This October, Tasting Table is getting away from it all. Come away with us as we explore the world of travel.
The young woman asks us this as she rings up nearly a dozen bags bulging with hoja santa, prickly pears and blue-streaked corn husks behind the counter at La Guadalupe Fruit & Vegetable in New York's Sunset Park.
"Si, una fiesta," chef Eric Werner replies enthusiastically before darting to the front of the store to stock up on more corn husks and dried chiles, the latter an essential ingredient in his spicy chocolate cake topped with a creamy avocado-chocolate buttercream frosting (see the recipe).
Though Werner gets fresh fish from the Caribbean waters just east of his restaurant, Hartwood in Tulum, and all the fresh chiles he could dream of in the Yucatán's sprawling markets, he's excited to be back home.
Werner and his wife/co-restaurateur, Mya Henry, did the unthinkable five years ago: They left the New York City restaurant grind, maxed out their credit cards and sloshed through the mud to build from the ground up their partially outdoor, completely wood-fired restaurant at the tip of Mexico's Riviera Maya. Hartwood is an ode to the indigenous ingredients (and easygoing paradise) the two fell in love with and which Werner takes to new heights with his rustic sensibilities after a career working the grill at Peasant and Vinegar Hill House.
Slowly, their little paradise began to attract more than the usual visiting hippies, turning into the white-hot vacation destination it is today—and Hartwood into one of the main attractions.
"As Tulum was growing, Hartwood was growing," Werner says. "Everything was in better harmony with each other."
Werner sorting through the chiles, hoja santa, corn husks and more at La Guadalupe Fruit & Vegetable
Now at the market, he's taking inventory of all the ingredients he loves in his new home.
"The bright colors, all the different ingredients—I was amazed by that. There was so much to study and so much to cook with," he remembers of his first days in Tulum. "It took me two years to ID products from the Peninsula."
Eyeing gleaming guayaba (guava), Werner continues, "I would go out into the middle of nowhere, researching and going to markets during the night or day, hours away from Tulum. You had to learn everything from the markets and the ladies who sold everything, the men who grew them. I didn't have that chance at all here."
But back to the fiesta. Werner's loading up his pickup truck for a cross-country party in the States to celebrate the release of the couple's gorgeous new cookbook, Hartwood: Bright, Wild Flavors from the Edge of the Yucatán ($40). And he needs all the gnarled jicama, leathery nopales and chiles he can get.
Tiny tomatillos, prickly pear and nopales at the market
The next stop is Puebla Minimarket for plastic sandwich bags of pepitas, dried fish and chapulines (crickets), and the biggest kernels of pozole Werner's seen. He explains everything as he sifts through—pimienta de tabasco is similar to allspice but dustier and peppercorn like, while the "sacred leaf," hoja santa, is anise-y and eucalyptus-esque. However, instead of throwing the hard allspice berries into adobo sauce or wrapping fish with heart-shaped hoja santa leaves like they do in Mexico, Werner rubs the ground spice into skirt steak and brightens mescal-laced ceviche with the chopped leaves.
"What Eric cooks doesn't taste Mexican," chef René Redzepi says in his foreword for the book. "The cooking is singular and addictive—the reason why people line up for hours every day to eat there, even though their vacation time is precious."
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Werner isn't trying to be the next Rick Bayless—"I believe Mexicans can do it much better than I ever can," he says—rather he's carving out his own little niche. And he wants others to join in.
"It's all about promoting that part of the grocery store that not a lot of people use every day," Werner says. "It doesn't matter if you're Italian or not, you buy pasta, and you make pasta at home. Now if you buy masa or look at Mexican products the same way, then it allows more ideas to come in."
You can see the results in Werner's book, where he reimagines cucumber-like prickly pear into jammy preserves, starchy yuca into a mashed potato-like side and a fall-apart tender pork rib that's a combination of techniques pulled from time cooking in the concrete jungle and jungle jungle.
"The things sold here are essentials to prepare typical Mexican food, but you can work off those essentials in different ways, and that's what creates different recipes altogether," Werner says. "You're taking Mexican products, Mexican ingredients, and you're infusing an American sensibility, and that creates something new."
And that something new is the usual chocolate cake, a classic, satisfying thing in its own right but a little bit more surprising (and delicious) in Werner's hands. Three types of chiles (ancho, chipotle, habanero) lend a slow-burning heat to the chocolate, a natural pairing in Mexico, and he adds heft and a little green to the glossy frosting with a whole avocado. It's not always on the constantly changing menu at Hartwood, but "people request it a lot, so we'll make it," Werner concedes.
"It's very easy to fall in love with Tulum," Werner says. "You have the multicolored Caribbean Sea right there; you have all different cenotes; you have the jungle; you have the whole interior of the Yucatán with all these farms with different kinds of vegetables."
And with our lips smeared with that dreamy frosting, we have to agree.
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