Saturday, August 22, 2009

Custard Apples and Caramelized Bananas

CUSTARD APPLES (Me and the Anona)

"Both in tree and in fruit, the custard apple, Annona reticulata L., is generally rated as the mediocre or "ugly duckling" species among the prominent members of this genus."

A few days ago while bringing me my weekly delivery from her Finca EcoLoco, my friend Linn pulled out a couple of ugly lumpy specimans and said, "Can you use these"? "These", were vaguely artichoke shaped, but softly spiny, brownish-green (or were they greenish-brown) lumpy, ugly pieces of some kind of organic matter. I knew immediately that they were Anona, or sweetsop (or soursop, depending), a fruit also know as the "Custard Apple". I'd participated in the eating of only one previously and hadn't stopped to consider that I might be able to use them in my kitchen.

My previous experience with the anona had consisted of yanking one off a tree up at the house on La Union, slicing it in half, handing a spoon to a friend and sharing it with her. The flesh is indeed custardy and mild, somewhat vanilla (?) ice cream colored, and a bit on the slimy side. The seeds, which cling mightily to the fruit are like watermelon seeds on steroids and much, much slipperier. The fruit, while not anything that would cause me to develop a serious craving, was certainly pleasant enough and easy to eat.
So now I had two.

I didn't spend much time pondering the anona for a day or two while I went about a busy weekend, but then on Monday, there they were, ripe and ready for something. So I did what I always do when I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to put a new fruit (or one that I don't really have a lot of) to use; I make ice cream out of it. I figured with a name like "custard apple" it would surely fall right into an ice cream niche.

What I hadn't figured on was the surprising strength of the fibers in this slippery fruit and how strongly they clung to the seeds (and vice versa). I cut my two anonas in half, scooped out the flesh with a big spoon and commenced to trying to push it through the same steel mesh strainer I use to strain the seeds from pureed blackberries. I pushed, I reamed, I shoved and I scraped the flesh against the mesh of the strainer. I worked the edge of the spoon back and forth, back and forth; forcing the slippery flesh into the small passages of the strainer. The going was far slower than I'd anticipated and the seeds, oh the seeds, just would not let go of the fat amounts of flesh that clung to them.

At the end of nearly 40 minutes of pushing and mildly cursing; walking away from time to time out of frustration and boredom, and scraping the bottom of the strainer, I had amassed nearly two cups of puree, and that was enough for a batch of ice cream. There was a bit more flesh to be passed, but damn it, the things had been free and this was taking waaaaaay longer than I had figured it would.

So I made my standard ice cream base of milk, cream and sugar and added the hard fought anona puree to it. It went into the refi on Monday and into the ice cream maker on Tuesday. And I would love to say that I loved the resultant ice cream and that its flavors were revelatory; but that is simply not the case. It remained a pleasant and mildly fruity flavor, now smoothed and sweetened by the cream and sugar. I served it in lieu of vanilla ice cream over chocolate cake and alongside an almond tart. It was well received but again, there was no hue and cry over its uniqueness or appeal. It was, for all the work, a nice fruit. Ugly as hell, though.


There comes a time in the life of every fruit when the Chef using it needs to alter it; change it, make something more of it than the natural wonder that it is. For me, this usually means finding some way to caramelize whichever fruit is close at hand. To make the caramel, I use regular unsalted butter, but have taken lately to using a lot of Tapa Dulce, the dark sugar made here in Costa Rica by boiling down the liquid squeezed from fresh sugar cane. Tapa Dulce is a natural and organic product and the flavor is much more haunting and noticeable than that of even locally produced brown sugars. It appears in our markets here in in a cone shape with a bit of a flattened top where the point would be. When it is cooked it seems to take on a kind of caramelized vegetable flavor, that to me is akin to the flavors one gets from the crunchy sugary parts of roasted pumpkin or yam.

