Friday, November 20, 2009



Home from the Feria and two days in advance of the Big Party, everything looks good. The produce, the greatest part of our purchases is in da House and looking good. Our only other critical order is the 9 kilos of boneless chicken parts; six of thigh and three of breast, that we'll use for the chicken rice. Our plan is ready. Our menu is ready. I am ready.

As the crowd streams in we will have platters of old school crudites at the ready. We have carrots, celery, radishes, green beans and broccoli for dipping in the pesto mayonnaise and the classic Provencale rouille (a red pepper/garlic mayo) that I will make when I begin the prep on Friday morning. Our big buffet items will be a large tossed salad of organic greens plus garnishes, and platters of sliced tomatoes with basil, on the cold side; and simple, but tasty frijoles tiernos (cooked fresh shelling beans) and spicy chicken/rice on the hot side. My idea has been to keep the costs down by giving the crowd rice and beans (sort of a little gringo joke) but making them so good that they'd have to love them.

And so on Friday morning I left Cusinga, knives and food processor in hand, and breezed the kilometer down the road south to Mercado La Roca. I pulled on a white work shirt and looked around unsuccessfully for a cutting board and some towels. Working in someone else's kitchen is always curiously entertaining; filled with wonder and exploration along with a sense of discovery (usually of those things one does not have, but needs). I traded the tiny kitchen cutting board (tabla in these parts) for the larger one they kept at the bar (?!) and found a few semi-soiled towels to get me started.

My first project was getting the beans started, and I build a simple base of onion, lots of garlic and a ton of mixed spices (paprika, black pepper, cayenne, the ubiquitous Tico "sabor completa, oregano, bay leaves and salt) in the hot oil before adding the fresh beans, water and a couple of cans of diced tomatoes. These would cook in less than 45 minutes and all I had to do was bring them to a vigorous boil and then turn it down and walk away.

I figured that by the time the beans were ready I could probably bang out the two sauces and I was very nearly right. While Odile, my lovely Tica helper from La Roca looked on a bit wide-eyed, I threw a mesh screen over a burner and blacked ten ripe red bell peppers (chiles dulces). I put them in a plastic container with a tight cover to steam off the skins and moved on. I had brought pesto from my freezer at La Cusinga and I built a classic mayo starter with egg, garlic, s&p, some lemon juice and red wine vinegar in the Cuisinart before slowly adding the mix of olive and canola oils to emulsify the sauce. As it thickened I began to add the pesto by the spoonful and watched with great satisfaction as the sauce turned a lovely pale green.

I was starting to figure out the lay of the kitchen and was moving toward Chef Dave warp speed when I sensed Odile eying me from the corner of the kitchen. I had given her the somewhat methodical job of cleaning the veggies for the crudites and put her in the corner to give me some operating room, but it seemed that my kitchen dance was a bit of a curiousity to her. It would be my guess no one sings, dances and does a lot of multi-tasking in the kitchen there typically. I gave her a big smile and did a little dance step to the music I had put on, and she giggled oh so shyly; cute.

The heat was down on the beans by now so I got the peppers out and slipped the skins right off them under running water. I tested a bean for doneness with a squeeze between the fingers and gave the pot a stir. I rough chopped the peeled peppers and after cleaning the food processor I did the same set up for the rouille as I had for the pesto mayo. I started this time, though, with the chopped peppers, a lot of garlic, red wine vinegar, some s&p and a good splash of SriRacha (Vietnamese hot red pepper sauce). Again, I added the mix of oils slowly until the I heard the telltale change of the sauce in the machine that indicated that the rouille was thickening. I took a taste and then began to add the secret ingredient. I had a half a cup of roughly crushed garlic croutons that I added in a slow stream. The Spaniards do this in some regions with Gazpacho and I have seen French cooks from Province use this method to thicken rouille right at the very end. I love the flavor and texture it adds and it works for me. Done, both sauces.

And yes, as I had hoped, so were the beans. Now I would let them sit overnight and make their own lovely sauce. This is one of the benefits of using a fresh bean. There is still enough natural starch and liquid left inside it that it "throws" a sauce as it reposes. I covered and refrigerated the sauces, covered the beans and left strict instructions that they should be refrigerated upon cooling slightly.

But yes, this being Costa Rica, we had a glitch. Just as I was finishing up and wiping down, the chicken delivery came and the driver came in with two bags of frozen breasts and a limp excuse about there being no boneless leg and breast meat available. This was Friday. This was the day before the party. And this was totally unacceptable. Anja looked at me in bewilderment and mild panic and I told her that the only option was to get on the phone to Eduardo, our cheerful rep, and tell him that every powerful gringo on the entire coast was going to be here on Saturday night. And once she had his attention, to tell him that if he didn't get us the chicken, that I would personally make it known to everyone in attendance that our good friends at Pipasa were to be held responsible. She shrugged in presumed disbelief, made the call, and came back to report that Eduardo would personally deliver the chicken the following day.
We smiled in relief and it was time for me to go. Saturday was soon approaching and our numbers were reaching up and over 150 living, breathing, eating bodies.

