Monday, June 29, 2009


A little off the beaten path, but this is a piece I wrote that will be published in the July edition of the Ester (AK) Republic newspaper.  It is an irreverant, but mostly truthful account of how I came to be here in Costa Rica in the first place.


So now that I’ve begun this series of ruminations, digressions and scattered thoughts from the jungles of  Costa  Rica, the natural question to arise from you, dear Alaskan  reader is, “How in the hell did this geekhead end up in a place like that?  And why can’t I?”

 Here’s a little story about how all this came about. 

I was sitting in a bar (and don’t you love it when stories start with guys sitting in bars?) in San Francisco watching my friend Bob cut citrus into wedges for the start of a Saturday shift.  I had the usual Saturday morning line-up in front of me; the sports section, a draft Sierra Nevada and a shot of Patron silver (just to loosen up the the blood).  I had been the pedestrian victim of a Yellow Cab vs. Pedestrian collision six months previous and had emerged the battered loser with all the bones in my left leg broken, seven broken ribs and a shattered left elbow.  I had had surgeries on my left knee and shoulder and was idling away my time in taverns awaiting another two.   Work, as I had previously known it was a distant bump on my horizon and I was getting pretty good at morning drinking.


Bob and I were discussing the relative merits of whatever sporting events were about to take place.  I could just as easily have been the NCAA playoffs as the beginning of baseball season, when our peace and tranquility was seriously disturbed by a florid young gentleman named John McGraw, a golfing crony and sometime fellow restaurant worker.  John was excited as all get out and as he has a stutter, it was a little difficult to figure out just what he needed to say; it was all prefaced with a sputtering, “Chef, Chef, Chef…” 

 “Sit down and slow down, Johnny”, I urged him, “let me buy you a shot.  You look like you could use one.”  My philosophy at that time was that nearly everyone could use one, nearly all the time.   “Chef,” he began again, once the shot had taken its desired residence. “What do you know about Costa Rica?”

“I know it’s not an island, John, and that’s about all I know.”  The next most obvious question was, “Why?” 

All of a sudden he got kind of hushed and secretive and gestured toward the back room of the R Bar.  “Let’s go back here”, he kind of whispered and Bob and I exchanged curious looks. 

“John, there’s only you and me and Bob in here.  What’s the big secret?”

He snuck another look around, hunched over his not inconsiderable shoulders and said, “Okay, this is what’s going on.”

 It turned out that his big secret was that he and his wife had been scoping out ways to get out of the country to go work (and there’s another odd story) and had been contacted by a friend who was just about to post an ad on craigslist looking for someone to assume management and a lease with an option to buy on a closed but interesting looking hotel/restaurant somewhere in Costa Rica.  And for reasons not entirely clear, no one was to know.  They wanted and needed a chef but hadn’t even seen the property yet.  This kind of scenario pops up in my life far too often and I took the same stance with John as I do with everyone who has a harebrained scheme and needs a chef.  “John, go down there, shoot some video footage and let’s look at it when you get back.  Bob, I need another shot.”

 Four Saturday’s later, in the very same bar, with the very same morning line-up in front of me and probably a different sporting event getting ready to take place, Bob was again slicing lemons or perhaps limes and I was reading, drinking and talking simultaneously; something which I have a particular talent for.  As if in instant replay of events previous, John McGraw again burst upon the sanctity of our Saturday morning, but this time lugging a laptop under his burly arm.  “Okay, Chef”, he semi-stammered although it was difficult to tell if it was his excitement or his natural stutter causing his odd speech, “I’ve got something for you to look at.” 

 And indeed he did.  He had gone to Costa Rica and he had shot video footage.  Not very good footage, mind you, but good enough to pique my interest.  Now granted, as I had been walking with a cane, living in bars and sleeping sitting up in a chair for nearly six months, at this point it didn’t take a lot to catch my interest; but this was pretty good.  The footage was of a tropical pink resort, covered in vines and mold; a disassembled and greasy (though not visably unfunctional) kitchen and a swimming pool with a greenish cast.  What caught my eye in the video, however, was the when the camera made a sweeping pan across an amazing burst of blue that turned out to be the Pacific Ocean.  Huge.  And yes, blue, very blue. 

 “John”, I said, casually, “I think you need to fly me down there to take a look at this place.”

 Just three weeks later, passport in pocket and carry-on in hand I stepped off the tiny barebones airplane and onto the blast furnace that is the two lane blacktop landing strip in Palmar Sud, a  tiny but important crossroads pueblo at the top of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.  My shirt immediately clung to my body, glued there with torrents of sweat .  I squinted fiercely and shuffled across the rough tarmac to the shack that served as the terminal.  And there was John, still red and still stammering, but this time also sweating fiercely. “Chef, Great to see you.  I know where the coldest beer in Palmar is.  Get in the car.”

 The beer was indeed cold; each bottle sheened in ice as it was pulled from an ancient coffin style cooler.  It got warm fast, but the solution to that was to drink quickly, very quickly.  The next week was a blur of rum drinks, tropical fruits, body-surfing, jungletours and a lot of fresh shrimp.  I liked the place, I liked the pace and I loved the lifestyle.  We hit the beaches in the morning, we napped at mid-day and we ate fresh fish and drank big rum drinks in the evening.  I was completely and utterly seduced.  At the end of the week I got back on the airplane writing my first menu in my head.  Yes, I took the job.   I jettisoned everything I owned, left a great apartment in San Francisco and moved it all; knives, iPod and laptop to Costa Rica.   I would have kicked myself for the rest of my life if I hadn’t.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


When I returned to La Cusinga in January of this year, one of my first stops was at the new (at least to me) Saturday morning Uvita feria. I loved it from the time I first laid eyes on it and walked around it, and I knew from that first day that I wanted to see it succeed and that I would do whatever I could to help.

It occurred to me after only a visit or two that while the Uvita feria was doing some of the right things; local produce, artisans, crude but locally generated music, it was also lacking a spark , a focus, a drawing card, if you will. I had already started a relationship with Tricia and Marguerite, the two woman who ran not only one of the stands, but also the business end of the feria and naturally, me being me, I had to make some suggestions. One immediate and obvious suggestion that came up was incorporating Chef Demos into the weekly routine. I had seen them work with an immense degree of success at the huge Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco and other markets in the States; in fact, generating their own fan base, separate from the markets. I had also performed Demos at the Beverly Hill Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s in San Francisco in front of mobs of people and had seen how effective they could be in getting the crowd motivated into doing some retail therapy.

After I made my suggestions to Marguerite and Tricia I wrote out a two page outline of how the Demos should run, what equipment would be necessary and even recommended the first guest Chef, me, ChefDave. Naturally, nothing happened immediately and this being Costa Rica, nothing happened even more slowly than it might have anywhere else. Tricia left the country and sold her part of the business to Marguerite. My carefully wrought plans and ideas had gotten lost in the shuffle and needed to be retyped and resent. Marguerite was slowly absorbing all of the weight of running this new business and she was proceeding surely, if slowly. It took until the last week of May, with constant meetings and discussions at each Saturday feria for several weeks prior for us to finally establish a date and a “plan”. Saturday , June 20th would be the first Chef Demo.

