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Feeling chilly? Southwestern delights can take the edge off of cool nights.

October 27, 2017

My mother was born close enough to the Tex-Mex border to develop a taste for anything that bears that name - especially chili. She loved everything Texas (especially if it was edible), and one rule was sacrosanct: Never utter the words "chili" and "beans" in the same sentence. Those were fightin' words, you see, because traditional Texas chili is made without beans. And my spice-loving mother never missed a chance to make that point perfectly clear. 

A couple of days in advance, she would issue an all-points bulletin. "I'm making chili," she would announce, peering solemnly over top of her glasses. That proclamation was the Yesbek household equivalent of yellow police tape: Cross at your own peril! 

The process began with the ceremonial rendering of the suet. Suet is the hard, internal fat of beef - the stuff that used to give McDonald's fries that wonderful taste. (Stand down, food police: We didn't eat it every day. And besides, it's none of your business.) I will admit that nowadays I use olive oil, and I'll also admit that my chili never tastes quite as good as my mother's. After simmering in that big 12 quart stockpot for what seemed an eternity, the dark mixture of ground beef, spices and onions was ready to be used for all sorts of things. And one of those things was tamales. 

The process of making tamales at home is simple but tedious. Masa harina (corn flour with slated lime) is mixed with chicken broth and the savory liquid from the chili. Purists use lard to get a smooth and creamy texture, and her chili oil was pretty much the same thing. The rest is easy: Slather the masa/oil mixture onto a square of corn husk, fill with a spoonful of drained chili (or shredded chicken, or braised pork ... you get the idea), fold the husks and stack them in a steamer. Top the finished cylinders with diced red onion, a polite dollop of chili and an enthusiastic splash of Tabasco sauce. Ahhh, the nectar of the gods. 

There are a few places in downtown Rehoboth where you can get good tamales. Yolanda Pineda at Mariachi has them on the menu most of the time, and they are simply delicious. You can also get those handmade gems at the tiny, almost-impossible-to-find Modern Mixture on Rehoboth Avenue. 

A few years ago I wrote a column about a restaurant crawl I organized for Southern Delaware Tourism and a Virginia food critic who dared question the quality of Rehoboth dining (more fightin' words). I took him to five of our finest eateries - and what does he still talk about? The tamales from Modern Mixture! In fact, he didn't believe proprietor (microbiologist and professional fitness trainer) Leo Cabrera when Leo revealed that he didn't use lard in the tamale shell. This food critic/trained chef disappeared into the kitchen with Cabrera to unravel the Mystery of the Masa while I cooled my heels over guacamole and a Diet Coke. 

Cabrera and his tamale maker have the perfect system: He thinks up new tamale fillings, and she makes them happen. "It's all in the hands," says Cabrera, as they caress the warm masa around the fillings. Depending on the day, Modern Mixture might have tamales with cheese, jalapeno and tomato, or chorizo, cheese and frijoles refritos, or tamales filled with spiced pork and tomatillo. Because tamale preparation is so time-intensive, always call first before going to Modern Mixture just for tamales! This is the beach, after all, and y'just never know. 

I shudder to think of my mother's reaction to these new-fangled fillings (given how the simple mention of beans set her off), but Yolanda and Leo's little care packages swaddled in corn husks have attracted a loyal base of tamale fans. Even the food police love 'em.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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