The setting may not have been her own Spanish Colonial house, but lifestyle blogger Valerie Rice clearly felt right at home at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara in Montecito on a recent afternoon.
The Biltmore’s five-star-plus décor could not have been more festive as Rice welcomed more than 50 guests for a cooking workshop called “Tinsels and Tamales.”
Rice has been building a brand for the past several years, and her blog, Eat Drink Garden with Valerie, has become increasingly popular. She is well known for entertaining and gardening with great panache.
Her recipes and tips for preparing and entertaining have been featured in many glossy magazines and she’s been a contributor for many periodicals.
The native Californian’s relaxed and easy nature lends itself to a casual American Riviera style of entertaining. She finds simple joys in her home kitchen and garden, and insists on having fun while she’s doing it!
With Christmas on everyone’s mind, Rice, whose personal Christmas is all about tamales, chose this theme for the Biltmore workshop.
On arrival, her guests were served champagne (Rice’s drink of choice to pair with tamales) and they were given a folder with printouts of the tamale recipes inside.
In addition to the table set up for the cooking demonstration, Rice displayed a sample dining table design that reflected her style. The table setting included white porcelain dishes, clean-lined stemware, oversized linen napkins, matte silver flatwear and woven rattan placemats. The items reflect Rice’s organic style of entertaining, and all of them are available at Hudson | Grace, one of Coast Village Road’s newest home lifestyle boutiques in the Montecito Country Mart.
With all the emphasis on real estate in Santa Barbara, “at home” entertaining, especially al fresco, is very popular and many retail stores (Pierre Lafond, Cabana Home, Diani Home and Jenni Kayne Home, to name a few) are featuring home furnishings, which makes Rice’s work timely and relevant.
Rice remarked at how great the food looks served on white dishes and she made a case for the simplicity of “going natural” — using succulents in arrangements for centerpieces. She explained that single white peonies, low candles and live green branches with berries for aroma add a great seasonal touch for her table décor.
As the group moved to a seated area of the patio dining room, Rice recalled how her tradition of serving her family tamales at Christmas began eight years ago when her daughters were infants.
“In my house, tamales have come to mean Christmas much more than gingerbread houses and nutmeg infused eggnog,” she laughed.
Rice was inspired by the family’s housekeeper, Rica, who introduced her to her own family’s favorite holiday tamale recipes from Mexico. The two she adopted as her own — and were demonstrated at the workshop — are vegetarian rajas (chili and cheese) and puerco en salsa roja (pork in red sauce).
Chatting effortlessly, Rice introduced her guests to all the ingredients she would use, from the corn husks to the kinds of chilies (ancho, guajillo, pulia and pablanos), and she noted how each pepper adds a different flavor.
The masa, which is the corn filling in all tamales, has been dried, soaked in lime water, washed and then ground while wet, and then dried and made into masa harina. Note for the kitchen-challenged: If you don’t want to attempt making masa harina by hand, you can buy it at most grocery stores. Rice said her favorite is from La Bella Rosa Bakery, 1411 San Andres St. on Santa Barbara’s Westside.
During the demo, Rice said she makes 100 tamales each December, with whatever is not eaten placed in the freezer for later. Her talk was peppered with party tips, like having good music, a beautiful table and tasty beverages (her husband is a wine aficionado).
She also shared her philosophy of making guests feel comfortable so the hosts have a good time, too.
After her initial demonstration of tamale assembly, she directed her guests to a second table, which was loaded with ingredients so the workshop attendees could try their hand at folding a tamale or two. The experience made for some awkward and humorous moments, which all added to the fun of the afternoon.
Watching Rice work with tamales was a magical experience, with no sleight of hand.
Click here for Rice’s blog, Eat Drink Garden with Valerie. The tamale recipes will be posted by the end of the week.
— Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.