I re-sent the list of equipment and serving needs to Marguerite. It became clear early on that we wouldn’t be ready or able to do any live flame cooking; just couldn’t get that damn propane thing together. Marguerite had plenty of lovely organic lettuces in her garden that she sold each week, each of the vendors had items fresh, organic and even pickled that they could offer, so we decided on a Salad Demo. I would contribute a couple of basic vinaigrette/dressing ideas and would assemble said dressings in front of the teeming throngs. At our final meeting, at the big feria in Perez, two days prior to the date of the blessed event, we addressed our lists of needs and requirements yet again. It wasn’t D-Day or Woodstock, but it was close.

That Thursday evening I created the two recipes that I would perform so I could print them up and hand them out, so all could read along as I performed. I had decided on the simplest most basic red wine vinegar/Dijon dressing I could think of, and a slightly more complex emulsified dressing that would require a food processor. I kept my writing succinct and left room at the bottom of the page for a few helpful salad making hints (and two of my pet peeves) like proper oil to vinegar ratios (abhor the old classic of 3:1 and move toward featuring the oils and NOT the vinegars in something more like a 5:1 ratio), and the concept of not overdressing our precious tiny organic greens into a sodden wadded mass.

On Friday my friend Anja from Mercado la Roca was kind enough to assist me in arranging and printing my flyers and helped me to add a little hyping of the restaurant as well. I wrote out my own packing lists; for food, Dijon mustard, oils, vinegars, S&P, etc.; and for equipment, whisks, spatulas, towels and of course, the Cuisinart. I went into Friday night’s dinner service fully ready for the next day. I had gotten excited phone calls that afternoon from Marguerite that Canal 6, our local TV station would be there filming both the feria and me and that I should be prepared to start later and stay longer.
Okay, fine, I was still ready.

Saturday morning arrived warm and sunny, and I bounced down off the hill, arriving at La Cusinga for the car exchange and a final spot check of my packing. I remembered extra towels and discovered that I had forgotten to pull my white chef’s shirts out of the bleach bucket the night before. It would have to be the stylish black shirt or nothing. And nobody wanted to see nothing.

I got to the feria in plenty of time and discovered immediately that I was not going to be a Costa Rican TV food star. There had been complications and the TV crew wasn’t going to make it. Naturally Marguerite was a little disappointed as she had told a lot of her regular customers to come later so that we could have a good crowd for the cameras. I was slightly disappointed, but also a little pleased as it did mean that we could start closer to our original time rather than going later into the morning. Despite the lure to my ego of being both on camera and in front of people, I still had fish to buy and a restaurant to run later that day and into the evening.

I did all the meeting and greeting that I usually do on Saturday mornings and made sure I took care of by weekly buying first. After that it was upstairs to the brutally hot upper level of the Rincon buiding where the feria is held, to drag down the tables I would set up on. I got the tables set, pulled on the plastic tablecloth and began the display. On went the black chef’s shirt and out came the cutting board, the Cuisinart, the oils, the vinegars, the mustard. I pulled out the stacks of printed recipes as well as flyers advertising The Gecko at La Cusinga and spread them around the table for all to see. Marguerite had begun to bring me the organic goodies for the salads and I arranged the cucumber, avocados and tomatoes in front of the board where I would cut them.

“Marguerite”, I called, “where is your extension cord?” Oooh, blank expression (not good), and then, “I don’t know. Won’t your cord reach?” We all knew it wasn’t going to reach and it was apparent that that part of the check list had somehow been overlooked. Marguerite shuffled off to ostensibly look for a cord, but I knew that it just wasn’t going to happen. After I set up the rest of the table it had become entirely clear to me that issue of the extension cord was just going to be quietly ignored, so I hopped into R2, and went off to see who I knew that would have an extension cord. My friend Tra’s Hotel Tucan was closer than The Dome (also known as the Mango Café) and I knew his staff better than I knew Brent, the Dome’s owner. Sure enough, Rosa, Tra’s hugely pregnant day manager was happy to lend me an extension cord and I was so happy myself I stopped at the Corona market across the street from the feria and bought grinders of pepper and sea salt that I had somehow forgotten to bring.

I returned triumphantly, plugged in the food processor and was just about in business. Marguerite asked me if I would start shortly after 10:00 so I had several minutes to get the mis en place in place so I set to work. People began to drift by and stare. I find it fascinating that one can stand with an entire kitchen set up, wearing obvious chef’s clothes; a knife in one’s hand, vegetables in the other, and with flyers announcing one’s intentions festooned all around and people will, without batting an eye, say, “What are you doing?” Over and over again they will say it. This is a reaction not specific to any region, locale or country. It is not gender specific. It is however, frighteningly consistent.

They came, the saw, they asked. And patiently and gently I explained why and how it was that I had come to be there, dressed in my funny clothes and chopping vegetables. The lights went on. There would be free food. That was the core message of all that they saw. As we neared the appointed time, I laid out a display of cut vegetables onto the lazy susan that Marguerite had brought. I pulled the stems and roots off heads of tiny lettuces and fluffed them into the salad bowl. A few chairs were pulled up, a small (think five or six) crowd had gathered and I launched into my spiel. I was Chef Dave from The Gecko at La Cusinga and here’s what I’m going to do.

From that point forth it was all second nature. I cut, I tossed, I explained. I mixed together oils and vinegars and mustard. I shook and I blended. I salted, peppered and sliced. I made eye contact and spoke with assurance and confidence. Soon I had a bowl full of dressed salad and was serving it forth. A glaring weakness was quickly discovered; the bowls were few and the back-up bag of plastic forks turned out to be plastic spoons. I talked on. I answered questions, nodding wisely and supportively. I encouraged people to take the recipes and flyers and to even go so far as to read what was printed on them. I explained the concept of “emulsification”.

The concept of free food is one of the most popular on the face of the earth. Small children thrust bowls in front of me. Vendors from other tables came over to eat. I smiled and served. I cut and recut. I added more lettuces and more dressing to the bowl, each time explaining which dressing it was and asked them to notice how lightly I was dressing these tender young greens. I winced when people reached for the dressing I’d made and added more and more to their salads. I winced even harder when one of the Tico vendors grabbed the spoon protruding from the Dijon and dumped three healthy spoonsful onto his salad. I kept smiling, serving and sweating, yes, sweating. It was hot and the black shirt was not helping. Marguerite rushed about trying to wash used salad bowls two or three at a time. Our crowd of five or six had turned into an eating machine of thirty or so. But that’s why I was there.

The lecture and demo part of the morning over, the crowd thinned and I was left with the stragglers who wanted to know, “What is this?”, “Who are you?” and “Do you have any more forks and bowls?” I started to neaten and re-pack but Marguerite was asking me to keep making salad. She had asked her friends and regulars to come later. She brought more lettuces, more tomatoes, more avocados. I loaded up the bowl again and kept packing. I told my story and sang my song over my shoulder as I loaded up my bustub. I filled the bowl again and again. I made a run to the trunk of the car to deposit my dirty food processor bowls, tongs and spats. Nearly done, nearly done. I thought about my drive down to Ojochal to buy fish and how the breeze would blow through the windows of the car.

Marguerite’s face was sad when I told her that I absolutely had to go, that there were two cakes to bake, a large fish to filet and 15-20 diners in my future. “But people are still coming…”, she said. I nodded. People would still be coming all the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. But the Chef Demo was done, the free food had worked its magic and now, it was time to head down the jungle road to the next part of the day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009




Who could have known what would happen when I got back to La Cusinga and turned on the ice cream maker.  It seems that Dos Pinos, the only commercial ice cream producer in the country is just not fulfilling the needs of  a country (or at least a specific region) full of ice cream eaters.  It sems that their pallid flavors and ice cream product (!) filled with preservatives is just not cutting the proverbial mustard with aficionados of the real deal.  From the time I fired up the machine for the first run until now, I have been struggling to keep a minimum of three flavors in my freezers.  All of my desserts are now accompanied by ice cream and I have begun to sell it to other small restaurants in our community and will begin purveying it at the feria in Uvita soon.  And when I go back to the States in July, there will be a second machine waiting for me so I can keep up with the demand.

