Christmas

Why Peruvian Swiss Chard Pie Is Always on My Christmas Eve Table

It wouldn't be Noche Buena without it.

December 20, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

Growing up in Miami, it was always exciting to talk to my friends at school about their Christmas plans. Each one was more different than the next. Being home to immigrants from all over Latin America and the Caribbean, Miami has just as many ways to celebrate Christmas as there are countries in the western hemisphere.

The most prevalent Christmas traditions are those of the city’s Cuban majority, who mark the birth of Jesus on Dec. 24th with a pig roast in a caja china—a Miami invention that cooks the animal in an insulated box, yielding crunchy crackling and juicy, tender meat. These Christmas Eve celebrations are often all-night bacchanals, and nobody's really paying attention to what time the kids should go to bed. Other Latino families celebrate with similar zeal.

But when I look back, my family’s Peruvian Noche Buena (or Christmas Eve) was much more sedate. This was the norm for many Peruvian households, apparently, at least those from Lima. We didn’t even have anything distinctly Peruvian on "Noche Buena," not really. We'd come home from midnight mass to a relatively simple dinner of roast beef and a side dish. We’d always finish dinner with cups of hot chocolate and wedges of panetón. The latter is the Peruvian pronunciation of panettone and is a Christmas requirement for almost every Peruvian—a testament to the strong influence that Italian immigrants had on our cuisine.

I always found it odd that, coming from a culture that prides itself on its food, my staunchly patriotic dad never even thought about serving Peruvian dishes on perhaps one of the most important food holidays of the year.

As I became older and had a stronger desire to reconnect with Peruvian culinary traditions, I tried to research what it was that we actually ate on Christmas. It certainly wasn’t roast beef...or was it? Most Peruvians I talked to didn’t really brag much about Christmas dinner the way other Latinos did. I never heard Peruvians recount stories of pig roasts or helping Abuela make hundreds and hundreds of tamales.

Eventually, I did find out what limeños ate on Noche Buena: There’s a roast turkey alongside mashed potatoes and a bowl of applesauce. Some families would include Waldorf salad and a fruit and nut studded pilaf called "Arabic rice." I was perplexed by how a Peruvian Christmas dinner could look so non-Peruvian. A relative had the simplest and best explanation: "We eat Peruvian food every day, so on a special occasion like Christmas we like to have something different."

Over the years, I've started to gain a greater respect for the comparatively quieter Peruvian Christmas Eve dinner my family cooks. I've also gained an appreciation for the idea that Peruvians aren’t particularly tied to any food tradition around this time of year. Few of my compatriots seemed to be viscerally attached to roast turkey or Waldorf salad. This acceptance of the Peruvian way of celebrating Christmas led to the realization that I wasn’t expected to organize an extravagant banquet, and that I can pretty much make anything I want without feeling like I’m compromising my cultural identity.

I always found it odd that, coming from a culture that prides itself on its food, my staunchly patriotic dad never even thought about serving Peruvian dishes on perhaps one of the most important food holidays of the year.

If I'm to be frank with you: What I end up making every Dec. 24 in my home is just a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. Come to think of it, I never make it any other time of year. Maybe that's why it gives us something to look forward to—it's a taste of something different.

But we're not heathens. My American mom instilled in me the notion that I must have a vegetable with every meal. Which is why I felt that my spaghetti and meatballs needed some kind of greenery (and the flecks of basil in the sauce wouldn’t cut it). At first I tried serving a watery watercress soup, which even I regretted. Then, I thought that a green salad would be suitable. But I found that my husband and I would only eat a few leaves of lettuce before digging into the meaty main.

And then we found the perfect "vegetable": pie.

Since Christmas Eve dinner had essentially become an Italian affair at my table with the pasta and panettone, I looked to the Italian-Peruvian repertoire of dishes for a solution to my green vegetable problem. Pastel de acelga is a Swiss chard pie traditionally eaten around Easter. However, this savory tart checked all the boxes for what was lacking on my Noche Buena table. It stars a green vegetable, but one that's a little more decadent and a lot more tantalizing than a salad. My husband agrees, and the proof lies in the fact that we now have to remind ourselves every year not to fill up on Swiss chard pie (because there's spaghetti and meatballs to be had later).

The pie couldn’t be simpler to prepare. Simply mix chopped, steamed Swiss chard with a thick, velvety béchamel spiked with a splash of vermouth and plenty of Parmesan cheese. Fill a pie crust with this unctuous mixture, cover it with more crust, bake, and enjoy one of the most indulgent interpretations of leafy greens you will eat.

Experience has taught me to leave baking to the professionals, and Miami’s version of winter draws northerners for the same reasons that can make baking a real challenge down here: high heat and lots of humidity. As such, I forgo making my own crust. Anyway, the presence of so many South American immigrants in Miami means that I can find imported, frozen dough specifically intended for this pie at my local supermarket. You can really use any type of pie or tart crust recipe that you prefer with great results.

At last, I can say that my Noche Buena table feels complete and authentic to our household. The spaghetti and meatballs are a reflection of the unique traditions of my new family. The panetón and pastel de acelga are firmly Peruvian (and the latter meets the vegetable requirement that my mother raised me with). Altogether, this meal embodies the limeño approach to Christmas Eve. It is simply satisfying and intimately quiet, allowing me to focus on the most important aspect of this holiday: spending time with the people I love.

What's your Christmas Eve tradition? Let us know in the comments below.

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2 Comments

charlotte December 21, 2018
This sounds lovely. I'll try this before the year is out. Thank you so much for posting🍷
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. January 1, 2019
Thank you for reading!