Scratch cooking, joy and late nights dominate family gatherings of Don Artemio’s chefs

By David ArkinNovember 17, 2023November 18th, 2023No Comments

Scratch cooking, joy and late nights dominate family gatherings of Don Artemio’s chefs

By Scott Nishimura
Photos by y Olaf Growald

As patrons of Fort Worth’s Don Artemio Mexican restaurant might surmise, the holiday spreads at the Mexican home of chef Juan Ramón Cárdenas are big.

Cárdenas and son Rodrigo, who also is a chef at Don Artemio, and their family have already scheduled big December gatherings — one for the Cárdenas side of the family and the other for the in-laws.

And these gatherings don’t involve just one meal. “Late lunch” starts at 3 p.m. and eventually gives way to 10 p.m. dinner, which winds up around 4 the next morning. The scratch cooking and energy at the gatherings typify what Don Artemio imparts at its restaurants in Saltillo, Mexico, and Fort Worth, the Cárdenases say. 

“When you’re cooking for somebody, it’s a way to give love,” Juan Ramón said in an interview during a visit to Fort Worth in October. 

Cabrito relleno, a slow-roasted kid goat stuffed with almond rice, brisket bits and nuts, is one centerpiece of the Cárdenas family’s holiday spreads. Another is pavo relleno, traditional stuffed turkey. 

Typical side dishes include garlic potatoes; fusilli pasta with shrimp, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes; Christmas salad, with diced apples, cream, yogurt, small candies, pecans, chopped celery and chopped pineapple; and artisanal bread. 

Caldo tlalpeño, a broth made with chicken bones, green tomatillos, red tomatoes, shredded chicken breast, diced vegetables (carrots, squash and green beans), chickpeas, avocado and cheese, also is on the menu. 

For dessert, there’s the pastel de pistache, a pistachio cake made of vanilla chiffon, pistachio buttercream, pistachio dacquoise, caramelized pistachio and Italian meringue. 

“We love making everything from scratch,” Rodrigo says. Family members at the gatherings can number about 30, including great-grandchildren, Juan Ramón says. “When I was a kid, our gatherings were smaller.” 

The preparation and baking of the cabrito, raised by Juan Ramón’s brother, can take hours. The goat is marinated for two hours in brine and prepared with butter and a rub. The cavity is filled with the rice, almonds, pecans, other nuts and brisket bits, then sewn shut and roasted whole for three-anda-half hours, Juan Ramón said. “The cooking of the rice is finished inside the cabrito.”

The turkey is stuffed with apples, peaches and dried plums and marinated in orange juice overnight with garlic, herbs and salt. 

Before late lunch, “we have a gathering with cocktails, and maybe a beer,” Juan Ramón says. “Red wine, usually.” 

And for the survivors of the gorging, breakfast the morning after is typically barbacoa, Juan Ramón says. 

“We try to give joy to everybody,” Juan Ramón says. “It’s one of our main purposes in cooking. We replicate that in the restaurants.”