I breezed through my Friday dinner service at La Cusinga and woke up Saturday morning ready to run not one, but two food operations for a day. I had prepped a lot of the things that we'd need to serve our eight guests at La Cusinga and had consulted with my very nervous helper, Angelica. Angelica has just started working with me and this was to her first night flying solo.
I had left her the soup, already done; salad dressing and fixings; fresh cut fish and sauce; and that evening's dessert and ice cream. All she was going to have to do was prep the veggies, which she does each day, and put the whole shebang together, course by course.

Off I went to Mercado La Roca one more time; this time with extra pots and pans, again my knives, a Kitchen-Aid mixer, and this time, my little computer speakers so I could really rock out while I cooked. I had brought the Kitchen-Aid so I could put together the batter for three large Pyrexes of pineapple upside down cake. I rolled in with a smile, dropped my tools and set up the computer music system and got down to it. I checked each of the previous day's makings for flavor and was happy indeed.

I am a big believer in getting the desserts out of the way first so it was off into Pineapple land. I made a big batch of caramel with butter and two types of dark sugar, a local azucar moreno and tapa dulce and poured it into the bottom of the Pyrexes. On top of this I layered sliced, cored pineapple and began to assemble the dry ingredients. The mix is a classic butter/sugar plus egg plus flour batter, but this one also gets ground almonds mixed with the flour and I use natilla, the local soured cream in lieu of milk or sour cream. I make this cake a lot and it has become my "go to" dessert for large groups, so it was easy to throw it together and I had it in the oven in no time at all.

The chicken, yes the chicken, had arrived, hand delivered by the sheepish but proud Eduardo himself. It's always nice to come to the rescue, even if the impending disaster is of one's own making. I had had Odile chop mountains of sweet red peppers, onions and garlic the day before, so all we had to do was clean and cube the chicken and it would soon all be in the pot.
I made a nicely hot dry spice mix and tossed the chicken cubes in it to give that bland, bland meat a little flavor. After I seared the chicken I tossed the veggies in the same pot, to pick up a bit of the flavor the searing had created in the pan and sauteed them with more of the dry spice. I added a quart or two of chicken stock that I had brought as a secret ingredient, let it boil up the bits off the bottom and then added the chicken back in with the peppers and onions. This baby was done, and it tasted pretty damn good.

This was all happening per the plan, but every time I turned around the numbers kept going up and we were getting a whole lot closer to 200 than I was comfortable with. Ah well, that's what the food stretcher is for. The cakes were coming out of the oven perfectly, the beans were on the stove at low heat and coming up to temp, the chicken was done and I had cooked two massive pots of a bright yellow achiote rice. I would need to mix the chicken and sauce with the rice, but I'd decided to do that as needed for the buffet so I was looking good. Cooking is, however, a team sport.

It seemed that the other part of what needed to be done, the chores that the lovely and charming Anja was signed up for were not getting done with quite the alacrity I had been hoping for and expecting. Odile had a good hand on the crudites, so I put her on salad detail and she soon had a sink piled full of an organic greens mix. Unfortunately the hummus, now on it's second day in the making, and the salad dressing, on the counter half-finished for over two hours now were, as yet, undone. Liz and Natalie had been in and out several times, the guys were doing the lighting, the room was being transformed, the beer was being stocked and each and every one of these things called Anja out of the kitchen for an inspection. Distraction is not the mother of production.

I decided that it was a good time to head back over to La Cusinga to make sure all was well in hand and to let the kitchen do what it might to come together, so I hopped in the old Toyota and went over the hill. And all was peaceful, tranquil and oh so together at my home base.
Angelica had, in her desire to please and out of her newbie nervousness, put the mis en place right in its place. She was nervous but ready so I gave her a pat on the back, helped her through a few service questions and headed back to the Big Fun.

Dusk was falling and when I walked in the place looked great. The newly strung lights were glowing, the tables for the silent auction were all decorated, the Brazilian band was doing a sound check and the room was ready for a party. And at the end of the counter between the bar and the kitchen, Anja was spooning the hummus from the food processor into bowls. Hallelujah, the the hummus, the third dip for the crudites was done. The vinaigrette still sat in its bowl on the kitchen counter, but it appeared that progress had been made.

