I have always been the culinary explorer in my family, inspired by strange ingredients, foreign flavors and the foods of far off lands.  To me, cooking is artistic expression. And like good art, a well thought out dish is one that combines ideas and ingredients to create something new while making reference to that which has come before – tradition.  But my family doesn’t always agree. Especially when it comes to Christmas dinner. Maybe I did go too far.

One year, when Mexico had captured my imagination, I proposed taking our Christmas dinner south of the border. I was the cook, so I assumed I could decide. But I was wrong. I declared that we would be serving Mole de Guajolote, Mole Turkey, for our Christmas Eve dinner.  The family was shaken; there was protest, anger, disgust.  How could I “mess ” with mole and tradition”?

In a way I understood. Tradition is continuity in our crazy world.  It is what we have to hold on to. It is meaningful and comforting, and in so many ways, it is who we are.  So, in the years to follow I pulled back my exploratory vision a bit, at least on the holidays when the family expected something ‘traditional’, meaning how it had always been – the same meal prepared the same way, like Grandma did, with the same ingredients producing the same flavors with little variation.  But, inside I felt stifled.  And I thought it was boring.

Ten years later, I am living in Colombia, approaching Christmas Eve in a new country.  And, we are facing a simple obstacle.  We just don’t have the same ingredients to make Christmas taste completely traditional.  So, instead of struggling to find the right brand of cornmeal or a jar of old, flavorless sage, I am going to take this opportunity be a little creative with tradition – first out of necessity, and second, because I finally can!  I am going to make my first Colombian Christmas Eve dinner that will speak to our American family tradition while celebrating local Colombian ingredients.  Of course, it won’t taste completely the same as it did back at home.  But it will be enough to remind us of the Christmas that we all know and love.

For those who shy away from crowded markets such as Paloquemao where you can buy fresh turkey in the polleria section, another option is to order from Pavos del Campo. Located on the outskirts of the city, Pavos del Campo is a reliable name when it comes to delivering fresh fowl. I have also heard there are also excellent prices this year on turkeys at Alkosto.

The menu should be simple to highlight the local ingredients; besides turkey there will be a roasted peppered loin of beef with a red wine reduction.  In my opinion, the only way to go is with a lomo de res, served whole and sliced at the table.  The rest of the meal should focus on butternut squash, long onions, and Colombia’s famous Andean potatoes and corn. Pumpkin and corn are truly American elements of the meal.  So, while in South America it is time to showcase them in their most pure and simple state.  No cornbread stuffing this year – the corn flour just isn’t the same here.  Instead, my stuffing will feature fresh yellow corn cut from the cob, sautéed with sweet and long onions, celery, and red peppers. Colombia’s papas criollas are so creamy and delicious they must have a place on the table.  Peel large ones, boil them in salted water until tender and mash them with butter and a bit of warm milk, nothing more.  Serve small auyama as a curried apple and pumpkin soup to start or candied in butter and panela.  And don’t forget the green beans, the tender young ones, steamed and sautéed in brown butter. For dessert, of course, there will be Grandma Bee’s famous chocolate roll topped with warm Santander chocolate sauce.

Andean Corn and Red Pepper Stuffing

  • 2 French baguettes, cubed and slowly dried in the oven until crisp.
  • ½ cup long onions, finely chopped
  • ½ cup white onions, finely chopped
  • ½ cup corn cut off the cob
  • 1 cup red pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • ½ cup celery, finely chopped
  • 8 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 eggs
  • Whole milk and turkey broth, enough to moisten

Place dried bread in a bowl.  Slowly sauté the chopped vegetables in butter until tender.  Cool and add to bread.  Add eggs, and season with salt, black pepper, fresh thyme and paprika and mix well.  Moisten with milk and broth until soft.  Place in an ovenproof casserole dish, top with ¼ cup more milk, and bake in 180 c. oven until golden and crisp on top.