Ensalada de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve Salad)
Ensalada de Noche Buena is the traditional Mexican Christmas Eve salad. Loaded with crunchy romaine, pecans and apples; tart citrus, prickly pear, and pomegranate; and a sweet, creamy dressing, this colorful mixture is a welcome departure from the rich fare that dominates the rest of the holiday table.
If you’re looking for a healthy and attractive Christmas side dish, you’ve come to the right place! This bright and beautiful salad is as eye-catching as it is delicious, playing host to a wide variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. And for all you beet haters out there, this one is made without the earthy veg.
What is Noche Buena?
Noche Buena means “good night”. Noche Buena is a Christmas Eve celebration and a time for family and friends to gather and eat, drink, and be merry.
Unlike here in the U.S. where Christmas celebrations are mainly limited to Christmas Eve and Christmas, Mexican celebrations span nearly an entire month – starting with Dia de la Virgin de Guadalupe on December 12 all the way until Epiphany (Three Kings’ Day) on January 6th, plus one extra celebration known as Candlemas on February 2nd.
From December 16th until Christmas Eve (the 24th), a tradition known as Las Posadas takes place. Posada is the Spanish word for “inn” or “lodging,” and this part of the Christmas celebration is part of a ritual re-enactment of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph searching for a place to stay the night and birth their son, Jesus.
Food served on Noche Buena
Celebrations are always abundant, with some of the tastiest traditional dishes. Tables overflow with a delicious array of Christmas dishes like tamales, pozole, mole, sweets like buñuelos and pan dulce, and cozy beverages like atole, champurrado, or cafe de olla. This colorful salad known as Ensalada de Noche Buena is a welcome healthy addition.
About This Recipe
Noche Buena refers to Christmas Eve in Mexico, but is also associated with another holiday favorite – the poinsettia tree. Poinsettias are known in Mexico as flores de nochebuenas, or Christmas Eve Flowers.
The story goes that a poor young girl wanted to present a gift to the baby Jesus, but was only able to gather a bouquet of weeds. When she set the bouquet on the altar, beautiful fire-red blooms emerged and the weeds became poinsettias. Just like The Legend of the Poinsettia, this salad adds an explosion of color to your dinner table.
Traditionally, families have a big meal at midnight on Christmas Eve, and Ensalada de Noche Buena is one of the healthy side dishes served. Most recipes use beets, but we decided to go with the other juicy red fruits like pomegranates and prickly pears. The light and creamy salad dressing adds sweet tanginess and a gorgeous pink hue.
This yummy Christmas Eve salad is not only tasty and healthy, it’s also a dream for entertaining! Everything can be prepped in advance and assembled when your guests arrive.
How to Make
This ensalada de noche buena might look like a piece of art, but it is actually quite simple to make.
Ingredients and Substitutions
As with many traditional dishes, the number of recipes for ensalada de nochebuena is almost as large as the number of Mexican cooks. Not only do regional variations exist (due to different produce that is available), but personal preferences also make their way into the the mix.
While many variations of ensalada de noche buena include beets, my recipe leans on brighter, sweeter and less earthy elements for that gorgeous pop of red. Here’s what I put in my Christmas Eve Salad:
- Oranges – Any color of orange will do well here, as will smaller citrus like tangerines. Just be sure that when you cut them into supremes you remove any of the bitter white pith.
- Red Grapefruit – I love the fresh, slightly bittersweet flavor of grapefruit, but I know it isn’t for everyone. Feel free to swap in bright red blood oranges in their place or omit.
- Jicama – This staple of latin american cuisine is sometimes referred to as the Mexican potato; it has a thin, golden skin and a sweet, starchy flesh. This yummy veg adds a lovely bit of crunch to this ensalada de noche buena, but if you can’t find it, feel free to swap in water chestnuts or omit.
- Red Radishes – Similar to jicama, radishes offer a nice bit of watery crunch to this Christmas Eve salad. Red radishes are generally pretty easy to find at a well stocked grocery store, but you can feel free to swap in roasted beets if you prefer.
- Apple – Any variety will do here, though I generally reach for a crisp, sweet-tart red variety like fuji.
- Prickly Pears – The bright, fruiting piece of the nopales cactus tastes like a delightful cross between a melon and strawberry. I simply love the neon colorway this gorgeous fruit brings to the table, but if you’re unable to find it, feel free to substitute kiwi instead.
- Lime – You’ll need both the zest and juice for this zingy salad dressing. Make sure to wash your fruit before zesting. Also, give it a firm roll on the countertop to get the most juice out of it.
