Monday, December 20, 2010

Still Holding, But It's Oh So Close

We are at the tail end of the 3rd week of December and perched right at the edge of having our lives changed drastically. Yes, we have gone from a nearly sleep walking November to doing some decent business in December, but it's not quite yet the inundation we have been waiting for. There have been a number of nights in the double digits that we hope for and an evening of 18 that felt like the hallowed "good old days", but soon we will be doing those numbers and then some every night.

I have been using this time to finish and polish our cookbook, "Cooking at La Cusinga with The Chef of the Jungle" and while it is a mouthful, hopefully that thought will be prophetic. I have included many of the soup, salad and salsa recipes that have gotten us a lot of attention and paid homage to my growers and producers as well. We have engaged a local graphic artist to do our cover and layout work and she has come up with what I think is a brilliant and eye-catching cover. The next step will be the high resolution food photos we need to finish the cover and to place opposite the pages where they are relevant. Following that, the text goes to the person who will put it all in book form and finally, God willing, the printer.

I must admit this has been quite a learning exercise for me. I can order food, build menus and put together what I think is a pretty good meal, but putting together a book by oneself is another thing entirely. I went into this project both green and cold, barely knowing what each next step would be and I'm sure that's kept us from getting the thing to the printers as soon as we would have liked. I have written, re-read and re-written every recipe at least three times and have cooked all the recipes to see if they really work. With the help of Geinier, La Cusinga's GM/owner and the people involved in the final processes, hopefully we will see this book sometime in mid-Spring; fingers crossed.

In the time between, I have been working on getting us set for another busy season at the Lodge. I've been setting up arrangements with some new organic vendors (there are a new goat cheese producer and a new organic vanilla producer to bring on board), and working out new recipes as well as refining old ones. I have finally found a new source for organic cacao so I am back in production of what I think is the best chocolate "style" ice cream I've ever tasted. I've also been trying out a lot more fruit ice creams made from the local goodies. A huge favorite of the whole staff is Maracuya, or passion fruit. This ice cream is rich and both tart and sweet at the same time, just as the fruit is. I'm also mixing pureed mango with canned coconut milk for an interesting mango-coco flavor.

We have huge bookings for January and February and a group of 18 coming in Christmas Eve. With any luck, I'll be able to come up for air from time to time, but we are coming to "our"season and this is the time when Chef Dave does what he does best, "turn 'em and burn 'em" as we used to say in the high stress restaurant business. Here in the jungle it takes on a slightly smaller degree of stress and volume, but the idea is the same; great food, great service and of course, our amazing view. Get on down here and check us out.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Last night it didn't rain. Two nights ago it didn't rain. Yesterday was a glorious day filled with sunshine and the sunset was a gift from God; a flashing of colors and light, the first of its kind in many weeks. Could it be, could it just be that we are ready to move out of this extended season of deluge and into our summer season? I may be a bit emboldened here, but I believe I am speaking for everyone on this coast that We Are Ready For It. Bring on the sun, the warmth, the humidity, the bugs...well, let's not go overboard.

The last three months have seen monsoon rains, floods, roads washed away and tourism at a virtual standstill. I have been to the US, had the US visit me and slipped an engagement ring on the finger of Kathy, the woman I will spend the rest of my life with. I have finished, except for the final editing and a few add-ons, the cookbook from La Cusinga that I have been promising my guests for the last six months. I am six days from reaching the anniversary of my 3rd year of sobriety and like everyone else down here, I am ready for the change of season.

And maybe, just maybe, this past weekend was the indicator, the advance notice, that our change is in the air. I left home on Saturday afternoon with the knowledge that I had four for dinner. Ho-hum, another four. I had enough fish cut, soup made, a jar of "Salsa de la Jungla" and part of a dessert left from earlier in the week. I wasn't much inspired by it, but I knew I needed to use it all up. In these slow times, total utilization of product is essential, though occasionally uninspiring.

I pulled into the La Cusinga driveway and as I passed Cindy she told me we were up to six. No big deal, I still had enough to cover them. I changed and when I got back to the kitchen there was Cindy again tell me we were up to eight for dinner. And then I remembered to ask her if she was factoring in the two guests who had reserved through our front office in San Isidro; "visitantes" we call them. She said she hadn't been and suddenly we were up to ten. This sudden turn of events would require some rethinking. Olga, one of my nightly helpers had been given the evening off, so I was working solo in the kitchen.

My plan to use the fish was foiled. There simply wasn't enough to cover all and in order to keep myself organized and from becoming more confused than usual, I wanted to serve the same menu to each guest. If I were a staff of two or three or four I might go for doing a choice of entrees or perhaps even more, but simplicity and clarity are essential when flying solo.

