Tinsel & Tamales

Posted online: November 2014

By Jennifer Blaise Kramer, photographs by Leela Cyd, hair by Reny Salamon, makeup by Tomiko Taft

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Forget the ham. When Valerie Rice—the lifestyle blogger behind Eat Drink Garden—entertains at Christmas, it’s all about tamales. The family’s housekeeper, Rica, introduced the Mexican tradition eight years ago when Rice’s daughters were babies. Ever since, they make 100 of them each December for their annual party at home in Montecito. Wrapped up like presents in corn husks with a ruby red raja sauce, Rice serves them to friends alfresco along with plenty of candlelight and champagne, creating the ultimate casual California Christmas. “The holidays can be such a pressure-filled time socially, and often overly formal,” she says. “I still make sure there’s the sparkle and glitter of the holidays, but that it’s interpreted in a way that makes everyone relax and feel a little bit of that holiday magic in a very Santa Barbara way.”

In the spirit of simplifying, one of Rice’s party tricks is limiting options. She doesn’t do multiple courses, buffets, or large open bars. Instead, she makes a few good choices that she knows her guests will love. Right as they walk through the arched doorway of her Spanish colonial home, everyone gets a shot of tequila and sangrita chaser. Then it’s champagne—just champagne—which she says pairs perfectly with spicy foods and eliminates the nonstop drink orders, not to mention the multitude of stemware (and cleanup!) required for formal dinners.

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“My philosophy on entertaining is very much the same,” says Rice. “A good foundation of a pretty table, a killer playlist, and a full glass makes it easy to have a good time—not just your guests but as the host too. If you’re not having a good time, chances are your guests aren’t either.” Rice insists on actually enjoying her own parties instead of being tied to the stove. She believes regardless of how gorgeous the table is set, people really just want to eat comfort food, and the host’s job is to make their guests feel comfortable. This is why she says tamales—which are made in advance and are very casual, yet pretty and festive—make the perfect party food.

tamales2For this party, Rice serves them two ways: vegetarian rajas (chile and cheese) and puerco en salsa roja (pork in red sauce). The masa is gluten-free, making it a modern-day crowd pleaser, and the chile sauce looks colorful alongside garden greens. Beforehand, she sets out potato and chicken flautas plus guacamole sprinkled with pomegranate seeds—another dish that doubles as decor with the red and green color palette.

“The look and feel of my table is always valerie2inspired by the season and what’s growing in my garden. I want it to feel like Christmas in Santa Barbara, which means magnolia leaves, cypress, eucalyptus, and pomegranates.” Using what’s natural “rather than heading to Michael’s,” Rice decorates her table with more pomegranates, branches, and herbs. On the loggia, she relocates a tree from her backyard, adding copper siding around the container and twinkling lights. Moroccan votives grace the table and star lanterns give a glow overhead, while holiday music streams through hidden Sonos speakers.

After dark, a fire pit draws guests into the courtyard for Mexican butterscotch pudding and buñuelos (a traditional dessert of fried dough topped with sugar and cinnamon). There are sweets, spice, and more champagne, fueling a refreshing new tradition. Rice, who cherishes visions of her toddlers standing on kitchen chairs DIYspreading masa on corn husks adds, “In our house, tamales have come to mean Christmas much more than gingerbread and eggnog.

[WINTER 2015]

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