Richard Lambert demonstrates making the filling and forming his tamales with his special touch of including two olives.
Richard’s daughter lives in Mexico City. On a trip to visit her, and with a business idea in mind, he asked his daughter if she could find someone to teach him tamale making. His daughter found Beatriz Ramirez, Mexico City’s “tamale queen.” Over several days Beatriz was generous enough to teach him her recipes and techniques. From that point it took only about six months for Santa Barbara Tamales To Go to open. Richard refined the recipes to suit his own palate, but from Beatriz he’d learned things every good Mexican-food chef should know: how to roast tomatillos and chiles on a comal or under a broiler until they are browned but not black; how to choose very fresh masa preparada (the traditional ground corn mixture used to make tamales), and how to spread it just-so onto the outer wrapper so the tamales are of uniform size. All the ingredients must be very fresh. There should be just enough masa to surround the generous filling. I met Richard at a Spanish food and wine tasting this past summer. His tamales were, for me, the food highlight of that event. As I took a bite of his spicy black bean tamale, four things struck me: The flavor was exceptionally full and rich; the tamale had a moist and generous filling; there was much less masa than most tamales contain; and tucked into the tamale was a whole black olive! I took his contact information with me, and a few weeks later I ordered a dozen assorted tamales. They come in six flavors: Chicken Verde, Chile and Cheese, Chipotle Beef, Pork, Spicy Black Bean with Mole Sauce, and Farmers Market Vegetable. I’ve eaten too many masa-heavy tamales in my lifetime. Sometimes I’ve wondered where the filling is! Richard’s tamales are all about the filling: in fact he says the proportion is about 70% filling to 30% masa. He says, “If there is a thinner layer of masa, the moisture from the filling is drawn into the masa, and keeps the whole tamale moist.” I watched Richard make a chicken tamale at his commercial kitchen space in Goleta. I still wasn’t prepared for the thin layer of masa he spread, and the generous amount of filling. But he
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explained the masa swells as it cooks, making the perfect envelope of fluffy corn surrounding the tasty insides. Instead of using cornhusks, Richard uses an outer wrapper of unbleached parchment paper. They’re simpler to use and of a uniform size, and look much like the cornhusks. He ties the finished tamales with colorful strips of raffia, the color indicating which kind of filling is within. Richard hopes to have March 23 declared National Tamale Day. He feels that a favorite and traditional food, one dating back 5,000 years and to Aztec and Mayan culture, should have its special day. Given Santa Barbara’s Hispanic roots this seems fitting, and Mayor Schneider and the Chamber of Commerce support his goal. Every one of Richard’s tamales contains two ripe olives: a tribute to his dad, the olive rancher, and his family roots in agriculture. They add piquant flavor to an already flavorsome dish. Janice Cook Knight is the author of Follow Your Heart’s Vegetarian Soup Cookbook and The Follow Your Heart Cookbook: Recipes from the Vegetarian Restaurant. She has taught cooking and cookbook writing for over 30 years. She lives in Santa Barbara with her family. JaniceCookKnight.com
Resources Santa Barbara Tamales To Go delivers. Call to order: the menu is online. There is a one-dozen minimum order. They will arrive fully cooked and hot, but once cooled to room temperature you can refrigerate or freeze them for later use. It’s always nice to have a few tamales on hand for a quick meal. The company is developing a “tamale bike,” a small mobile hot box attached to a bicycle, and will be selling tamales at events around town. They plan to appear in the Funk Zone regularly on weekends. Check SBTamalesToGo.com for that announcement. You can also buy Santa Barbara tamales at the Forager’s Pantry at the Santa Barbara Public Market. And, you can lend support to National Tamale Day at: NationalTamaleDay.com.
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