I had received my weekly allotment of two (I said business had been slow) plump organic chickens from Finca Coreotos that morning so chicken it would be. I knew I had two legs remaining in the freezer (shhh) so would braise the six legs, roast the two breasts (they're huge and four will feed 5-6 people) and divide them up among the ten guests. I had roasted tomatoes earlier in the week and had chicken stock in the freezer so that part of the menu was set. Braised chicken in a roasted tomato-basil sauce over achiote rice was the entree.

I had half a flourless chocolate cake in the refrigerator from the previous night, but that would only feed six so as I was working alone, I went to my favorite default dessert, Mandarina Pound Cake. It comes together in about five minutes and bakes in 30, so hey, piece of cake (sorry). I always accompany it with Mountain Blackberry Ice Cream and I had plenty of that in the freezer. Now I was rockin'.

Olga, bless her heart, had cleaned the entire bag of braising greens that had arrived on Thursday so I was set for one of my two vegetables. I had both broccoli and cauliflower from that morning's Feria in the reach-in, but didn't want to be messing with any extra saute pans since I would be slicing chicken breasts for the plate. I love roasted cauliflower so decided to toss large florets of both the broccoli and the cauliflower in olive oil, sea salt and black pepper for roasting. They come out caramelized and delicious and better still, don't require "a la minute" cooking.

This was coming together nicely and I was quickly into the salad course. There were small heads of organic red and green leaf lettuces from Ademar's morning delivery and a bag of nice peppery arugula; those would be the base. I had small organic tomatoes from the San Isidro Thursday Feria ripening and they would be perfect with a drizzle of the pesto I had made the day before.

I had bought a disc of locally made goat cheese from the Mennonites and wanted to pair that with some organic cucumbers delivered on Thursday. I also had some fresh palmito, so I ended up cutting the cucumber and palmito in equal size quarter moons, mixed them with strips of roasted red pepper and a small dice of garlic greens and tossed them with balsamic vinegar, mandarina juice and olive oil. The goat cheese would get sprinkled over the top after all three components of the salad were on the plate. I was nearly there.

Soup; yes I would need soup for my traditional first course of a chilled soup and it would be perfect as a starter in our new found warm weather. I had taken a small container of roasted tomato/frijole tierno soup from the freezer and since I had both the roasted tomatoes and come cooked frijoles as well, I would be able to stretch it. I put the soup and a couple of spoons each of the beans and tomatoes in a tall container and put the stick blender to them. While I was pureeing the veggies, I added a squeeze of mandarina juice for acid and blended in a stream of olive oil as well for that added suaveness. A pinch of sea salt and it was ready.

And suddenly there was Cindy again. "David, es posible para dos mas para cenar?" Could we feed two more people? We'd be up to an even dozen. And then she said he magic words, "Ellos quieren pescado". The would like to have fish. I keep a secret stash of small filets of pargo in the deep freeze and a piece serving two would be ready in no time. "Seguro, seguro", I told her, "no hay problema". And twelve it would be.

The first thing about serving four courses to 12 people by oneself, with essentially three different entrees (as I had to slice the chicken breasts and serve them differently than the legs), is to be organized; the second is to remain calm. I do have a tendency to get a teensy bit excited when I'm busy and when that happens, organization suffers. Oops, there go both needs out the window. But fortunately, Saturday night, calmness and serenity won out over the hyper-frazzle.
Once the chicken legs were in the oven with their accompaniment of white wine, roasted tomatoes and garlic and a touch of stock I knew it was going to be all right.

Just before service I poured out the twelve soups (damn I love serving cold soup) and put them into the refrigerator; Cindy would pick them up and serve them just after the guest sat. The braised chicken legs had come out of the oven looking and smelling wonderful and the four breasts were roasting at a higher heat. Against all odds, our guests came in in a perfectly staggered way. I was able to feed them two by two by two by two and then four at the end. It couldn't have worked out any better.

The salads required a bit of work as the greens needed to be dressed and placed first; followed by the wedges of sea-salted olive oiled tomatoes and their drizzle of pesto at the top of the plate. Next was the mixed salad of cucumber, hearts of palm and roasted pepper which I placed in front of the dressed greens and a crumble of goat cheese went over all.

Dishing up the chicken legs was easy. The plate got the achiote rice in the center, a small pile of braised greens (best cooked in advance anyway) on one side and a couple of florets of the roasted broccoli and cauliflower on the other. I plopped (or placed artistically, depending on your viewpoint) on top of the rice, mixed a small handful of basil in with the rich tomato-wine sauce and poured it over the chicken and rice.

The two fish plates were quite easy as I roast them to order in 7-8 minutes. By the time I needed to slice the roasted chicken breasts everyone else had been served and I could concentrate on slicing and laying out the thick juicy slices of the breast. Again, the sauce got freshly cut basil added to it, was reheated and poured over the top. Damn this was a good looking plate! And now it was time for dessert.