  When I packed my suitcases full of supplies, clothing and equipment necessary to my returning to my status as Chef of the Jungle, one of the things high up on my list of necessaries was an ice cream maker.  In my previous incarnation here at La Cusinga we’d purchased one of the smaller Cuisinart models, the one that resembles, purely for reasons of quaintness and kitsch, an old fashioned ice cream maker.  It did what it was supposed to do, make ice creams, only it did it in smallish quantities and was not constructed in a fashion sturdy enough for even our mini-industrial production.  We (or I) blazed through that one in the first month, destroying first the slender and fragile whisk that turns the ice cream against the frozen drum, and ultimately the drum itself, which did not survive its four foot drop to the concrete floor.

 So this time, well-educated as to the limitations of the smaller model, I bought the biggest model that Cuisinart makes; a modern looking brushed aluminum baby with a two quart drum.  It came packed in a large box and my first challenge was how to get it packed into a suitcase for traveling.  I had also purchased a heavy duty Cuisinart food processor and needed to devise a method of packing it as well.  I had one large wheeled suitcase, but it was immediately apparent that if I wished to get both machines and my modest wardrobe down to Costa Rica I was going to need another suitcase of equal size.

 I cruised on down to Austin’s Academy; a giant box store that despite its name that makes it sound like a kinky phone-sex site, is instead a wonder of  a sporting goods and clothing store with travel necessaries thrown in for good measure.  I only wanted the large suitcase, but ended up buying a four piece luggage set, that nested, one inside the other, for a whopping $49.95.  I immediately went on Craigslist, advertised the three smaller pieces and sold them that afternoon for $40.  Not a bad deal.

 I did a test run with the big suitcase to the West Coast to say my good-byes for six months and to do a clothing exchange with some items in my Dad’s garage in Oregon.  On the flight from Austin to Portland the new suitcase developed an immediate split alongside the zipper and had to be duct-taped in San Francisco in order to make it back to Austin without spilling my odd lots into the baggage compartment of the plane.  I trotted back to Acadamy with the damaged bag and the bespeckled, complexion challenged, possible highschool graduate of a checker let me do a quickie exchange without even examining the merchandise.  Had I been of a mind to, I could have taken another four piece set rather than just the largest suitcase that held the others, but I was tired of Craigslist.

 This time the packing was for real and I had decided that the best tack would be to put each piece of equipment on top of a few teeshirts in the center of the suitcase and pile my  other clothing around the boxes in an attempt to cushion them.  I had removed my precious cargo from the packing crates it had come in, but it still rested inside the factory boxes, which were of substantial size.  It was immediately apparent that the closing and final zipping of each of the suitcases would indeed be challenging.  Undaunted, I packed on and when it came time to do the final zip it took having my brother in law, Pete, kneeling on the suitcases while I tugged at the not nearly large enough zipper pulls to get the damn things shut.  But shut they finally did, packed near to bursting and man were they heavy.

 It was clear at the Continental Airlines scales just how heavy.  Each of the bags weighed in at just about 65 pounds.  Yeah they were a  little over weight, but I was proud of my equal weight distribution.  I paid the overage, just happy to be able to get those monsters into the cargo hold.   I got on the plane with impunity and when I opened them on the other end the merchandise proved to have traveled perfectly and there were those happy little notices from the airline security that they had even been opened.  I spent a moment or two wondering how they had gotten them closed but then decided I’d rather not know.

 Once at La Cusinga I eagerly popped open the ice cream machine box and got down to the business of unpacking the parts and reading the manual.  It seemed simple enough and I eagerly and happily leapt into my newest chef skill; “ice cream maker.”  The first batch was fittingly, vanilla, just to keep it classic and see how my new toy worked and it came out just fine.  I was ready to get tropical on this baby and shortly thereafter followed banana, chocolate banana, mango and strawberry.  And yes, there are plenty of strawberries here in the lower mountain areas of Costa Rica.  It took a little bit of getting used to working with different fruit purees as they all held different amounts of water, and I found that the denser fruits, particularly banana and mango took quite well to the simple mix with cream and milk.

 The next big breakthrough came when an old friend, the erstwhile Brit, Billy Bateman, showed up at my door with bags of organic polvo de cacao.  That is, freshly dried, unfined cacao beans ground and unprocessed.  Included in them is the crunch of the bean, but also the pure cocoa butter that is fined out of commercial cocoa powders.  I’ve know Billy since virtually the first day I set foot in this country and I’ve known well that he is now and always will be a man with a scheme, a plan, a brilliant moneymaking idea.  I had seen Billy design and hang bamboo curtains, render models of bamboo villages and patios, middleman vehicle sales and live penniless high in the Costa Rican mountains helping to construct a  model “free village” that would provide a home to all who contributed.

 This was Billy’s latest dream project; to act as the liason between the cacao grower and the wave of chefs (I would be the first) who would put his polvo in huge demand.   Billy’s dream wasn’t going to end up making him a fat purse of money, but it provided me with a wonderfully unique medium upon which to take my next ice cream step.  I futzed and ditzed with the polvo a bit before realizing that it worked best, simply sieved (which was no easy proposition) and added to a classic ice cream mix of cream and milk.  I did make on major recipe change by substituting our local raw sugar, tapa dulce, which comes in huge dense rounds, for the commercial sugar the recipe called for. 

 And the resulting ice cream was amazing.  It was different both flavor-wise and texturally.  It wasn’t chocolate and it wasn’t cocoa.  It was truly unique and the crunch in each bite from the ground beans was unlike anything I’d ever encountered in ice cream.  Almost unwilling to believe how good it was I offered tastes to some hotel guests; my unknowing guinea pigs.  They were effusive in their praise and you could see that need for another bite shining in their little obsessive eyes.  This one was a real winner and I realized that I might be the only one of the face of the planet doing it this way.  What a find!

 I served it, initially, just by itself, alone in a bowl, but couldn’t help thinking that it needed another texture, smoother and more unctuous, to really bring out the subtlety of the flavors and the natural crunch it provided.   I had been experimenting with a couple of different cake recipes and one of them was called Jose Maria’s Flourless Chocolate Cake.  It was a simple melt of chocolate with egg yolks, sugar and (shhhh) three tablespoons of flour folded into melted chocolate and butter, followed by stiffly whipped egg whites.  In classic soufflé cake form, it rose during baking and then fell into a dense fudgy mass upon removal from the oven.  It was a match made in heaven.  Just a thin slice of the chocolate cake with a scoop of the cacao ice cream was the perfect combination.

  It seemed I had created a monster and when Billy tasted it he brought a stream of guests through the restaurant for tastes and with any luck, a full dinner followed by the “Life By Chocolate” dessert.  His moneymaking instincts kicked in and he wanted to know if I could possibly manufacture enough of the ice cream to sell at the local feria to promote his polvo de cacao sales.  Other restaurants heard of it and I sold a batch of half quart containers to my friend Tra at the Tucan Hotel.  This was quickly followed with a sale to the lovely Anja at Mercado la Roca who would put it on the menu as “Helado de Chef David”.  I was making the polvo de cacao everyday and had maxed out my production.  The drum of the ice cream maker needed to go back into the freezer for a minimum of eight hours to make the best possible ice creams so it seemed, sadly, as if I was limited to one run a day.