So there I was with bananas, butter and Tapa Dulce. I set about making a Caramelized Banana Tart by dropping a half cube of butter into a saute pan and adding a half cup of shredded (a cheese grater works nicely for this) Tapa Dulce. When heated, the Tapa Dulce breaks down quickly and the resultant caramel is thick, a bit grainy, and rich. I poured that into the bottom of a round pyrex and proceeded with the cake. I creamed butter, more Tapa Dulce and ripe bananas, added eggs, organic natilla (a local sourcream like product), a bit of local vanilla and removed the bowl from the KitchenAid. Away from the machine I folded in a relatively small amount of flour to hold everything together.

I cut three nicely ripe and very sweet bananas from our property into long slices and overlapped them on top of the caramel. This was looking a lot like a Tarte Tatin or my pineapple upsidedown cake. I smoothed the batter gently over the top of the bananas and launched the whole thing into the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes. What came out of the oven was a dark tan pastry with a volcanic pools of caramel bubbling up around its edges and even from a few spots in the middle. It smelled great! I waited about half an hour, ran a knife around the edges and turned the cake over and out onto a cutting board. It looked great with the overlapping banana slices and the banana caramel mixture left in the pan was one of the best things I've ever run my finger through. The tart looked great sitting there on the cutting board, ready for slicing.

There were, however, more bananas and more Tapa Dulce. I peeled another eight bananas, whacked them into thirds and tossed them in a bowl with nearly a cup of the shredded Tapa Dulce and some softened butter. This mixture went into a pyrex and into a 350 oven for nearly 40 minutes. What came out was like banana candy; chunks of softened banana dripping and coated with thickened caramel. It was hard not to plunder them immediately.

I cooled the roasted caramelized banana pieces for a hour or so while I went about making another ice cream base. The puree went into the base and into the refi it went for a night. The next day the chilled mix went into the frozen drum of the ice cream maker and around and around it went. I had a good feeling about this one, and my intuition was rewarded. This was an awesome (not a word I use lightly) ice cream. The intensity of the roasted bananas combined with the caramel permeated the ice cream and the flavor was rich and seductive.

So now the choices were: serve the two banana products together for a one dimensional caramelized banana rush; serve them with flavors that would compliment them and offset them, or serve them alone, as is/was. I did the first two, my inability to not combine them with anything easily winning out. They did go out together; a study in the intensity of the cooked banana; I served the ice cream over my flourless chocolate cake and the crowd went wild; and I served the banana cake with a simple vanilla ice cream to great effect, as well.

These recipes are both keepers and will become yet another part of the permanent rotation of desserts. I never set out to be a pastry chef, and it probably shows, but with ingredients like these, it seems simple to succeed, if I keep it simple.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Flying Through August/Big Night


August she is a flying by and I'm flying right with her. We have had a full house here at La Cusinga since the early part of the month and keeping up with supplies has been a push. If only the San Isidro Feria was three days a week and not an hour drive over the hill. If only I knew that Victoriano would have fresh fish each and every day. If only there were two or perhaps three of me on some days. If only I knew then what I know now.

These are not complaints, but more the reactions to the thrill of good business and the excitement for the future. We had a record July, and August will prove to be excellent as well. Our guests have been kind enough to go to sites such as Trips Advisor to post their (mostly) rave reviews and the ongoing feedback has been paying off. We had a guest last week who came in convinced that the Trips Advisor testimonials were trumped up, fake, written by us. As she was leaving she told us that despite her doubts, everything she had read was true, and her visit had far exceeded her expectations. She avowed as to how she would be posting her own testimonial soon.

The kind reactions from our guests, coupled with increased revenues will buy us new plates and kitchen equipment this fall, and miles of good will for the future. Come September we will slow down and more writing will get done, more menus and specials will be researched and more ice creams will be made.

Our good friend Prof. Howard Dougherty of York University in Toronto just came through with his second group of the summer. Howard is the head of the Ecology Dept. at York and brings a group of his students through for a three day intensive study of the area; sort of an on-going field trip ending with a lecture/discussion each evening.

