Texture and balance key, tamale expert says

By: Gloria Young,
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The secret to a perfect tamale?

It’s in the masa, according to Auburn resident Selina Rubio Ford, who has perfected the specialty through years of practice.

“Consistency is the most important part,” she said. “You want to make sure it is fluffy.”

Ford’s family recipe, passed down through generations, took her to first place in television station CW31’s fourth annual tamale throwdown in December.

“(The comments were) that my masa was really moist,” she said. “They were looking for authentic taste and a really soft masa.”

She learned how to make tamales in her grandmother’s kitchen, Auburn resident Estella Rubio is originally from the state of Sonora in Mexico but has lived in the foothills for more than three decades. Ford spent many hours observing  her grandmother’s cooking and then practicing the techniques..

“When she felt I was good enough to (prepare) the foods on my own, I did it alone,” she said. “Now my grandmother is eating my tamales.”
Ford describes her recipe as traditional.

“It’s an old school red sauce with pork. I also prepare a cheese tamale, which has pepperjack cheese and a strip of green chili pepper covered with the red sauce,” she said.

Her red sauce begins with dry spices, chilies and garlic sautéed in lard, then she adds a canned tomato mixture.

“The secret is in the spices and how long you let it simmer,” she said.

It’s not something you can rush. Ford marinates the pork for nine hours.

“The pork is not good enough until you barely touch it with a fork and it falls apart,” she said.

In addition to taste, proportioning the ingredients is also important.

“A lot of times you buy a tamale and there’s too much masa and not enough meat,” she said. “The portions of meat and masa should be even. I do a thin layer and then it is moist and fluffy.”

Ford, 35, said she’s always had a passion for food. She graduated from the Culinary Institute in Roseville in 2006 and has worked as a server, caterer and line cook.

For the past five months, she has been selling her tamales at Mom’s Kitchen in Auburn.  She was working there as a server when she approached owner Mick Pappas to offer her tamales at the restaurant.

Pappas tried them and was sold on the idea immediately.

“They are phenomenal,” he said. “I’ve tried many tamales in my day and these are very unique. The masa is very moist, not dry at all — very light tasting.”

They’ve been a big hit with customers, too.

“Hands down, we want more,” he said. “We always run out. So that’s a good thing. They’re a permanent addition to the menu.”

Recently, Ford launched her own company, Anytime Tamales, and, earlier this month, opened a booth at Denio’s farmers market in Roseville — where she ended up selling 50 dozen tamales over a two-day period.

For her customers, it is truly a fast food — thanks to the microwave oven.

“The concept is to take the tamale from freezer to table in two minutes,” she said.

At Denio’s, selling the tamales is a family event. Husband Richard Ford, who submitted her tamale recipe for the TV contest, assists with whatever is needed. Ford’s five children also lend a hand. The oldest son runs the booth. Two others hand out fliers. A daughter is in charge of making change and marking sales on a tally sheet. The youngest, who is 5, hands out free samples.

“I sold out really quick the first day,” Ford said. “Then I went back to Mom’s Kitchen and stayed up all night making more for Sunday. … We were really excited. I’ve been really fortunate.”

As she maps out the future of her cooking venture, Ford has no immediate plans to add other menu items.

“An easy way to market is to pick something and be good at it,” she said. “I’m going to stick with tamales for now because it is so dear for my family. My goal is to someday walk into a supermarket and see my product there.”

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