Hard Times, Good Friends, and Great Tamales

By Michael Cravens

This last week, my wife, a nurse who cares for COVID patients more days than not, came home from work feeling a little under the weather. I had plans to leave on an archery hunt with some out-of-state friends that very next morning. Not wanting to risk exposing my friends to this virus, we jumped in the car and drove to our nearest testing facility. Not only was the hunt I had been looking forward to at stake, but more importantly, so was the health of my family. Working in the healthcare profession, my wife has witnessed far too many deaths from this virus and therefore our family takes it very seriously.

In anticipation of the test results, sleep that night was fitful at best. Early the next morning, I was already awake when the news came and, with just a simple text message, our quarantine had begun. Admittedly, If I’m going to be locked in a small home for ten days, I am truly am grateful that I was locked in with the people I love: my family. Still, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, my mental health relies on fresh air, sunshine, and remote places, so this was not easy for me. You see, I am a bit of a contradiction. I’m of the personality type that dreams of living in a remote cabin, miles away from the nearest neighbor. Yet, simultaneously, I also genuinely appreciate good friends and the camaraderie that comes with sharing a duck blind with buddies or accompanies the collective toil of packing heavy loads of meat out of the mountains.

The value of good friends is exemplified during hard times. While my family experienced many gestures of kindness during our quarantine period, one of these gestures in particular stands out to me. I’m not certain if it was the “feels” that accompanied the tamales that my buddy Clay went to the trouble of delivering to us during our quarantine or if they really were the best tamales I’ve ever eaten.

Here’s Clay's recipe so you can decide. It makes 50+ tamales, so please take full artistic control and reduce the ingredients as you see fit or charge full speed ahead and fill your freezer.

Tamales are an undertaking. It might be best to spread this endeavor out over a couple of days. First, let’s do the filling: duck chile Colorado. Here’s what you’ll need for the first step:

Ingredients

  • 12 - 16 New Mexico dried chilies, washed with stems and seeds removed 
  • 4 tablespoons lard
  • 10 cups skinless duck or goose breast fillets, cut into 1-inch cubes 
  • 2 large white onion, chopped 
  • 4 Anaheim peppers, chopped 
  • 1 head garlic, minced 
  • 2 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes 
  • 4 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
  • 2 teaspoon cinnamon 
  • 4 cups stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste 

Directions

Place chilies in a small saucepan with 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and steep for 30 minutes. Place softened chilies and about 1 cup of fresh water or stock in a food processor or blender. Purée until smooth, adding more liquid if necessary. Pass mixture through a strainer to remove seeds and any bits of skin. Save a little of this chile sauce to the side to top your tamales when finished.

Heat lard in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add meat and brown evenly. 

Add onion, Anaheim peppers, and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. 

Add tomatoes, oregano, cinnamon, stock, and processed chilies. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 2 hours or until meat is tender. Shred meat with sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the next step, you’ll need:

  • 5 pounds masa
  • 1 pound lard
  • 2 cups stock
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Half of a 14 oz tub of Baca’s Red chile, or the equivalent
  • 1 pound bag of corn husks 

Soak corn husks in room temperature water for at least an hour before using. Make sure to rinse well and wash off any dirt or husk fibers. Leave them in the water to keep them pliable until you’re ready to use them. 

Mix lard with stand-up mixer, electric mixer, or by hand if you’re really tough. The lard should be fluffy after mixing (should look like whipped cream).

Add half the baking powder and half the salt to the lard and mix together.

Add the masa to the lard and mix. Next, along with half the tub of Baca’s red chile sauce, slowly add the broth a little at a time to the masa and mix until combined. Keep adding stock until the mixture is the consistency of peanut butter. You can test the masa by taking a marble sized ball and dropping it into warm water. It should float but if it doesn’t then you can add a little more lard, then beat for another minute. Test this until it floats.

Now it’s time to put the tamales together. Starting at the middle of the husk, spread two spoonfuls of the masa with the back of a spoon or rubber spatula in a rectangle or oval shape, using a downward motion towards the wide-bottom edge. Do not spread the masa all the way to the ends and leave about a 2-inch margin on the left and right sides of the husk.

Spoon 1½ tablespoons of the duck chile Colorado filling down the center of the masa. Fold both sides to the center and finish off by bringing the pointed end of the husk toward the filled end. Make sure it’s a snug closure so the tamale will not open during steaming. Secure by tying a thin strip of corn husk around the tamal. 

Use any deep pot with a steamer basket or a tamale steamer.  Place the tamales standing up next to each other so they won’t fall down. Cover the pot and cook on medium heat for 30-45 minutes. The tamales are done when the masa doesn’t stick to the corn husks.

Top with the set aside chile Colorado sauce and serve with a side of Mexican rice and refried beans. I can’t guarantee that they will be as good as they can be when delivered by a caring friend, but I will guarantee that you won’t be disappointed that you went to the trouble of making them.