Howard, a guest lecturer or two, an assistant; their Tico driver, Oscar and 23 students join us for a three day/night encampment that gives them a good overview of our property, tours of this Eco-region, and three meals a day. Feeding 28 at one time, in addition to feeding a few extra hotel guests, plus feeding our "de la calle" restaurant guests is a bit of a challenge and puts a strain physically on our tiny kitchen. The students, being students, have numerous (generally self-imposed, but occasionally religious as well) dietary restrictions and when we serve them, our guests and the public, we can end up serving four, five or six different menus a night. One chef/cook and his assistant/dishwasher struggle at times to keep up with not just the physical, but also the mental challenge of keeping all this straight. As my friend Greg Douglass wrote in an old Country Weather song, "it puts sucha sucha strain on his little brain".

So planning is key. Purchasing is critical and the good news is, the mercado in Uvita keeps a nice supply of fresh fruit. The group arrives on Saturday, so my Thursday run to the San Isidro Feria is huge. The fruit buy for breakfast alone is huge. Students eat a LOT of fruit. Sandia (watermelon), melon (cantelope), papaya, mango, bananas (so many bananas), plantanos and more make up a huge weight in the back of the tiny Tercel. And this is only breakfast. We have to have two vegetables per night for nearly 40. We need the staples; yellow onions, red onions, red bells (do we ROLL through red bells), carrots and celery, green onions, eggplant, and yes, more. Regular restaurants do this daily, but don't do it out of two stand-up home refrigerators and one large two door reach-in.

For the first dinner, last Saturday night, we had the group of 28, a family of hotel guests who numbered six, and eight locals who had booked the four course meal at The Gecko. Yes, a total of 42. The kids got three courses; salad, their various specialized and unspecialized entrees and dessert. Our other guests got the full four course spectacular, including a cold soup at the beginning of their meal. Normally our student groups eat early; kids get hungry. But they had not arrived until nearly 1:30 in the afternoon and lunch hadn't been powered down until well after 2:00. This meant that, unlike other evenings when we could do the mass feeding early, all our groups were going to be sitting and eating simultaneously. As the old Kirin placemats used to say about the horseshoe clam in the early days of Sushi restaurants, "challenging".

I had four straight up vegetarians, six who would eat fish but not chicken, one who would not eat fish but would eat chicken and 17 who (bless their pointed little heads) had no food issues. We pre-set their salads about five minutes before we anticipated their arrival to ease the burden in the kitchen and to give us a little room to maneuver. We had to get the other guests, the 14 started while our students ate their salads, but the cold soups are an easy dish-up, and something that Karla, our waitress can do with ease. Andrey could start the 14 other salads of organic greens, basil-ed tomatoes, hearts of palm and croutons and I would tend to the stoves.

We generally always make rice for a large group, but still had to contend with two different vegetables and 42 pieces of fish, not wanting to overcook any of them. The fish for the kids had gone straight onto sheet pans for baking, but the filets for the guests had been seared on one side to give them a nice golden crust and they were kept seperate. More sheet pans held slices of roasted ayote squash for one of our vegetables and a bowl full of a room temperature ratataouille (a time saver for groups of this size) sat on the counter. Counting down to dish up time.

The sheet pans of fish went in the ovens as the kids sat down and as they were halfway through their salads we started dishing up. A pile of rice, ratatouille to the right and two ayote wedges to the left. The fish over the rice and a spoonful of roasted tomato/basil sauce over the top. A quick wipe and off they went. The vegetarians got a halved ayote stuffed with red beans, hearts of palm and cheese. One girl got a chicken breast. The hard part is to get the special requests to the people who actually ordered them, as more often than not someone who thinks it looks good will claim it, leaving the veggie head without an entree (and this happens a lot!). Seven stacks of four plates each; filled, sauced, wiped and delivered.

On to the six and then the eight, two by two by two by two. Basically the same plate, but with the nicely seared fish. Off they went, just in time for me to leap into action as the dessert server. The student group was getting my big party "go to" dessert of pineapple upsidedown cake. Baked well in advance, it only gets better as it sits and the caramel seeps into the cake.
28 plates and then for an added degree of difficulty, a scoop of housemade caramelized banana ice cream (a new flavor and an instant favorite) on each one. Bang, bang, and bang. And those plates came back almost as quickly as they went out.