- Greek Yogurt – I love using yogurt as a base for marinades and salad dressings because it is tangy, creamy and healthy. Feel free to swap in crema Mexicana, sour cream, or a vegan plant-based greek yogurt.
- Honey – This is my liquid sweetener of choice, but you can feel free to use maple syrup or agave nectar for a vegan alternative.
- Romaine Lettuce – There’s nothing quite like the crunch of romaine lettuce when it comes to this colorful salad. That said, you can easily use the greens of your choice like butter lettuce, little gems, peppery arugula, or baby spinach.
- Pomegranate Arils – Crimson red and literally bursting with juicy flavor, pomegranate arils are one of my favorite seasonal fruits. Check out this video to show you how to remove the seeds from the fruit.
- Pecans – I generally have an abundance of pecans around this time of year for making some of my favorite treats (Mexican chocolate pecan pie, double pecan thumbprint cookies, and dulce de leche pecan cinnamon rolls to name a few!). Feel free to swap in your favorite toasted nut; pepitas and walnuts are both traditional accompaniments for ensalada de noche buena.
Prep Fruits and Veggies
Wash romaine thoroughly, dry most of the way, then wrap the leaves in a clean tea towel and place in the fridge for at least an hour or two. This will make it super crunchy! Watch this video to learn how to keep lettuce fresh. Cut or tear into bite sized pieces right before serving.
Now prep your fruits. With a sharp knife, cut the peel from the oranges and the grapefruit, section them and reserve the juice.
Peel and cut the jicama into matchstick thin slices.
Slice the radishes and chop the apple. Peel the prickly pears and chop, being careful to reserve the juice.
Combine oranges, grapefruit, jicama, prickly pears and radishes. Cover and chill 30 minutes.
Make Ahead Tip: Trying to get things checked off your to-do list ahead of time? All of the veggies except the apples can be cut up to two days in advance. Please note that jicama and radishes should be stored in cool, clean water which can be drained before serving.
Make Salad Dressing
Prepare the dressing by combining the lime zest, lime juice, Greek yogurt and honey in a small bowl. Add the reserved juices from the oranges, grapefruit, and prickly pears, and stir until smooth.
Make Ahead Tip: Creamy ensalada de noche salad dressing can be made up to three days in advance.
Arrange the lettuce in a large bowl or platter. Lightly toss the chilled fruit mixture with the lettuce then drizzle the yogurt dressing evenly over the salad. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and pecans. Serve immediately and enjoy!
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re running behind on your elf-ly duties, I hear you. Feel free to opt for canned drained mandarin slices, pre-supremed grapefruit, and cups of pomegranate arils (in the refrigerator section). The rest of the prep should only take about 10 minutes!
Absolutely! Simply swap in your favorite plant-based plain greek yogurt or sour cream substitute, and opt for a vegan sweetener like maple syrup.
Sure! Swap in some pepitas or sunflower seeds to get some of the creamy crunch that nuts provide, or simply omit them altogether.
More Christmas Ideas
If you tried thisy recipe for beet free Ensalada de Noche Buena, please let me know! Leave a rating on this recipe below and leave a comment, take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #muybuenocooking.
Ensalada de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve Salad)
- 4 oranges, peeled, sectioned and cut into ¼ inch pieces
- 1 large red grapefruit peeled, sectioned and cut into ¼ inch pieces
- 3 cups jicama, peeled and cut into matchstick strips
- 6 red radishes, slivered
- 1 apple, chopped
- 2 prickly pears or kiwis, chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons grated lime rind
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- ½ cup Greek yogurt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
- 4 cups chopped romaine lettuce
- 1 cup pomegranate seeds, about 2 pomegranates
- ¼ cup pecans
- With a sharp knife, cut the peel from the oranges and the grapefruit, section them and reserve the juice. Peel and cut the jicama into matchstick thin slices. Slice the radishes and chop the apple. Peel the prickly pears and chop, careful to reserve the juice. Combine oranges, grapefruit, jicama, prickly pears and radishes. Cover and chill 30 minutes.
- Prepare the dressing by combining the lime rind, lime juice, Greek yogurt and honey in a small bowl and the reserved juices from the oranges, grapefruit, and prickly pears, stirring until smooth.
- Arrange the lettuce in a large bowl, lightly toss the chilled fruit mixture with the lettuce then drizzle the yogurt dressing evenly over the salad. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and pecans.
- Serve immediately.
Photography by Jenna Sparks
Originally published: December 2010.