The lovely aroma of roasted pork and onions rises from the griddle as José Garces prepares carnitas - a favorite recipe from his just-published cookbook, The Latin Road Home - at his farmhouse in Ottsville, Bucks County.
While the house itself is charmingly simple, the back deck where he's cooking is anything but. He has essentially installed an outdoor restaurant kitchen here, with a flattop griddle, a charbroiler, a cook top, a deck oven, a fryer, and of course, running water and refrigeration.
"This is my favorite way to entertain," he says, soaking in the spectacular autumn afternoon, decked out in safari hat and shades. "Cooking outside is really underrated," he adds, as he looks out over the sun-dappled hills of his 40-acre farm, just over an hour - and a world away - from Center City.
Using tongs, he tosses the tender shards of already-cooked pork shoulder on the griddle, explaining as he goes: "This adds another layer of texture, the crispiness and" - he squeezes a lime over the meat and sprinkles a generous pinch of fresh cilantro - "another level of flavor from the acid and the aromatics."
Garces' second cookbook is a stark departure from the artistic chef journal that was his first, this one filled with recipes like these pork tacos, dishes inspired by great home cooking - the rustic beef stews he helped his mother make after school, the perfect empanadas his Mamita Amada served when they visited Ecuador, the ropa vieja his Cuban wife, Beatriz, remembered from her childhood.
The cookbook serves as a Latin cooking primer, paying homage to the countries where Garces found his cooking soul: his ancestral home of Ecuador, as well as Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru. Garces traveled extensively through those countries, absorbing then interpreting their cuisines for the restaurants he opened here.
But it is the basic, traditional dishes he presents on these pages, the tortilla soup, the seafood paella, the almond gazpacho, the kind of food he cooks on weekends with his wife and their two children on the farm that has become a retreat from the dizzying schedule of his life.
"It's almost spiritual for me to come out here with the family and cook with fresh stuff from the farm," he said. "It's very calming."
Even after opening seven restaurants in six months (three in Atlantic City; two in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and two in Palm Springs, Calif., between November and May), Garces, 40, has no desire to slow down.
He embarks on an intense book tour this month, after which he will focus on his new restaurant at the Kimmel Center, Volver ("to return" in Spanish), which he says will be his platform for exploring modern cuisine. "I want to continue to improve and evolve. It's really important for me as a chef," he says. "I never want to stand idle."
In just eight years since he opened his first restaurant, Amada, in Old City, he has built an impressive business in the Garces Group, employing more than 900 people at 15 restaurants in five cities, as well as operating a catering company and a food truck, Guapos Tacos.
He plans to continue to "expand the brand," opening versions of Amada, Distrito, and Village Whiskey in other cities. Opportunities have materialized in part from the celebrity of his Iron Chef title, the recognition from the James Beard Foundation, as well as the critical and financial success of his restaurants.
But for Garces, the success seems to bring a stronger tug of opportunity and responsibility.
"You only go around once. I want to look back and have no regrets at the end of it all," he says. "Now is the perfect time, we have the spotlight. We have the chance to share and educate and do some good."
In addition to a foundation that he and his wife are starting to assist immigrant families, Garces is committed to learning and educating about sustainable organic farming through the farm he bought three years ago in Bucks County. Full-time farm manager Alex McCracken supervises a team of paid and volunteer farmhands, this year planting 100 different varieties on about six acres: tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, leeks, squash, eggplants, sweet potatoes, melons, corn, beans, beets, radishes, turnips and sunchokes, lettuces, baby spinach, arugula, and herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and basil, to name a few.
"We've also had success with some great heirloom varieties, like charlei melons and orange-glow watermelons," he says. "And another thing that has been really cool, we've been able to grow some ingredients we hadn't been able to get around here . . . like pasilla chilies, which are grown in Spain, but I've only been able to find in dried form here. Alex has been able to grow them for us."
It has been an enormous learning experience for the entire staff, including Garces, a city boy from Chicago.
"Our continuing challenge is how do you really make sustainability a goal?" Garces asks as he gives a tour of Luna Farm.
His restaurants are composting vegetable scraps and recycling fryer grease for biodiesel fuel to power the tractor. A flock of hens - 35 Rhode Island Reds and 30 Burdocks - live in a mobile chicken coop that slides around to different areas, with the hens eating weeds and bugs and, in turn, fertilizing the ground. There are bees producing honey and logs on which shiitake and oyster mushrooms are grown.
"The most important thing," Garces says, "is that we are providing all our restaurants with huge deliveries of great, fresh, organic produce on a consistent basis."
This season, the farm produced enough for about 25 percent of the produce for the restaurant kitchens in Philadelphia. He hopes to bring that up to 50 percent.
JG Domestic, in the Cira Centre, has always centered its menus on locally grown ingredients, but he concedes that it has been an adjustment for the other chefs.
"They are used to ordering what they need for the menus they create. This really forces them to think outside the box. . . . We make deliveries twice a week, and say, Have fun!"
For all of his success, this entrepreneur seems to take great joy in the most basic roots of his empire, a patch of lettuce sprouting from the soil: "Wow, have you ever seen a leaf of red romaine that looks like this?" he says, plucking the speckled leaf from the ground and popping it in his mouth.
"I love being out here."
And it shows.