The desserts for our Lodge guests and the restaurant patrons was different but similar; flourless chocolate cake, in their case, topped with yet more of the caramelized banana ice cream. A scant fourteen of those and then it was all over but for the bussing and washing. There was, and always is, food to store; fish to wrap, sauces to cover and leftovers to attend to.
The staff dinners get plated and the Chef heaves a huge sigh of relief. Only two more nights to go.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Why Does it Rain?Printe-mail this info

Rainfall in Costa Rica follows a predictable pattern and it's relatively easy to understand.

From May through September the tilt of the earth creates long, warm summer days in North America and brings the sun directly overhead in Costa Rica.

Where the sun shines straight down it heats more, warm air picks up moisture near the surface, then rises and expands. Expansion cools the air forcing the water out, first as tiny droplets that form clouds, then as the droplets combine into drops, rainfall.

Earth Seasons
From May through August the area of greatest heating and convective rainfall is north of the equator, over Costa Rica creating the rainy season. (©Toucan Guides)

The rainy season in Costa Rica corresponds with this period of increased heating during the northern hemisphere summer (Ticos call these months winter, see seasons). By November the earth has realigned and the sun shines directly overhead somewhere south of the equator, moving the band of intense rainfall with it. This marks the beginning of Costa Rica’s dry season.


So none of this does much good as far as explaining the dry summer we've had thus far. Up on La Union where I house-sit, one tank is completely empty and the collection tanks needed to take the house through the dry months from mid-November until June are less than 10% full. Most of the year round residents rely on water collection systems and we are all hoping that we get the September and October that we need. Has there been rain and has it been fierce? Yes there has been and fierce doesn't even begin to describe it. But it hasn't been delivered in the quantities that will supply us through that long dry season.

The rain on our coast is unlike any I have ever lived with. We sit here on our cliffside perch and watch the storms develop to the south over the Corcovado Parque Nacional, and within minutes, sometimes, moments; watch the storm rage up over the ocean and pass right in front of us, streaming and racing to the north. The winds howl and cry; blowing table settings off the tables, knocking over flower stands, brochure holders and even blowing out the pilots of the stoves in our sheltered kitchen.

And the rain? It doesn't fall, it doesn't pitter patter; it hammers down, soaking all in it's path. It moves sideways in the wind and in the 30 seconds it takes me to run out to roll up the windows in the car it soaks me to the bone. It enters our covered, but open, dining room in sheets, drenching the tables and floors. Within minutes the puddles around the outside of the kitchen are deep enough to envelop my entire foot and the ten second scurry to the bodega for supplies is tantamount to taking a shower. I recall being at the Lookout Hotel and watching the pool fill up so rapidly that the pool toys floated right out of it and down he hill. Bye bye.

We have two seasons here; dusty and muddy. In the dry months of our summer (Northern Hemisphere winter) the roads are dusty and powdered red from the clay soil here. The dust is fine and clings to most everthing equally tenaciously. It clouds up when you stamp your feet and your dusty footsteps follow you on every surface you tread upon.

But the mud; the mud, the mud. Red again; rich, soft, gooey; building and forming instantly beneath the pelting rain. Within moments that dirt parking lot you got in and out of your car in with complete impunity is now a swamp. Your feet sink into the sludge and purchase is nearly impossible. You cautiously raise one knee to lift yourself into your parked vehicle, hoping so desperately that the mud doesn't pull down your planted foot and heave you into the swamp. The dust you tracked during the dry season is nothing compared to the goo and mire that you track in out of the mud. Every road you drive on is marked in red by the tires that have slid over it. It sticks to your legs, stains your clothes and cakes the soles of your shoes. And yes, the rich red color is everywhere you go; the floor of the mercado, the floor mats of your car, on the back of your legs. The rainy season.

So we wait and hope that the rain will come. It always does, just look at the handy pictures at the top of this page. As usual we have science on our side helping us to understand. It is with certainty that I believe that this afternoon, just after four, the skies will open and we will receive that hour of drumming, thrumming rain. It will stop just in time for the sunset and the skies will be glorious for it. But soon, it will rain like that all day, every day.

