In August, Reyes Madrid begins preparations for making Christmas tamales with a trip from her Buchanan Dam home to Deming, New Mexico, located in the Hatch chili region of the Land of Enchantment.
“You have to get the green Hatch chilis when they are ready,” the New Mexico native explained. “Once you pick them, you have only six weeks to process them.”
The owner of a hair salon in Silver City, New Mexico, Reyes has fallen in love with life in the Highland Lakes, where she enjoys sharing the flavors of her native state. She visits home twice a year to make sure she has all the ingredients she needs for her favorite foods. She is working to open a restaurant in Buchanan Dam.
“My family has always been in the restaurant business,” she said. “I grew up with that, but I’ve never had one of my own. I’ve always dreamed of having my own place.”
On the annual August trip to New Mexico, Reyes brings back both green and red Hatch chilis. The red ones are sun-dried green chilis. The green chilis are used in her green chili and cheese tamales, while the sun-dried ones are mixed with roasted pork butt for red tamales.
The two kinds of chilis are prepared differently. The green ones are roasted in a large, round metal cage with a gas-fueled burner running along the bottom. The roaster was built by Reyes’ husband, contractor Ronnie Madrid.
The roaster looks a lot like a giant bingo cage as it tumbles the chilis around over the fire for about seven minutes, or until they turn black. Then, they are dumped into pots for the next step: removing the blackened skin.
Red chilis are soaked in water before being boiled and then put into a grinder and strained to separate the pulp from the juice, which is mixed into the cooked pork. The pulp is set aside to flavor another popular New Mexico dish: carne adovada, or chili-braised pork.
“I don’t waste anything,” Reyes said. “Everything is used to enhance flavor.”
New Mexico tamales are distinctly different from Texas tamales, especially when it comes to size. The New Mexico version is three to four times bigger than the tamales most Texans are used to eating.
“You can fill up on two of these,” Reyes said.
The Madrids carefully guard the family recipe, but it would be difficult to replicate because the ingredients are measured by instinct. When grinding the chilis, Reyes throws in garlic to cut down on the heat. The number of cloves varies depending on, well, even Reyes isn’t sure.
“I’ve been doing this since I was nine years old,” she said. “I just know what to do by looking at it.”
Since she was a child, all available family members have gathered around the kitchen table to smooth masa onto corn husks before adding meat and then folding. The trick is to determine the smooth side of the corn husk from the rough side. The masa goes on the smooth side to keep it from sticking to the husks after it is steamed.
To get to the assembly stage, however, takes at least a week of preparing pork, chicken, cheese, and chilis, which Reyes mostly does on her own. The masa is mixed up as needed on assembly day. That, too, has a trick or two to get it just right.
Reyes uses lard (Crisco will not do), flour, baking soda, the stock from the chicken and pork, and masa all whipped together until a finger-full dropped into a cup of cold water floats.
“If it sinks to the bottom, the masa isn’t ready yet,” she said. “I go back and whip it up some more.”
She is such a purest that using masa feels like cheating.
“If we were back in New Mexico, we would be grinding the corn,” Reyes said. “My mother always would grind her own masa.”
The end result is a culinary and cultural treat in high demand among family and friends.
“Someone asked me once if these were made of gold,” Reyes said. “I told them, yes, it’s made out of New Mexico liquid gold.”
This particular gold comes in red and green, just in time for the Christmas holidays in the Madrid home.
“I will be making tamales every day through Christmas,” she said. “It’s a big process, but I love to cook.”
The end result is well worth it!