As he heats corn tortillas on the grill for the carnitas, he expounds on the research behind this classic favorite: "These are traditional, similar to the ones we serve at Distrito and Guapos Tacos," he says. "Everyone makes them a little different. We tried a lot of different ways, and, basically, these are the ones we like best."
The recipe calls for pork shoulder to be slowly braised in the oven in a rich broth of oil, condensed milk, orange juice, beer, and spices, then finished on the stove top. He serves the aromatic pork on a crisp tortilla with black beans and pineapple-jicama salsa.
"Oh, you gotta try this!" he says, savoring his own cooking after taking a generous bite.
"Who wants carnitas for lunch?"
Beer and Citrus Braised Fried Pork Carnitas
Makes 8 servings
For the braised pork:
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder
1 quart vegetable oil
1/4 cup lard
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Spanish onion, chopped
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12-ounce) bottle Mexican lager
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 navel orange, peel left on, quartered
1 bay leaf (preferably fresh)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
5 sprigs thyme
10 whole allspice berries
5 whole cloves
1/4 cup kosher salt
For the carnitas:
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 red onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
2. To braise the pork, combine all the ingredients for the braised pork in a large roasting pan. Cover the pan snugly with aluminum foil, and roast for 3 hours.
3. Take the pan out of the oven, and allow the meat to rest in the braising liquid for 15 minutes. (At this point, the meat can be refrigerated in the braising liquid for up to 2 days.) Transfer the meat to a large platter or rimmed baking sheet, and discard the braising liquid and solids. When the meat is cool enough to handle, gently pull it apart into large pieces with your fingers or two forks.
4. To finish the carnitas, heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the shredded pork, onions, and garlic, and cook the meat to crisp it on one side, 1 to 2 minutes (it will happen quickly). Carefully turn the pork (beware of spattering oil), and add the cilantro and lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Per serving: 704 calories, 41 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates,
6 grams sugar, 55 grams fat, 157 milligrams cholesterol, 1,000 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Ensalada de Garbanzos
Makes 4-6 servings
For the salad:
3 cups cooked garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
Kernels cut from 1 small fresh white sweet corn or 1/4 cup frozen white corn kernels, steamed
1 jar roasted red bell pepper, drained, rinsed (if packed in brine or oil), seeded, and chopped
For the dressing:
1 teaspoon minced garlic (1 clove)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground and toasted cumin seeds
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced on the diagonal
1. To make the salad, combine the garbanzo beans, tomatoes, corn, and roasted pepper in a bowl, and mix well.
2. To make the dressing, combine all the ingredients in a blender, and puree until the mixture is smooth and emulsified.
3. To serve, pour the dressing over the salad, add the parsley and cilantro, and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and garnish with the scallions.
Per serving (based on 6): 428 calories, 20 grams protein, 66 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, no cholesterol,
40 milligrams sodium, 19 grams dietary fiber.
Crema Catalana: Chocolate Custard With Vanilla Berries
Makes 8 servings
For the custard:
1 cup cold whole milk
3 1/2 teaspoons unflavored granulated gelatin
1 1/2 pounds good-quality dark chocolate, such as Valrhona or Scharffen Berger, grated (3 cups)
2 1/2 cups cold heavy cream
1 cup granulated sugar
18 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
For the vanilla-macerated berries:
1 Tahitian vanilla bean
2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar
5 cups mixed seasonal berries, such as strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries
For the brulee procedure:
Raw sugar (such as Demeraro, sanding, or raw cane sugar), for sprinkling
Lemon zest, for garnish
1. To make the custard, combine the milk and gelatin, and let sit for 10 minutes or until the gelatin is completely dissolved.
2. Set a double boiler over medium heat with 2 inches of water in the bottom, and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low, place the chocolate in the top of the double boiler, and stir to melt the chocolate, taking care not to let it scorch.
3. Combine the cream and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, 3 to 5 minutes. Put the egg yolks in a large heatproof bowl. Pour half of the hot cream mixture in a steady stream into the egg yolks, stirring constantly. Add the tempered yolks back to the cream mixture in the saucepan, and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens to the point of coating the back of a spoon. Remove the custard from the heat. Add the gelatin mixture and melted chocolate, and mix well to incorporate them. Stir in salt.
4. Strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve, and pour it into eight shallow 6-ounce custard cups. Allow the custard to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 3 days, covered tightly with plastic wrap to keep the tops from drying out and to prevent refrigerator smells from permeating the custards.
5. To make the vanilla macerating syrup, split the vanilla bean lengthwise, and combine it in a saucepan with the water and granulated sugar. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, and allow it to cool to room temperature. Discard the vanilla bean, and measure out 1/4 cup of the syrup, storing the remainder for another use. (It will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.)
6. When you are ready to serve the custards, macerate the fruit: Combine the berries in a bowl with the 1/2 cup vanilla simple syrup; they can be left to soak at room temperature for up to 15 minutes.
7. To caramelize the chilled custards, just before serving, coat the tops with the raw sugar, gently tipping off any excess: it should be a fine, thin layer of sugar. Use a culinary or creme brulee torch to caramelize the sugar evenly across the top of each custard. This should take about 1 minute per custard, but may happen more quickly. Be watchful and use caution.
8. Garnish the custards with berries and lemon zest and serve immediately.
Per serving: 1,065 calories, 16 grams protein, 141 grams carbohydrates, 128 grams sugar, 51 grams fat, 546 milligrams cholesterol, 187 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at 215-854-5744 or email@example.com.