I had already figured out who would get the chocolate cake and who would get mandarina pound cake and had pre-cut the cakes. The plate-up was easy and the ice creams even cooperated by balancing on top of the cake. Yes. The real reward to watch as each and every plate came back nearly scraped (or licked?) clean. Yes, calmness, organization (and serenity) had won out. And better yet, it appeared that the rainy season doldrums were on their way out and we were heading into the fat part of our year; finally, a change of season. Here comes the sun...

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I know there haven't been many food related posts here, but it has been a while since the opportunity to cook has arisen. That hardly means, however, that I am without adventures.
This is another one brought on, at least partially, by our record rainy season.

Each morning at between 5:15 and 5:30, Russell, the huge and untrained German Shepherd of whom I am in charge (?), begins to bark; a deep sonorous and resonant bark. He barks at the first things that move and continues to bark until I roust myself from bed and then go wrestle with him to get him off his chain so he can run and poop and pee. We wrestle because he becomes so excited at the prospect of being free that he begins to buck and rear like a small horse. Of course it is in no way obvious to him that this impedes the muddy path to freedom.

Thursday morning was the beginning of another day of thunderous driving rain. It had rained all night and all day the day before. The ground was saturated and swamp-like in front of the house and the walkway beneath the eaves that help to keep Russell dry was slick with mud and rain from his forays out to bark in the rain. At dawn's first bark I rose to do my unleashing duty, knowing that the more quickly I did it, the more quickly I could return to a warm bed inside and the sound of the rain outside.

I eased the door open and peered into the gray dawn and the equally gray curtain of rain and there he was, leaping up on me with muddy paws and rank doggy breath. I pushed him back and down, as I do every morning, yelling at him "down" and "sit" even though it's as futile as screaming into a vacuum. Russell knows not word one related to obedience. He is trained by his masters with a rolled up newspaper slapped into an open palm and it is the only thing to which he responds.

We began our morning grapple to find the collar and subsequently the grasping of the all too small clasp that needs to be squeezed and pulled to send him off on his morning duties. This morning, for reasons unclear, he was particularly unruly and when he completely reared up he knocked me back and off balance. I lost my footing in the pooled and muddy water on the concrete porch and fell backwards, my back hit the door just as I was twisting to try to keep my tailbone from crashing into the concrete and the door slammed shut. Shut.
As in locked out at 5:20 in the morning on a calamitously rainy day with no power and/or water.

I was wearing a pair of thin sleeping shorts and nothing else. I lay there on the cold wet of the front entrance with a huge dog panting over me and a locked door behind me. I kicked at him and swore at him. Neither of those things opened the door. I pried at it just in case, but it was clearly, firmly and absolutely locked. Thanking God that I at least have the good sense to keep my muddy shoes outside the front door, I struggled to my feet, slipped on a pair of muddy Crocs and began the slosh around the house to see if it could be broken into.

I had previously broken in through the octagonally shaped kitchen window when I had grabbed the wrong keys upon exiting in my first week at the house. But I had repaired the crack I had made and had strengthened the lock. Good work. Around the back is impenetrable as the back wall is a corrugated aluminum door on a roller, much like that of a garage or grocery store. The only possibility was the bedroom window; open but secured by a spider-web wrought iron sculpture that covered it completely. If one was to push in as hard as one could, one might almost; but no, way too small for me.

I was now soaking wet and shivering a bit in the early morning rain. It may still be Costa Rica, but when it rains for days on end, the sun never gets a chance to do its warming work. I made my way back to the front door to see if there was something, some method of breaking and entering my own house that I had overlooked. Again I pried at the doors, the windows; working at the jams and attempting to find a slim piece of something that might be used to prise that once-broken kitchen window open once again. Nothing. I made this trek in the deep mud two or three times, before giving in and giving up.

I stood outside the bedroom window, which would be my only hope. I pressed at the iron bars and gazed at the slender opening and knew that there was no way that I was going to get through there. I pushed at the chain that held the two parts of the ironwork together and knew it would never break. I needed a bolt-cutter, or, wait, a small person, a very small person. I knew that Dan and Kim, the couple across the street might just have a bolt-cutter, but for sure had a small person. They have two sons, Reese and Wyatt, five and six years old.

Because it was still shy of 6:00 AM I retired to my car, blessedly beneath a carport, laid the seat back, shivered, and repeated the Serenity Prayer to myself, over and over. At least now I had a plan; I just had to wait until a slightly more neighborly hour to put it into action. There was no electricity and there would be no lights to inform me of my neighbor's having risen to greet the day, but they do have a two year old daughter and she, naturally, gets everyone up early.

I waited as long as I could bear and then slogged across the river that our dirt road had become, letting the pounding rain pour off my body. There wasn't much to soak, but it was all soaked. I stood beneath the upper balcony where Kim and Dan's front door was and sensed (YES!) motion and the early morning sounds of a household rising. I called out, "Hola, hola". And Kim came to the front door, blinking in early morning surprise and through the haze of the recently awakened.

