Making tamales with Santa Barbara chef Ramon Velazquez

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(Tamale photo: shaynabright)

Just like pierogis and gingerbread cookies, tamales are a Christmas tradition for many families. The popular Mexican dish consists of “masa,” or dough, stuffed with a filling of cheese, meat, vegetables or sweets and wrapped and steamed inside corn husks or banana leaves.

“Tamales were part of my childhood,” said Chef Ramon Velazquez, who grew up in Jalisco, Mexico. He now mixes traditional Mexican favorites with Santa Barbara produce at Corazon Cocina, a Mexican eatery tucked inside the Santa Barbara Public Market.

“When we make tamales, the whole family gathers and everyone helps.” His mother’s staple tamales include chicken with green chile, beef mole and a sweet tamale consisting of pineapple and raisins. As a kid, he sold them to neighbors living nearby.

Velazquez gets his dough and corn husks from La Bella Rosa on Santa Barbara’s Westside. For the filling, he browses the farmers market for seasonal inspiration.

“The filling can be anything you love,” he said. His winter creations include one filled with butternut squash and browned butter, and another with ricotta and swiss chard.

Tips from Chef Ramon Velazquez:

  • Add a bit of baking powder and butter or lard to the dough, in order to make it soft.
  • Don’t use too much dough. Keep a 50/50 dough-to-filling ratio so the tamale isn’t too heavy.
  • You can typically find a vegetable steamer, which is great for steaming tamales, at Chinese markets.
  • Tamales only take thirty minutes to cook.
  • Grab a cookbook from Rick Bayless or Diana Kennedy, “the grandmother of Mexican cooking,” according to Velazquez.
Chef Ramon Velasquez picking up butternut squash at Ellwood Canyon Farms. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Try this recipe for tamales with poblanos and cheese, adapted from From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients by Diana Kennedy.

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