“I like to just see what’s here and then we go from there.”
It’s a simple enough plan for a chef heading into a local grocery store, but what about bone-tired household cooks on their way home from work? How simple and yet satisfying can we make it? Could it feel a little fancy?
SFR spent time with four local professional chefs to learn how they might approach the daily task of dinner, to walk us through the shopping process and let us follow them into the kitchen. Each shared a recipe and some tips for making every dinner table sing.
Chef Fernando Ruiz beats me to the El Paisano Supermarket at Cerrillos Road and Calle del Cielo, but I suspect it’s because he’d told me by phone a few days earlier how he “totally loves that place.”
Ruiz grew up in Arizona and spent summers at his grandparents’ ranch in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico where he was butchering goats by the time he was 10 or 11. El Paisano reminds him of his time in Mexico, and as we wander the aisles picking out ingredients for our meal, he points to particular cooking contraptions, piñatas, wheat snacks and even shaved tamarind as things you can’t likely find in just any old store.
“My grandma had this huge tamarind tree on the ranch, and we’d eat those kind of beans that came off it,” Ruiz recalls. “Tamarind is one of the main ingredients of Worcestershire sauce. See, this is the kind of stuff you’ll see in Mexican grocery stores, and I love it. Because I like to look around, you know? I don’t know what I want to eat tomorrow or next week—I want to walk around and see what looks good now.”
Ruiz came to cooking while in prison in Arizona. Working in the kitchen, he tells SFR, he realized “this is cool...this is what I want to do.”
Once free, he worked his way up through the ranks to eventually become the executive chef at Santacafé. He also toppled celebrity chef Bobby Flay on his own Food Network show, Beat Bobby Flay; and Ruiz won the channel’s competitive cooking show, Chopped, in 2016.
He chooses a number of thin-sliced pork steaks, two chayote squashes, a couple serrano peppers, a fistful of green onion and cilantro, a few green tomatillos and a package of corn tortillas.
We head next to a house owned by a friend of Ruiz’s who has kindly allowed us to use her kitchen. Once there, Ruiz washes his veggies and sets about slicing them into manageable pieces. The tomatillos—which Ruiz says are not quite ripe because it’ll add a brighter flavor and color—go into a blender with the cilantro and one and a half serranos, salt and pepper and, surprisingly, a few ice cubes.
“The blender can get pretty hot, so these ice cubes are going to keep the salsa from getting hot or kind of cooked,” he explains. “It’ll make it a little wet, too.”
This is the kind of salsa you could make in any blender, he notes, and within a few moments, his ingredients have meshed into a satisfying chunky sauce. It has a subtle kick from the serranos that just plain works, and the thought of it soon joining the rest of the dish is enticing to say the least.
“I only added one and a half serranos,” he cautions, “because you want the taste but you don’t want it so spicy that you can’t find the flavor.”
Outside, he fires up the grill before returning to slice the chayote squash, which he slathers in a little olive oil plus salt and pepper. I’m not wildly familiar with this particular gourd, but it resembles a pear in look and texture.
“It smells like rain,” Ruiz muses.
When the time comes to prep the pork steaks, Ruiz advises simplicity. Some salt and pepper will be enough, especially since we have the salsa, but, he says, one mustn’t under-season. Back outside, he plops the chopped green onion and sliced squash on the grill to cook first. After a few minutes, he adds the pork, which, in unison with the onion, smells dreamy. These are thin pork steaks and only take about three minutes on each side, so before I know it, we’re back inside and Ruiz has plated the food alongside a few stove-heated corn tortillas. All told, with prep time, it took about 40 minutes to make, and as I dive headfirst into the melange before me, fully ignoring how I haven’t eaten pork in, like, six or seven years, the power of food compels me.
“Simple, right?” Ruiz says. “People overthink it, but you don’t need to do that with food—a dish doesn’t need 30 ingredients. We had this ready in under an hour, and it’s the kind of thing you could take to a barbecue or a Super Bowl party, and people will just rave about it. Everybody’s always going to want a taco.” (Alex De Vore)
Fernando Ruiz’s Pork Tacos
- 6-7 pork steaks (thin cut)
- 1 chayote squash (sliced longways)
- 10-12 tomatillos (washed and cut in half)
- 2 serrano peppers (sliced)
- 1 bunch cilantro
- green onion (just the green part, but save the white part)
- corn tortillas
- For the salsa verde, add the tomatillos, serranos, cilantro, green onions, salt and a few ice cubes in blender, then blend until “salsa consistency.”
- Salsa is done and set aside.
- Season chayote squash and the white parts of the leftover onion with olive oil, salt and pepper.
- Grill the squash and onion.
- Season pork with salt, pepper and dry oregano on both sides.
