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


1 comment:

  1. A great Chef's day. Couldn't have been better. You make me want to cook.


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.