One of my delights and minor perversities in cooking is getting my guests to eat things that they wouldn't normally try (or that they think they don't like) and having them enjoy them. I try to put at least one vegetable on every entree plate, for example, that is either unfamiliar or has gone untasted due to early life prejudices. I use a mix of organic braising greens that contains three different kales, mustards and amaranth; all greens normally uncooked in the typical household. I have also made it a point to serve either ayote or baby chayote, two local and relatively unfamiliar squashes at almost every meal. It is ironic how many people still cling to notions about various foodstuffs that were brought on by the kitchen crimes of their childhood.
Lately I have offered two entirely different dishes that are not way up there on the cravings lists of people, but have been gobbled down by our La Cusinga guests with great gusto.
The first of these is chicken legs. I must confess, and speaking as a chef, that the American trend toward skinless boneless chicken breasts, eaten in the interest of health, was one I found appalling. I was in a relationship for years with a woman who would not eat the dark meat of the chicken, the meat that I found to be the richest and most flavorful. And I found that peculiar.
There was a period of time, several years ago, when I had searched for a way to cook duck legs in a way that would mimic "confit"; the process of cooking duck slowly in its own fat until the meat nearly fell away from the bone. I came upon the notion of braising the legs in wine, herbs and liquid in the oven at a medium heat for an hour and a half or so, until they were at that "fallin' of the bone"point. And once I got there, I realized that it was going to work equally well for chicken. It would give a crisp skin (for those who still deign to eat it), tender flavorful meat, and contribute a rich sauce as well.
I have been buying fat and tasty organic chickens from Mauren and Alomar, my organic farmers, and damned if I was going to let those lovely legs go to waste. Each chicken wears two breasts and two legs and in order to make back my money and completely utilize my chickens I was going to have to sell, and sell my customers on, those legs. Overcoming the (particularly) American notion of only wanting the chicken breast calls for a cultural and societal (not to mention class oriented) upheaval of ideas, but I was ready for it. To the ovens I went, the braising notion full in mind.
To begin, this past Sunday night, I salted and peppered the whole chicken legs and put them in medium rondo (round medium-high sided casserole) to brown and began the search of my refrigerator for the flavors and add-ons that would create the sauce, and ultimately "make" the dish. I found a container of organic tomatoes, onions and garlic roasted in olive oil and I was there. I already had chicken stock and some white wine that a guest had left and that was all I needed.
I pulled the legs out of the pan once the skin was golden and crisp and poured off the fat. After renestling them together in the pan, I waited for the pan to get sizzling hot and poured in a cup of white wine. I let it boil up and suck the flavor from the bottom of the pan and then added four cups of my rich chicken stock and a couple of healthy spoons full of the roasted tomato mix. This liquid came up the sides of the legs so that just the skin was visible and I brought it all to a boil. Once the liquid and "future sauce" in the rondo was aboil, into the oven it went at 400 degrees, until the legs hit that perfect point of tenderness.
Now I needed the perfect bed to lay my chicken in; something to absorb and accept the rich bold flavors from the braising sauce. I have used rice, risotto, polenta and even pasta for this noble yet humble role, but tonight, it was going to be what I consider the perfect match; mashed potatoes. And not just any old mashed potatoes, either. I had whole cloves of roasted garlic and I also had beautiful potent basil leaves from the La Cusinga gardens. Butter had been pulled out to soften and all of these ingredients went into the food processor to become "as one"; a compound butter to bring those basic potatoes to life. And while the machine whirred and the basil and garlic integrated and insinuated themselves into the butter, I poured in just a bit of extra virgin olive oil to "help" with the richness and smoothness.
At the end of about 75 minutes I could see the skin at the "ankles" of the chicken legs pulling away from the bone. These babies were ready. I pulled the rondo from the oven and set the peeled potatoes on to boil. I gently lifted each leg from the chunky crimson broth and put them on a plate. I tilted the pot slightly and could see the fat from the chicken collect on one side. I spooned as much of it off as I could, gave the sauce a stir, admiring and savoring its rich smells and laid the chicken back down inside.
The potatoes had reached the point of nearly falling apart when I drained off about 90% of the water, leaving a bit in the pan. I set the pan on a medium flame and dropped in several softened chunks of the basil-garlic compound butter. I could smell the richness of the herb as the heat opened it up. I smashed in the butter, added a cup or so of milk and checked for salt. Yum, these mashers were GREAT! I set up a bain-marie for the potatoes and awaited my guests.
I had slender organic green beans and fluffy leaves of locally grown tri-color chard for the vegetable accompaniments and I sauteed and steamed them respectively as my guests worked their way through soup and then salad. I had returned the chicken in its sauce to the oven to re-crisp the skin and to bring it back up to heat and it was ready. A rich dollop of the pale green mashed potatoes went onto the plate with a scattering of the green beans and a pile of he steaming and garlicky chard. And then the chicken; mounted atop the potatoes with a spoon of the rich tomato-chicken sauce over the top and oozing down, surrounding and soaking the potatoes.