I briefly explained my dilemma and within a few minutes tall Dan and tiny Reese were wriggling into ponchos and rubber boots and were accompanying this nearly naked neighbor across the muddy road to the back window. I explained my plan and they nodded, each of them not quite awake and certainly not at all clear on why they were out in the rain and the mud at this time of the day. We reached the back window, Dan and I pushed it forward as far as we could and Reese slipped through easily, handily.

The only obstacle now would be Molly, my own dog. She would bark or she would hide, one or the other. I talked to her and she let young Reese through and he made his way through the darkened and unfamiliar house to the keys. But they were hung too high for him to reach, I'd forgotten how short one is when one is six. Dan and I looked at each other wondering at the delay, but then heard the sound of something being dragged across the floor. Reese had spied the tall bar stool I have and was working it to under the pegboard that held the keys. He was using a technique I am now certain he had used before to get to things that might perhaps have been intentionally hung a bit high for him. A moment or two later his pale face was at the window, thrusting the keys forward. Victory.

Dan and I sloshed around the house one last time and opened the front door. Reese and Molly both spilled out and I thanked everyone profusely. By this time it was nearly 7:15. I had been locked out for almost two hours. I thought about sleep, but instead made myself a pot of tea and began my morning routine. Afterall, I had some thanks to give.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


A letter from the tropics...

Well, my, hasn't it been "a week" down here; quite a week.

(After I'd written this the Giants went ahead and won the World Series, we got a day and a half of sunshine and it has now been raining for 22 hours straight. Two major segments of the Costanera Highway that runs up and down the coast have fallen away and it is closed again today (or was earlier this afternoon). It has been a "rainy season" to beat all.)

Yes, there is, of course, that amazing Giants thing. I fire up my laptop and go to where they have a program called "AT BAT" whereby one receives a computer generated image of a baseball field and a computer generated image of a batter, either left handed or right, in the appropriate uniform. The pitches appear on the screen as blue or red swooshes (for strikes and balls, silly) with their approximate location, speed and type of pitch listed along with them.

It's kind of hard to follow anything if there happens to be any action. For example if there is contact the little box on the screen says either "ball hit (out)", or "ball hit (not out)", or in some cases, "ball hit (not out/run(s))".

Now the good news is that when there is not a major storm, all of these images are accompanied by one's choice of audio feeds; it is available from the home radio station of either team. Naturally, I choose the broadcast from KNBR (no, no more KSFO with it's jingle sung in wonderfully sonorous tones), and get the Giants regular announcers, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, or, as they are known affectionately in the Bay Area, Kruk and Kuip (kipe). I also get the glorious crowd noise.

The bad news is when the weather is bad it cuts off the audio connection, which leads us to the second part of what has made this "a week". We have been getting supremely intense rainstorms which are washing away the mountains and the roads and causing the rivers to swell up over their banks to flood out farm and family.

FromThursday morning until Friday afternoon we got 30 inches of rain in 36 hours. And the rain is so loud that it is impossible to hear music, the audio broadcast of the game (when it does come through) or someone talking to you on the telephone. The front yard here at Uli's is a swamp and on Thursday night, the laundry room (attached to the house but a couple of inches lower than the threshold of the front door) was three inches deep in water.

The small bridge that crosses one of the many rivers about five miles north of Uvita finally gave up the ghost and became one with the river yesterday morning, shutting down the highway for the rest of the day and until around 8 this morning. It has since been fortified with stone from underneath and one lane is open, but another good rain will wipe it out again. 15 kilometers south of us, just above Ojochal, where I used to live, the dirt has been mostly washed out from under a portion of the highway and all that remains of the outside half of either lane is a thin layer of asphalt.

I suppose I don't need to point out (but still will) that the road remains open, because this is Costa Rica, but one can only hope people are approaching it with some degree of trepidation. There is a huge amount of semi-truck traffic between the Northern part of the country and Panama, and this is their major artery. I am presuming that shortly one of them will crack off the remaining parts of unsupported road top and the truck will tumble off the road. That should be fun.

Thursday I drove over the mountain to the Feria and although I left in a time of no rain, by the time I got to Dominical I had passed through four spots where the water was over the tires. If I hadn't cracked off one of my remaining original crowns and teeth, and had a dentist appointment in San Isidro I would have turned around and gone back home. But coming back home was when the real adventure began. The drive back down the mountain was treacherous, but as I came around a bend in the road, almost back to the coast, traffic was backed up in front of me. "Oh shit", I thought, "this just can't be good".