 In addition to the chocolate I discovered another wonderful taste treat by using the small local blackberries I bought from Roger at the Perez feria for my next “experimental” ice cream.  The Costa Rican blackberries grow on the sides of the mountains that surround the farming valley of San Isidro and are tiny and quite tart.  They also have an intensely pure blackberry flavor, far truer that the fat (and pulpy by comparison) blackberries that I was used to back in the States.  They required a good run in the food processor to puree, and then needed to be passed through a fine mesh screen to remove the seeds.  The resulting puree was tart and richly colored.  I learned quickly just how fast a clean whilte chef’s shirt and blackberries find each other.

 I knew I wanted to temper the tartness and intensity of the blackberries slightly more than my regular milk and cream base would for the ice cream, so I cooked a custard with milk and egg yolks and added cream and the blackberry puree to that.  The ice cream that this marriage produced was rich, creamy, dense and both deeply flavored and colored.  After I made the first batch I wrote my sister and told her that it may have been one of the five best things I’ve ever made.  I try to temper my enthusiasm somewhat in describing my creations to people, but this one was too good not to rave about.

 While I did indeed serve it solo in a bowl, I decided that it too wanted an accompaniment so I went for an old classic.  Using a pound cake recipe that I had gleaned from the food pages of the NY Times, I substituted the zest of our local mandarinas for their suggested orange zest and that was IT.  I cooked a simple fruit syrup of sugar and the mandarina juice and poured it over the top as the cake came out of the oven to intensify the citrus flavor.  Not satisfied, I used the leftover blackberry puree to make a slightly sweetened sauce and finally brought the three; blackberry ice cream, blackberry sauce and mandarina pound cake, together.  It was the perfect anti-chocolate dessert and I loved it.  Fortunately my guests did as well and the two desserts became my weekend offerings when we finally opened The Gecko to the public.  “One and one” was a typical dessert order, but truth be told, I sell so much more of just the chocolate combination,  It’s a hard one to resist.

 So I return to the US in July to find another Cuisinart ice cream make waiting for me at my sister’s house in Austin.  I need to gear up my production for the upcoming season and I also need to expand my repertoire to include far more of the tropical flavors available to me; guanabana (which I have made, and is a good one). coconut, guava and more.  Additionally a whole range of sorbets await me, including a fabulous recipe for lemongrass/mango that I just found.  I have created a monster.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Keep It Simple/Anniversary Dinner

I got back from my weekly jaunt to the feria in Perez knowing that I had just one reservation; a party of four for an anniversary dinner.  The celebrating couple had been in for dinner just a week previous with a group of six, and when the wife asked her husband where he wanted to go for their celebration he told her he wanted to come back here.

It had been a busy and already long day.  I had gotten up at 5:15 from my house sitting duties, fed the dogs and come here to make the vehicle switch that would put me in my Tercel for the drive over the mountain.  My plan was to keep the meal simple and straightforward, relying on the strength of my ingredients to make it special.  My last stop on my busy day of driving had been down the dirt road in Ojochal to the casa del pescadero, Victorino, and I had picked up two clear-eyed whole corvina; fresh out of the ocean.

Marguerite had gotten me some small, stubby and sweet organic carrots so I decided to base the soup on those.  I chopped some onions and while they sweated in butter, grated a handful of fresh ginger and added it to my sauce pot.  The smell of the ginger hitting the warmed butter sent a shot of heat and sweet to my nostrils.  I chopped the carrots in diagonal ovals (keeps 'em from rolling) without peeling them and added them to the ginger and onions.  I also put in a healthy spoonful of a Thai yellow curry paste that I love for sneaking in flavor.  A couple of quick stirs to coat everything and then in went cold water to cover.  I put in half a handful of salt and a few grinds of pepper and let it come to a boil.

I start of each Thursday by baking two desserts to get the weekend started and I knew going in that one of them would be the flourless chocolate cake for two reasons; first, it's easy and fast to make, and second,  people love it.   I put the chocolate and butter on to melt, measured out sugar and separated eggs.    This cake is ovenready in about ten minutes and only bakes for 30.  I folded the sugar and (shhh) three tablespoons of flour and then the egg yolks, followed by the stiffly whipped whites in three batches.  A quick pour out into the cake pan and it was in the oven.

The second dessert was also pre-ordained by virtue of my having bought fresh blackberries at the feria.  I love the combination of those sweet/tart blackberries with anything citrus, and have decided I like them most with a citrus flavored pound cake.  The pound cake is flavored with the zest of whatever citrus I happen to have from our property (today it was small, but not sour green limes) and I serve it with a sauce made from a puree of the blackberries and a scoop of blackberry ice cream.   The pound cake joined the chocolate in the oven and it was time for more planning. 

Andrey had already blanched the long thin organic green beans so that was one of the night's vegetables.  I had picked up both tri-color chard and, for a change, some small white chayotes at the market that morning and wanted to use them both.  We stemmed the chard and cut the slightly larger than walnut-sized chayotes in half, taking out their soft pits.   Andrey tossed them in olive oil and arranged them on a sheet pan for roasting later.

Each Thursday I also buy a kilo bag of mixed whole baby lettuces from Marguerite and base my salads on those.  I had also picked up a new goat cheese from Laureano and Gretel and wanted to try it out.  It was from my same cheesemaker, but was in half-kilo bricks rather than the smaller discs I had been buying.  I keep a gallon container of roasted beets marinating in balsamic vinegar in the refrigerator at all times so the combo of the goat cheese and the beets was a no brainer.  For a little wrinkle and some texture I decided to toast almond slices to sprinkle on the top.  

Next was the corvina.  I went out to the ice chest and brought in the bag that contained both fish.  I pulled the corvina out for a closer inspection; and yes, they were beautiful and fresh; eyes clear and devoid of any smell at all.  Corvina is a white meat fish, and shaped a little like a salmon.  The skin of ours caught here is silvery with a streak of yellowish gold along the top of the each side.  The dorsal fins have an equally gold cast to them.  

I have an ancient filleting knife (possibly older than I am) that I use for fish cutting and I pulled it out for the first time since I've been back.  My friend George, in San Francisco, had put a glistening edge on it and the fins and the head of the corvina came off both fish with ease.  I laid the knife flat and started at the top of the spine, just below where the gills had been, and slid right down the bone, removing first the top then the bottom filets.  The flesh was lovely, iridescently pinkish-white and shiny.   It was a quick cut here and there to remove the rib bones and to slide the knife under the skin and remove it.  The sharp knife eased through the boneless filets and I got ten very nice dinner portions plus some smaller tail pieces for us to try.  The fish was wrapped carefully and went back on ice.

The first of the cakes, the chocolate was ready to come out and it had risen, clear to the top of the pan, just as it was supposed to.  Now the air would come out of the egg whites and the cake would slowly sink into a dense fudgy mass.  I spun the pound cake 180 degrees and gently closed the oven door.  I had decided on a simple roasted tomato sauce for the fish and needed to wait until I could turn up the oven.  In the mean time, I turned down the heat on the boiling carrots and got the tomatoes ready to roast.

