Feliz Navidad, NM Style

Celebrating Christmas with the Delgados of Santa Fe: a festival of family, history, and wrapping gifts—including 480 tamales.

Logo-Wine-Pairings

Red wines from all wine regions of New Mexico will complement these classic, chile-infused Southwestern recipes.

Northern New Mexico

Black Mesa Montepulciano, based on an Italian grape, has rich tannins; bold, dark fruit; and is moderately dry. Vino del Corazón Santa Fe Siesta Red is a well-made, sangría-like wine. The sweetness is moderated by the chile.

Central New Mexico

Casa Abril 2012 Tempranillo is a classic grape of Spain, created by a family that has deep Spanish roots and a talent for making a dry but very stylish wine. Milagro 2010 Old Church Road Zinfandel is a big, complex red wine with earthy elements that can handle anything chile throws at it. For those who miss big California zins, this is the wine to try.

Southern New Mexico

Tularosa Vineyards 2008 Sangiovese is a rich, inviting red wine of the principal Italian grape of Chianti. La Viña Primitivo is another Italian grape with the same DNA as zinfandel. La Viña is the oldest winery in the state. Vignoble Charmant Merlot, from Southwest Wines, is loaded with raspberries and plum; an off-dry wine with soft tannins.

Sparkling Wines

Sparklers go well with chile, especially sparkling rosé and extra dry. Gruet Rosé NV is a big, rich rosé bubbly. Gruet 2007 Grand Rosé is for those who want the ultimate sparkler to share around the holidays.

And with the biscochitos . . . Gruet Blanc de Blanc NV Extra Dry reminds one of Key lime pie, with its rich mousse and lime and peach flavors. Corrales Muscat Canelli offers sweet fig and pear

Forty dozen tamales, 20 dozen biscochitos, and gallons of posole, red chile, salsa, and chile con queso . . . for many a Santa Fe local, it wouldn’t be the holidays without Christmas Eve open house hosted by Larry and Angie Delgado and their family. This year, we’ve been invited to the weekend of advance food preparations and to the family’s party, both taking place at the lovely La Tierra home of daughter Cynthia Delgado and her husband, John Crant. Friends and relatives stop by between the twilight conclusion of the children’s mass at the St. Francis Cathedral and late evening, when the Delgados prepare to attend midnight mass. So popular are their tamales that people begin helping themselves before they shed their winter wraps. For the Delgados, there’s a lot of tradition, as well as a love of cooking together, infusing this special event.

A Hearty Helping of Delgado History

Capitán Manuel Francisco Delgado, the first Delgado to settle in La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís, galloped into Santa Fe in 1787. The city was then simply a frontier outpost of New Spain, and the capitán had come to serve as the second in command of the military garrison. Some two centuries and 11 generations later, his descendant Larry became mayor of the bustling municipality, serving two terms and retiring in 2006. In between, Delgados have been prominent merchants on the Chihuahua and Santa Fe trails, ranchers, artists, educators, and postmasters. Larry’s distant cousin Lucy, a noted cookbook author, wrote the charming Comidas de New Mexico and Feliz Navidad: Favorite Holiday Recipes. Both books can be found in libraries and used bookstores today.

The family owned the land on the west side of the Santa Fe Plaza, and Simon Delgado built the first buildings there. That construction signaled the Plaza’s evolution as a commercial district rather than just a spot for religious, military, and social gatherings. Larry’s father, Hilario, was born above what today is the Plaza Café. The freestanding home of Larry’s grandfather Felipe B. Delgado, on Palace Avenue, is recognized as one of Santa Fe’s most distinguished historical homes; the Historic Santa Fe Foundation now owns the house, and occasionally opens it to the public. To see some of the family’s historic artifacts, visit La Casa Delgado, a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.

The Delgados Today

Larry Delgado grew up near the intersection of Canyon Road and namesake Delgado Street, where pear and apple trees planted by the family still flourish. Angie’s family of Gomezes and Ortizes actually beat Larry’s clan to Santa Fe—they’ve been here “as long as the adobes,” says Angie. She grew up—you guessed it—on Gomez Road, just off Paseo de Peralta. Larry muses that the town was so small and quiet in the 1940s and 1950s that, as a child, he looked forward to trips to visit cousins in comparatively lively Las Vegas, the main railroad town of northern New Mexico in that era. Both Larry and Angie reminisce about the simplicity of Christmases past, when gifts might have been a pair of socks, or a nip of Southern Comfort, a tradition favored by Angie’s grandfather, who drank alcohol at no other time of the year.