I can't wait.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Back In The Jungle

It took over a week of being back from the States to finally be able to sit down and put down a few thoughts about my trip and the ensuing return here to La Cusinga. As is typical of me and people like me, I had scheduled too much, tried to do too much and ultimately, amidst the joy of reunion with, and greeting of old friends and family, left a few people disappointed and/or angry. And so it is with a whirlwind trip such as the one I just finished.

Going from Austin to Portland to Yachats (on the Oregon Coast), back to Portland, down to San Francisco, up to the Napa Valley and utimately back to Austin on the last US leg may not have been the wisest of itineraries, but it's what I felt the need to do, so I did it.

The first pass through Austin featured a stop at the downtown Austin Farmer's Market, a Redd Volkaert matinee show at the venerated Continental Club, a fine dinner of grilled Muscovy duck breast over fresh black eyed peas; and oh yes, my sister Barbara's exemplary peach-blueberry cobbler to finish the meal. Austin was experiencing the hottest summer in its history and 103 was the lowest of the "highs" there in my visit. I was also fortunate enough to attend two meetings at Austin Recovery, where I got an 18 month marble and gave a brief but impassioned talk; and one at the Liars Club, the most powerful Men's Meeting that I know of. Lots of good stuff, love and support at each. From there it was on to Portland via San Jose; and I commend both airports for providing gratis internet service, something that the Houston and San Francisco airports could certainly implement without much loss of revenue, it seems to this jaundiced traveler.

I got in a PT Cruiser in Portland and made the three and a half hour drive out to the Oregon Coast in just over three hours. It's an easy jaunt down I5 and then a bit of a crawl through Corvallis and the wonderfully named Philomath on the way to the coastline highway. There is a twisting and winding drive to the coast marked at midpoint by a burg called Alsea that appears to have been forgotten by time and just about everything and everyone else. It looks like the place where hippies went to escape amidst the rednecks and somehow, someway, the crossbred. Lots of old multi-colored pickups, some running and some, apparently, not.

The coast appears quickly and the drive down is pretty damn scenic, but you need to keep an eye on those motor home drivers. The Oregon stay was nice. I got to see my 87 year old Dad and we went to lunch together. He treated us all to dinner at the one "fine dining" establishment in Yachats and lovingly and tenderly laid down 25-30% tips in both places. You can't take it with you, can you? We burgered one night out at my sister and brother in law's sprawling mini-farm down the Yachats River, and on the other evening my sister and I shared a mutual (and late) birthday celebration I cooked a scallop and fresh Oregon shrimp risotto with fresh peas from my sister's garden. The territory inland where my sister lives is as warm and pleasant as the coast was blustery and miserable (although kind of refreshing after Austin). I also feel compelled to give a Chef Dave Two Thumbs Up to the restaurant Local Ocean in Newport where my sister, Nancy and I lunched and shared a plate of perfectly charred rare Albacore skewers in a SE Asian glaze and the best made Dungeness crab cakes I can remember having.

Early on a Saturday morning it was back to Portland and the drive out from Walport along the river that ends at Alsea was glorious. The morning light from the east was sneaking down between the trees and the air was crisp. The crawl through Corvallis and the drive into Portland on I5 were, however, not quite as pleasurable. The Portland Airport was fine, and in fact, I kind of like the Portland Airport. It's wide where it should be wide, roomy without being sprawling and intimidating and yes, it has free wi-fi. I got on my Horizon Airlines flight (and at this point I've got to put a plug in for Horizon, my new favorite airline. Great people; easy going and downright friendly. On an airplane? Yeah, buddy...) and headed south to San Francisco.