As I do every week at the feria I had visited the mountain of tomatoes and had come away with four kilos of deeply red ripe fruit.  I poured olive oil on a sheet pan and set to work.  The tomatoes got cored, halved and laid, cut side down, on the oiled pan.   I sliced two yellow onions into thickish pieces and laid these over and between the halved tomatoes.  I wedged ten or twelve peeled garlic cloves in among the tomatoes and onions and sprinkled sea salt and a few grinds of pepper over the top along with another splash of olive oil.

While the cake finished, the tomatoes waited and the carrots simmered, I made a glaze for the pound cake out of equal volumes of the lime juice from the same limes I had zested for the cake and sugar.  I put this on a burner to reduce by half.  Pound cake can easily dry out, and this glaze poured over the top while the cake is still warm, both moistens it and gives it an extra bump of citrus flavor.  The glaze reduced, the cake came out and the oven went up from 350 to 450 for the tomatoes.

I learned to cook tomatoes this way years ago as a way of inducing more flavor into tomatoes that were not quite ripe or perhaps, out of season.    And since it is basically a way of intensifying the flavor, I have never seen any problem with using this method on already ripe tomatoes to make them even more "tomatoey".    It would help create a  cooked "salsa" for tonight's fish and those tomatoes left over would be pureed for rich chilled tomato soup.  I went outside to pick basil leaves for finishing the sauce and felt a heaviness to the air, a sure sign of rain to come, and probably soon.

Back in the kitchen I wrapped the basil leaves in a wet paper towel until I'd need them and tested the carrots for doneness.  They were perfect and off the stove they came.  I drained them about halfway, wanting to use some of the cooking water as a medium for the pureed soup they would become.  I brought an immersion blender, or blender on a stick as I like to call it, down here with me in my suitcase, and it may be one of my most used tools.   I immersed it in the carrots and went to work pulling it up and down in the pot, but keeping it below the surface.   I had bought some fresh squeezed orange juice from Laureano and Gretel that morning and began to add it to the churning puree for sweetness and also to help with the thinning.  I tasted for salt and added a bit, looking for that perfect balance of salty and sweet.   I also liked that the ginger and orange flavors worked nicely in balance with each other and that the curry snuck up on the palate just as I'd hoped it would.  I poured enough soup to serve that night into a glass pitcher and put in the refi to chill.

I began to smell the sweet scent of the roasting tomatoes and pulled them out of the oven, sizzling and with toasty brown skins.  I pulled about a third of them from the tray and rough chopped them along with some browned and crisp onions and garlic.  I scraped this and the juices and oil into a bowl and put it on the stovetop to keep warm.  The remaining tomatoes went into a bowl and the refi for tomorrow's soup.

Everything was ready and all we could do was wait.  As I said earlier, I knew that this was a simple dinner and what would make it succeed would be the proper balance of flavors, perfect execution of the "a la minute" (last minute) cooking and of course, a nice plating job.  This was going to be one of those dinners where I would just get out of the way and let the freshness and pedigrees of the fish and the vegetables do all the talking.  The skies opened up and the rain came down with serious authority.  I hoped it wouldn't keep our guests at home.

But arrrive they did, umbrellas open and caps and slickers on.  And just as they arrived and shook off on our upper deck, the rain abruptly stopped and the skies lightened to reveal a rosy pink sunset.  Perfect.   The four of them had come in with sweet smiles, good appetites and wide open attitudes, so this would be fun for all of us.  

After the wine was poured, Juanca, our manager, and I served the chilled carrot puree with a tiny dollop of Mario's fresh natilla (organic sour cream) on top.  This went down quickly and to a very nice response and we followed the soup with the salad of organic lettuces, beets, goat cheese and toasted almonds.   Andrey had started the chayotes at around 5:00 and now, perfectly golden brown, they went back in the oven to reheat.  I had seared the corvina to crisp it on one side and it too went into the hot oven.   I gave the basil leaves a thin chiffonade and stirred them into the chopped roasted tomatoes I had sitting on the stove top.  The blanched green beans got sauteed with garlic and a julienne of chile dulce (red bell peppers) and the chard was simply and classically braised in hot olive oil and garlic with a splash of water and a pinch of salt.

The fish came out of the oven just as the salad plates came back.  It looked and smelled wonderful.  I had made a last minute decision to serve the fish atop the braised chard and to surround it with the green beans and the golden roasted chayote halves.  Andrey neatly shingled the chayote and the fish looked great on the greens.  The warm tomato-basil "salsa" went on top and with the bright red and green of the sauteed beans, the plates look great.  When Juanca and I sat them down they were greeted with complimentary "oohs" and I explained what was on the plate and that the chayote would need to be spooned out of its shell.

I returned five minutes later to find most everything eaten and the chayote a favorite (I had been worried about that).  They asked me again about the chard and I happily told them.  One of my favorite cooking thrills is to serve people ingredients that they might not make at home and have them enjoy it.  They feel as if they've made a "discovery".  When we picked up the plates in another five minutes, all that remained on any of them was the chayote skins.

Now was the easy part; the choices and decisions for dessert.  I was pleased that they chose two of each dessert and thought it was funny that one couple chose the chocolate while the other chose the lime/blackberry.  I plated the cakes and propped the organic cacao ice cream against the chocolate and spooned sauce and propped the blackberry ice cream against the lime pound cake.  These desserts are such a pleasure to place down in front of people.  No mint leaves, no garnish, just the cake and ice cream.   Again we had quickly cleaned plates and big smiles.  This is where the pleasure comes into it for me. 

They lingered, as seemed perfect, and upon leaving promised recommendations to friends and even more return visits.  A good night of simple food, served well to the right people.  Buenas noches y muchas gracias.


Chilled Puree of Organic Carrots, Ginger and Thai Spices with Orange

Salad of Organic Lettuces, Roasted Marinated Beets, Fresh Local Goat Cheese and Toasted Almonds

Roasted Local Corvina with Roasted Tomato-Basil "Salsa"; Braised Organic Chard, Roasted White Chayote and Sauteed Green Beans

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Organic Cacao Ice Cream, 
Lime Pound Cake with Fresh Blackberry Sauce and Blackberry Ice Cream


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

La Union


 A brief break in the restaurant and area reporting this week to take the time to move into my temporary new home.  I am house  sitting for my friends, Greg and Laura, while they make a three month visit to friends and family in Ashville and Buffalo.  This in no way affects my Chef duties at La Cusinga, but rather, puts me into a change of daily schedules.  I’m only in my third day here, so none of it is really figured out yet, except that the two dogs, Sophie and Vida, get fed in the morning and in the evening.

 Greg moved to Costa Rica eight years ago, bought this property, and has been building on it ever since.  He has built two A-frames; the larger of which is his and Laura’s main house, and the smaller is a guest cabina.  He has also constructed a sophisticated water capture and delivery system with four tanks that supply the houses.  Both houses, although rustic in appearance, have full amenities; solar heating for the shower, full electricity, and in the case of the main house, a TV with working channels and a washing machine.  It is quite comfortable here.

 The main house has a deck with couches and hammocks that wraps around the front and looks out over a beautiful lush valley down to the coast of Uvita.  Last night’s sunset was spectacular.  The house sits 4 Kilometeres up a steep windy road that necessitates 4 WD and because of that drive, is peaceful, remote and absolutely private.  The sloping grounds are home to a vegetable garden,  garage and tool shed, solar dryer and a plethora of fruit trees, including pineapple, banana, avocado and mandarina..

