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Two Gringo Gals Put Punch in Your Palate

The chefs bring their own take on Latin cuisine

America is getting to know and love tamales. Not only in Mexican restaurants, or on their home dinner plates, but in their living rooms as well.

Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, known collectively as the Too Hot Tamales, are bringing their own sizzle and salsa to their television show of the same name.

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"Two Hot Tamales" has aired on cable TV's Food Network for more than two years, and its success has surprised even the upbeat hosts themselves. And the women are as colorful in person as on screen: playfully ribbing one another, flashing perfect smiles, while coping with hectic scheduling.

But the nonstop, whirlwind schedule for the dynamic duo is, one might say, old sombrero, and has been since they teamed up in 1982. Between shooting TV episodes, they run a restaurant, The Border Grill, in Santa Monica, Calif.

The Mexican theme has also carried over into five cookbooks, the most recent of which, "Cooking With Too Hot Tamales," (William Morrow & Co., 226 pp., $22) was released earlier this year.

The Border Grill's home-style Mexican theme has carved an indelible identity for Ms. Feniger and Ms. Milliken, each of whom has trained around the world with a number of culinary disciples.

The two recently touched down in Cambridge, Mass., at the esteemed restaurant Rialto for the annual meeting of the International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.

After offering their sage perspective from the podium, the Tamales prepared a three-course lunch for the 400 or so women in attendance - all in a day's work for the yin and yang team that has unraveled, for many Americans, the apocryhpha of Mexican cuisine.

To see them work on television is to witness the line where organization and havoc meet and meld.

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Despite differences in style and taste, Feniger and Milliken continue to build on this dynamic, putting out program after program, cookbook after cookbook, without risking redundancy.

"One of the things the TV show has done," says Feniger, "is put us in the kitchen, forcing us to do new recipes."

Milliken nods, but adds, "Cooking on TV is much easier than in a restaurant. The restaurant setting is the hardest because we have to modify dishes to fit them on the line. You've got 15 minutes and a complex formula.... You have to work like a surgeon."

Much has been made of the pair's uncanny ability to compromise, but both agree that answer lies in conflict avoidance. "We both hate to argue," Milliken confesses. "We used to argue a lot more, but now, if one of us feels strongly about a certain issue, we get to [resolution] faster than in the past."

Says Feniger, "If you've committed to a partnership, it's important to look inside to see what's going on, so you don't blame someone else." A knowing smile from Milliken offers her endorsement.

Modest and accessible, both Hot Tamales claim that fame comes in spells. "The first couple of times someone approached me," Milliken recalls, "my husband was in awe. He's an architect, and he works hard, so he hasn't really seen our exposure grow."

What lies ahead for the Too Hot Tamales depends largely on whom one asks.

Feniger, eager to build on the success of The Border Grill, is scoping out possible new restaurant locations in Pasadena, Calif., and Las Vegas, while Milliken coyly confesses, "I just want to go home and have another baby."

But whatever prevails, one gets the feeling the two will find a way to work out some sort of compromise - together.

Fried Milk

Here's how the Too Hot Tamales describe this rather interesting dessert in their latest cookbook:

"Thought many of the traditional Mexican desserts seem pretty weird, even to us, this unusual fried custard is just a delight. We love the contrast of its smooth milky custard against the crisp caramelized crust. It tastes best served right from the saut pan.

1/2 cup cornstarch

1/2 cup sugar

3 cups milk

2 vanilla beans

2 large eggs

Flour for dusting

1 cup fine dry breadcrumbs

1/4 cup unsalted butter

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon mixed with 3 tablespoons sugar for sprinkling

Mix together cornstarch and sugar in a medium bowl. Whisk in 1 cup of the milk until cornstarch is dissolved. Whisk in remaining 2 cups of milk. Split the vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape the little seeds into the mixture, then add the vanilla beans. Transfer to a medium saucepan.

Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue stirring until the mixture is quite thick, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the vanilla beans and pour into a shallow glass baking dish, about 8 inches square. Smooth the top with a spatula. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or until quite firm.

Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl. Spread the flour on one plate and bread crumbs on another.

Unmold the custard onto a cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut into approximately 2-inch squares. Dip the squares first into the flour, shaking off the excess, and then dip into beaten eggs and bread crumbs. Set the squares on a sheet of waxed or parchment paper.

Heat the butter in a heavy 12-inch skillet over medium heat. When the foam begins to subside, add half the custard squares and brown about 2 minutes on each side, carefully turning with a spatula. Transfer to a platter and finish cooking the squares. Sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar and serve.

Serves 6.

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