Ah yes, San Francisco; home for 17 years and an airport I knew well. It's an easy wander out to the funny rail that takes you to the rental cars, but from there it got more difficult. I don't travel much on Saturdays and I hadn't psychologically or spiritually prepared myself for the logjam in the rental car area. It seemed that a lot of the people were new at this. Part of the problem is that a few of them were behind the counters. I got myself a zippy little black Nissan somethingorother and hauled out across lovely San Bruno to 280, the Skyline Highway. And it's all well and good until you hit 19th Ave. and he crawl begins. And lasts. All the way into Golden Gate Park (helluva way to see a park), up to and across the Golden Gate Bridge. You gotta love all those people on their first visit to SF who are over there in the right lane trying to get into the tiny little parking lot for the Lookout view out over the Bay.

I blasted through Marin and made the turnoff that heads across the top of the bay and up to the valleys, Sonoma and Napa. I made great time since it was late afternoon and I was going the opposite direction of the daytripper wine tasters. I followed my Google Map instructions; walked into a house I'd never been in; greeted people I'd never met and grabbed a plate full of porchetta, tri-tip (delicious!), heirloom tomatoes and lemon bars and dug in. My good friend Elsbeth looked up from her own plate and said, "Chef Dave, you made it." All the guests were winemakers and winery workers, so conversation was a bit specialized.

We blew that party for one that was absolutely fascinating. One of those parties where you are almost happy not to know anyone just so you can wander around and gape. We were at a private home, right at the edge of the vineyards, tucked way back in behind St. Helena. When we drove up the road was lined with cars for a half mile up and down the narrow country road and when we reached the patio of the house, there must have been 350 people, all with wineglass in hand, milling and talking; loud. This was Napa Valley society, all dressed down and casual and ready to party. There was a professional looking stage with risers (!) and stacks of amps, guitars on stands and on the top tier, a huge drum kit and a percussionists rack. I'd been told that the catering was coming off a Taco Truck, and sure enough, that humongous line that snaked around the patio did end at a Taco Truck, or what you could see of one.

So I did the best possible thing, I got an ice cold bottle of water out of one of the bins and I wandered and yes, gaped. Just about that time, the band members climbed the stage, strapped on thousands of dollars worth of guitars and rocketed into "Just What I Needed" by the Cars. Holy 80's! They were loud and not too bad and it turned out they were all dignitaries and mucky-mucks in the wine business. No surprise there. I may have been the only person there with no connection at all in the Valley or the wine biz.

The party was a serious see and be seen Napa Valley affair and it was interesting being the fly on the wall. The dress was "Valley casual", but not too casual. The wine was flowing, the band was rocking and when they rolled into "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" the white people really let it all hang out. Ooooooh-eee, some serious white people dancing stuff going down.
The wait for the Taco Truck was about 45 minutes to place one's order and another wait of close to an hour to get one's food. The taco's were authentically spiced and spicy and the view during the wait made it all worthwhile. Bella, Elsbeth's 5 year old daughter and I did a few hot steps together, too.

The Valley experience was nice. I only felt the need to venture into the City one day for a lunch with the former GM of the Elite Cafe, where I was the Chef for over three and a half years. We lunched at a Cal-French joint owned by Michael Mina called MR 74 and I sucked down a soft-shell crab sandwich. The previous day, Sunday, I had stayed in the Valley and had a superb and almost otherworldly lunch at Ubuntu, a "vegetable" restaurant, where Elsbeth's husband, Dan, is the GM. Their take on vegetable cooking is easily among the most creative in the world and the food is stunning. That evening I was treated to dinner at Redd, a serious Yountville dining post, and the food, while excellent, paled in comparison to what I had eaten at Ubuntu.

I was so glad not to have felt it necessary to sprint back and forth up 101 to the City and I really enjoyed the time I got to spend with Dan and particularly Elsbeth. I had worked with her in the City back in the 90's and it was so fulfilling to see both she and Dan living out their dream of succeeding in the Valley. Additionally, I had had the pleasure of creating the food for their wedding eleven years ago. My final day Elsbeth and I made an assault on the cult favorite Napa charcuterie/butcher shop, Fatted Calf, and loaded up on sausages, duck rilletes, salami and salads. From there we went straight to the produce market at the Oxbow Market Place and bought a small fortune worth of organic veggies. Chef Dave was going to do dinner.