 The biggest adjustment for me was leaving R2, my Tercel, back at La Cusinga and having to use Greg’s ancient Toyota Landcruiser to go up and down La Union Road.  The Landcruiser is nearly as old as me and seems to have many more idiosychrosies.  I think Greg was more nervous teaching me to drive it that I was learning about it and the micro-managing made the process more daunting than it really is.   The Landcruiser has a very low first in 4WD and practically hauls itself up the steep gravelly hill to the house.  It is also a bucket of bolt and rattles and shakes frantically with every bump.  Once out on the open road it runs just fine, if one is in no hurry.  The first time I got back into R2 after using the Landcruiser’s clutch I stalled twice.  Talk about night and day.

 Tomorrow is feria day and I already have a reservation for 5 for tomorrow night.  I’ll get up extra early on the mountain, go to La Cusinga to trade cars, and head off over the real mountain to Perez Zeladon and the Thursday feria.  I’ll get used to this car shuffle soon and will get back to the issues at hand.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Thursday Feria in Perez Zeladon


Thursday morning starts early, or at least what I consider early, at 5:45.  The howler monkeys have resumed their pre-dawn calm and there are only a few plaintive moos from the remaining milk-full cows.   My cabina looks out over the cow pasture to the ocean and I love the early morning sun beginning to show its reflection out over the Pacific.  There is always a moistness, a rich loaminess, a physical presence to the air at this time of the day.

 I ease myself down on the cool floor and begin my morning stretching and faux yoga in a mostly vain attempt to get the stiffness out of my lower, upper and middle backs.  I take a quick shower in the riverstone stall, shake dry like a dog and pack everything I’ll need for the next 15 hours into my computer bag.  The walk up the hill to the Lodge through the middle of the jungle is a classroom of flora and fauna each morning and I love to look up the path to the light that comes through the tunnel at the top.

 I hit the kitchen, pour myself a tall glass of black tea and honey, check the internet briefly and begin the leaving process.  I grab spare plastic grocery bags from the bodega, fill two water bottles and pour four or five scoops of ice into the leaky ice chest.   I lug the ice chest out to R2, the wonder Tercel, shove the key in the trunk and do the magic  tap in just the right place to spring the trunklid.  In goes the ice chest and I start the car.  Up goes the hood and I twist off the radiator cap to check the ALL-IMPORTANT water level.   One of the water bottles gets emptied into the black hole atop the radiator and I’m ready to roll down the hill.

 The drive out of La Cusinga takes me down the tree-lined entrada, past the office and up to the main gate where the trabajadores de la finca are working on a new riverstone structure that is rumored to be a museum for displaying the works of natural wonder that John has collected over the last 37 years.  Julio, the eternally smiling guardio swings the gate open and I head out toward the Costanera, remembering to wave at Gabiano’s hijos as they run out for the ritual goodbye.   The entrada is short, windy and rocky but easily navigable except for the final “curvo peligroso” that requires proper placement and approach in order to keep R2’s tires from spinning wildly.  I emerge onto the Costanera and do the quick jig around the landmark “hole in the road” that’s been there for nigh on two years, and head north.

 The early morning drive up the coast is gorgeous.  The sun hasn’t quite come over the mountains, so the water  to my left is just catching the growing reflections of the early light.  The blooming rays sift through the palm trees on the ocean side and snatches of the blue ocean jump from between them.  On the right the jungle is still shady and dark, the steep hills trapping the last of the cool night air.  Work starts at six for the Tico laborers and they’re already hacking at the roadside growth with machetes.  The road at this hour  is quiet save for the occasional big rig using the coastal conduit.

 I cruise past the surf ghetto of Dominical, wave to the hombres de la fuerza policia who “guard” our modern highway and swing right, up the twisty road that will take me out of the jungle and over the mountain.   This is the part of the trip where falling in behind a slow moving truck or God forbid, the bus, can make the half hour mountain pass seem endless.  Straightaways are infrequent and passing on these turns is either suicidal or an art form.

 The air changes temperature rapidly on this ascent and heavy fog drifts up the valley above the river that runs down the mountains and empties into the ocean at Dominical.  The bosques (forests) here are dense and the valleys on either side of the mountain pass are thick with vegetation and farms set among the heavy growth.  I wind past the Parque Reptilandia and Finca Feliz Flores and climb to Platanillo, the first of the two villages I’ll pass through.  The restaurante Baru has an outdoor  brick-made wood burning oven that I covet but have still have never seen fired up. 

 The road winds farther up and a lot of second gear is in order.  R2 climbs well for an 18 year old car and handles the rises relatively easily.  The road reaches a false peak at Tinamastes, a slightly larger village, that is home to the valley Alfombra, where a lot of hippie expats do their organic farming.   Another kilometer further, the peak is symbolically reached at Los Chorros, a mirador (lookout) restaurant that used to be a “must stop” for a shot of rum on every trip over the pass.

 The road rises a bit from Los Chorros, but quickly turns into a descent into the Valle de General de San Isidro.  The rich green farmland stretches out to the right and numerous hillside casitas and restaurants perch over the valley view.  The twin spires of the church are the first thing one notices about San Isidro and they seem dwarfed by the mountains that rise behind them.  A few final curves, the quick pass through La Palma,  two one-lane bridges and I’ve reached Perez Zeladon de General de San Isidro, one of the longest city names I know and easily my favorite.

 San Isidro is big city compared to the coast.  There are paved streets, traffic lights, sidewalks and billboards.  And women; women everywhere.  It has been explained to me that a large percentage of the male workforce heads off to the US, leaving behind a population that is largely female.  The way they dress and the way many of them walk goes a long way in explaining the inordinately large number of shoes stores and boutiques with names like, “Hot Baby” and “Modern Doll”.   Cleavage es muy tipico and spike heels a must for navigating the city streets.

 I make my turn past the stadia de futbol and another quick left at the Funeria Joyeria (the joyous funeral parlor) and head into the parking lot of the feria.  I cautiously navigate through the crowd for the dirt area at the back end of the feria where the asphalt ends and the trucks unload.  The football field sized platform of the feria stretches and roars with noise before me, shaded by its immense corrugated tin roof.  I take a quick look in from the car and can see that, as usual, it is wall to wall bodies inside  I get out, stretch, lock the doors and pick my way through the puddles and over the rocks.

 For my first several visits, the feria was a confusing writhing mess to me.  I had to learn to walk and talk a new way.  I needed to understand the etiquette of pushing through the crowds (there is none; except a quick de esculpe me, or perdona me), picking out and weighing my produce (each stand has bags and a scale; you fill up and plop your bag on), and discovering who had what I really wanted, and where they were.

 I have a plan now and coming here weekly for five months has solidified my understanding of the layout.  First I head to see my friends Ademar and Mauren.  Here in Perez they wear the green camisas of those licensed to sell organic produce.  Unlike at our tiny Uvita feria, their table is just one of many displaying a wide cross-section of organic produce.  This is new and so much better organized than when I was here two years ago.  I have pre-ordered with them and I have a big, green plastic bin full and waiting.  I need, of course, to add a stiff stalk of cebollinas verdes (green onions), some Italian parsley and a couple of bunches of poc choi.  I slide my bin from under the table, heave it to my shoulder, dodge the two chattering and oblivious Ticas in front of the next stall and lug it out to the parking lot.  I pass Mario’s corner as I go and give him the signal with two fingers for what I need.   Bobbing and weaving with the shouldered bin, I negotiate the parking lot, give the trunk the secret tap and fill up my cooler with the tomatoes, chard, slender green beans, and my fresh herbs.

