Sunday, May 31, 2009

Like a Real Saturday (Life is Good)

It felt great to wake up this morning and know that for the first time I was going into a Saturday night with eleven reservations already booked.  It seems like such a small number when I think back to the rock and roll Saturday nights of my wasted (!)  restaurant youth, but right now, it's a huge momentum builder each time we do more than ten dinners a night.

 I knew, basically, what the menu would be, but I still wanted to get down to the Uvita feria to pick up the ingredients (as yet unknown) for the finishing touches for the salad course and to dress up the entree.  I also had to head in the other direction, south down the coast to Ojochal, to see Jaime the pescadero, and find out what his boat had brought in the previous night.   It had rained hard all night and I was hoping that it hadn't kept him from his nightly foray along the coast.

 The Uvita feria is tiny, I know almost everyone there and it's gotten to the point where they know what time of the morning it is by my showing up.  I like to be one of the first arrivals each Saturday morning and there weren't too many other shoppers  when I walked in.  Sadly, it looked pretty sparse.  It is one of the quietest times of the year here right now and we're all scuffling just a little bit.  

 Marguerite's booth and tables are right in front and I always look forward to the smiles, some shy and some friendly; from Andrea, Kirsty and Deylin, the three young women who work for her.  Marguerite represents a number of small growers and producers and her table is packed with breads, cheeses and packaged organic products as well as lovely and fresh vegetables and fruit.  I had almost everything I needed back at my kitchen, but I still like to peruse the goods.  I can’t help but look even if I'm not necessarily buying.   I did need some hot chiles for Rita's Chilero sauce and took the whole bowl that Marguerite had; jalapenos, long skinny reds and a couple of bright reds with that habanero lantern shape. 

  Marguerite kind of ambled up in that quiet, shuffling way she has, but her blue eyes were sparkling and I could tell she had something she needed to show me.  She and I have been down some similar roads (and we're both refugees from the States) and I can always tell when she's got something she thinks is special.  Today it was sweet potatoes. real sweet potatoes, not the white and starchy (not that that's a bad thing) camotes we generally get.  Naturally, because it just seems that things work that way, I was intending to do my soon-to-be legendary camote/plantano puree and some real sweet potatoes would do nicely toward sweetening it up.   I grabbed a baguette while I was there; I wanted something for the salad, but wasn't sure what it was and bread is always a start.

 From Marguerite's it's just three steps to Ademar and Mauren's table.  This was the first week in months that I hadn't given them an advance order and I could see from the look on Mauren's face that I had some explaining to do.  The are a Tico couple who have given over their entire farm to organics and they do work hard at it.  I did my best to placate her by explaining that after all, we had been closed for four days.

 I've been buying lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and even organic chickens from them twice a week and their produce is wonderful.   They grow me tri-colored chard, crunchy bok choy (poc choi, here) and sweet beets for roasting and marinating.   The herbs that we don't grow at La Cusinga I buy from them as well; and fun occasional purchases like baby white chayote and mustard greens. And the amazing thing is that they put this bursting table together at the big Thursday feria in Perez, tear it all down and bring it faithfully to the tiny Uvita feria every Saturday.

 They're probably both about 40; Ademar sports a straw cowboy hat and an always half-buttoned shirt (gray hairs poking out) over his thickset muscular body.  He and I shake hands like old friends.  I invited him up to La Cusinga a few weeks ago and he was pleased by the invite and  amazed by where his produce was going.  He's the front man with the wide and welcoming grin.

 Mauren is the real soul of the operation, or at least it seems to me.  She's got thick wavy hair, a garden-weary smile and the soulful eyes of a saint.   Mauren takes my phone orders and we've struggled through some translation together.  I didn't know it was acelga and she didn't know it was chard.  Some evenings I'll call at 6 or 6:30 and she's not in from the gardens yet.  Mauren takes the orders, counts the money and does the bagging while Ademar smiles with his arms crossed.  She also administers to both her mother and their 11 year old daughter, who are there with them every Saturday.

 Mauren and Ademar have chiles picantes, tambien, so I take a bag from them.  I also buy a bunch of sturdy Italian parsley (perejil) and I can feel my salad coming together.  The parsley, the goat cheese I just bought and the roasted garlic in the refi seem to be the perfect combo to spread on crostini.  And entonces, as if  by magic, at my elbow is a kilo bag of fat, red and ripe cherry tomatoes; and it's the only one.  The salad is set.

 I wander the market, which admittedly doesn't take long, to say buenas dias to the people I see each week.  Tall, smiling Raven, who is just putting out the first edition of her new magazine that ties Perez to the coast, Montana al Mar, pulls me aside and asks me if I would consider contributing a recipe each month.  Hell, yes I would.  I was flattered and told her so.   Forgive my bursting with positive attitude, but this day just kept getting better.  I said my good-byes and turned south.  Time to buy the fish.