I fired up the kettle and grilled off eggplant, zucchini and crookneck squash, peppers, onions and tomatoes as the fire died out. When it got to "that" point, I put the two racks of ribs that I'd dry rubbed that morning in to smoke. In the kitchen I chopped the grilled veggies and tossed them with EVOO and a mix of vinegars for a salad, sliced up a big mess of heirloom tomatoes and topped them with basil and fresh goat cheese, and cleaned several precious tiny heads of baby lettuces. We had duck rilletes on crackers from Cowgirl Creamery while the ribs smoked. We had bowls of almonds and olives. I threw a couple of Toulouse style sausages on the grill and we powered through those while the ribs smoked. We invited in neighbors and friends. When the ribs hit the required tenderness point I removed them, sliced them into individual ribs and served them with four different salads. Life was good. And later that night I had the pleasure of watching Dan tear into and devour an entire rack by himself. It's tough when you work in a "vegetable" restaurant.

The next morning it was back to the City in the tail end of the commute traffic and the whole process in reverse. Drop off the car and the tram into the airport. It was SF to Dallas and Dallas to Austin, rather painlessly and again, there was my long suffering sister to greet me at the airport. She had ordered some goodies from my friend Chef Jesse Griffiths at Dai Due Catering and Butchery and we fought our way through Austin to find him. I'd done a number of caterings and private dinners with Dai Due while in Austin and it was nice to find him at home in his spotless new kitchen. He had stuffed whole, but boned, quail with figs wrapped in sausage and then wrapped the quail in pork belly. Yum. We also picked up what looked like a brick of pate with pears and prunes and he graciously gave us a long link of pork and roasted red pepper sausage.

The final hours in Austin were a quick blur of a lovely pasta dinner with Barbara and Pete; a buying spree for the folks back home; a very nice lunch with friends from AR; a meeting with my Austin sponsor, Tony, and then finally, those quail served over fresh creamer peas and bacon with braised greens. This was followed by another of Barbara's peach and berry cobblers and that was it. We were all up early the next morning and it was back home to Costa Rica. It's an easy flight from Austin to Houston, and even the Houston to San Jose flight is relatively easy, taking less than four hours.

My buddy Cass met me at the airport and the next morning drove me back over the mountains to the coast, the beautiful coast. I did the vehicle shuffle, picking up two vehicles and moving each; went up the hill to feed the dogs and unpack, and headed back down to La Cusinga to get back to being Chef of the Jungle. We had 28 hungry students and just barely enough food to feed them and it felt like being at home.

The reacclimation took a couple of days. I sweated through multiple shirts a day, rather than one. I found things in the refrigerators I shouldn't have and threw out a few things I would rather not have seen. Overall, my sidekick, Andrey, had done an exemplary job. He'd handled parties of up to 25 with grace and aplomb. It seems he's learned pretty well. The trip had been great, if a trifle overbooked, but it was so good to be back to my kitchen, my food and my life.

Leaving This Town

What follows is a piece that will be published in the Ester (AK) Republic later this month. This was written at a point in my life (coming to Costa Rica the first time) when change; physical, spiritual, chemical, was imminent.



The Lookout Hotel sat on a sprawling piece of property perched on a bluff at the edge of the rainforest. The view from the restaurant/bar looked out over the white drifts of Playa Tortuga and even further out over the blue Pacific. It was a Costa Rican idyll; a paradise above the ocean. It was painted a number of different “tropical” pastel shades and was accessed by a long well-rutted and steep driveway best ascended in first gear or better yet, four wheel drive. It had been open under a number of names for over ten years but now had been closed for over a year and a half due to the owner’s illness. My associate John and his partner Kate had seen an ad for it on the internet and had bitten hard. I had been flown to take a look at the property and the kitchen and figure out the best ways to combine the “fresh from the water seafood” with the luscious jungle fruits I had greedily gobbled up during my visit. Mangoes and seared yellowfin tuna, dusky papaya and sautéed shrimp, grilled dorado and carmelized pineapples; I could taste it all in the palate of my mind. I had my menu written and the plane hadn’t yet hit the runway on the return flight. I was primed for a life of cooking in the jungle. I was leaving San Francisco after 18 years and moving to Costa Rica to become the Chef of the Jungle

