Cooks in the Kitchen: A Visit to Rioja

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Today we start a new series called “Cooks in the Kitchen.” On Fridays, we’ll cook and chat with notable chefs who’ve divulged their secrets in new cookbooks. We start with Jennifer Jasinski, who has three restaurants in Denver. Her first, where she is the full-time chef, is Rioja. It blends Mediterranean cuisine with local ingredients. Chef Jen’s new cookbook of Rioja dishes is called “The Perfect Bite.” Ryan Warner meets her in the Rioja kitchen.



This appetizer is sent to almost everyone who orders a tasting menu. It makes a beautiful amuse bouche, in a pared-down size, for first-time guests and regulars alike. Placed next to the sashimi, this is an attractive way of presenting tuna in both its whole muscle and diced forms. Fresh fish is a staple at Rioja. Being as far away from the ocean as we are, all of our tuna is shipped to us overnight directly from one of two purveyors in Hawaii. We buy only the best number-one sushi-grade tuna, blue prawns, Tasman king salmon and fresh Hawaiian hearts of palm in this way. We are one of the few restaurants in Denver constantly seeking better, fresher, more environmentally friendly products, and it shows perhaps nowhere better than in our Tuna Tartare and Sashimi appetizer. From halfway around the world, we bring unexpectedly fresh food to our Rocky Mountain clientele. This dish is one of our signatures and has been on the menu since opening day. We only replace dishes with better ones. That said, this appetizer will probably never leave the menu.

Anise Vinaigrette
(yields 1 cup)

8 whole star anise (preferred) or 1/2 tablespoon ground star anise
3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped shallot
1 tablespoon chopped basil
1/4 cup ginger vinegar (page 174)
1/2 cup pure olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Apple Chips

1 1/2 cups simple syrup (page 175)
2 Granny Smith apples

Tuna tartare and sashimi

1 pound No. 1 sashimi-grade big eye tuna loin
3 tablespoons finely diced fennel
3 tablespoons finely diced Granny Smith apple
1 tablespoon chopped basil
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Assembly and Plating

24 watercress leaves
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Anise Vinaigrette: Using a spice mill or mortar and pestle, finely crush the star anise to yield 1/2 tablespoon of the spice.

In a bowl, whisk together the star anise, lemon juice, shallot, basil and ginger vinegar. Once mixed, slowly stream in the oil, whisking constantly. Season the dressing with the salt and pepper. Reserve in the refrigerator until ready to use.

APPLE CHIPS: Prepare the simple syrup and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.

While the syrup is cooling, slice the apples about 1/16 inch thick. Dip the slices in the simple syrup and drain any excess; transfer them to a Silpat-lined sheet tray. Place the tray in the 200-degree oven to dry the chips for 45 minutes.

After 45 minutes, flip the chips and dry them for another 40 minutes. To test for doneness, remove 1 chip from the oven and allow it to cool before snapping. If it snaps, it’s done cooking. Store in an airtight container.

tuna tartare and sashimi: Thinly cut the tuna loin into 24 slices and place the sashimi pieces on waxed paper. Dice the remaining tuna for the tartare.

In a mixing bowl, combine the diced tuna with the fennel, apple, basil and 1/4 cup anise vinaigrette. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Portion out 8 servings, setting them aside.

ASSEMBLY AND PLATING: Place 3 slices of the sashimi on one end of each of the 8 plates, shingling them slightly. Lightly dress the sashimi tuna with 1 tablespoon anise vinaigrette and then season to taste with salt and pepper.

To the right of each sashimi serving, place 3-4 watercress leaves.

To keep the apple chips crunchy, build the tartare stacks immediately before serving. To build the stack, start with an
apple chip and top with 1 tablespoon of tartare per layer; repeat twice (you will end up with 3 layers of tuna tartare and 3 apple chips per serving).

Chef’s Notes: You can make the anise vinaigrette and apple chips a day ahead. Store the chips in a tightly sealed storage container. These chips are important for this dish, as the juxtaposition of crunchy apple and tender cold tartare is spectacular.


