For many people, the holidays are an especially stressful time. But for Melissa Guerra, whose eponymous website, melissaguerra.com, is an online kitchen marketplace and blog dedicated to the cuisine of South Texas, the season can also be a time to slow down and enjoy the company of the people we love.
“During the holidays, people get off their phones, unplug, and we just sit around,” Melissa says. While guests chat late into the night at her family’s cattle ranch 35 miles north of Edinburg, they’re usually sipping from a hot mug of ponche navideño, or Christmas punch.
“At the base of the punch is jamaica, which is the dried hibiscus flower,” explains Melissa, who also wrote the James Beard Award-nominated cookbook Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert: Norteño Cooking of South Texas. “Then, it has all these different fruits and dried ingredients that are a great illustration of ranch and South Texas culture.”
Although Melissa, an eighth-generation border Texan, didn’t start drinking ponche navideño herself until she was married, the tradition dates back hundreds of years. “Since we don’t have a ton of rain here, even our treats are dried,” she says. “These would have been special ingredients that you could have purchased at the local mercado, and they would have lasted for a while.”
The holidays at Melissa’s ranch are filled with family and friends. They typically enjoy a large midday meal and then a light supper of a few tamales and a hot cup of ponche.
“The biggest tradition for us, I guess, is just people,” Melissa reflects.
Melissa Guerra’s Traditional Christmas Punch
- 2 qts. water
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp. ground anise
- 1 c. jamaica (dried hibiscus flowers)
- 8 oz. piloncillo or panela (or 1 c. white granulated sugar)
- 1/2 apple, cored and chopped
- 1 pear, cored and chopped
- 1 oz. pitted prunes, chopped
- 1 oz. raisins
- 1/4 lb. tangerine, peeled and separated into sections
- 4 oz. sugarcane, peeled and separated
- 2 oz. tamarind pods, peeled and deveined
- 1/4 lb. guavas, fresh or frozen, quartered with seeds removed
In a 6-quart stock pot, bring the water, cinnamon, cloves, and anise to a boil. Add the jamaica and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, allow to cool completely, and then strain out the jamaica flowers, saving the liquid tea. Return the tea to the stock pot. Add the sugar, apples, pears, prunes, raisins, tangerine, sugarcane, tamarind, and guavas. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, then remove from heat. To serve, ladle some of the fruit into a mug and pour warm ponche over it.