Cooking up an ethnic feast a holiday treat

Serving homemade tamales during the holidays is a Mexican tradition. Here tamales are wrapped in corn husks and ready for steaming.
Serving homemade tamales during the holidays is a Mexican tradition. Here tamales are wrapped in corn husks and ready for steaming. Courtesy of Dinorah Klinger

Sacramentans will celebrate the 12 – or 21 – days of Christmas by sharing dishes and libations that span four continents and many centuries:

▪ Tamales dating back to pre-Columbian times.

▪ Eggnog from a secret recipe first brewed on Southern plantations.

▪ King cakes infused with almond cream and a plastic or porcelain baby Jesus – chew carefully – that appear on French, Belgian, Italian and Mexican American tables.

▪ Handmade ravioli with fillings and sauces made by your grandmother’s grandmother.

The true gift of Christmas and New Year’s Day is sharing your good fortune and cheer with loved ones over carefully crafted cuisine reflecting traditions passed on for generations.

Latin Americans kick off the holidays Dec. 17 with La Posada, a 400-year-old ceremony re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging.

“They were on a donkey and kept getting turned away until they got permission to lay in a manger in Bethlehem, so people go from house to house for nine days singing a song and asking for lodging,” said Lucy Garcia, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, who goes to two or three Posadas.

“I make the best ponche caliente,” Garcia said. She brews up a big pot of Mexican punch that can pack a punch – a concoction of cinnamon, tropical fruits, tamarindo, apples, sugar cane and secret ingredients – some versions call for rum, brandy and/or tequila. Garcia likens her ponche to spicy apple cider.

For all her holiday good cheer, Garcia jokes that perhaps the most important things Latin Americans unwrap are tamales. One veteran Sacramento tamale maker is Dinorah Klinger, who began making the delicacy with her grandmother in Mexico City when she was 3.

“Making tamales is one of my biggest passions – I hold tamale parties and teach my friends how to make them,” she said. “In just one sitting, we will make up to 300 tamales in five flavors because with family and friends, you have to share.”

Klinger, who’s also a singer and musician, said the most famous tamale recipes are from Veracruz, Oaxaca, and her hometown Mexico City, renowned for spongy tamales wrapped in corn husks, which are much easier to get than banana leaves. But Klinger grows banana leaves at home in Sacramento so she can have them ready to wrap.

Tamales are eaten throughout Christmas and New Year’s, and leftovers are easily frozen because “every day’s a good day to eat tamales – we’ve cooked them since Aztec times,” Klinger said. She stuffs her tamales with chicken in salsa verde; cheese with jalapeño, pineapple and coconut; and sweet tamales filled with cinnamon and raisins. After the Spanish introduced pigs to the Americas, pork adobe became a popular tamale ingredient.

You start with the filling, or masa – flour or dough often made of dried, ground corn. They are then flavored with pure pork lard – butter or vegetable shortening won’t cut it, she said.

“The masa has to taste good before you cook it. If you roll a piece of masa into a little ball and it floats in cold water, you’re ready to make tamales,” Klinger said. Then you mix in your fresh meats or other ingredients, she said.

Tamales “are Mexican comfort food,” Klinger said, but there’s plenty more for Christmas: pavo al horno (stuffed turkey cooked in the oven); bacalao (dried cod with potatoes, tomatoes, onions, capers, almonds and pickled peppers); pierna de puerco adobada (pork leg slowly cooked simmered in adobo sauce); romeritos (shrimp croquettes in a mole sauce with cactus, potatoes and romeritos); and ensalada noche buena (a salad of lettuce topped with steamed beets, jicama and peanuts with a dressing made of orange juice and sugar).

Mexicans also enjoy king cake, a sweet bread found on Catholic tables around the world on Jan. 6, the day the three Kings are said to have brought presents to the baby Jesus, acknowledging he was the son of God. A little baby Jesus figurine is tucked into the cake, and whoever gets it in their slice has to make a fresh batch of tamales on Feb. 2, known as Candlemas, or the the Feast in honor of the Virgen de la Candelaria.

Those craving a king cake, also known as a gateau des rois, can order them from local French baker and chef Stephanie Lamour at

“I can make them for six, eight, 12 or more people,” said Lamour, who serves it the first Sunday in January. “We can have it for lunch, in the afternoon, or at dinner, and we have it with champagne, of course,” said Lamour, who says the puff pastry cake served warm is beloved for its buttery almond filling and, of course, the little Jesus. “If you get it, you get a crown and become king or queen for a day,” without the pressure of whipping up tamales.

Even though the figurine’s often not bigger than a thumbnail, “you could break a tooth – everybody’s warned, and we tell kids to chew carefully and not swallow,” said Béatrice Hildebrand, Alliance Française de Sacramento executive director.

Filipinos, famous for their parties, open their doors to everyone on Noche Buena – Christmas Eve – after premidnight Mass for a multicourse feast, said Amy Adolfo Svistoonoff of Mindanao, Philippines.