I got out of the car in the driving rain and walked up about 15 cars to have a look. Sure enough a huge portion of the hillside had slid and covered both lanes of the road just 1 kilometer out of Dominical. And it was a huge slide. There was no way it was going to be moved anytime soon and no way anyone was getting through for a while. I ran back to the car, turned around before the oncoming traffic got too thick and covered both lanes, and headed back over the mountain to San Isidro once again.

I gassed up in San Isidro and then, trusting my instincts and what I'd seen, I headed south down the Pan-American highway to take the really long way home. It is 48 K south to Buenos Aires and then another 50 K northeast to Palmar Norte. The road winds along a river and passes by all the Del Monte holdings. Lots of pineapples. Palmar Norte is at the bottom tip of the Costanera, the highway that runs from Dominical through Uvita and Ojochal. It is another 40 K from Palmar Norte to Uvita. The entire time I was making the drive I was wondering if I had been too impetuous; whether perhaps I should have waited.

As I was pulling into the La Cusinga driveway after just over two and a half hours on the road I got a phone call from the La Cusinga office wondering where I was and if I was okay. It seems that I had made the right choice (and gotten out just in time); the road was shut from Dominical to San Isidro and there were slides in several places. The road wasn't cleared until sometime after dark and the people who had elected to stay and wait it out had sat in their cars in a driving rainstorm for nearly seven hours. It is a glamorous life here...

Last night, because of the bridge closure just to the north of us, we inherited a small wedding party. They had booked a ceremony and dinner at Costa Paraiso, just down from Dominical, for their tiny (13 people) wedding and couldn't get to it. We were happy to take them and their business, so I had an unexpected 13 for dinner last night. Where the Lord closes a door he opens a window or something like that.

On a different and much happier subject, Kathy arrives in Costa Rica late the night of the 10th and after she spends some time with her good friends Terry and John, I will drive up to Jaco (accent "o") on Saturday the 13th to fetch her and bring her back here. I CAN'T WAIT!!!!!

So there you have it, all the news that fits. The skies are darkening over and I'm kind of glad that the bad roads have kept guests from the Lodge today and that I get to stay home and "watch" the Giants on the computer.

peace, love and serenity


Monday, October 18, 2010

RAINY SEASON BLUES (and greens and flowing browns and reds)

Mid October; well not exactly, but close enough; we've already crossed the halfway point of the month, and we are nowhere near the end of what has been a particularly heavy rainy season. According to some study done somewhere, we have received nearly 70% more rain this year than is normal (although, this being Costa Rica, normal is a bit of a nebulous concept). The fact of the matter is, however, that there is mud everywhere.

What I can tell you about it from my personal experience is that the front area of Casa de Uli, where I am now house sitting, turns into a lake, a marsh and a bog; pretty much in that order each time we get one our almost daily downpours. It makes the trip from the outlying garage to the front of the house an unpleasantly slippery, sloshy and muddy journey and is particularly memorable at night when I get home from work. I remember Uli's parting words being, "I wanted to put down a load of gravel there, but didn't get to it."

This is the time of the year when my feet never seem to get clean; you know, really clean. I suppose I could wear shoes that had ties at the tops, to keep the mud and the ooze from squeezing in, but that would require my tying the laces which is entirely out of character for me. I trudge through the sludge in my Chaco flipflops for everyday wear and my Keen's for hiking and walking the dogs. Yes, the mud slides in, but I don't have to go to all that work to affix these footwear favorites to my feet. And the added advantage is that I can just hose the mud off my chosen footwear. Sooner or later, even those in sensible shoes will step into or through a puddle deep enough to come in over the top and then one must suffer wet, gritty and muddy socks. Ick.

I guess, also, I could do what most of the Tico trabajadores do and wear shin high rubber boots, but have you ever smelled your feet after you've taken them out of rubber boots? It's enough to make you want to slip on your flipflops and walk through the mud just to get the odor out. There are a pair of Uli's rubber boots here, shiny and new, but his feet are also substantially larger than mine and I definitely don't need the blisters that would be incurred by even a short trek in those floppy boats. And there is also the cultural faux pas of looking like a gringo wannebe when you show up in town with a pair of practically new shiny rubber boots on.

Business? What business? All of Uvita is a ghost town except for us year-round residents and the action at La Cusinga is exactly the same. Every now and then one sees a couple of Euro-kid backpackers hop off the bus staggering under the weight of their giant designer backs. They look around, blink and head off to the nearest hostel. At La Cusinga our guests are made up of those to whom we owe favors or to those for whom we are extending a favor.

Last week we had seven young French guests ("what do you mean we cannot eat at 10:00? Sacre bleu!") who huddled on the upper deck in their ponchos and chainsmoked Costa Rican Marlboros. This week we have guests from a tourist agency who are bringing prospective clients from other agencies through, the off season being the only time to be able to check out prospective recommendations. Later in the week we are hosting a couple who are part of a group building a GPS system for the waterways and mountains of this area. This is a gratis stay and they have told us we can just feed them "rice and beans". Right.

