Tuesday, September 8, 2009




Yellowfin croaker (Umbrina roncador) is a species of croaker occurring from the Gulf of California, Mexico, to Point Conception, California. They frequent bays, channels, harbors and other nearshore waters over sandy bottoms. These croakers are more abundant along beaches during the summer months and may move to deeper water in winter.

In Costa Rica, Corvina is a name given to almost any white-fleshed fish caught just off the coast, in and around the waters that surround the floating islands of mangroves, and sometimes deeper in the Pacific. Corvina in the US is frequently used as a name for a specifically colored sea bass, but looked different from what I had seen here. I had been buying "Corvina" from Victoriano for a while and noticed that it frequently had a golden/yellowish cast to the fins and along the spine as well. A little Googling got me a few pictures of what closely resembled what I have been buying and I believe that the fish mentioned above, the Yellowfin croaker, is indeed what we here in Costa Rica call Corvina.

A couple of Fridays ago I took drive down the coast through the overhanging palms and alongside brilliant flashes of electric blue from the Pacific to Ojochal where Victoriano, el pescadero, fishes and lives. Once one leaves the smooth paving of the Costanera, the side road down to Playa Tortuga becomes a pockmarked gravel pit, particularly treacherous in the rain. The road winds and bumps itself all the way out to the two tiers of beaches that got their names from the turtles that have come to the sands to lay their eggs for time immemorial (but perhaps for not too much longer).

Well before those rich white dunes, however, and, in fact the first buildings that one comes to, is the compound of Victoriano. Victoriano's house is a small rectangular structure and is, by no means the center of civilization of his little community. Around the house is a collection of debris both useful and not; car parts, refrigerator parts, tires, slabs of concrete and so much more. Off to the right are old chairs where I have often found Victoriano on Sunday sitting quietly, spectacles on, reading his bible. Almost in the center of the compound is a massive, above ground, concrete firepit, overhung by a small roof that just gives it cover from the frequent rains. Almost every time I visit, one or the other of the family is tending a fire, frying fish, grilling meats, or all of the above.

At the back of the compound and butted up against the river that runs out to the ocean is what I am here for.
Perched on a ten foot by twenty foot concrete slab are two aging and rusted "coffin" style refrigerators. Beside them is a crude cutting table and around on the floor are buckets, hoses, plastic bags and plenty of fish scales. At the end of the cutting table is the scale. When the fish are running and the catch has been good, Victoriano, Jaime (his partner), or Maria (his wife, whom he lovingly calls "Gorda") will fling back the lid of the main cooler to exhibit a pile of whole fish, stacked like logs and packed in crushed ice. The rotation of product here is rapid and the fish gaze upward, flesh firm and eyes clear.

The catch is limited to shore fish, but this only leaves out tuna and dorado from the broad selection that Victoriano displays. I love to see the red faced and red finned Pargo (red snapper), with their giant heads and vicious teeth; the long snouted and faintly yellow-tinted Rovalo (snook); the myriad of smaller mackerel and sharks; and today, the collection of gold cast Corvina, shimmering in the ice. Occasionally there are also Pompano and something the locals call Gatoperro (cat-dog), but it is the bigger fish I'm after.

I know that my Friday reservations are limited, but that Saturday will be a big night. I look at a couple of smaller Corvina, but am deeply aware that the yield of the smaller fish is not good; one needs a big fish to give a greater percentage of usable meat. Jaime is helping me today, and we poke around in the ice together while I mull over how many portions I can pull out of the two 2-3 kilo Corvina he is showing me. "Hay mas grandes?" I ask him, hopefully and he seizes the moment. Scraping back the ice with his hands he reaches into the gills of a huge Corvina and pulls up from the icy mass of fish the biggest Corvina I have ever seen. "Doce kilos", Jaime exclaims proudly, as he displays it atop the lesser fish below it. Twelve kilos! Just over 26 pounds. Easily the biggest fish I have bought or cut in Costa Rica. I take it, for the thrill value and also since I know that I will easily pull over 30 portions out of it.

The Corvina is so big that it will not fit into the standard large plastic bags that Victoriano and crew usually outfit me with to get the fish back to my kitchen. I struggle to keep it in the bag as the tail keeps trying to slip out as I pile it into my trunk atop the now useless ice chest. A five kilo Pargo in the chest? Yes. A 12 kilo anything? No way, Jose. I set out for La Cusinga, wondering if my regular 40 year old Henckle filet knife will be big enough to get through this baby.

Back in the kitchen, I heave the big fish into the sink where it protrudes at either end. I set up two cutting boards along our center prep island in readiness to receive this monster. I dig out my trusty and well used filet knife, but bring out also a cleaver and a larger knife in case I need to get through any bones. Linda takes a few shots of me with the fish and I get to work. Filleting a Corvina is relatively easy work, as the skin is not nearly as tough as that of the Pargo and the structure is simple. There is a large filet on either side of the fish and as long as one is aware of the bumps of the bones in the spine, almost all the flesh can be taken. It was good that our prep island is free-standing, as I had to make many trips around the table to be able to get at the fish and slide the knife along the spine, over the center bone and down into the belly.

I worked slowly, wanting to maximize my yield. Another nice thing about the Corvina is that it doesn't have nearly the number of scales as either Rovalo or Pargo, the other two fish I usually filet, and the mess was minimal. In about 20 minutes I had freed the two large filets, eased the knife between the skin and flesh and pulled out the few rib bones that had come free with the filets. I portioned and counted, sliced and trimmed. Most whole fish give a 50% yield if one is lucky and closer to 40% in the case of fish with heavier heads like the Pargo here, and the King Salmon of the Northern Pacific. I didn't cut all of it then, but would manage to take 32 six ounce portions and probably another kilo of trim for soups and employee meals. This was a good yield, just over the 50% one hopes for.

The meat was beautiful. The steaks shone and glinted in the pyrex I stored them in. I portioned what I would need for Friday night and cut the other pieces into 5-6 ounce chuncks of filet, to be well chilled and portioned the next day. I scraped and bleached the cutting boards and used a dough scraper to remove the rapidly drying scales from the table and wherever else they'd gone. I was quite pleased. Friday night I would roast the beautiful Corvina filets and top them with a spicy-sweet mango salsa. Saturday, a big night for us, I would roast them again and top them with a hot-sour green gazpacho made of cucumbers, green onions, jalapenos, cilantro, olive oil and mango vinegar. It is such a pleasure to be able to serve fish of this quality to my guests.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    Just wanted to say thanks again for the amazing culinary experience during our stay at La Cusinga. It was something we never expected and ended up being one of the highlights of our trip, and that's saying something. I've enjoyed reading your blog entries and will try to re-visit occasionally, if only for the possibility of bringing me back to your table in the heart of paradise.

    Greg (& Tiffany)

    P.S. - If you are interested in seeing Costa Rica through our eyes, I'd love for you to see our pictures @ http://picasaweb.google.com/nanceadventures/CostaRica2009#


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.