"I don't eat tamales all year long, so when I do, I go with lard," says chef Silvana Salcido Esparza as she gets ready to start cooking.
On a cool Monday afternoon the James Beard Award-nominated chef's Barrio Cafe is empty. And in the kitchen, there's nothing except for an extensive mis en place for making a classic holiday dish.
Most people would require this sort of unflustered environment in order to embark on a grand tamale-making adventure. After all, the process is notoriously difficult and undeniably time consuming.
But for Esparza, there's no such need. With years of practice and thousands of tamales under her belt, she can make hundreds of little tamales practically at the speed of light.
Her experience making tamales in large quantities goes back to her childhood in Northern California. In 1966 her parents opened a Mexican bakery in Merced, where the weekend offerings included handmade tamales.
"It was a big ordeal," remembers Esparza. "I had to clean the husks. I would get corn silk all over me - I hated that...I still do."
The memories are the reason why the chef says she now always buys pre-cleaned husks and the ones she plans to use today have already been soaking in water for at least five minutes. Doing so ensures they'll be pliable enough to bend and fold when it comes time to wrap.
She's also already prepared her tamal fillings; the selection includes small bowls of green chile chicken, cubes of cheese, sliced red onions, and corn. These, Esparza says, can be prepared in advance and should be cold, as opposed to warm or room temperature.
"The most important thing is the mis en place," she says.
With all the preparation done, it's time to mix the masa. It's a simple task but one that can be difficult to perfect.
Esparza begins by using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer to break down the lard. Once it's whipped to her satisfaction, she can begin to add the masa. In addition to the ground-up corn, the chef adds salt and pepper (to season), as well as a small amount of warm water to continue breaking up the fat.
"I just eyeball it," Esparza says of her masa recipe. "And I promise you, it always turns out good."
After tasting the final product Esparza decides to add even more salt; since the tamales will be steamed, she says they'll need an extra dash.
The chef also uses an interesting technique to double-check the proportions of the mixture. Taking a small scoop of the blended dough from the mixing bowl, she places it into a cup of cold water. After a few seconds it begins to hover, just above the bottom of the glass. This, Esparza says, means it contains enough fat.
When it comes to wrapping the perfect tamal, Esparza is nothing short of a savant. Whether you're looking to make a giant family-style tamal in the style of the la Huasteca region of northern Mexico, or mini tamale purses, perfect as a dinner party appetizer, Espara knows how.
For the basic tamal-wrapping style, Esparza suggests starting with an extra wide cornhusk. The masa should start about a third of the way down from the top and you'll need to leave room on both the bottom and the top.
You can then place your pre-made fillings on top, with a filling-to-masa ratio that you like best. The only big tip Esparza shares is to use cubed cheese instead of shredded, as the shredded cheese will more easily spill out of the sides.
Once filled, you can either fold the bottom up to the top and secure the two ends with a tie, or roll the tamal and fold up the bottom like a burrito.
"I call them little gifts," Esparza says, holding up a delicately folded tamal for inspection.
Use Your Imagination
Before you can dig in, however, the tamales need to be steamed for 20 to 45 minutes. Simply line up the tamales around the inside of a steamer basket with a layer of husks at the bottom to add a little moisture.
Esparza also points out that you can freeze the pre-steamed product for months at a time; they can go from frozen to ready-to-eat in about an hour. Because of this fact, Esparza says she used to make batches of tamales when she was a culinary student. The cheap, frozen food kept her well-fed in between work and school.
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Making tamales can strike fear into the hearts of even the most ambitious amateur home cooks and despite that Esparza insists that there's no wrong way to do it.
For sweet varieties she suggests adding sugar to the masa and using nuts, fruit, and chocolate. And for adding a different, sweet flavor to the masa, try using banana leaves in place of cornhusks.
"Your imagination is the only thing that gets in the way of good tamales," she says.