Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were among the chefs who came to De Gustibus. They demonstrated recipes from their newest cookbook, Cooking With Too Hot Tamales, and played to a packed kitchen.
About the Book
A companion volume to their popular TV Food Network show, "Too Hot Tamales," Cooking With Too Hot Tamales is full of simple, flavorful food from Latin and South America. Milliken and Feniger have traveled all over the region trying traditional dishes and learning about local ingredients, and they have done a great job of adapting them for the American home cook. They hang on to the key elements that give the dishes authentic taste but offer substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients and alternative cooking methods when necessary. Cochinita Pibil, for example, the wonderful slow-cooked pork stew the Tamales demonstrated at De Gustibus, is traditionally cooked in the Yucatán, where it originates, in a pit filled with banana leaves and covered with rocks and earth; though Milliken and Feniger encouraged the adventurous barbecuers in the crowd to give it a try, their method of slow oven-braising turns out a meltingly tender and flavorful dish.
About Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
Milliken and Feniger first became friends more than 15 years ago, when they were the first two women to work in the high-pressure, traditional French kitchen of one of Chicago's finest restaurants, Jovan Treboyevic's Le Perroquet. They eventually made their separate ways to Los Angeles, where they teamed up to open their first restaurant, City Café, in 1982. They went on to open the Border Grill in Santa Monica, still one of L.A.'s hottest restaurants, and plans are currently in the works for new locations. They also have their popular show on the TV Food Network and a James Beard Award-nominated radio show called "Good Food," and they are the authors of two acclaimed cookbooks, City Cuisine and Mesa Mexicana. It's clear that Feniger and Milliken have developed a close and productive partnership over the years: They finish each others' stories (which range from an unfortunate encounter with a baby skunk to their experiences cooking in a minuscule kitchen with two burners for dozens of customers in City Café's early days), tease each other about their quirks, and good-naturedly agree to disagree when they have different views on any given topic.
About the Menu
The Tamales kicked off the class with a recipe for a refreshing Minty Lime Cooler (tequila optional) that would set a festive tone at any gathering. The rest of their menu fell into the category of ideal party food, first of all because the spicy, sweet, and piquant flavors are lively and just a little unusual, and second because Feniger and Milliken consider what will be realistic, and enjoyable, for the home cook to take on. "I'm always trying to find ways not to dirty up another thing in my kitchen, like a juicer," Milliken said while demonstrating a quick and easy way to juice a lime, rolling it on the counter before squeezing the halves using a fork.
Everyone in the class got to taste all the dishes the Tamales made, and they were fantastic. The plantain soup, made with ripe specimens of this mild bananalike fruit, was creamy and just barely sweet, its subtle flavor sparked nicely by the brilliant-colored blood orange-and-pineapple salsa. It's surprisingly quick to make: "You'll notice we didn't strain the soup," Milliken pointed out. "We really have rebelled against all thatpeeling tomatoes, straining sauces. We've gotten into a more earthy, homey kind of cooking. When I'm at home, I have about 45 minutes to get dinner on the table; I can't be straining soups and washing strainers all night." An elegant spinach salad followed: Milliken and Feniger heated the dressing slightly on top of the stove in a metal bowl, then tossed in the spinach leaves to wilt them slightly, and added vinegary pickled shallots and creamy cheese, which contrasted perfectly with the nutty crunch of the toasted pumpkin seed garnish.
Cochinita Pibil, the main dish of the evening, was made with achiote seed paste, charred tomatoes, and onions, and baked for long, slow cooking that yielded meltingly tender meat. It was served with a simple, complimentary rice pilaf with corn and chiles.The finale was an odd-sounding dessert called fried milk, which turned out to be one of the most delicious things I've ever put in my mouth. Milk, cooked with cornstarch and sugar and chilled until it's thickened to the texture of firm Jell-O, is cut into squares, coated in bread crumbs, fried in butter until crispy on the outside and hot inside, and finally sprinkled with cinnamon and sugareasy and totally addictive. Wines were served as well. We drank a light, tasty Chardonnay from the Fortant de France Winery with the soup and salad; then a nice Chilean Merlot from the Undurraga vineyard was poured to accompany the stew.
Tips from the Tamales
Milliken and Feniger paid special attention to pointing out time- and effort-saving tips as they cooked. "These are the kind of things that make doing the work in the kitchen painful if they take too long." Here are a few of the most helpful suggestions:
- To quickly and easily clean sandy leeks, turn a leek upside down in a tall pot of water and push it up and down before chopping. The grit will be forced out.
- Most avid home cooks know how essential sharp knives are to safe and efficient cooking, but they may not realize that peelers can be sharpened as well. Milliken said, "You know how frustrating it can be to have a dull peeler. We came up through the ranks of the [professional] kitchen, where you might have to peel 200 pounds of potatoes at a time." She demonstrated an ingenious way to sharpen a peeler by just scraping along both sides of its two cutting edges with the tip of a knife blade, getting rid of the burrs of metal that make it dull. "I never knew that either," Feniger interjected. "I learned that from Mary Sue. That is a great trick." As one of the audience members pointed out, the same trick works on blender blades as well.
- And above all, the Tamales exhorted the audience, taste what you're cooking. "You have to taste all the time, and when you taste, it's important for you to stop what you're doing and completely clear your mind, and you want to smell it and taste it carefully. Then imagine what you're trying to achieveif it's a soup, imagine eating 25 spoonfuls of it. If it's a sauce, consider how it's going to taste with what you're serving it with," Milliken said.