Buying food to serve (and keep fresh) for this kind of business represents a serious challenge to my chefly abilities. Potatoes, onions, hardy green beans, even broccoli and cauliflower are no problem. The interesting veggies; my precious lettuces, greens for braising, long beans and others of that fragile nature are harder to protect. We rely on turnover and our vendors rely on our being able to buy in slightly larger quantities than you might for your home.

This buying pattern doesn't make me happy and it sure doesn't make my farmers happy. And as seasonality and bad luck would have it, this is a time of the year that so many of the rare and exotic come into season in the raised beds at Diamante Organico. Each week poor beleagured Marjorie calls me and I have to tell her that I can only take a kilo of this, two bunches of that, and fruit ordered by the individual quantity, rather than bags and bags of her organic goodies.
I have to be careful to keep enough food around for surprise local guests of whom I have had few in the last couple of weeks, but not enough so that it rots and turns to compost in the refrigerator. And you thought you had it tough.

Am I freezing fish? Why yes I am. I portion it and freeze it as deep and as fast as I possibly can.
And I would challenge you to be able to tell me that it's been frozen after I'm done doing my magic to it. But still; it is frozen and if and when anyone asks me, I look them right in the eye and then I look away and say, "yes, er, yes it is frozen; that is, no, it's not fresh". Damn do I hate to have to do that.

So come on October, kick it over into November and then we've only got one more (long and wet) month to go. December will magically bring the sun, it will bring the guests and it will bring loads and loads of fresh veggies and fish every single day. Pura vida. Chef Dave.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010



I returned to La Cusinga in January, 2009 with a dream in mind. I wanted to create a cuisine that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered their guests physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here. Just as La Cusinga represents a sustainable form of eco-tourism, I wanted to offer a cuisine that reflected that same sustainability. I was on a mission to show not just our guests, but also the people of this community that it was possible to create delicious, serious, mostly organic food using entirely local ingredients.

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would create a new cuisine of coastal Costa Rica. I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the relationships that will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level. Dairy farmers, cheesemakers, rice farmers, ceramic artists, vanilla growers and cacao farmers; all are included in this vision.

I am often asked if I cook entirely locally and my answer, somewhat surprised, is always, “Yes, of course, why wouldn’t I?” This should be every Chef’s dream, to be able to provide the food for his guests with ingredients grown less than an hour away. Between the produce we grow here at the Lodge, the lovely organics I am able to buy from my loyal and local farmers, and the fish that come from the ocean I can see from my kitchen, we have created a cuisine here at La Cusinga that is original and unique to this area.

What we are doing is by no means unique internationally; after all the French have been using this model for years and the United States is home to a huge “farm to table” sensibility. But here in Costa Rica our world class fish and produce have been pushed to the side in an effort to create a more homogenous cuisine for tourists. I don’t believe we have to do that and I believe that the ingredients I get here at tiny La Cusinga rival those of any kitchen in the world.

I am proud of the food we serve at La Cusinga. I am proud that organic growers here have risen to the challenge of producing top flight produce and I am proud to be able to go right to the boats where our fish are caught. But mostly I am proud to be able to put food on our tables here that honors and respects the hard work of John and Bella, of Geinier and Henry and of all the people who make La Cusinga the world class Eco-Lodge that it is.

Monday, October 4, 2010



I must confess to being a bean lover and nothing is better, to me, than using a bean fresh, that would normally be dried. In the States, these are called “shelling beans” and they are taken right out of the pods and sold fresh. They are available at the Feria in San Isidro and during the season, there may be four or five types available.

The joy of these beans is that they cook in 45 minutes or less, cutting at least two hours out of the time on the stove. The real pleasure of them though, is the flavor and texture. These fresh beans have a richness, a creaminess and almost a “meatiness” when cooked that is unsurpassed.

When I see them at the Feria, they are usually laid out in bins, with a few kilos bagged up ready for sale. They are plumper and more colorful than their dried counterparts and there is a sheen to them, as if they have a healthy glow. The colors range from a pale pink to a mottled variegated pink and white to faint shades of green and yellow. Among my favorites are the heirloom variety, “Cua” which is a yellow-brown color, a bit more rounded than elongated with a deep almost nutty flavor.

I cook these beans much like I cook dried beans (except for a substantially smaller amount of time) and find that it’s best to start with a sauté of whichever vegetables you choose and the fat and meat from whatever pork product you like to flavor them. Sauteeing the vegetables gives them a greater depth of flavor that just adding them and letting them boil. For additional flavor I like to add a couple of spoons of of roasted tomatoes, or a handful of roasted pepper strips. You can of course, cook these beans in a purely vegetarian style, but they don’t call it “Pork and Beans” for nothing.