“It’s a time to forgive and ask forgiveness for sins committed, and the joy is in giving,” said Svistoonoff, who last year served chicken adobo, lumpia (spring rolls), friend rice, pancit noodles, arroz de caldo (chicken and rice soup), sauteéd bitter melon, bitter melon salad, flan, bibinka (coconut cake), biko and puto (rice cakes), mangoes, friend banana and indigenous dishes such as suman, kutsinta and ginataan.

“Even some people who are not invited would stop by because there’s food,” she said. “It’s really a beautiful tradition. You are treated just like a special guest. Back in the Philippines, even if we didn’t have much, we could share our food.”

Amy said she learned the true meeting of Christmas in fourth grade, when the entire school had a gift exchange and she was the only one who didn’t get one.

“Big tears were rolling down my cheeks, and my friends said let’s go see Leopoldo, the boy who I’d given two shirts because I always saw him wearing the same shirt,” she said. “We reached Leopoldo’s little one-room straw hut, and I started crying – I realized that the boy was very poor and what I gave was so important to him and he could not give anything in return. He taught me a lesson that Christmas is not receiving, it’s giving.”

Svistoonoff’s Christmas spirit is shared by many, including Rancho Cordova’s Gerrie and Emmitt Walker III, who serve their their thick seafood gumbo and signature eggnog to 80 people, and then work off the feast by dancing the electric slide until early the next morning. The Walkers operate Extravagant Edibles Catering Co., a mobile catering service.

The gumbo, which Emmitt learned how to make from his grandmother from the deep South, “ties into our roots by providing abundance and allows us to express our prosperity we have received throughout the year with our friends and our family,” Gerrie explained. “When Emmitt and I first got together, we didn’t have much because we were young. But as we progressed, we realized we could not always give gifts to our friends and family, but what we could do is feed them luxuriously.”

Any good gumbo begins with the roux, a mixture of flour and oil and drippings – the roux gets so dark in color it actually looks like dark chocolate. Then comes deboned chicken, beef sausage, okra, Dungeness crab, boneless whitefish, and is served over rice. They also whip up a gumbo without seafood for those with allergies, Gerrie said. “I was introduced to gumbo when Emmitt and I started dating.

“Then, there are punch bowls of eggnog based on a 200-year-old recipe that dates back to the times of plantations and slavery,” Gerrie said. “You’re only allowed to make punch bowls to share; you can never sell it. And Emmitt had to ask his friend, Larry Welsey, for five years until he proved he was worthy of it. You’re not allowed to write down the ingredients; you’re only allowed to watch it being made – and then memorize it!”

Nearly every culture offers something special around the holidays. In Sacramento, home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of refugees from the former Soviet Union, you will find families enjoying pirozhkis stuffed with meats, cabbage and other goodies and served with sour cream.

The main holiday meal “has to be meat and potatoes, whatever meat you like – chicken, pork, turkey,” said Svetlana Kumansky, the Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian owner of Sacramento’s Firebird Russian Restaurant. Borscht, a beet or vegetable-based soup, is served year round, but “potato salad’s a must,” she said.

Not just any potato salad, but olivie, a blend of olives, carrots, potatoes, pickled cucumbers, green peas and ham, “each cooked separately and then assembled,” she said. Grilled and cooked meat dishes have their special place on the holiday table, Kumansky said. For a cold appetizer, some families prepare kholodets – meat in gelatin – made in advance. “I love it,” she said.

Another favorite: golubtsi cabbage rolls with meat, rice and a variety of blini – Russian pancakes filled with cabbage, meat, sweet cheese and served with sour cream.

“In Russia, most people could not celebrate Christmas. It was prohibited under Communism, so we celebrated on New Year’s,” said Kumansky, “but here we’re going to feast on Christmas on the 25th, and then Russian Orthodox Christmas on the 12th and 13th of January.”

Many holiday dishes are labor intensive, including the soul of Italian Christmas, homemade ravioli. A prolific ravioli maker is Amy Stefani Maltby, who grew up in the farming village of Segromigno in Tuscany and brought her recipes with her when her dad moved the family to Nevada.

Maltby, on the cusp of 90, says the secret to her meat ravioli is to grind up pork roast, add chopped Italian parsley and a few chopped onions and garlic whipped with eggs and Parmesan cheese. “Of course, I also make ricotta cheese ravioli,” she said. Since it’s hard to find decent store-bought ricotta, she calls a friend, Lynne Allen, who makes her own fresh ricotta.

“I figure about 10 ravioli per person, though most people don’t eat all 10,” Maltby said, who serves up her first batch to about 20 friends and relatives Dec. 13.

“It takes some work,” she said. “I get all the fillings prepared, and then I put them in the refrigerator, and the next morning I get up and make the dough, have breakfast and then I start to roll it out myself with a rolling pin.”

Now that’s old school. And she doesn’t just make handmade ravioli, she makes almond biscotti. “You really like to have something special once a year,” she said.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini