$20 dinner with Hector Santiago

Pura Vida chef shows how to make a table full of tapas for less than $20

CL Staff Photo
Photo credit: Chef Hector Santiago
Chef Hector Santiago's $20 Meals

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.

Slow grilled lamb breast with yautia gnocchi


1 lamb breast, cleaned
2 tablespoon adobo-style seasoning or equivalent
1 tablespoon salt


Salt and season the dry, cleaned lamb breast, set aside. Build a medium-hot charcoal fire. Once charcoal is fully white, spread the coals evenly and place lamb breast a few inches above open, indirect heat. Turn every 25 minutes or so, letting the breast continue to cook over diminishing heat, for about 90 minutes.

Yautia gnocchi


1 pound or two roots of white yautia, peeled and cubed
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup corn starch
1 egg
1 generous pinch salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
Garnish with pepper and Parmesan to taste (optional)


Steam the yautia until it is soft and breaks apart easily, about 60 minutes. Drain thoroughly and combine with dry ingredients and egg into a dough on a floured surface. Roll out the dough into a 1/2-inch thick roll and slice into 1/2-inch wide gnocchi. Boil in salted water until they float, about 4 to 5 minutes. Drain the gnocchi in a colander and then fry in a nonstick pan with olive oil, turning until crispy. Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with Parmesan, if desired.

Georgia Atlantic shrimp confit


6 whole shrimp, peeled and trimmed with heads on
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 Serrano pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 shallot, thinly sliced
1 spring rosemary
1 small pinch pimentón
1 generous pinch salt
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 cup olive oil


In a small frying pan, layer the garlic, peppers, shallot, salt, rosemary sprig and shrimp. Splash pan with fish sauce and sprinkle with pimentón. Add olive oil until the shrimp are completely submerged (using a smaller pan will require less oil). Place pan over very low heat and cover. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, turning shrimp once. Strain and reserve the cooking oil in a measuring cup for aïoli. Serve the shrimp topped with garlic, pepper, and shallot combination and a drizzle of oil. Garnish with cilantro.

Yautia fritters with shrimp aïoli


1/2 pound or one root of white yautia, peeled
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 generous pinch salt
1 bunch cilantro stems, chopped finely
1 pinch baking powder
Oil for frying


Run the yautia through a micrograter or zester to create a wet, sticky paste. In a mixing bowl, combine the yautia paste with a splash of fish sauce, salt, baking powder and chopped cilantro stems. Heat deep fryer or pan with 1 inch of oil to 350 degrees and fry tablespoon size bites until golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Shrimp aïoli


1 clove garlic, minced
1 egg yolk
Juice of a half lemon
3/4 cup reserved oil from shrimp confit


Combine garlic, egg yolk and lemon in a bowl. Whip ingredients using an immersion blender or electric mixer while slowly adding reserved oil until entirely combined and consistency resembles mayonnaise.

Broccoli rabe with garlic


1 bunch broccoli rabe, washed and stems trimmed
2 cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
1 tablespoon olive oil

Bring a large pot of water, salted until "almost like seawater," to a low boil. Blanch broccoli rabe for 5 minutes, drain, and then rinse with cold water in a strainer. Heat a large frying pan with olive oil and garlic to medium high, add drained broccoli rabe and cook, turning frequently, until tender.

Minneola orange salad


2 medium size oranges, peeled, seeded, and sliced into 1/4-inch discs
1 Serrano pepper, thinly sliced
1/2-inch shallot, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1 pinch salt
Chopped cilantro for garnish


Lay orange, pepper and shallot slices in an attractive arrangement on plate. Sprinkle with salt and minced rosemary. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Candied Minneola orange with goat yogurt


Peels from two oranges, cut into squares
1 cup sugar
1 cup goat yogurt
Garnish with dried fruit and nuts (optional)


Blanch the orange peels in a small pot, changing out the water four or five times to cook off the bitterness of the skins. Drain and then return skins to the pot in a mixture of equal parts sugar and water. Simmer until the mixture has a syrupy consistency. Serve the candied orange peels atop yogurt. Garnish with dried fruit and nuts, if desired.

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