- Grill on high heat for about 3 minutes each side.
- The most important part of this recipe or ANY recipe is to SEASON YOUR FOOD!
The Santa Fe Asian Market is still a fairly new business, and when I meet chef Hue-Chan Karels there on a Monday just after noon, even she is mildly surprised to see the store carries morning glory, or as Karels calls it, water spinach.
“It’s almost like a little treat,” she says, placing what appears to be a rather large bushel in her basket. “And it’s also going to shrink down like spinach when we cook it.”
Perusing the small but notable veggie section in the St. Michael’s West shopping center store, Karels selects a package of mini king oyster mushrooms and another of enoki; some fresh ginger and three Japanese eggplants, some baby bok choy and fish sauce, plus some Thai basil, a decidedly sweeter version than Italy’s that comes alive with complex licorice-like flavors the more you chew it.
“We’re going to get three dishes out of this,” she says of the haul.
Karels is the chef behind Santa Fe business Open Kitchen, a combination teaching space/eatery that specializes in helping folks learn how to cook across various cultures while also fostering a deeper appreciation for those cultures and gaining a little bit of togetherness. Her family arrived in the states from Vietnam when she was just 9, and her education as a chef was, as she says, “all home-taught.”
Karels was the pastry chef at her family’s restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, by the time she was 15—leaning into recipes from her family, including her grandmother, who spent some time learning pastries at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. Today, roughly eight years into her Santa Fe sojourn, Open Kitchen has become a powerhouse operation that empowers folks through cooking across multiple public and private classes.
Back in the professional kitchen at Open Kitchen, she sets about washing the veggies with an assist from an employee, chopping and cubing the eggplant and getting a bit of rice cooking. As she tends to the other items like the ginger and the garlic, she rattles off handy kitchen tips about how using a regular old kitchen spoon to peel ginger makes the job easier, or if you stick the tip of a wooden spoon handle into heating oil, you can check to see if it bubbles and is therefore hot enough.
“I just like that cooking means you can be creative and self-reliant or hospitable to guests,” she says. “A lot of the world opens up when you know how to cook.”
As she slices a carrot, she explains that much of her philosophy for Asian cooking is about feel, taste and color.
“You want color, and this is how a lot of Asian dishes were created,” she says.
Failure, Karels notes, is part of the process—but think of it more like experimentation.
“People get timid in the kitchen and ask things like, ‘Is it OK if I add another mint leaf?’” she says. “What’s going to happen if you do? You find out you like it? Great. Or if you don’t, then you know.”
Finally, we get to the morning glory, which Karels and her assistant break apart by hand instead of chopping. Once completed, it still looks like too much, but as she sautées it in a little oil, a little water and a sauce she’s made with leftover white wine and some fish and oyster sauce, it cooks down to a tender bit of roughage that smells and looks delicious. We end up with three complete dishes, which we eat right there in the kitchen.
“We’ve coined the phrase ‘culture to table’ at Open Kitchen,” Karels says. “Everybody knows ‘farm to table,’ they know what that means, that’s great, but ‘culture to table’ is more about getting a feel for the cultures your food is coming from. That’s what it’s about. That and bringing people together.” (ADV)
Hue-Chan Karels’ Caramelized Ginger Eggplant
- 1 1/4 pounds unpeeled eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes—about 6 cups
- 2-3 tablespoons fresh lemongrass or ginger, bruised with knife and minced
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons pure cane sugar or honey
- 2 teaspoons oyster sauce
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- cup thinly sliced onions
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- cup vegetable broth
- 1 scallion (whites and greens), thinly sliced into rings, and several sprigs of fresh cilantro for garnish
- Cut up eggplant and set aside.
- Mix the next four ingredients in small bowl and set aside.
- Heat a cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Add vegetable oil then sliced onions. Sautée for about 5 minutes until fragrant and slightly brown.
- Add minced garlic and cook for another minute.
- Add eggplant to the onion/garlic mixture—sautée until lightly browned and tender, about 10 minutes.
- Add the next four ingredients, stir and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Reduce heat to medium and add vegetable broth, cook for another 10 minutes, and stir periodically.
- At this point, the eggplant should have caramelized and have a nice brown appearance.
- Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.
- Remove from heat and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and green onions.
La Montañita’s produce isn’t overflowing when chef Jeffrey Kaplan walks in the door on a Monday afternoon. It’s the last day of his work week and he’s still wearing a blue button-up from Rowley Farmhouse Ales as he makes his way between Santa Fe ladies shopping with woven baskets in the store on Alameda.
He takes a quick walk through the vegetables and makes a beeline for the meat and seafood cases lining the back of the market. “I like to start with the protein and build the meal around that,” Kaplan says, bending close to the glass to look at fish on display, then choosing a trout filet from Above Sea Level.