The couple started dating in high school, when Larry attended the all-boys St. Michael’s and Angie was at the all-girls Loretto Academy. Angie laughs, “My father wouldn’t let me go out on car dates, so Larry would hike over to pick me up. We’d stroll to the Plaza, the center of everything at that time. My grandfather still owned a grocery, City Cash Market, across from where Tia Sophia’s restaurant sits today. We’d take in a movie at the Lensic, then Larry would walk me back to Gomez Road, and walk back to his home. He walked a lot!” They married just after Fiesta in 1958.

Hot for Tamales

When Larry headed home to Santa Fe in 1961, after a stint in the National Guard in El Paso, Angie had a surprise waiting for him in the kitchen. His beloved childhood birthday gift had been a dozen pork-and-red-chile tamales from the Rael family’s café, on Canyon Road. He was allowed to eat as many of them as he could, an incredible treat for someone who otherwise always had to share everything with his sister and two older brothers. Many years after the café had closed, Larry was still wistful for their tamales.

While Larry was away, Angie had gotten in touch with one of the Rael family’s granddaughters and secured the recipe the family used at the now-shuttered café. Larry was ecstatic about the plate of tamales that awaited him. They've been a Delgado family tradition ever since, made each year before Christmas for the holiday party, with some stashed in the freezer to enjoy throughout the year.

These days, Larry and Angie; their daughter, Cynthia, and her husband, John; and their son, David, and his wife, Lori, all help make the tamales, as well as the other Christmas Eve open-house delicacies of posole, chile con queso, and biscochitos. Cynthia and David had careers that took them away from New Mexico for many years, but they returned to Santa Fe when the right opportunities came their way. Cynthia is the director of marketing for the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, and David and Lori are part-owners of the Santa Fe Sage Inn, among other enterprises. Cynthia and John’s daughter and her family, and their sons, will return for the Christmas season, as will David and Lori’s sons.

Making the Call

As Santa Fe’s golden aspens drop their leaves and fresh crimson ristras dry to brick red, Angie monitors the daily newspaper for supermarket sales on pork. When she thinks the price is right, “the call,” as Cynthia describes it, goes out. Everyone heads to the store and purchases a portion of the 30 pounds needed for the next weekend’s marathon cooking session. To streamline the preparations, each person trims the fat from their portion of pork at home. Everyone comes with their meat and other assigned cooking ingredients, including quarts of red-chile caribe, the traditional New Mexican thick, blended red-chile paste.

This year, the family is gathering at Cynthia and John’s to prepare the vast quantity of holiday fare. John’s Coyote Creek Construction built the couple’s home, which features an inviting kitchen with room for everyone to work. Plastic is spread out across the table. Piles of filling and soaked ojas, or corn husks, are arranged. Patriarch Larry clamps his family’s 50-year-old cast-iron hand grinder to the end of the counter, gearing up for his assigned task. He mills pound after pound of posole, to make the fresh masa dough needed for more than 500 tamales. Larry still keeps the grinder in its weathered original box, now held together by tape.

The biscochitos fall to Lori, David’s wife, an Erickson who hails from Minnesota. She never saw a biscochito before joining the family, but she has “just the right touch,” as Angie describes it. The cookies may be ubiquitous in New Mexico at Christmas, but a truly great one can be as elusive as a jackalope. Lori’s are perfect. Cynthia’s always in charge of chile con queso. Made with a big block of Velveeta and a can of mushroom soup, it’s ridiculously good.

A dozen hands pat the masa into the husks, scoop on the filling, and fold it up into parcels as neat as Christmas presents. Pots of posole and red chile burble away on the stove. The weekend afternoon flies by, over many a joke and shared news about family and friends.

The Party

As the sun sets on Christmas Eve, farolitos begin to flicker along the flagstone path to the wooden double door. The lofty holiday tree sparkles with lights, and flames dance in the corner kiva fireplace. Everything is laid out for the party, overflowing from the great room and back into the kitchen. Corks pop off bottles of sparkling wine, which John prepares to serve with help from David. As guests begin to arrive, Angie remarks, “It’s so important to keep our family close. We hope our grandchildren will continue this tradition.” Larry chimes in, “Reverence of tradition . . . it’s one of the most valuable lessons we can pass on.” No one does it in more delicious style. Feliz Navidad.

Tasting NM

Chile con Queso

Chile con queso always strikes me as greater than the sum of its humble parts. Cynthia Delgado says the canned soup is the secret to the smooth, long-lasting texture of the warm dip. It doesn’t add much flavor of its own, but is the key to the ultra-creamy consistency. One Christmas Eve, Cynthia spied some party guests who were new to New Mexico eating it in bowls with spoons. They declared it the best cheese soup ever.

