Christmas for gringos is typically a gluttonous affair, a sort of Thanksgiving-lite approach to feasting that often involves glazed ham, rolling hills of candied yams, a sequence of fish, roast duck, or (for the lucky mutts among us) some amalgamation of all the above. But in Mexico, holidays are a time to try a bit of healthier fare. At least, for the first course.
In Mexico, Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, is the bigger deal, with Christmas Day reserved for resting after the previous night's celebrations. And the typical feast—before the roast lamb and sopas are brought out—is often kicked off by a salad of beets, apples, pomegranate. And, for those wanting to delight in a bit of extravagance, hearts of palm.
Cue the Ensalada de Navidad, a traditional Christmas Eve salad served in many Mexican homes (and nowadays, a few Southwestern restaurants in the United States). Chef Rene Ortiz, who serves the salad every year at his Austin restaurant La Condesa, said he was inspired to replicate his grandmother's simple apple-and-beets recipe. But he wanted to update the salad, with a little help from fried kale ("I love the nuttiness"), ash-roasted beets, and a horseradish aïoli.
The variety might have ended there. But a trip to Hawaii's Big Island, and a chance meeting with an agricultural group there, inspired Ortiz to also include fresh hearts of palm in the salad. "A lot of salads have the pickled canned version of hearts of palm. [But] when you're eating it from the tree, it is crisp, nutty, refreshing," he says. "When I met the guys in Hawaii, the fresh hearts of palm were amazing."
Ortiz was inspired by the delicate woodsiness of the hearts, and not just for his Ensalada de Navidad. "Now they send [hearts of palm] fresh [to me] every week. We use them year-round." Ortiz has stuffed hearts of palm into quail (his rendition of the chiles en nogada, a dish brought to Mexico by Spanish nuns), he's braised them with steak, and he's puréed them with brown butter and sunchokes to make soup.
Versatility aside, hearts of palm have had a mixed culinary history. They've been alternately called "millionaire's salad" and "swamp cabbage." The sabal palm (from which hearts of palm are harvested) is Florida's official state tree, but most diners think first of the canned variety.
Ortiz is working to un-can the hearts, but the fresh also have a bad reputation from a sustainable standpoint. Because the actual "heart of palm" is the inner core of the stem, harvesting it is incredibly labor-intensive and non-sustainable (it usually requires the destruction of one of the mature stems). That is changing, however.
On the Big Island, the peach palm tree has been cultivated and now farmed to provide fresh hearts of palm. The trees are more sustainable, too, than the more common sabal palm (where most hearts of palm originate), because the hearts can be harvested from newer shoots without killing the whole tree. "It's amazing, isn't it? It's like a cork tree," Ortiz says.
Amazing cork-like properties aside, the recent use of fresh hearts of palm from sustainable sources has made the vegetable less a sinful pleasure than a woodsy callback to Mexican holiday tradition.