Getting out of the City and CityLife, however, wasn’t going to be as easy as simply sub-letting my longtime apartment and taking a van to the airport. I got back to the large studio apartment I’d lived in for over eight years and instead of looking at it and seeing a clean and empty box; I saw mountains of clothes hardly worn; shelves and shelves of books, well loved and well read; and over 2000 cds that certainly weren’t going in anyone’s suitcase. There was the bike and the exer-bike; the bed and the entertainment center; the pots and pans, oh, the pots and pans. Where would they go? And my wine glasses; the fine stemware accumulated over these many years. What would I pack? What would I keep. Who the hell would even want all this shit?

It’s easy to forget that the things one collects over the years are a whole lot more personal than we originally thought. The concept of saving them for posterity is selfserving and ludicrous. That jacket from the 70’s, those rock and roll posters with all the rips at the corners, and all those things you painstakingly cut out of newpapers and magazines; no one but you give a good goddamn about them and they’ve got to go. So ruthlessly and heartlessly I set to throwing away my past. With jaw set firm and a quart or two of vodka I began to not just edit my belongings, but to delete them. It was like a clearance sale in a cheap department store. Everything Must Go!!!

I got right in the middle and just started pulling things off the shelves and out of closets and throwing them into boxes. Boxes and boxes of magazines that I had been certain were vital to my existence were to go out on the street. Two closets and two dressers full of unused doo-dads, unworn and tattered T-shirts and, unfortunately, a lot of things that really required more attention. The momentum was lost almost immediately when the first box of old magazines and clippings was opened. This stuff was Fascinating! Suddenly my frenzy was stilled and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor face deep in newsprint from 20 years ago. Apparently this was going to be far longer process than I had intended.

Four weeks, multiple “going away” dinners and parties with friends, even more quart bottles of vodka, serial hangovers and several rolls of packing tape later; except for the final cleaning, I was done . There had been six trips to Goodwill and three to the dump. And who knew that they’d actually charge me to take my old refrigerator? I had been too lazy and far too “smart” to buy an iPod. Instead I had loaded my Top 200 cds into a heavy binder (stupid!). I had decided on twenty or so books that would keep me aware and stimulated. (stupid!) I had sweated and I had drunk; I had broken my own heart several times by callously throwing the memories of my youth into boxes bound for the dump. I stood, in a daze; the only figures on the horizon standing between me and a good sweep and mop were the mountainously piled suitcases. It was really going to happen. I was really going to move my life; knives, shorts and t-shirts to Costa Rica.

Then there were the friends. All those people who had drifted in an out of my City Life for the last 18 years and now just “had” to see me before I left. I wondered where they had been recently, but didn’t allow myself to dwell on it. Instead, I did the opposite. I ran like an idiot from lunch with one long lost buddy to afternoon cocktails with another and stopped by the restaurants and bars of countless more. “Will we ever see you agains”, ran into “Oh My God, I’m so envious”, ran into “So you’re going to leave it all behind”, blurted into an unmeant “We’ll just have to come see you”, coupled with the inevitable hearty slaps on the back and two more shots. Oddly, none of those friends were available when it was time to go to the dump, but I suppose that’s entirely different.

Cynicism aside, there were also the people who were indeed hard to leave behind. The woman with whom I’d shared an off and on relationship with for eight years wondered if this was indeed the “famous final scene”. The few friends who had been regular visitors during my long recuperation waxed both happy and said. They were also the ones who were intuitively concerned about my breaking all ties and fleeing (?) to the jungle. “Are you sure you’re going to be alright down there?” they’d ask. “It’s going to be just you and that whole family.” And I’d laugh the hollow laugh of the blindly confident and assure them through a cocktail haze that I had it all under control. Those final days in the City I’d come to both love and hate were hard and I couldn’t wait for the leaving to leave.

And then one morning the Super Shuttle showed up and I walked out of the empty room dragging two giant suitcases, an overstuffed duffle and two back packs behind me. I was moving to another country. For good.

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.