrations begin on December 16th and go through January 6th,” she says. “In San Miguel, there are processions of children dressed like angels and shepherds who go from house to house, singing and asking for lodging. Inside the houses, the children are given chocolates, candies and champurrado, which may be spiked with rum for the adults.”

On Christmas Eve, the tradition is to eat bacalao a la Vizcaina, a dish of salted cod layered with potatoes and jalapenos. Christmas Day might mean roasted and stuffed turkey, turkey mole, colorful salads, atole (corn porridge) with almonds, fritters and eggnog-like drinks.

In Chile, people eat casseroles with turkey and lamb. Stuffed chicken is common in Nicaragua. “As you get down into South America it is not uncommon to see ravioli served, part of the Italian influence,” Presilla says.

And despite economic and political constraints, Cubans still try to celebrate Christmas Eve with a whole spit-roasted pig.

Bacalao a la Vizcaina Para Nochebuena

This recipe will appear in Presilla’s upcoming cookbook with the working title of “Latin American Cooking” (Scribner’s, fall 1998).

3 pounds salt cod fillets (available at some supermarkets, meat markets and seafood markets, including Williams Seafood in Spokane)

2 large white onions

2 pounds ripe plum tomatoes

8 cloves garlic, peeled

2-1/2 to 3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 large bell peppers, charred in the broiler, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-by-1-1/2-inch strips

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

24 pimento-stuffed green olives, whole or sliced

1/4 cup drained capers

About 1 teaspoon salt

12 canned pickled jalapenos, drained and coarsely chopped, with 1/2 cup of the pickling liquid reserved

Place the cod in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Refrigerate for 24 hours, changing the water at least three times. Drain.

Boil 3 quarts of water. Add the drained cod fillets and cook for 3 minutes. Drain immediately, reserving the cooking water. Let the cod cool, then shred into small pieces with your hands. Set the cod and the reserved water aside.

Preheat the broiler. Quarter one of the onions. Broil the onion quarters and the plum tomatoes until lightly charred on all sides, about 20 minutes. Broil the garlic until lightly brown, about 4 minutes. In a blender or food processor, puree the tomatoes, onion and garlic until fairly smooth. Set aside.

In a clean pot, bring the reserved cooking liquid back to a boil. Add the potato slices and cook until barely tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil, add the tomato puree and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the cod, pepper strips, cup of the parsley, olives and capers. Add the salt and enough of the reserved cooking liquid to moisten the mixture, about 1 cup. Mix well, bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes (or more if the mixture seems watery).

Line the bottom of a lightly oiled 12-inch round or 13-by-9-inch casserole with half the potato rounds. Ladle half the cod mixture over the potatoes. Add the remaining potatoes in a layer and finish with the remaining cod. Bake for 20 minutes.

While the casserole bakes, slice the remaining onion into 1/4-inch-thick rings. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil in a saute pan. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until wilted and barely golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from the pan, draining away excess oil. Combine with the jalapenos and the pickling liquid. Taste and add salt if desired. Keep warm.

When the casserole is ready, sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of parsley and top with the onion-jalapeno mixture.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 544 calories, 22 grams fat (36 percent fat calories), 30 grams protein, 59 grams carbohydrate, 80 milligrams cholesterol, 1,159 milligrams sodium.

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