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Maria Rosita Cabral and her proud turkey
Contrary to popular belief, Thanksgiving is not always what you learned about in school. The imagery of overflowing cornucopias and indians eating in peace with pilgrims never existed in my Mexican American upbringing. The paper cut-out “pilgrim” hats that I made in Elementary school had no significance beyond the lesson that day. No, for my family, the only thing synonymous with Thanksgiving is my mother’s chile-rojo braised turkey. No matter what family drama occurs throughout the year, on Thanksgiving, my complete nuclear family sits down together, gives thanks and eats pavo en chile rojo over Manischewitz, a seasonal sweet Jewish wine. (Manischewitz is similar to Tres Coronas “Tipo Jerez,” a sweetened wine from Zapopan, Jalisco that my parents grew up on.)

La Yerbabuena, Zacatecas by Javier Cabral
La Yerbabuena, Zacatecas
My mom immigrated to Los Angeles in 1961 from a small ranch called “La Yerbabuena.” Today, its population is less than 100. When I ask her about Thanksgiving, an imported tradition she now considers hers, she says, “Es una costumbre en donde se da gracias. En mi tierra se festeja cuando alguien se casa ó tiene quinceañera, aquí la tradición es el pavo.”

Her explanation is rooted in the universal tradition of feasting, whether its for Thanksgiving in the US, or a wedding or a quinceañera in Zacatecas. In La Yerbabuena, she would prepare a whole cow or an entire pig for a festivity. Cooking turkey was something she adopted in Los Angeles.

First she rubs the turkey with dry chiles and salt. As it cooks, the chile melds with the turkey drippings on the bottom of the pan to form a red chile-gravy of sorts. Also, her stuffing is a similar to picadillo, made from ground beef and vegetables. She explains, “Why get full off more bread than the toasted bread rolls already on our table?” Our pavo is served with baked potatoes stuffed with sour cream, chives and butter. My parents associated baked potatoes with special occasions and fancy dining in the U.S. In short, a true pocho pavo.

Below is the recipe for María Rosa Cabral’s Pavo en Chile Rojo. Don’t forget to check back. For more of my mother’s regional Mexican recipes and my story, check out the cover story I wrote for Saveur last year.


Cabral Turkey
Cabral Thanksgiving Turkey
For the turkey:

23 lbs Turkey (fresh if possible, not frozen)
10 New Mexico dried chiles
4 Chiles de Arbol
4 cloves of garlic
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp ground clove
4 Saltine crackers
3 Cups of water
Salt to taste

For the stuffing:

1 lb ground beef
2 bunches of green onion (sorry, don’t know how much that equates to yet!)
1 15 oz. can of beets (drained and chopped)
1/2 cup of cilantro (minced)
8 black olives (chopped)
1 cup of fresh white corn (frozen or sliced fresh)
3 stalks of celery (minced)
2 medium carrots (minced)
1 tbsp of garlic salt
1/2 tbsp of black pepper
1/4 cup unsalted butter

Directions for stuffing:

In a pan, add butter, brown the beef. (roughly 10 minutes)
Add the rest of the stuffing ingredients, uncovered. (medium heat)
Cook partially, for 20 minutes only.

Directions for turkey:

Rinse turkey, remove giblets and neck, rub salt inside liberally.
Stuff with stuffing. Sew shut with thread.
Repeat this process on the area between breast and skin.
Place turkey inside roast pan, set aside.

Directions for red chile sauce:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove seeds from all the chiles, toast chiles on open flame with tongs.
Let chiles soak in three cups of water in blender, add rest of chile rojo ingredients. Blend until smooth.
Pour chile all over turkey, fill halfways.
Make stock with turkey and giblets, (boil for three hours) add (6 cups) stock to red chile puree, heat and let cook for 1/2 hour.
Place turkey and cook according to turkey size, cover legs and wings with aluminum foil to avoid burning, cover and cook for 2 1/2 hours). Uncover then, finish cooking uncovered for one more hour until skin is crisp. Turkey is done when a fork-piercing to the breast, no liquids come out.

For dessert, yams cooked in piloncillo. For 1 lb of yams: water to cover, 3 cloves, 1 stick of cinnamon, and 1 cone of Piloncillo. Eat with cold milk, room temp.

4 Comments »

  • Susie Cabral said:

    Amazing!!! Thanks Javi

  • Nicole Presley said:

    I love the Cabral Thanksgiving way! The recipe sounds gorgeous and so is your Momma and her turkey! :)

  • Here Comes Thanksgiving | ezzyhome said:

    [...] something’s missing in all this – the nuclear energy that really matters on Thanksgiving Day. No matter what family drama occurs throughout the year, on [...]

  • martin said:

    Here in Zacatecas a fresh turkey sets you back about 70 dollars.

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