 The biggest chunk of my purchases is out of the way so now the fun starts.  My friend Marguerite, who I’ve already pre-ordered with as well, is at the other end of the circuit but there is lots of exploring before I get to her.  I’ve waved at Mario and I stop and see him first.  Mario is a silver haired Tico don in his 60’s, always dressed in a pressed short-sleeved shirt and a stylish straw hat.  He was born here, in Perez Zeladon, but spent nearly 30 years living in New York; both the Big Apple and upstate.  His English is impeccable as are his manners, and he seems to always have a light in his eyes.  He has a small organic farm in the hills north of the valley and while he does sell his lettuces, it is the dairy that drew me to him.

He and I tried his cheeses for several weeks; him offering tastes and free chunks to take back with me, and me offering my comments.  We have decided, mutually, that he just can’t yet make the chunkier, crumblier cheese I’m looking for and that seems to be all right.  He does make a wonderful rich natilla (sour cream) that I use for baking, and today, as I do almost every week, I take two half liter bags.

 I peel off away from Mario’s corner and head back up the organics aisle.  I had seen a table with a pile of frijoles tiernas (fresh beans) and I wanted to get back there before anyone had grabbed the few bags of the whitish yellow beans I favor.  These beans are fresh from the shell and cook up rich and creamy in about 45 minutes.  The only flavoring I need to use is onion, garlic, thyme and bay (and maybe half  a hot chile) and the beans do the rest.  There are mountains of the pink beans, but only a few bags of the whites and I grab two kilos.

Paying the bean sellers is easy, getting them to produce a factura (receipt) so I can recover my money from my bosses is not.  I’ve finally gotten hip and bring my own receipt book, scribble down the total and ask the sellers to sign.  Very few of them can write so I just ask them to “escriba su marque”.  We laugh together at the absurdity of my trying to get my bosses to “regresar mi plata” and I move on up the aisle.

 The aisle I’m heading up is the one to the farthest left in the giant hangar-like building.  The left side is filled with cooked food vendors and I breeze past them, only looking to my right for anything of interest.  From experience I know that most of these tables just feature the “nuts and bolts” of the market (onion, carrots, head lettuces, potatoes, etc.) so I push on ahead bumping and slipping past the congregating Ticos.  This market is as much a social scene and gathering place as it is a place to shop and the narrow pass between the stalls is continually at a standstill.  Tica women in dresses, highheels and makeup stand and talk to each other, oblivious completely to the flow of traffic that they’re  blocking.

 I need to make it across two full aisles and up another to Laureano and Gretel’s stand to see if they’ve got fresh goat cheese this week and also to replenish my yogurt supply.  Laureano is a big guy for a Tico, maybe 6’4”  and broad.  He is another former resident of the US and loves to throw out a few English expressions at me to keep in practice.  “Hey David”, he says, “How are you”.  His hand is huge and engulfs mine as we shake.  He talks slowly and moves slowly and is always sheened in a layer of sweat.   We immediately return to Spanish as I greet his wife and  partner Gretel and we talk business.  As seems to be the case in these business relationships, she is the one who knows where the pen is, the change is and where the receipt book is. 

 Laureano and Gretel produce their own fresh squeezed juices and make their own fresh fruit yogurts.  I buy the juices when we have a run of large groups at the Lodge and I buy the yogurt for me because I love it in the morning.  But what I’m really here for is the small rounds of queso de cabra that they sell for a cheesemaker that they know.   The cheese is fresh, moist and doesn’t suffer from the everpresent Costa Rica cheese dilemma of over-coagulation.  Most cheese made in this country has the texture of soft plastic.  This goat cheese I love and shred it over tomatoes or beets on my salads.  I trade some trade talk with the couple, take another bear-like handshake from Laureano, a kiss on the cheek from Gretel and make my turnaround toward the back of the feria.

 I make a quick stop to flirt with the cute Tica who sells chiles dulces (sweet red bells) and buy a bag of ten.  I make another quick stop for a stem of cebollas morados (red onions) and remember that I will have to fill out the factura here as well.  The onions are sold tied by their stems onto a long stalk and I juggle the stalk, the receipt book and my other bags while the onion vendor scrawls whatever it is he scrawls.  The onions are unwieldy, the cheese, yogurt and natilla need refrigeration and I need two more hands so I make another run out to the parking lot.

 I’m almost done and am approaching what I call (and I’m certain I’m not alone), gringo corner.  Here is where the hippies sell not just produce, but prepared foods, balms, lotions, essential oils and disseminate gringo gossip.  The collection of white people with dreadlocks here is substantial, the hippie muumuu smock look is de rigeur and there is always  a curious musty scent present, even in this open air feria, that one used to only encounter with the patchouli oil set.

 I skirt the hippies for now and bend around the corner for  my weekly stop at the mountain of tomatoes.  The same Tico family is set up here each week and each week there seems to have been unloaded a truckload of tomatoes.  Admittedly, these are not heirloom organic tomatoes by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, they are small, odd-sized and shaped and of varying degrees of ripeness.   Some are hard, some are green, some are seriously marred  and some have wormholes. But; if one has the patience and perserverance to stand and pick through them, at 300 colones a kilo they represent a remarkable bargain.  I do have and have had the patience for several weeks and use the tomatoes to roast for a spectacular chilled soup.   I cull through the tomatoes; walking up and down along the table, reaching and stretching for the brightest and ripest I can find.  I fill two plastic bags expertly with exactly 2 kilos each and walk away having spent around a dollar for nearly nine pounds of ripe, ripe tomatoes.

 Each week my second to the last stop for reasons of both proximity and perishability is with Roger.  Roger is an earnest and serious looking Tico with curly hair and an interesting collection of American golf shirts.  Roger is also my blackberry connection and I have been buying the blackberries for my ice cream from him since I discovered his table.  Roger is pretty amused by the fact that I make helado (ice cream) from his berries and never buy anything else from him despite his handsome display of broccoli, potatoes and onions.  He delights in telling passing Tica housewives that this gringo is making ice cream down on the coast.  We all get a few smiles out it and I am frankly, rather happy myself to be paying 1400 colones  (around $2.50) for a kilo bag of  intensely flavored blackberries.  The Costa Rican blackberries are smaller and a lot tarter than their northern kin, but they are packed with true blackberry flavor and the ice cream has a rich, intense flavor.  I amuse Roger even further with the receipt booklet and then I step over to see Marguerite at my last stop.

 Marguerite runs the Uvita feria, and when I see her there she is distracted and hard to pin down.  Here in Perez, at the big feria, she is just another table in a world of tables and it brings her back to earth.  She is a quiet and pensive with a serious cigarette habit and has been living in Costa Rica for a over twelve years; translating, farming, vending produce and developing quite a relationship with the Ticos.  She and I share a background and I enjoy when we can just sit and talk for a minute or ten on these Thursdays.  I’m helping her to put together a chef demo program for her feria and we chat about that. 