Serves 12 to 18 as an appetizer

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped fine
  • 1 pound chopped, roasted New Mexico green chile, fresh or thawed frozen
  • 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
  • 10.75-ounce can Campbell’s Golden Mushroom Soup (preferably), or Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup
  • 2 pounds Kraft Velveeta cheese, chopped in 1-inch cubes
  • Tortilla chips

In large, heavy saucepan, warm oil over medium heat. Stir in onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add chile and any juice and cook about 5 minutes, to meld flavors a bit. Stir in tomatoes and soup and heat through. When bubbly, mix in Velveeta and continue to stir until cheese has melted. Serve hot, with chips.

 

Red Chile Salsa
Angie and Larry Delgado both worked at the New Mexico Highway Department for many years, and this salsa recipe originated with one from a colleague of theirs; it appeared frequently at department potlucks and other events. This recipe uses large flakes of dried red chile, called chile caribe by locals (but not to be confused with the concentrated red chile caribe paste in the next recipe).

Makes about 3 cups

  • 14.4-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 5 tablespoons dried coarse New Mexican red chile flakes, aka chile caribe
  • 2 tablespoons dried onion flakes
  • 1 tablespoon ground hot red chile pequín
  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon dried crumbled Mexican oregano
  • Tortilla chips

Put all ingredients (except chips) in blender. Blend in short bursts about 30 seconds, until mixture is well combined but still somewhat coarse. It should be somewhat thick. Pour into serving bowl and refrigerate at least an hour. Serve with chips. The salsa keeps for several days.

Red Chile Caribe
Chile caribe is a concentrated paste made from whole chile pods. Almost all New Mexico cooks in earlier generations, and still quite a few today, make it ahead to have as the basis for chile sauces, tamale fillings, and other red-chile preparations. Angie Delgado uses moderately spicy Sandía chiles to make her chile caribe. This should be enough to make the recipes for tamales, and sauce for the tamales and posole, included here. But chile caribe is good for all manner of New Mexican dishes—you may want to make twice as much.

Makes 1½ to 1¾ quarts

  • 1 pound dried whole red chile pods (30 to 50 dried red chiles, depending on size)
  • Water
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Break stems of chile pods and discard seeds. (If your skin is sensitive, wear rubber or plastic gloves.) In stockpot or other large pan, cover pods with water. Bring to quick boil and remove from heat. Let chiles soak in water until soft, generally about 20 minutes. Taste soak water. If bitter, drain off and discard. If not, reserve 4 cups of liquid. Transfer half of chiles to blender. Add 2 cups soak water (or 2 cups fresh water), add half of salt, and purée. If you wish, scrape chile paste into strainer and push mixture through, discarding bits of skin left behind. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Chile caribe is ready to incorporate into other dishes. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or frozen for later use.

Red Chile Pork Tamales with Fresh Home-Ground Masa
Angie Delgado likes her tamale filling and corn dough to have a certain amount of toothsomeness. Rather than pulling the tender pork into shreds, as cooks commonly do, she cuts the pork into small cubes so that each bite yields a meatier burst of flavor. For the dough she favors home-ground masa, which has a coarser texture than the commercial variety. Make dough from just-ground fresh or frozen posole corn, which now can be found throughout much of the country. (See buenofoods.com for where to buy.) Dough made from freshly ground posole must be patted into the corn husks rather than smeared, as is done with masa made from dried corn. If you don’t have a home grinder like the one Larry Delgado inherited from his mother, he says the closest substitute is a food processor. However, a cast-iron “corn and wheat grinder” similar to Larry’s decades-old one can be found at sears.com for about $30. The family usually gets their ojas, or corn husks, from El Paisano Mexican market, on Santa Fe’s Cerrillos Road, but they’re found in all New Mexico supermarkets around the holidays, and Mexican markets always stock them.

Makes 6 to 7 dozen, depending on size

Filling

  • 5 to 6 pounds pork butt or shoulder, trimmed of surface fat and bones and cut into chunks to fit your kettle
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon salt, or more to taste
  • 3 cups Red Chile Caribe

Masa Dough

  • Two 2-pound bags Bueno fresh or frozen posole corn (do not use dried posole)
  • 2 cups lard, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon salt, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 to 1. cups meat broth (from filling)
  • 1-pound package dried corn husks (ojas) for tamales
  • Red Chile Sauce

For the filling
In large stockpot or Dutch oven, sear pork over medium-high heat until it browns, and liquid accumulated from the meat has mostly evaporated. Stir in garlic and heat a couple of minutes. Pour in water to cover pork, and scrape mixture up from bottom to loosen browned bits. Sprinkle in half of salt, reduce heat to low simmer, and cook uncovered about 1¼ hours, or until tender.

Strain broth from pork. Reserve pork and broth. Add water to broth as needed to make 1. cups liquid. When pork is cool enough to handle, cut into ½-inch cubes.