 The drive down the Costanera to Ojochal is a lovely one; palms on either side of the road; the jungle to the left and snatches of ocean views on the right.  Just past the main entrada to Ojochal proper is a sharp turn down a driveway to the right.  High on the hill above sits Casa Tortuga, with its sweeping view of the sands of Playa Tortuga, but after one makes a quick turn to the right the rocky dirt road flattens out and runs right up to the water.  The first series of buildings to the right are the home, fish cuttery and sales area of Jaime, el pescadero.  The buildings are in the coastal style of ramshackle utilitarian, hammocks hang from the trees and broken down cars and rusted equipment dot the yard.

 Across the mud and grass, behind the "out" building is a concrete foundation with ancient "coffin" style refrigerators, a creaky wooden table and a running hose rinsing the concrete flooring.  A group of Tico men, some shirtless, some not, but most in black rubber boots are standing around.  An array of well-worn knives rest on the table and a bag of whole fish in ice is propped in front of the refrigerator. 

  "Como estas, Yo quiero comprar pescado por mi restaurante.  Buenas dias, Jaime."   Jaime grunts and the Ticos turn to stare at me.  My Spanish has been decent enough to get my over the first hurdle.   Jaime leads me to the bench freezer and begins to pull out bags of rock solid fish filets and I gently remind him that I only buy fresh fish.  He nods, understanding for maybe the third or fourth time, and we head back to the concrete paddock.  I tell him I want either Pargo or Rovalo and he nods again.  Jaime flips back the lid on one of the smaller coolers and there, on ice, are three large, clear-eyed rovalo; yellow-striped and pointy nosed.

 I’m going to need close to four kilos for my guests and I decide to buy a whole fish.  I pick out the firmest one, with the clearest eyes, but really, they all look great, having all been caught last night.   Jaime lifts my purchase up onto the rickety filleting table and turns me over to a shirtless 40ish Tico in the requisite black rubber boots.   I have filleted a lot of fish in my days and now I always take the luxury of having someone else do the cutting for me, not having the outside cleaning area or the running water I need to make it simple and scale-free.

 The cutter and his assistant,  a lanky kid in his late teens who I presume to be his son, set to work.  The cutter slides the biggest of the knives in between the gills and the head and cleanly takes it off.  He turns to me and asks me if I want it and I tell him, “para usted, para su sopa”.  A lot of guffawing goes on around the table in Tico slang about the fish head and its “restorative” powers.   The cutter goes back to his work and slides the knife down the spine, separating the top filet from the bone.  His son hands him smaller and smaller knives as he gets to the finer work and rinses the used blades under the running hose. 

 The filleting is quick and easy under these conditions and soon there are two sides,  3.8 kilos, of lovely iridescent pinkish white Rovalo filets sitting on the scale.  I compliment the cutter on the ecomony and swiftness of his work, pay Jaime the 15,000 colones (roughly $27) for my eight pounds of fish and put the bagged filets in my ice chest.  I am really happy with the Rovalo; having fish this fresh to serve can only make both me and my guests happier.

 So it’s back to the Lodge to put all this in order and figure out the details of my established plan.  Andrey has already decided we’ll have braised greens and roasted ayote for our side vegetables and I show him the sweet potatoes and tell him that we’ll fill out the plate with a puree.  I talk to Cindy, the Lodge manager and am pleased to find that we are up to 17 reservations for the evening. 

 I start on desserts first, since it’s nice to get the baking out of the way.  The night before I’d made a mandarina pound cake and blackberry sauce and since the heavy downpour had kept all but two diners away, I had plenty left.  It’s nice when there are this many people to give them a choice of desserts, so I opted for the Chef Dave classic combo of flourless chocolate cake and organic cocoa ice cream.  The cake is surprisingly easy to make, bakes in just 30 minutes and I’ve got a freezer full of ice cream.  This combination of desserts; the mandarina with blackberry sauce and ice cream and the chocolate combo is our Saturday night “special”.The chocolate and butter melt, the sugar and egg yolks get blended in and I rapidly fold the beaten whites into the chocolate base.  It’s in the oven in minutes.   

 The first course will be a roasted tomato soup.   I serve a chilled soup as an appetizer each night and have taken advantage of the down time by making and freezing a number of varieties in zip-locs.  The soups are mostly simple purees, but using perfectly ripe product makes for an unexpected intensity of flavor.  Additionally, I roast the tomatoes with onions and whole garlic cloves in good olive oil to carmelize the vegetables and further intensify the flavor.  The tomato is a crowd pleaser and a good one to serve to first time guests.

