“Don’t forget to have a ‘belen’ displayed every Christmas,” my dad said to me when I was getting ready to move to the States eons of years ago. My dad always knew in his heart that someday he would have to let go of me, no matter how much he wanted to have us home forever. As a parent of adult children today, I now understand how much my leaving home must have hurt my dad.
But he sent me off with his blessings. He also reminded me it was important for my children to grow up seeing the nativity set around at Christmas. We called it a ‘belen’ back in the Philippines. Nearly every Filipino home has one. It can be made of the simplest materials or the most elaborate pieces. Either way, it is simply the ‘child in a manger’. Ours is a simple nativity set. In fact, the images were so tiny that when my children were small, they played with it often.
I used to take out each piece carefully out of the box every year. The children and I made a ceremony out of fixing it up. The baby in the manger was always in the center, with the figurines of Mary and Joseph, his parents, around him. Then the 3 wise men were set prominently next to them. And of course, the shepherd boys and the animals were favorites of my children who liked to move them around. We moved the display around through the house, over the years. Sometimes the nativity set would be on the window, at times on the coffee table or the piano. No matter where it was, the belen was a symbol of our faith and occupied a central place in our hearts and home.
My dad was right. The children needed to have something to draw strength from as they were growing up. Tapping on our faith was the first solution to anything we have encountered in life. It has always been. It will always be. Our Christmases have been a mosaic of everything – good, bad, sad, happy, joyful, plentiful, painful, abundant, hectic, exhausting, fun, wintry cold and all sorts of experiences you could possibly throw in. One thing though, there has always been that moment when I needed to take a deep breath, stop and turn on the faucet of strength, to hang on to the faith, to will myself to keep going. Thank you, dad, for the gift of faith, hope and love. You were right, I needed that ‘belen’ all throughout my life.
Arroz con Pollo
- 4 to 5 pieces cooked from previous recipe (see blog post 'Chicken Waray') Chicken Waray (or chicken inasal)
- 6 Tablespoons recipe follows below achuete oil
- 4 cloves minced and chopped garlic
- 1 medium chopped onion
- 2 Tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/4 cup chicken broth
- 2 to 3 cups at least a day old, should be refrigerated cooked rice
- 1 cup cooked and steamed, cut in 2-inch pieces green beans
- 2 pieces peeled, sliced, for garnish hard boiled eggs
- 1 large seeded, sliced in 2-inch strips (remove inner white membrane), to saute and leave a few strips for garnish red or green pepper
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large around 6 ounces, sliced, about a cup when cut up Spanish chorizo
- In a large skillet, over medium heat, add the achuete oil. After 1 to 2 minutes when oil is hot enough, add the sliced Spanish chorizos. Move around the skillet for about 2 to 3 minutes to flavor the oil. Then remove chorizos from skillet and set aside for later. Saute the garlic and onions for 1 to 2 minutes. Add half of the red bell pepper strips.
- When onions are transparent and bell pepper strips are softened, add the tomato paste and chicken broth. Blend well. Add the chicken pieces and incorporate the sauce with the rest of the ingredients. Place the cooked rice into the skillet and blend all the ingredients well. Season with salt and black pepper.
- Situate the chicken pieces on top of the dish. Add the green beans, chorizo and slices of bell peppers to garnish. Serve as a main dish or as a side.
- How to make Achuete Oil: I have a bottle of this ready for any dish. Achuete or annatto seeds are used to add a red color to dishes and infuse rich, nutty flavors to any entree. I follow this recipe from "Memories of Philippine Kitchens" by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan ~ In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm 2 cups of vegetable oil with 1/2 cup of annatto seeds (achuete), 6 whole pieces of garlic cloves, 2 pieces bay leaves. This mixture will bubble in about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow the achuete oil to set for 1 to 2 hours. When cool enough to handle, strain the oil through a sieve. Discard the annatto seeds. Store in a bottled glass container and refrigerate when not in use. * I used only a few tablespoons for this Arroz Con Pollo recipe.