The French Bakery in San Isidro had donated 26 baguettes and so I got to slicing them and setting up bowls for the buffets. The tomatoes were the last large job and I had Odile begin to scoop the stem end out of the 150 ripe red babies that Anja and I had picked out, one by one.
I had originally thought to buy only 80-100 tomatoes, figuring that at four or five slices per tomato we'd easily have enough to feed 100-125 people, but as the count grew, I was happier and happier with my decision to buy big. And hell, at 150 colones per kilo it wasn't really a bank buster. We'd bought 10.5 kilos for about the equivilent of $4.00 American.

I went from bread slicer to tomato slicer without losing, and with perhaps, gaining, a stroke and a slice. Odile took the sliced tomatoes and shingled them tightly on the Pyrex serving dishes and we put together five trays in no time. I drizzled them with olive oil and white wine vinegar, hit them with fresh ground pepper and sea salt and put them on hold. The chiffonade of basil would go on at the very, very end.

It had gone from dusk to dark and from empty to partially occupied when I looked up and out through the kitchen doors. It was only 6:30 and there were already people milling around out there, beers in hand. Anja and I had gone through the schematic for the layout of food in the cold and hot tables as she was (YES!) finishing the vinaigrette. It seemed to me that it might behoove us to get some food out there for the eating public and so the crudites with their three tasty sauces hit a couple of different spots in the room. We also dropped off a couple of bowls of bread slices at strategic locations and turned our attention to the salad bar. The first load of lettuces was loaded in along with a bowl of sliced hearts of palm, one of red onions and another of sliced cucumbers. I slid two of our tomato/Pyrex boats in on the left to complete the set-up and at least that part was ready.

We had agreed to wait a bit to put the hot food out, but I did retreat to the kitchen to make sure the beans were hot (but not burned on the bottom; thin pots) and that the chicken and rice were ready for mixing. The room was definitely buzzing. The ladies were in finery and the dudes were in their best Hawaiian shirts. Our bar staff was assembled and it was just about time to Rock. At just past 7:00 I loaded up the first trays of beans and the chicken/rice mix and the feeding frenzy was on.

For the next two hours I felt as I was working the trough. Anja had no appropriate transferring vessels, so I used the bottom of a pressure cooker to fill the trays out on the steam table. I kept my pots of beans warm, the chicken and sauce warm and the rice in the oven. Between the shoveling of the beans and rice I sliced more and more tomatoes. As I had thought, the sliced tomatoes with basil on the salad bar were a huge hit and people were grabbing four and five slices for their (and thank goodness we'd decided on small) plates.

The lines at the bar and the food tables were huge and snaked out into the center of the throng. The roar of the crowd was surprising and although I couldn't see too far into the room from my post at the kitchen door, I could sense the movement, the pulse of the crowd. It was amusing and only slightly horrifying watching people load their plates from the buffets and I remembered that I previously always done my best not to watch. To see one's labors of love (because despite it all, food is always love) get heaped and piled onto paper plates willy-nilly is not good for the Chef. It is much better to return to the kitchen and get more food ready.

And we were blowing through the food. There was a point about an hour in where I considered briefly the notion that we would run out of food, and when the hearts of palm were the first to go, I wondered what would be next. But we hit a rhythm, and the buffet-ers, while still hungry and still lined up, seemed to have settled into a manageable (for us) pace and I knew that we would have enough food. Not way too much, but certainly enough.

The bossa nova was bouncing, the beer was flowing and the crowd was feeding the hunger. It was a good party, no, a great party and Liz and Natalie were all smiles. Tripod was certainly going to fatten their coffers and with any luck there would be no stray male dogs with balls anywhere on our part of the coast shortly. I looked around at our kitchen messes and wasn't too displeased. We'd at least managed to keep the tomato mess in one area (and it was an easy clean), the chicken and bean mess on the top of the stove, and the floors were surprisingly clean.

It all started to slow down with the silent auction and then the Hawaiian shirt contest. I was able to do a little schmoozing of my own and while I still had an eye on the buffets, knew we were reaching the end. It was nearly over, but for the drinking and the dancing. I took a wander outside and nearly went ass over teakettle in the mud looking for a place to suck in some cool air. The parking lot was packed and I knew it would be a while before I would be able to grab my things and slink away. I wandered back in, checked the kitchen and then found a seat on the perimeter so I watch the fun. Somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00 the crowd began to say their good byes and ease themselves out the doors (these were baby boomers, not gen-Xers, after all) and one could see across the room.

I gathered in the kitchen with Anja, Natalie, Liz and a few others for sighs, kisses, backslaps and hearty handshakes. We all nibbled a bit and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. This had been the biggest gathering in these parts in a while and had been a smashing success. The Tripod coffers were fattened and the folks were well fed. We agreed to do a bit of cleaning, but to leave the bulk of the cleaning and returning of pots and pans for the morrow. I eased my tired bones into the tiny Tercel and wheeled off into the night; a bit greasy, wrinkled and spattered, but happy with the way the evening went. Hard work and good fun for a good cause.

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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.