Saturday, October 1, 2011

How to make tamales: An afternoon with Chef Kevin Luzande at Playa Rivera

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Chef Kevin Luzande holding a sweet corn tamal, ready for the steamer

Serendipity. A happy coincidence. A random tweet I might just as easily have missed. An unscheduled day on the calendar.

That's how Emery, my 12-year-old son, and I ended up spending the afternoon at Playa Rivera with chef Kevin Luzande learning how to make their famous tamales. Free demo, said the tweet. Of course I do! said the boy. A phone call, a reservation, and off we went.

The wall of booze at the bar at Playa - yes, she climbs up that ladder every few minutes
Spanish hot chocolate, thick and sweet
Playa's justly famous blue corn muffins with almond butter

As we waited for the chef to get the staff through the busy part of brunch service, we sat at the bar drinking thick Spanish hot chocolate with house-made marshmallows and wolfing down Playa's famous blue corn muffins. I tried the piquillo peppers stuffed with chorizo and cheese (delicious little bites); Emery had the jalapeno waffle with pumpkin seeds (delicious but sweeter than expected). We chatted with Zak, the other guy who showed up for the demo, and shared a goat's milk ice cream sundae with a blue corn cookie and hazelnuts. Nueva Latina? Southwestern fusion? I'm not sure what label to put on Playa's menu, but everything we tried had personality and sass.

Emery at the demo table with chef Kevin Luzande
Chef Kevin's recipe for tamale masa

Then the three of us moved to a back table to watch chef Kevin make the tamales. He took us through three recipes: sweet corn tamales, mushroom tamales, and pork tamales. When chef Kevin got to Rivera, John Rivera Sedlar's downtown restaurant, the cooks in the kitchen were making tamales by feel rather than by recipe and measure. Chef Kevin tested, documented, insisted on consistency, and then brought that discipline to the kitchen at Playa.

Flattening a pulled pork tamal before wrapping and steaming
Ingredients ready for the tamal demo

We got lots of details: Grind the soaked, dried corn with the meat grinder attachment of a stand mixer to get the right texture, or buy prepared masa at a Mexican grocery - but specify that you want it for tamales, not tortillas, and without manteca (lard). Mix the masa with baking powder, shortening, salt and water. Wet masa is the secret to light, fluffy tamales - go for the texture of muffin batter.

Spreading masa and pulled pork on a banana leaf for pulled pork tamales
Mixing cooked chopped mushrooms with prepared masa for mushroom tamales
Chef Kevin softens banana leaves with a blowtorch - easier than blanching, he says

More tips: Spray the soaked corn husks with nonstick cooking spray so the tamales don't stick. Make them on a scale so they come out exactly the same size each time. Wrap them in heavy-duty plastic wrap so they retain moisture as they steam. And always keep the mixture wet, wet, wet or your tamales will end up dry, dry, dry.

For the sweet corn tamales and mushroom tamales, the filling and masa are mixed together so the flavor permeates the whole tamal. The pork tamales are made sandwich-style: thin layers of masa with an equally thin layer of shredded, seasoned pork spread between. Steam them 50 minutes, and then the best tip of all: After the tamales are cooked, chill them for at least half an hour to let them set - then, and only then, reheat and serve.

Playa chef Kevin Luzande
Pulled pork tamal
Unwrapping a hot sweet corn tamal

Sweet corn and mushroom tamales

We tasted the mixtures before. We tasted the tamales when they were done. "Tamales are my favorite Mexican food ever," declared Emery, and he scooped up every crumb with his plastic spoon. We asked lots of questions which chef Kevin answered patiently. We took a few tamales home. And in the end, he wouldn't even let us pay for our brunch.

This was the first cooking demo chef Kevin's held at Playa. Will there be more? we asked. He smiled. Tell the general manager you liked it, he said, and there very well may be. So, general manager, whoever you are, let me tell you: We liked it. We liked it a lot. And we can't wait to go back to Playa.

Playa Rivera, 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 323.933.5300


lateagirl said...

So many of my friends still don't get twitter. When I tell them abt this amazing experience that you and Emery had, perhaps they will get it!! Thanks for sharing the reicipe and tips. I agree with Emery.....I love tamales.......and have been wanting to make my own. This has inspired me!

Leslie Singer said...

Most of the latin food here in Florida is Cuban- so not too many good Tamales. I'll try Playa next time we are in LA ( soon I hope- my son lives in Santa Monica). Will send him on a reconnassaince mission.

Jen said...

oh my gosh! what a fun experience! Man, if emery doesn't end up in culinary school, i'll be so surprised! :)

showfoodchef said...

Oh, I wanted to go to this too - what fun! I posted a how-to the other week when I made little tamales for a bridal shower. They were so fun! I LOVE the mushroom idea. I can't wait to see what you (and Emery) come with after this tutorial. Very fun post :D

Rocky Mountain Woman said...

I've tried to make tamales and well, it really wasn't very pretty. I need to take this class!!!

bridget {bake at 350} said...

I think tamales are my favorite Mexican food ever, too! :)

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