(Pro tip: Look for a translucent, bright quality on the fish in the case. Fish that look more dull or appear to have a film are less fresh.)
He finds the short-grained rice in the bulk aisle, then heads back to the produce aisle, where spinach, Italian parsley and shishito peppers make their way to the basket. The total time in the store is 10 minutes and we’re off to the restaurant’s tight kitchen off Maclovia Street.
Kaplan’s advice for home cooks is the same for his staff as the dinner rush takes off: first things first. Wash what needs washing. Chop what needs chopping. Grab the oil and the spices and the pans and utensils you need. Thank the French for the phrase “mise en place,” which translates to “everything in its place.”
“Even though the rice takes 20 minutes, it needs attention,” Kaplan explains. “So if we spend five to 10 minutes making sure everything is ready to go, you don’t have to worry about it. That’s where a lot of home mistakes can happen.”
Everyone who’s picked up cooking tips from competitive television shows knows it’s not hard to mess up risotto. But Kaplan argues it’s also not hard to make it work out just fine even if you mess up a little.
“Most of cooking is not rocket science, a little change here and there is not going to be the end of the world,” he says. “Everybody, in my opinion, should know how to cook risotto, how to cook pasta…Risotto is the mole of Italy, everybody’s grandma makes it.”
At the most basic level: Kaplan first toasts rice in a skillet, then adds liquid until it dries into the rice, then repeats the process.
“You keep adding and tasting until the rice feels like the texture you like. You want to still have a separateness of the rice. It can be al dente, does it bite through or does it schmear inside your mouth?...Some people like it cooked less. How do you like it?” he says.
Kaplan earned an associate’s degree at the California Culinary Academy and returned to school later for a bachelor’s with courses in hospitality management as he cooked through his early career on the left coast. His move to Santa Fe 12 years ago started in a hotel, but six years ago he launched the front of house and created the menu for Rowley Farmhouse Ales, with chemist and brewer John Rowley in charge of the beer side. The menu focuses, he says, on “comfort food. Like the dishes you grew up with in a fun way.”
Follow his recipe for success on this dish, he says, but have fun, too. (Julie Ann Grimm)
Jeffrey Kaplan’s Roasted Shishito and Spinach Risotto with Sautéd Red Trout
- 2 ounces olive oil
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 1 cup arborio rice
- 6 ounces white wine
- 12 ounces vegetable stock
- 1 trout filet
- 5 ounces shishito peppers with the stems removed
- 1 bunch spinach with the stems removed
- 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
- 4-5 sprigs Italian parsley (about 20 leaves) thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons sweet butter
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 ounce parmesan cheese
- zest from 1 lemon
- Have all your ingredients ready before beginning (mis en place).
- Heat sauté pan over medium high heat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and sweat the shallots until slightly translucent, about 1-2 minutes. Add the arborio rice and toast for an additional 1-2 minutes. While carefully stirring add 4 ounces of the white wine. Keep stirring until the wine has been absorbed by the rice and then add 4 ounces of the vegetable stock. Continue to stir regularly while the rice is cooking and absorbing the stock.
- Start the second sauté pan over medium heat.
- Lightly season the flesh side of the trout, then add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan, and place the fish in the pan skin side down. Cook on this side for 2-3 minutes or until the fish easily comes free from the pan.
- Add a couple more ounces of stock to the rice while continuing to stir. Repeat this process of adding liquid and allowing it to absorb while keeping it moving until the rice is finished (about 20–25 minutes depending on the temperature.)
- Back to the trout. After just a minute on the flesh side, carefully remove the fish from the pan and return the pan to the stovetop. Add another tablespoon of olive oil and add the shishito peppers. Allow them to cook 2-3 minutes or until they become slightly charred. Add the minced garlic and cook for just a minute. (Careful, the garlic can burn easily at this point!)
- Add the spinach and sauté until completely cooked, 1-2 minutes. Add the remaining white wine to vegetable pan to deglaze it.
- Add the rice to the vegetables along with the remaining stock. Add the parsley and salt and pepper while allowing everything to cook together for a moment. Add the butter to create the sauce with the remaining pan jus.
- Cut the fish in half and top with lemon zest.
“Before all this, I had no meaning,” Jackie Gibbs, YouthWorks culinary program director, says nonchalantly as she drops six poblano chiles into a plastic bag. “Since I started at YouthWorks, I’ve found meaning.”
She always brings it back to YouthWorks, the organization founded by Melynn Schuyler in 2001 for at-risk youths. The org has been pivotal to her life’s foundation, and Gibbs’ youth was hardly picturesque. By the time she joined the local program at 16, she’d been living on the street. YouthWorks, she says, saved her life. Now, as one of the many organizational heads, Gibbs wants to unlock the power of food in helping young people discover their hidden talents.