I took a picture. I had to, it was a beautiful plate; and then I served it to my guests, all Americans. I only had to check in once to see them eagerly spooning the mashed potatoes and sauce into their mouths and to notice that yes, the meat was coming easily from the bone and yes again, the bones were nearly bare. It appeared I had overcome the "leg prejudice" with guile, cunning and just plain good flavors. That'll do it every time.
GOAT CHEESE CHEESECAKE? YES!
I have a particular fondness for goat cheese, but am well aware that it is not as well loved by others as it is by me. In my time here in Costa Rica I have bought several different types and styles of queso de cabra with varying degrees of flavor, texture and overall appeal. The style that seems to be most successful here is a fresh cheese, not overly aged or "goaty" and almost like a dense ricotta or even a moist feta in texture. I've bought a few of the dryer and more and more aged versions but found them to have lost a great deal of flavor in their drying. I liked the fresher cheeses.
After several purchases form different cheese makers and with wildly differing results, I had become a little frustrated and when my regular and best connection stopped production due to "mal leche", I was stumped. My asking around the San Isidro Feria brought me to Chris, a smiling and affable gringo with a goat cheese that I had bought in the past but thought flavorless. It turned out, after a bit of questioning, that he was not particularly "married" to his current goat cheese recipe and was having trouble selling it. He was amenable to turning out a batch for me to be available in a week so off I went.
The first batch from Chris was moist and crumbly; too wet, really. The flavor was mild, but almost too mild. I wanted it to be sharper, more acidic. So we went into Week 2 and Batch 2, which turned out to be somewhat better but still not quite there. Chris was adding a buttermilk culture to the cheese and had been afraid to go too far. "Amp it up", I said and awaited the results of Week 3. And it was just what I wanted; bright enough in flavor to cut through the mild lettuces I would serve it with and excellent for pairing with either roasted beets or sliced salted tomatoes. Happily and eagerly I took it back to La Cusinga to play with.
Chris was making a 1.4 kilo batch of cheese each week and I was buying all of it. I needed to find ways to use this great fresh cheese other than just pairing it with salads. Off to Google I went and perused all the goat cheese recipes it had to offer. I wasn't much inspired by the hot or baked cheese recipes I came across, but when I saw a recipe for a goat cheese cake, I stopped and pondered. Would it be any good? Would my guests go for it after I'd spoiled them all these months with various cakes and ice creams? Who knew, but why not?
The recipe called for 12 ounces of cheese creamed out with white sugar. I immediately dumped the white sugar idea and used tapa dulce, the local natural sugar made from the boiling down of sugar cane. I could see it was going to give it an interesting color, but that was fine. Now it would be "my" cheesecake. I added the zest and juice from a couple of mandarinas and a splash of vanilla. The recipe called for six eggs, separated, with the yolks added to the cheese and the whites beaten to stiff and folded in just before baking. The mixture seemed light and too liquidy to me, but into a buttered and tapa-dulced pan it went and into the oven for a mere 25-30 minutes; no water bath, no nothing.
The cake rose like a souffle from the egg whites and once out of the oven, fell gently in the pan. I let it cool just slightly and turned it out onto a sheet pan. It was great looking, a pale tan color and shiny on top from the sugar. I slipped it into the refi to cool through and thought about how to serve it. It needed fruit and I couldn't decide if I wanted it to go with the blackberries I'd bought that morning or something different; more tropical. I decided after a bite or two that the moras (blackberries) were too seedy and too tart; I'd save them for ice cream.
I wanted mangos. A mango sauce to spoon over the top. And so I cubed ripe mango and tossed it with yet more tapa dulce so it would make a sauce as it sat, and also a bit of local organic honey. The cake and the sauce both rested, but I didn't. I thought about cheesecakes and what made them appealing and remembered sour cream. Here I buy a local organic sour cream called natilla from a muy amable gentleman at the Feria named Mario. I decided that instead of smoothing it over the top like an "old school" cheesecake, I'd just gently spoon it down over the mango sauce.
And that's how I served it that night. A nice slice of the cake, smooth and easily cut; a generous spoonful of the sweetened and saucy mangos, and a soft spooning of the slightly runny natilla drizzled over the top. My guests had reacted somewhat predictably when I had informed them of their (only) dessert option for the evening. There was the "I don't really like goat cheese that much" response and there was the "bring it on, I love cheesecake" response. All the plates were cleaned, so it seemed as if it had crossed the boundaries and borders that would keep people from liking it. It was and is a keeper and has become part of the dessert rotation at La Cusinga. I also have a viable and delicious way to help move 1.4 kilos of goat cheese through my refrigerator each week.