This is the first in a series of occasional features titled $20 dinner, where we ask a chef to make a full dinner for two or more people for less than $20.
Chef Hector Santiago has two words of advice on making dinner for $20: "Wing it." Had he been at the helm of Pura Vida, Super Pan, or El Burro Pollo, the three complementary ventures he's created on a single block of Highland Avenue, Santiago might have had a different attitude. Instead, his demeanor at the DeKalb Farmers Market on Monday morning has the unmistakable air of a man on a rare day off, dressed in an old flannel shirt and sunglasses, showing stubble around his recognizable goatee, and without a plan aside from the vague idea that he "might want to grill something."
Santiago strolls along the butcher's cases, glancing at the turkey thighs and skirt steaks until he settles on a cut tucked in a dimly lit corner of the case. "A lamb breast," he says to butcher and then turns to explain, "When I get a whole lamb in at the restaurant, that's what I bring home." The cut, which includes the opposite end of the ribs from the tenderloin, is unusually fatty, making it cheap and, like pork belly, well-suited for slow cooking.
With the meat settled, he takes a couple laps through DeKalb's considerable produce selection, snapping the ends of white yautia (a root common in Puerto Rican cooking) to make sure they are moist enough, sorting through for the freshest bunch of cilantro, and occasionally picking something up only to put it back moments later. "This is why my wife hates going grocery shopping with me. I could be here all day," he says.
Back at his home in East Atlanta, Santiago gets a fire started in his charcoal grill, a homemade rig consisting mostly of old bricks and a metal table set up on a backyard deck. He and his wife Leslie live in the house they built just a few years ago and, while the coals start burning in the grill, they point to the spots where they're still planning on making improvements: a vegetable garden here, a chicken coop there, and so on.
Inside, Hector and Leslie work comfortably together, seasoning the lamb, peeling shrimp, cutting oranges, setting pots of water to boil, and before long it is quite clear that dinner won't be ready anytime soon. "I can make a dinner for under $20, but I'm glad that no one brought a clock," he jokes.
On the counter, he's scribbled out an ambitious list of dishes — shrimp confit, grilled lamb with yautia noquis, yautia fritters with shrimp aïoli, Minneola orange salad, candied orange with goat yogurt. "Tapas," he says, "I can never get away from them."
The subtle key to making all of these dishes on a small budget comes from the overlap in ingredients. The oil used in the shrimp confit is reserved for making the aïoli that accompanies the fritters. The orange peels from the salad are candied for the dessert. Even the cilantro stems, almost always discarded, are used to add a kick of freshness to the fritters. "I stole that one from Richard Blais," he says, laughing. While Santiago claimed to be winging it in DeKalb, he'd been cleverly constructing a group of complimentary dishes.
As the lamb slowly finishes grilling outside, Santiago recalls from childhood the even longer process of cooking lechón, a whole pig on a spit, in Puerto Rico. "My uncles would get the coals started at 5 in the morning. We had all kinds of trees back home — oranges, grapefruit — and they'd be drinking grapefruit and vodka all day long. By the time the pig was finally done at night, they were, too."
While prepping the ingredients, Santiago has been saving scraps in a glass — a few chunks of orange, a couple slices of hot pepper — and to this haphazard collection he adds some agave nectar, a jigger of Puerto Rican rum and a squeeze of lime. Some ice and a few shakes later, he's squeezed a clever cocktail — sweet with a slow, lingering burn — out of mostly the same ingredients as the dishes now covering his dining table. He finishes off the drink with a smile. It is his day off, after all.
Hector Santiago is the chef/owner of Pura Vida, 656 N Highland Ave. 404-870-9797. www.puravidatapas.com.
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