Header image: Hartwood's roasted pork ribs (image: Gentl & Hyers)
When René Redzepi recommends a restaurant, you know it's going to be pretty special. In the case of Hartwood in the remote coastal town of Tulum in northeast Mexico, Redzepi has uttered his strongest endorsement: "It's the place I dream about."
Featured in our Diners Club 50 Best Discovery series, Hartwood is a laidback place serving the finest, freshest meat and seafood in a paradise beach setting. If you can't make it to Mexico's Yucatán right now, try making these crispy costillas from the Hartwood cookbook – the latest in our 50 Best Recipe of the Month series.
Eric Werner and Mya Henry at Hartwood
The restaurant: Eric Werner began his career as a pastry chef in New York City, but after a holiday with his wife Mya to Tulum in 2009, he had the idea to ditch the fast-paced urban lifestyle and move to Mexico. The couple set up Hartwood from scratch in the middle of a patch of jungle and they now serve colourful dishes such as roasted grouper collar, jicama salad and tuna ceviche, using the wood-fired cooking techniques that Werner learned in New York.
The cookbook: In Hartwood you won't find anything too cheffy or difficult – these are all achievable recipes that can be cooked at home with a little time and attention. Harder-to-find ingredients such as jicama can be replaced with local alternatives and the fish dishes can also be substituted. Aside from being a beautiful coffee table cookbook, this is also a highly accessible resource with some stunning, not to mention delicious, recipes.
The recipes: Costillas – meaning ribs in Spanish – are at the heart of Hartwood and this version is a simple, delicious one blending New York with Mexico's Yucatán. Meat lovers will also find recipes such as agave pork belly with grilled pineapple, while for sweet tooths there's an incredibly decadent habanero-spiced chocolate cake.
"The DNA of the restaurant is in this recipe. The pork rib was on the menu when we opened (it has always been the most popular dish here, and during high season, we serve forty orders a night), but the idea behind the dish can be traced back to when we first started thinking about moving to Tulum. The technique is a mash-up of New York City and the Yucatán, of restaurant cooking and what you can do in the jungle, of savory and sweet.
"Actually, it’s pretty simple; you just need to invest the time. You braise the pork ribs overnight or first thing in the morning, reduce the cooking liquid, and then use that to baste the meat as you reheat the ribs: baste, wait, baste, wait, baste, wait, baste until the liquid becomes a glaze. There’s no shortcut. Either you put in the time and it’s delicious, or you don’t and it’s just fine.
"Chances are you won’t make the recipe quite the way we do. We use a banana leaf to cover the ribs and Cerveza Ceiba, from the Yucatán, for the braising liquid; you can use parchment paper instead and a medium-dark beer such as Negra Modelo. Whatever you do, don’t compromise on the quality of the ribs— the pork in the Yucatán is gorgeous, all those happy pigs rooting around in the jungle mud. And try to find a dark honey, either at a farmers’ market or a health food store. Its added depth will make a difference. There’s nothing quite like the smell of pork and dark honey cooking together in the oven."
Excerpt from Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry with Christine Mulke and Oliver Strand (Artisan Books 2015)
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
1 cup roughly chopped pineapple
3 pounds bone-in pork ribs
One 12-ounce bottle Cerveza Ceiba or other medium-dark beer, such as Negra Modelo
¾ cup dark honey
2 tablespoons star anise pods
2 tablespoons kosher salt, or more to taste
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 banana leaf (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 300°F.
2. Scatter the onion, carrot, celery, and pineapple over the bottom of a large baking pan. Place the ribs on top. Add the beer and honey then add enough water to reach halfway up the side of the ribs. Add the star anise, salt, and pepper. Lay the banana leaf or a sheet of parchment paper on top of the ribs, then cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil.
3. Cook the ribs for 7 hours, or until a knife easily pierces through the meat.
4. Remove the foil and banana leaf and put the pan back in the oven for 30 minutes, or until the ribs are nicely browned. Remove from the oven, transfer the ribs to a cutting board, and allow to cool enough to handle.
5. Meanwhile, strain the braising liquid into a saucepan and set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and simmer until reduced by one-third. Remove from the heat and skim off the fat.
6. Portion the ribs for serving (make sure they’re not too hot, or the meat will fall apart). Working in batches, place as many ribs as you can fit into a large cast-iron skillet, set over medium heat on the stove, and add 1½ cups of the braising liquid. Cook, basting the ribs every minute or so, until the liquid reduces to a caramel-like glaze, about 15 minutes. (If you would like more color, continue to cook, basting every 5 minutes, until the ribs are a darker caramel color.) Stop once the sauce is thick and coats the ribs. Season with salt to taste.
Now savour every bite!