Sunday, November 15, 2009

All Work and Some Play Part 1, The Set Up


It just have been around 8:15 or so and I felt as if I were just moving food from one trough to another. I would scoop huge bowls full of spicy chicken and rice into the bottom part of a pressure cooker (no other large vessels available), mix them thoroughly and edge my way through the food line, announcing loudly, "Food guy, food guy, make way for the food guy". It was hope against hope that the starving teeming masses would yield their positions when they realized that without me their plates would remain empty. I would turn the steaming chicken/rice into the buffet's steam table and dart back to the kitchen to get back to slicing more and more of the 150 tomatoes to lay out like shingles in our armada of Pyrex containers.

It is the Sunday morning after the biggest event of the social (hah!) season here in the Zona Sur and I must confess to a slight weariness. Saturday night was the "unveiling" party for the Barenaked Ladies Calendar, sales of which will benefit the Tripod Foundation, a wonderful charity here in our community. What had begun at an estimate of 80-100 guests exploded into an estimated 200 before our startled and ever-widening eyes.

The Tripod Foundation, started by Natalie and Liz, was started to provide care to local abandoned dogs who are in need of medical care, and blossomed into a much needed spay and neuter service, often provided for free. It seems that all of Costa Rica is home to abandoned and stray dogs who breed with wild and reckless ferocity. It is a sad truth that many dogs brought into families as cute and cuddly puppies are subsequently turned out when their care and lodging becomes too expensive or bothersome to maintain.

Familiar to many communities as a fund raising device is the "Naked Lady" calendar, first exposed to the world in the British movie, "Calendar Girls". The Tripoders leapt upon the idea here and got the cooperation and bodies of 12 "over 50" members of our women's community.
The calendar has been "the buzz" for the last several weeks and tickets for the party revealing the finished calendar have been a hot item.

Since I didn't need a calendar but am good friends with Natalie and Liz, the founders, I found myself donating my time and energies to helping to prepare the food for this benefit party.
I am a frequent visitor to Mercado la Roca, the cafe/market site offered by its owner Anja Sonnenberg to the Tripod ladies and felt that I should, in some small way, do my part as well.
It seemed simple enough to me. Anja had originally volunteered to do the whole shebang, but it was clear almost immediately that professional help would be needed.

Immediately it fell to me to take the initiative, so being the kind of guy I am, I did.
I discarded all suggested notions of this hor's doeuvres or that boca and nixed everything that would entail any kind of rigorous and repetitive hand work. It was clear that this was to be a mass feeding and that "precious" and "labor intensive" were nasty words. I went straight to the belly of the beast by suggesting the unthinkable. Serve the gringos rice and beans and make them so delicious that they'd have to love it.

Anja had two buffet style food stations, one for hot food and one for cold, so along with our rice and beans line we'd also have a salad line with a big green salad and acres of sliced tomatoes served with basil and splashes of oil and vinegar. I pushed hard for this approach and once I described just how long it was going to take to prep, assemble and cook chicken fingers, we had our menus. Keep it simple, make it good and make it fast; it made sense to all concerned.

All these plans were made as any group of right-minded and organized foldks would make them; early and with great organizational skills. The Calendar ladies would sell the tickets, keep us apprised of the numbers and Anja and I would shop accordingly. I've done ever so many large events in my many kitchen lives, so wasn't too awfully concerned. But as the count approached the projected number of 80, then zoomed quickly past it to 100 and almost immediately began to creep even higher, Anja began to grow visibly nervous. Her mantra became, "I've never served 100 people", repeated with trance inducing regularity.

When it came time to make the shopping and prep lists I used the opportunity to put it all into a somewhat logical framework. Once we knew what we had to buy and once we knew exactly what we had to do to make it work it would all be so much less daunting, right? Well, mas o menos. Despite the gentle reassurances of wily old Chef Dave, all nervousness was not dispelled. Ah well, the trip to the Feria was ahead of us and once the produce was safely in the trunk, there could be no more fears. One slow and sure step at a time.

I had called Marguerite, my Feria connection, to do the bulk buying for me. The onions, garlic, peppers, cukes and broccoli; the carrots and celery, potatoes and cilantro would all be waiting for us when we got to the Feria. All that was required of Anja and me was to do the fun stuff. We were to choose our fresh shelling beans (frijoles tiernos) for one of our big pots and then we'd pick each and every ripe tomato out of the mountain of cheap vine ripes for our platters of sliced tomatoes. And it was fun. We bought 8 kilos of whitish-pink beans and then spent half an hour in front of the tomatoes choosing the reddest and ripest. 10.5 kilos of the red beauties cost a whopping 2000 colones, or about $4.00. And hand picked as well; talk about bringin' it in under budget.

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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.