The melt-in-your-mouth pork belly that we use for our house-made “bacon” is a tribute to the luxuriously fatty, collagen-rich Kurobuta hog. Accented by a beautiful, fragrant purée of fresh garbanzo beans and Madras curry, we present the bacon in a natural jus and dust it with sweet, smoky ground cardamom. To begin, the fresh pork is brined to help introduce salt into the meat and saturate the cellular structure with flavor, ensuring a moist, well-seasoned finished product.

Cardamom-Brined Pork*

21/2 cups kosher salt
3 cups sugar
2 cups peeled, sliced ginger
1/2 cup peeled garlic cloves
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 gallon water
3 pounds fresh Kurobuta or best-quality pork belly available (skin removed)
About 1 gallon chicken stock, or as needed (page 173)

Curried Fresh Garbanzo Bean Purée

2 cups fresh garbanzo beans, shelled**
1/3 cup sliced shallots
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons Madras curry powder
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock (page 172 and 173)
1 cup heavy cream
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste


Ground cardamom, to taste

*This recipe takes 2 days to complete, so plan accordingly.

**You may use canned garbanzo beans for the puree. If you do, do not blanch the beans and cut your stock and cream by half (1/2 cup each).

Cardamom-Brined Pork: At least a day before serving the pork belly, prepare the brine by combining the salt, sugar, ginger, garlic, cardamom and water in a large pot. Heat the brine mixture over medium heat until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow the brine to cool in an ice bath to room temperature or below.

Place the pork belly in a large storage container and pour the cooled brine mixture over the belly. Cover and place in the refrigerator to brine the pork for 24 hours.

Remove the pork from the brine after 24 hours and rinse the meat in cold water. In a large pot or casserole, submerge the pork in chicken stock. Weight it gently so that it doesn’t float but keep it from hitting the bottom of the pot or the pork’s underside can scorch. (A cooking rack with a small cast-iron pan on top works well.) Over medium-high heat, bring the stock to a gentle boil; reduce the heat to a scant simmer and poach the pork 5-6 hours. (You can also braise the pork belly in a 225-degree oven for 6-7 hours.) To test doneness, insert a wooden skewer into the meat. If the meat grabs the skewer, then it’s not done; it should pull out easily when it is cooked through. Allow the meat to cool in the braising liquid. Removing the pork belly while it’s hot may cause it to fall apart. Transfer the pot to a freezer or refrigerator to chill completely.

When the pork is cold, remove the pork from the gelatinized liquid. Scrape the liquid into a separate container and place the meat on a cutting board. Cut the chilled, cooked belly into at least 8 2-inch-square pieces and then score the tops of the pieces in a tight crisscross pattern.

Remove the hard fat from the braising liquid and discard. Put the portioned pork belly back into the cold liquid until time to roast.

Set aside.

Curried Fresh Garbanzo Bean Purée: Prepare an ice water bath. In a pot of salted, rapidly boiling water, blanch the beans 1 minute. Drain and then shock the beans in the ice water.

In a pan over medium heat, sauté the shallots in the butter until they are translucent.

Add the curry powder and stir, toasting the spice until it is fragrant.

Add the garbanzo beans and stock and simmer until the stock has reduced almost completely.

Add the cream and stir, cooking until the mixture thickens.

Transfer the bean mixture to a food processor and purée until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

ASSEMBLY AND PLATING: Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

In an 8-by-12-inch baking pan, pour 3 cups of the braising liquid. Set the 8 portions cardamom-brined pork belly in the liquid, being sure each piece has about 1 inch of space around it for optimum heat circulation. Sprinkle the meat lightly with ground cardamom. Heat the pork belly in the 500-degree oven until it is nicely crisped on top (at least 10 minutes).

Place each portion of pork belly atop 3 tablespoons of the warm curried fresh garbanzo bean purée, finishing the plate with about 1/4 cup of the hot braising liquid.

CHEFS NOTES: Be sure the skin is removed from the pork belly. The skin will impair how the meat cooks. You may brine and cook the pork 1 day ahead of serving it.