1 Large Yellow Onion, cut in ½” dice;

6 Cloves of Garlic, minced;

1 Carrot, cut in ¼” dice;

1 Jalapeno Chile (optional), cut in fine dice;

6 Strips of Bacon, or 1 Smoked Sausage (hot or mild), cut in cubes; or, 2-3 Smoked Pork Chops (it is quite tempting to use a combination of the three);

1 Ounce Light Cooking Oil;

1 Heaping TBS of “Jambalaya Spice Mix”

3 Fresh Thyme Sprigs (or ½ Tsp Dried Thyme Leaves);

4 Bay Leaves

Add the oil and pork products to a heavy pot and bring up to a good heat. If you are using bacon, try to get some color on it. Stir frequently and add the vegetables and the Spice Mix. Stir often, scraping up the spice mix if it should stick to the bottom of the pot.

Add the beans and herbs (and tomatoes and/or peppers, if you like) and cover by 2 inches with water. Bring the pot of beans to a boil and then reduce the heat until the liquid is just bubbling. Allow to cook for 15 minutes and then check the level of the liquid. It is best if it remains about an inch above the beans. Try not to let the beans cook at too high a heat or they will break up and not remain whole. It is important to keep the beans in enough liquid while they cook, but after about 30 minutes, as they get closer to being done, let the liquid cook down until it is just even with the beans. The beans are done when you can just squish them between your fingers. Remember that they will keep cooking as they cool.

Frijoles Tiernos are great served alongside grilled fish or meat, sausages, or along with either a highly seasoned and flavored rice dish for an upscale version of “gallo pinto”.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Onward to Oregon!

In the week I've been here the climate has gone from lovely and bright "end of summer" skies, with temps in the low 70's, to cold, windy and downright blustery. It would seem that they take the changing of season both literally and seriously here.

I flew into Portland on a Thursday and had an amazing reunion with Kathy, who I had been Skyping with, but hadn't seen in 42 years. She drove me south of of Portland and down into the N. Central farm country and guided us expertly to our first country farm stand. I was craving corn, corn and more corn, but the late season bounty in this part of the world had me filling bag after bag with produce long out of season in the rest of the country. I couldn't believe my good fortune at finding luscious ripe peaches and my favorites, nectarines. We also loaded up on all three of the berry brothers; black, rasp and blue.

My first night here in Oregon I was presented with a local organic chicken and my choice of vegetables from the garden; my kind of challenge. I stuffed the chicken with stems of lemon-oregano from the garden along with a couple of lemon halves, surrounded it with small garden fresh onions, carrots, whole garlic cloves and potatoes and fired that baby in the oven. I basted it with a mix of lemon juice, olive oil and butter and it emerged from the hot oven a lovely and crisp burnished gold. We added some local green beans (from our earlier stop) sauteed with mushrooms and topped with toasted pine nuts, and of course a couple of ears of sweet local corn. I made a quickie sauce out of the pan drippings and it was country eating at its finest.

Sunday we made the drive out to the coast along the Alsea River and it was a gorgeous pre-Fall day. The maples were turning color, the river was flowing and the road from Corvallis to the coast winds through some dense and verdant forest. We had hoped for fresh Dungeness crab, whole and kicking, but settled for a bag of fresh, local crab meat instead.

I smashed up oyster crackers and along with an herbed mayonnaise that I'd concocted at Kathy's house, lightly bound the crabmeat into six fat crab cakes. I pan fried them and we topped them with more of the herbed mayo and served them with roasted potatoes and a salad of baby spinaches, romaine and peppery radishes, also from the garden. The crabcakes came out perfectly; crisp, light and tasting "oh so crabby".

The following morning we hit the Yachats beach and strolled along, peering into the tide pools while watching two maniacs head out into the freezing surf in their bathing suits. It always amazes me to remember that this is the same ocean I see every day in Costa Rica. It seems so different in color, smell and even in its temperament. The ocean in Oregon is percussive, slamming and sailing into the coast with a power and fury we rarely see way down the coast.

We were all about seafood after the walk so went to a funky chic local spot called appropriately enough, The Drift Inn. Kathy went for more crab in a very nice salad with avocado, crisp romaine and artichoke hearts and I had local halibut done up in crisp breading served with herbed handcut french fries in a great regional take on fish and chips.

That night we went out to see my sister Nancy and her husband Mark's lovely house along the Yachats River and luckily ran into a lovely large hunk of local salmon; a big filet weighing in at at least three pounds. Mark had fired up the grill and I made a glaze for the salmon out of seeded dijon mustard, honey and tamari. My sister had snipped green beans from her garden the way our mom used to when we were small and she sauteed them the same way we had eaten them years ago, with chunks of bacon (although I think this bacon may have had a bit more of a pedigree than Mom's). Mark had made focaccia that he topped with thin slices of homegrown onion and yellow crookneck squash and put back in the oven until the veggies were just cooked.

