Walking up to the homestead at Ben and Liz Kweller’s Heart Springs Ranch is like floating back in time. The door to the screened-in porch is open wide, leading to an outdoor table already set and ready, waiting for the meal to come. From the porch, a door to the house, also wide-open, leads into an enormous renovated kitchen filled with the cross-breeze from airy windows. It’s hard to believe you can live in Texas in early summer and not need to turn on the air-conditioning, but 19th-century houses situated on hills are magical that way.
The kitchen, of course, is not just the center of the house, but the center of the entire ranch—a soon-to-be creative retreat for musicians, songwriters and artists of all types. This is where Ben and Liz stand, wrapped in each other’s arms, surveying a whole chicken resting under a kitchen towel.
“The goal is to have a space where people can come and make art in nature,” says Ben. “Whether you paint, throw clay, write songs, do photography, make jewelry, etcetera, you’ll be able to do your thing, eat good food and sleep well.” Ben prepares to tackle the “eat good food” part of the equation right now. He removes the kitchen towel from the chicken and brandishes a very large, very old knife. “This is my favorite knife,” he says, “a knife that a gaucho made in Feliciano, where Liz’s family is from.”
Generations of Liz Kweller’s family live in San José de Feliciano, a very small town in Entre Ríos, in northeastern Argentina. Her mother was the only family member to come to the U.S. to build a life and family, and she passed away when Liz was 9—leaving a legacy of food and extended family.
Ben begins to expertly break down the chicken that will be the centerpiece of this traditional Argentinian lunch. Except…Liz is now laying out perfect circles of homemade dough and filling them with a mixture of beef, boiled eggs, olives, raisins and spices. Perhaps her empanadas will be the center of the meal. “My Aunt Carmen makes these empanadas for us when we visit,” she says—pinching the edges of the dough to capture the filling in impeccable little pockets. “It’s a perfect snack for the 14-hour bus ride.”
Liz puts the empanadas in the oven and moves to prepare a salad. The smell of fresh-torn arugula fills the kitchen with a summery nutty fragrance as Liz chops onions soaked in cold water (to remove their bite) and prepares hearts of palm. “Everyone in Argentina is obsessed with hearts of palm. Every salad has hearts of palm,” she says with a smile—giving the salad a quick toss.
Meanwhile, Ben massages homemade chimichurri into the skin of the broken-down chicken. He slices a green bell pepper and begins sliding the slices under the skin. “This is pollo Papacho,” he says—concentrating on the pepper placement. “Liz’s uncle Papacho’s own recipe.”
The easygoing manner and welcoming spirit of Ben and Liz Kweller belie the hard-nosed attention to detail and craftsmanship that both hold just under the surface. As a world-renowned musician and a Grammy-nominated artist (for album cover design), respectively, the power couple could be holding court in a neon castle in Los Angeles. But their hearts are drawn to the comfort—and the demands—of the Texas Hill Country.
“When we found this house it was completely abandoned,” Ben says. “The windows were smashed; deer were living in it. It was a mess.” But after three years of hard renovation work, the couple and their two boys live here full time now. “Ben is getting in touch with his wild-man survival side,” Liz says with a laugh. He recently skinned a rattlesnake and they cooked it for dinner. “Waste not, want not,” Ben says, while Liz points out that it maybe wasn’t the best dinner they’d ever eaten. But… “if we were living in the wild,” she says, “I’d be pretty psyched about that catch.”
As we sit to eat our empanadas, pollo Papacho and the simple-yet-wickedly-delicious salad, one can’t help but envy Argentinians and their relaxing, hours-long lunches. The love and detail put into a meal like this can only add to the intense flavors that make you not just savor the food, but savor the air, the setting and the people with whom you share the meal. The Kwellers, with their Heart Springs Ranch and love of cooking, appear to be onto something here.
By Kari Anne Holt • Photography by Melanie Grizzel