Mix pork with red-chile caribe, adding more salt if you wish. Filling can be made a day ahead of tamale assembly and refrigerated.

For the corn husks
In deep bowl or baking pan, cover corn husks in hot water and soak 30 minutes; husks should be soft and pliable. Separate husks and, if needed, rinse under running water to wash away any grit or brown silks. Keep covered with water until ready to use.

For the masa dough
Rinse posole in several changes of cold water, rubbing it with your fingers until water is clear.

Grind posole (OK if still partially frozen) finely in grain grinder, electric mixer with sausage-grinding attachment, or food processor (in batches).

In large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed (or large, sturdy wooden spoon), mix together lard, salt, and baking powder. When creamed lard mixture is light and fluffy, combine with ground posole. Add broth and mix together with spoon or fingers, as needed, to get a soft consistency that holds together like cookie dough. While working, keep dough loosely covered. If it begins to get dry, add a little broth or water.

Assembly
Use approximately equal amounts of prepared masa dough and filling. The Delgados use about 1 tablespoon of each, to make a rather small tamale.

Form tamales one by one: Blot excess water off corn husk with clean dishtowel. Lay husk flat on work surface, smooth side up. Pat masa dough into ¼-inch–thick layer across husk, but not to edges. Top with filling spread more thickly through dough’s center, stopping short of dough’s edges. Fold long sides of husks into the center, which will wrap dough around filling. Make sure dough’s edges meet to enclose all of filling. Fold up pointed end of husk. Secure tamale by laying it folded side down. Repeat procedure until all filling and dough are used.

If freezing tamales, do so now, then cook them straight from the freezer, as described in the next step.

Cooking the tamales
Place vegetable steamer in bottom of large pot. Pour in water almost up to bottom of steamer. Pack tamales loosely, standing them on their folded bottom ends. Leave enough space between them for steam to rise effectively. Cover pot and cook over simmering water about 45 minutes, or until masa is lightly firm and no longer sticks to corn husks. (If tamales are frozen, add 10 to 15 minutes to cooking time.) Unwrap one tamale to check consistency. If still doughy, rewrap it, return it to pot, and steam a few more minutes.

Tamales should be eaten warm. Corn husks are usually left on when tamales are served unadorned, to be removed by each guest before eating. Then chile sauce can be added as desired. Alternatively, to plate tamales with sauce, remove husks and arrange tamales on plates or platter, then top with sauce.

Red Chile Sauce
Served with both tamales and posole, this sauce is Angie Delgado’s favorite version of “red.”

Makes enough sauce to accompany tamale and posole recipes

  • 2 pounds pork shoulder steak, trimmed of fat and bones
  • 1 cup water, or more as needed
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 quart Red Chile Caribe
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste

In large saucepan over medium-high heat, brown pork steak on all sides. Pour in 1 cup water, scrape browned bits up from bottom, and reduce heat to low simmer. Cook until pork is very tender, 45 to 60 minutes, adding more water if needed.

When cool enough to handle, shred pork. Save any broth. Rinse out saucepan and return to stove.

Pour in oil and, over medium heat, whisk in flour. Cook about 5 minutes, until mixture is lightly colored. Add garlic and stir once or twice. Pour in broth and chile caribe. Stir in shredded pork and salt to taste. Add more water, if needed, to make a hearty but pourable sauce of medium thickness. Sauce can be used immediately, or refrigerated for several days and reheated before serving.

Posole
Angie Delgado always recommends dried rather than frozen posole corn to make her version of the dish of the same name. It gives the finished posole more texture. She also recommends rinsing the dried corn very well before starting the dish. If not available in supermarkets in other parts of the country, dried posole, red chile pods, and other New Mexican ingredients can be ordered from santafeschoolofcooking.com.

Serves 12

  • 1-pound package dried posole corn
  • Water
  • 1½ pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed of fat and cut in 1.-inch cubes
  • 1½ pounds pork shoulder or butt, trimmed of fat and cut in 1.-inch cubes
  • 1 pound beef neck bones (optional)
  • 2 large onions, quartered
  • 10 to 12 dried red-chile pods, stemmed and seeded
  • 3 tablespoons salt, or more to taste

Rinse posole in several changes of water, rubbing kernels with your fingers until water is clear.

In large kettle or stockpot, combine posole with enough water to cover it by several inches. Add meats and one onion. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low simmer. Cook until corn opens or “pops,” which can take from 1½ to 2½ hours, depending on the corn and the altitude. If the mixture begins to get dry, pour in more water—it should be soupy in consistency. (If using neck bones, remove with slotted spoon, pick off meat, and return meat to kettle.) Add second onion, chile pods, and salt. Continue to simmer until chile pods are very soft and flavors have melded, about 30 more minutes. Serve hot in bowls with some of the broth.