Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fish Head in a Pot


Yes, it started off with a fish head in a pot; a rather large head (nearly 4 kilos) from what must have been a most formidable Pargo. And the fishhead became a rich fish stock and that stock helped turn our La Cusinga Christmas dinner into deep steaming bowls of spicy tomato-ey fish stew.

I had wanted to do something a little different for our Christmas Dinner at the Lodge and decided that a family-style, serve yourself meal would bring people a little closer together. I had searched far and wide for the local spiny lobsters, but when those were unavailable, decided that a big pot of fish stew on every table would create that sense of shared eating community.

I started off, before the fish head got involved, with a sheet pan of halved tomatoes, a couple of sliced onions and a big handful of peeled garlic cloves. I salted and peppered the tomatoes, poured a healthy dose of olive oil over them and at the last minute added a slice and very spicy chile pepper from our garden. The laden down sheet pan went into the oven at 450 degrees and roasted until the tomatoes were a crunchy brown on top.

And the fish head, oh the lovely fish head, was joined in a large pot by sliced carrots, onion, celery, a few halved heads of garlic, black peppercorns, parsley stems and bay leaves. I covered all this with water and brought it to a fast boil which I reduced equally quickly, to a very low simmer. When I make fish stock, I want the flavor and the clear stock, but don't want a lot of floating fish flesh particles. And it was for this very reason, 90 minutes later, that when I poured the rich broth through a fine strainer, I did it by just barley tilting and hardly moving the pot. Any excess movement or shaking frees the well cooked meat left on the bones and clouds the stock.

To get the base started, I sauteed still more sliced onions with still more garlic in still more olive oil. I added a few strands of grocery store saffron (to no discernable effect, it seemed later) and once the onions were well wilted, I added the roughly chopped cooked tomato mixture to them. A few quick stirs and then the fish stock went on top. This too was brought to a quick boil and then reduced to a mere simmer. I wanted this to cook together, ever so slowly for at least an hour or so.

So now it was on to sorting and cleaning the seafood that would go into this rich concoction. Undaunted by my inability to find lobsters, I had fallen back on fresh local shrimp, tiny local clams called "almejas", fresh small local squid and a glisteningly fresh filet of Pargo. The shrimp were peeled, the clams rinsed, the squid seperated head and body and then tenderized and the pargo cut into small thick slabs.

Traditionally in the south of France when Bouillabaisse is served, it comes with rouille, a spicy/garlicky red pepper mayonnaise that is spread on toasts dunked into the fish stew. In many parts of Province, the rouille is stirred directly into the stew, adding a garlicky bite to an already garlicy base. For the rouille I roasted and peeled red peppers and put them in the Cuisinart along with an egg yolk and a whole egg, roasted garlic, fresh garlic, a handful of garlic croutons (to add texture to the rouille), salt and pepper and a couple of dashes of our house-made chilero sauce (a Habanero based beauty). Once I had this pureed into a paste, I began to drizzle in the olive oil; first slowly and then a bit more quickly. The sound of the machine let me know as the sauce thickened and it came out beautifully; pale pink and full of garlic and chile bite.

Our guests were making arrival noises so we got soup on the table, quickly followed by a salad of sliced organic tomatoes and just picked organic lettuces. I had pulled some rarely used tureens from our bodega and readied them for service. The bread had been spread with garlic butter and toasted and the rouille dolloped onto it. All I needed to do was get the seafood in the individual cooking pots (for groups of four) and get it cooking.

In went the clams, the squid and some simmering tomato broth; then the shrimp and the fish pieces. I brought it up to a low boil, covered it and let it simmer. I repeated this with the other sauce pots for the other tables. Once I had them all filled I returned to the first pot and peeked in. The scent sent out by the steam was terrific. All the flavors were present even in that first whiff. I gently ladled the fish out and poured the steamy tomato-ey goodness over the top, filling the tureen. I put a handful of a mix of chopped garlic greens and parsley over the seafood mixture and returned the top to the tureen. I repeated this for the other tables and it was time to serve.

I had explained our need for audience participation and each table had ladles, spoons and bowls. The rouille toasts went out on a separate platter, the tureens hit the tables and it was time for dinner. The room got quiet as the tops were taken off and then the community eating vibe kicked in. There was nervous laughter as the first bowls were ladled full and the a lot of slurping and contented oohing and aaahing. Knowing full well what happens when I eat something like this with my family and friends, I passed around second plates of rouille toasts at each table and watched as the seafood soups disappeared from the tureens.

I don't do this style of service often, preferring to be able to create the plate design myself, but food like this is meant for a sleeves rolled up, help yourself, participatory meal and this was it.
As the tureens emptied and the guests sat back in satisfaction, I cut the almond torte for dessert, enjoying the moment and the mellow sound of a well fed dining room full of guests.

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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.