 I’ve got several heads of organic lettuces wrapped up in wet paper towels that are from earlier in the week, but they keep well.  I’ve decided to make crostini from the baguette and to chop and blend the Italian parsley with the roasted garlic and the creamy goat cheese for a spread.  That’ll be on the side of the plate.  I’ll split the ripest of the cherry tomatoes, toss them with extra-virgin olive oil, madarina juice and basil right before serving and the salad is as easy as that.  I decide to take it up a level by dicing and crisping pancetta that I picked up at the factory where it’s made in Santa Ana, to sprinkle on the top of the lettuces.

 All that’s left is to cut the fish and decide on a sauce.  Since we’ve got a beautiful ripe papaya, I ask Andrey to make his papaya-chile puree.  He’s gotten really involved in our work and can now almost anticipate what I’m going to need.  He’s rightfully proud of this sauce and I love to have him make it for a big night.  It’s a simple puree of papaya, citrus, chile picante, ginger and olive oil, but when the fruit is as ripe as it is today it becomes something special.

 I flop the Rovalo filets out onto the cutting board and take a look.  They are, just as they were at Jaime’s, shiny white with a pinkish cast and beautifully firm.  Fish like this is a pleasure to cut and I easily get 22 generous portions out of the filets with very little waste.  I wrap the fish for the refi, see that Andrey has the sauce finished and so now it’s only the little things left to do.

 The crostini get sliced to crisp in the oven and I brush them with the oil from the roasted garlic.  The goat cheese has softened and I blend it with the vibrant fresh chopped parsely and four or five cloves of roasted garlic.  The resulting spread is delicious and I’ll wait to spread it on the toasts until right before dinner service.

 So now we wait.  The rain pours down and our waitress, Karla, a bright and charming young woman from Monterey, CA, splashes in out of it at around 4:45.  She, like me, is excited about our good crowd for the night.  She sets the tables while Andrey juices the mandarinas that we will use for our complimentary jugo fresco for each table.  The camotes and plantanos are bubbling away on the stove for the puree. It’s just about all over except the final cooking and the service.  We all take turns pacing, we jump around to some reggae and we make the final preparations.  Andrey fills the carafes with the jugo while I sear off the fish and spread the crostini with the herbed goat cheese.  Everything feels right.

 And everything is right.  Our diners arrive on time, the eight first, followed by the smaller groups.  Andrey has chilled our soup cups and I pour the brick-red tomato puree out into them.  The jugos are on the table and it’s showtime.  The soup goes out and as usual, the cups come back quickly and scraped clean.  Andrey has already started to dress the salad and I put a final grind  of sea salt and black pepper into the juicy marinated cherry tomatoes.   The lettuce goes on, the tomatoes sit at the front, we sidle the crostini off to the right and I sprinkle the pancetta bits over the top.  The salads look great.

 I turn and push the sheet pan with the top-seared fish for eight into the oven, and follow it with smaller pans for the twos and the three.  We’ve par-roasted our ayote spears and they go back in as well.  The mix of braising greens goes into a pan with hot sautéed roasted garlic, olive oil and the pancetta drippings.  A quick dash of water and the top goes on the pan for them to braise.  I give Andrey’s puree a final stir and taste and the combination of the two kinds of yams with the ripe plantanos is as good as ever.

 The salad plates are back and the entree plating begins.  The puree goes down first and we place the greens and the curved ayote spears behind it.  I pull the hot crispy fish out of the oven and gently lean it onto the puree.  Andrey spoons a generous dollop of the sweet and spicy papaya sauce over the fish and I sprinkle on whole cilantro leaves for color and texture.    It’s a beautiful plate of food and I’m proud to serve it.

 The 17 plates are a blur and now the noise from the dining room has died down and now the only noise is from the knives and forks hitting the plates, with an appreciative murmur from time to time.  I wipe myself up and having given it a few moments, visit the dining room.    All appears to be well, in fact, perhaps better than well.  People are very happy and quite complimentary.  This is what makes it worth it.

 Karla has bused the tables and all that remains is the choice of dessert.  We get a few “one and ones”, but at the big table, as is typical, we get six chocolate to just two mandarina/blackberry desserts.  The cake goes down, the ice creams are leaned against it and off they go.  These get eaten rather quickly, but then ice cream waits for no one.

 Checks get dropped, dishes get washed, the desserts and other food get wrapped and stored.  It has been a good night and a great day.  Each group of guests stops on their way out to express thanks and compliments.  It is elating for me and I hope for my team.  This is what it's all about.  We’ve all worked hard, know it was good, and are pleased and proud to hear about it.  And it’s never a let-down after they leave.  For me, the high, the buzz, live on through the night and even into the next day.  I woke up this morning thinking about how good it felt.


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Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.