 This back corner of the feria is a jumble of Styrofoam, cardboard boxes, dripping water and folding tables, but Marguerite sits calmly amidst it while Adriana and Deylin her two Tica helpers do all the legwork.  The two of them, probably not more than 18 and cute in entirely different ways, work the market as a pair, hunting down and bringing to Marguerite the odds and ends she needs to fill orders.  She calls out over her shoulder to them to get my order ready and they quietly go about it.  I buy kilo bags of beautiful whole baby lettuces from Marguerite and they are a product that would not be out of place at or have to take a backseat to anything at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers market.  I am happy to buy them and proud to be able to serve them.  I say goodbye and begin to finish up my trip.  The girls take my money quietly and efficiently, Adriana being the businesswoman between them, but Deylin smiles shyly at me and hands me a mangosteen as I leave.

 I open the trunk one last time, adjust and shift the things in the cooler just enough to get all the perishables in and slam the trunk lid shut.  I climb into R2 and get set to make the whole trip in reverse.  The feeling of heading back over the mountain with my little car full of fresh produce and cheese is a rewarding and fulfilling one.  This has been a perfect morning for me, and my mind is already racing, creating the menu will appear that Thursday night.




Chilled Soup of Pureed Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables


Salad of Organic Lettuces with Marinated Organic Cherry Tomatoes, Finca Tres Hermanas Hearts of Palm and Shredded Goat Cheese


Roasted Rovalo (Snook) w/ Mango-Mandarina-Ginger Glaze on a Puree of Camotes (White Yams) and Plantanos; Braised Finca Eco-Loco Greens, Organic Green Beans


Flourless Organic Chocolate Cake with Organic Cacao Ice Cream

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Olman 2009

Olman was the first Tico I knew.  He came into my life even before I knew him, as he had made The Lookout Hotel in Ojochal his new domain in the two weeks prior to my arrival in September of 2005.  Olman was both a friend and a nemisis.  He was someone you cared for and someone you were careful of.  

 Olman and I shared a disease and we both suffered greatly from it.  I drank with him, worked with him, fought with him and lent him money on a regular basis.  Olman showed me more about Costa Rica in those first few months than I could ever have learned without him.  When he was sober, he had style, flair and he fairly oozed charm.  When he was drunk he was coarse, angry, sweaty and acutely bitter.

Olman died on May 16th of this year.  He had been taking medication to help him to keep from drinking, but it didn't always work.  On the nighttime bus from Palmar to Cortes he talked the driver into waiting for him at a stop so he could buy more beer.  When he didn't return quickly enough, the bus left without him.  Carrying his beer along the side of the Costanera in the dark Olman staggered out in front of a car and was killed instantly.

What follows is a piece I wrote about visiting Cortes with Olman on my first fish-buying expedition in Costa Rica in the Fall of 2005.  This is the way I'll always remember him.



 As soon as the kitchen was respectably cleaned and repainted, the equipment serviceable and derusted, I was ready to start testing recipes.  We really had no idea where to go for our first purchases of fish and produce so we relied on the advice of our in-house Tico, Olman.  He had heard we would be opening a restaurant, he had found us and he had adopted us.  His English was excellent and he had been a waiter and a barman in large hotels. He could be charming to the point of obsequiousness and possessed a wide and inviting smile.  The only drawback with Olman, as we were to discover rather quickly, was that he was also a raging and  savage alcoholic.  When he began drinking he would bitterly denounce all of us gringos as culture grabbing swine (and that was on a good day), grab his belongings and march out the door cursing over his shoulder as he left .  He was also prone to disappearing spells from which he would return; sweating, apologetic and all the more unctuously charming.  

 Olman was all too glad to be our tour guide, host and to provide us with an entrée to all things Tico. He lived for it. He served as our interpreter for the difficult transactions and knew where everything, and I mean everything, could be found.

 It was with Olman that I discovered the best produce markets, the best prices and the most succulent fruits.  It was also with Olman that I ventured to the first fish “market” for fresh product.  “You need to buy some fish,, Chef?”, he practically cackled, "I’ll take you to my cousin’s.  He sells fresh fish.”   He took me to his hometown  of Cortes, down the road in more ways than one.  Cortes sits on a corner of land just before the coastline juts toward the ocean again and is backed by rivers that run behind the town and lead out narrow waterways to the Pacific.  The town sits off the Costanera, well back from the road, hidden behind farmland and remains thoroughly Tico as a result.  There are no sweeping ocean views or lush jungled valleys to lure the gringo dollar.   Cortes is pure Tico.

  The road into Cortes was easily the rockiest main street into any semi-major town (afterall, the post office and the hospital were here) I’ve ever driven on.  Rocks the size and often the shape of footballs protruded and jutted from every angle out of the hardpocked road.  The ride into Cortes was made up of two distinct legs. One leg was on the simultaneously dusty and puddled semi-cartpath that jostled past churches, pastureland and isolated windowless houses.  The second leg began at the only stop sign and included a gas station, several pulperias, a multitude of dingy cafes and bars with haphazardly hung broken beer signs out front and what might be called a  row of houses. Yards ran together and houses ran together and yelling and crying children ran together.  We bumped and lumped along for what seemed like much longer than the town could last until Olman shouted out that we should pull over right here and right now.   We pulled into the driveway of  a lookalike to every house along the street.  This was not a market at all but a house that sat out over the river and the swamp.

  “Chef”, said Olman with pride, “aqui es la casa de mi primo.”  We parked outside what was obviously a residence and made our way over and around an array of broken children’s toys, through the mud and discarded beer cans, along the 2X4’s and into the garage where there was  an assemblage of disinterested beer drinking Ticos.  Past the garage was a large open air concrete room filled with old style “coffin” freezers.  The floor was slippery wet, there were rough wooden tables and concrete sinks, and a whiff of fishiness misted throught the air.

 There was a tall and quite skinny Tico working over a pile of whole fish with a long filet knife.  He was dressed in what passed as uniform for all the Ticos there, an ancient and torn t-shirt, baggy shorts and nearly knee-high black rubber boots.  Olman and I were both greeted with grunts and glares until he communicated to this cousin that I wanted to buy some fish.  It was only then that a big smile was flashed and the tops of the  coffin coolers were unceremoniously thrown open for my inspection.  I gaped.  They  were filled to the top with  piles and piles of fresh, whole uncut fish; firm, fresh, eyes clear and staring.

 In one box were pargo, the red snapper of the coast.  Another held snook, a pointy nosed member of the seabass family.  Still another held five gallon buckets filled with crushed ice and varying sizes of fresh shrimp.  It was amazing and surprising to my Gringo sensibilities to find  fish just lying around whole like this.  And even more surprising to my naïve and freshly arrived Gringo sensibilities was the sight of crocodiles floating ten feet away from me in the river that passed behind the house.  Olman’s cousin turned to the pile of carcasses he’d built from filleting fish and quickly threw a fish carcass into the river.  The water churned briefly and rapidly and then returned to calm.

  I could feel myself being stared at and I'm sure now that Olman and his cousins had gotten just what they’d hoped for.  The house, a mere shell but obviously well occupied, the slippery floors of what was essentially a garage, the whole fish in the ice boxes and now the crocodiles.  I did my best to hold it together, but  this was way more than I had expected and I could sense the amusement in the room.  I wasn’t sure how much fish to buy, what our yield would be from these unfamiliar species and how to go about the entire process.  I have filleted a lot of fish in my time and have numerous scars on my knuckles from spine bones jamming into my hands, but still, this was entirely different.  I kind of hemmed and hawed in my mind, not at all sure how to approach this buying mission.  Olman sensed my uneasiness and was enjoying the hell out of it .  “Here, Chef”, he said with a wicked grin as he thrust an icy Imperial into my hand, “take your time and look at the fish.”  And  they all laughed.

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.