Love in a Corn Husk

By Nicole Lessin
Photography by Nuri Vallibona

At 10 o’clock on any given Saturday morning, a crowd gathers in front of the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown booth run by Adrian Paredes and his wife, Mariana Ibañez. The friendly, green-shirted proprietors of the Gardener’s Feast booth assess the mass of rumbling tummies and proudly offer up their handmade specialty: Central Mexican-style tamale breakfasts wrapped like presents in sparkly tinfoil.


The tamales feature organic, fluffy masa stuffed with an array of gluten- and lard-free choices like spicy marinated pork pastor with pineapple, locally sourced goat cheese and black beans, and even nopalitos sautéed in olive oil, to name a few. But Ibañez—the organizational force behind the scenes—believes many patrons come for another reason. “A lot of people in the farmers market just tell us, ‘that tamale is made with love,’” she says with a smile. “Yes, it is made with love.”

Paredes, the public face and creative visionary of the business, says his family’s passion for from-scratch cooking came from growing up in Mexico City and preparing the traditional weekend meal during an all-day family gathering. “We would spend one hour planning what we were going to do,” he recalls. “You have to go to the market, come back, wash all the vegetables and start cutting everything, preparing everything…you know, with a tequila. And you listen to music while the whole house starts smelling really, really good.”

At the markets, Paredes and Ibañez say, their mothers taught them how to determine quality ingredients, from knowing what color a raw chicken should not be (very white) to verifying meat tenderness (you should be able to pinch off a piece). “You start like touching, looking at and smelling everything,” Paredes says. And those early lessons have stayed with them. “We’re really picky about food,” he admits. “We are,” Ibañez agrees with a laugh. 

Paredes-tamale

Initially, the pair worked in independent careers unrelated to food; Paredes spent more than two decades as an industrial designer and Ibañez managed businesses. But the couple kept the family-meal tradition alive after they married in 1998, and after moving to Austin in 2008, they decided to turn their culinary hobby into a part-time business selling fruit- and alcohol-infused gelatins. But Ibañez says that Austinites weren’t familiar enough with the traditional Mexican dessert for the idea to catch on, and summertime transportation posed a challenge. “They melted,” she explains. 

Undeterred, the couple began a more successful venture selling homemade flautas from a food trailer. But after the owner moved the trailer to a less suitable location, Paredes jumped at the opportunity to fill a void left by the departure of a popular tamale vendor at the downtown market. He learned of the opportunity from the market’s director, in early 2010. “She said, ‘Oh, do you do tamales?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we do know how to do tamales.’” “But the truth [is],” says Ibañez with a laugh, “we never did them before.” And they had just three short weeks to learn.

“That day, we just arrived at our house and started calling our families in Mexico, saying ‘How do you do tamales?’” Paredes says. The couple experimented and quickly mastered a light, airy masa made with vegetable stock. The trial-and-error approach also resulted in the re-creation of several family recipes, including the Costeño, a version of Paredes’s grandmother’s Oaxacan pork-rib tamale in a banana leaf, and Ibañez’s grandmother’s chicken mole using Oaxacan chocolate with hints of cinnamon. They also developed their own twist on the popular Mexican tamale rajas con queso by pairing roasted poblano peppers with Muenster cheese. “Since the beginning, we have tried to do something with our own signature,” says Paredes. And the couple’s efforts haven’t been in vain. At their very first market, they sold out of 80 tamales in just two hours. “Next time, it was a hundred tamales, and again we sold out,” says Paredes.

These days, under Ibañez’s careful supervision, a small group of employees makes about 4,000 from-scratch tamales a week, as well as tortillas, salsas and gorditas, from their Manor kitchen. The tamales are sold at 14 markets and in several cafés around Central Texas. Still, the pair are determined to own their own retail operation and, eventually, a nationwide franchise with mobile pushcarts that Paredes has already designed. What will remain unchanged, however, is the motivation to celebrate and share their Mexican culinary heritage not only with their children, but also with their adopted community.

“The thing that drives me here is the people and the friendship that they show to us,” Paredes says. “A couple of guys who come frequently tell me, ‘I came early just to buy your tamales.’ When they tell me that, I feel that commitment to them. I can’t fail by doing less quality, because they are waking up thinking that they are going to be having a piece of what we are doing. That is what drives me here, really and truly.”

Paredes-market

Meet Paredes and Ibañez and taste the love every Saturday at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown. For more information on the Gardener’s Feast tamales and where to find them, visit thegardenersfeast.com


UCHEPOS

Courtesy of Adrian Paredes

 

Uchepos are fresh-corn tamales from the state of Michoacán. This dish is a common sight in my hometown of Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, where cornfields are plentiful.

 

5 c. fresh corn kernels
¼ c. milk
1 T. sugar
2 T. unsalted butter
2 T. sour cream
1 t. sea salt
12 corn husks (plus a few extra), either fresh and stripped of
   silks or dried and soaked for 2 hours

 

Place all the ingredients except the husks into a mixer and blend into a thick batter with a consistency between pancake batter and bread dough. If it’s not thick enough, add more corn kernels. Immediately spread about 2 to 3 tablespoons of the batter onto the middle of the smooth side of the corn husk (the mixture will separate if it’s left for any period of time). Wrap the corn husk around the batter like an envelope with one end open. Repeat with the remaining corn husks and filling. Place the tamales in a steamer basket with the open end standing up, then steam them for 1 hour on high heat. They are ready when the corn husk and the tamale separate easily. Serve with queso fresco, sour cream and salsa.