For her dish, Gibbs selects chile rellenos with Mexican rice and calabacitas.
“I’m not gonna go buy a bunch of expensive, fancy food,” she notes at Food King on St. Mike’s as she fills the cart with canned vegetables and the cheaper bags of rice. “I didn’t have any of that growing up—the youths don’t have any of that, so that’s not the kind of stuff we’re gonna be cooking [at YouthWorks], anyway.”
Gibbs is familiar with Food King, one of the more affordable grocery stores in town because, she says, “I don’t have a lot of money.” The final charge of $26.99 to craft a from-scratch meal for a fictional family of four doesn’t break the bank.
She moves around one of the YouthWorks kitchens off Camino Carlos Rey with an ease only those with years in the culinary world can muster. Similarly, she switches from chef talk to plain-tongue talk seamlessly, and as she explains concepts that might go over a food layman’s head, she makes them understandable and works in a calm, cool manner.
Gibbs starts by placing the chiles directly over a gas flame, where she keeps them roasting until they are scarred. Once they’re set, she drops them into the same plastic bag we used to carry them home from the grocery store. As she ties off the handles, the bag fills with steam.
“That’s a trick to soften them up,” she explains. “Don’t do it too long, though, or they’ll get soggy.”
Once satisfied, Gibbs seeds the chiles and stuffs slices of colby jack and a white queso we’d procured at Food King within. Then it’s on to the rice, which she browns in canola oil, water, tomato paste and diced tomatoes. With salt, pepper, garlic and cumin, the rice comes together simply, but wonderfully.
Gibbs works like hell to get the batter for the dish just right, breaking to stir egg whites into firm peaks or to heat the oil she’ll use presently. She covers the peppers in flour, then batter, and then she gets to frying. She’s created an iconic New Mexican meal, and damn, suddenly I’m wishing my own mother had the cooking skills Gibbs has when I was growing up.
“We try to train [youths] in everyday, traditional ways, because not everyone has Ninjas or a mixer in their home,” she says. “Food gave me a way to take constructive criticism I never had growing up. A lot of times, you can fix food even when it seems bad; my self-esteem has changed; I can see the impact it has on people at YouthWorks—how it helps them grow. Because these kids just need a little boost, a little hand-up. Don’t wait for the system. Volunteer. Do it yourself. Show these kids what’s possible.” (Riley Gardner)
Jackie Gibbs’ Chile Rellenos
- 4-6 poblano peppers (or however many you want)
- colby jack cheese (block or shredded)
- quesadilla/white cheese (block or shredded)
- 1 cup flour
- vegetable/canola oil
- 4 large eggs
- chile of your choice
For the rice:
- 1.5 cups of white rice
- 3 cups water/broth
- 2 teaspoons salt (to taste)
- 1 teaspoon pepper (to taste)
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 16-ounce can tomato sauce
- 16-ounce can diced tomato
For the calabacitas:
- 2 yellow squash
- 3 zucchini
- 1 yellow onion
- salt/pepper to taste
- Remove poblanos from plastic bag, set aside (do not dispose). Roast poblanos over a low open flame until blistered (3-5 minutes). Remove from heat, place in plastic bag and seal tight. Let steam 5 minutes.
- Remove from bag again, then peel the charred skin. Slit open and remove the seeds. Put equal amounts of the two cheeses in each. Wrap tight, then impale with skewers or toothpicks to hold them together.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan (pick one with a lid). When the oil is hot on medium-low heat, add the rice. Stir it a bit and let it become a golden brown. Add salt, pepper and cumin and cook for about a minute. Mix and add tomato sauce and diced tomatoes, then add water/brother. Reduce heat and cover, let that simmer for about 30 minutes.
- Slice squash and zucchini into half-moon shapes and dice the onion. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a sautée pan on medium heat. When heated, add the vegetable mixture. Sautée until onions are translucent and vegetables are softened and browned. Add salt and pepper to taste. When done, remove from heat and stir in the corn.
- Separate egg yolks and egg whites in two separate bowls. Add 1 tablespoon of flour into the egg yolks and mix together well, until blended. Whisk the egg whites vigorously until you’ve got firm peaks—a whipped-cream like consistency (be patient, this can take a bit and use up a lot of energy). When done, fold in the egg yolk mixture into the firm peaks (be gentle).
- Generously cover the bottom of a pan with oil on medium-high heat. Roll the poblanos in flour, then coat them with batter. Gently place the chiles in the pan, let them cook 2-5 minutes on each side—you want them to look golden brown. Flip carefully and cook on the other side. Whole thing should look, feel and sound crispy. Remove from heat.
- Top with chile and cheese. Plate and look fancy.