The fish came off the grill, full of that rich salmon smell that I have missed in the tropics. I love salmon and my mouth was drooling from the aromatics coming off the little Weber. We plated salmon chunks cut from the roast, the bacon-y green beans and wedges of focaccia and we nearly ran to the table. Not much was said for the first five minutes or so, which is always a good sign. The meal was perfect and I got a serious salmon fix.

Sadly, the following day was the journey back to reality, but we made a stop in Eugene at the 5th St. Market and a great bistro called Marche, for the type of food I crave down in Central America. I stared off with half a dozen Totten Bay oysters on the half shell, briny and crisp tasting; almost like falling face down in the chilly ocean. We shared a salad of Little Gem lettuces tossed with an "anchoide" dressing (read, Caesar), thin shards of good Parmesan and garlicky thin crostini along with a BLT with applesmoked bacon, braised pork belly and heirloom tomatoes. We finished the meal with a classic vanilla bean creme brulee. It was a perfect "American Bistro" meal.

We came back to steaks from beef raised by Kathy's neighbors one night and a pot of lentils cooked with smoked ham hocks the next. Tonight will be braised organic chicken thighs in a sauce of roasted garden tomatoes and tomorrow I am, more than grudgingly, in the skies back to Austin and then Costa Rica. I do, however, have the ever-growing Austin Farmer's Market to look forward to; lots of fall vegetables and seriously tasty goodies from my friend Jesse Griffith and his Dai Due butcher shop. There will be at least one more epic feast at my sister Barbara's house in Austin. And it is starting to get just a bit chilly here for my wardrobe, it's time to admit. I've got to get back to where flip-flops, shorts and a loose shirt are the norm, if not slightly overdressed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Traveling Chef

Greetings from the Great Pacific Northwest where they look at you funny if you wear shorts and flipflops in the 60 degree weather; go figure...

I hit Austin on a Monday and walked out of an air conditioned airport into 92 degree heat. Ah, welcome to Texas. My sister, Barbara, picked me up and I was greeted at her house by her husband Pete and a 32 ounce Porterhouse steak. Ah yes, welcome to Texas, yet again. We grilled the steak and paired it with corn on the cob (oh, how I miss corn on the cob!!) and a big green salad; such a nice way to get into town.

Tuesday was all about running all the errands doing things I cannot possibly do in Costa Rica. First and foremost was the visit to the Genius Bar at the Apple store to get this baby worked on. Sitting outside in the humidity and heat in Costa Rica, coupled with being attacked by the greasy fingers of the chef were not doing the keyboard any good at all. From there it was on the camera store (so long, faithful Canon), Best Buy for more computer stuff, the Good Will for Costa Rican dress shirts (4 short sleeved dress shirts for $20) and every book store and drug store in between.

That evening we were planning on going to Flipnoticks, a tiny club down near Barton Springs, to see and hear the incomparable Erik Hokkanen and his quartet, so dinner was to be convenient, but naturally, delicious. Barbara pointed me in the direction of a new cheese store, Antonelli's that had popped up in her (and my old) neighborhood, so I strolled over to check it out, and what a find!

I slipped in through the door and looked down the long narrow room at a cheese counter that nearly took up the entire length. I was the only one in the store and Eric, behind the counter and I struck up an immediate rapport. I was asking all the right questions and he had some good answers. John Antonelli, the owner, came over and soon I was regaling them with stories of cooking in Costa Rica while they plied me with taste after taste of cheese.

I ended up with a lovely and herbaceous semi-hard cheese from Vermont that reminded me of a St. Nectaire, two half wheels of great double cremes from Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes, a tangy blue from Oregons Rogue River and a chunk of delicious grainy, minerally English Farmhouse Cheddar from Quicke. And around the corner from the cheeses was the charcuterie and olives. I picked up a nice spicy hard sausage made by an Italian family who have settled in Utah to raise pigs and make pork products and a wonderfully thyme-scented cured pork loin sliced thinly like speck. A tub each of Lucques and Castelveltrano olives completed my trip and I went out the after leaving website and blog addresses. It is probably a good thing that Antonelli's wasn't there when I lived there or I'd be fatter and poorer than I already am.

Our "light" repast was set off by a tangy arugula and organic tomato salad and a couple of loaves of Brea Bakery baguette. Thus fortified we headed out into the warm night to jam ourselves into the tiny room at Flipnotics to hear Mr. Hokkanen work his magic. He is a genius of a fiddle player and incorporates the Stephane Grapelli gypsy style into his repertoire along with a lot of Western Swing. But it isn't until he puts down the fiddle and straps on his candy apple red Fender and starts to play his own take on surf and rockabilly that the place gets rockin'. He has the deranged grin of a true savant as his fingers fly over the strings and his background on the violin makes his approach to his guitar playing totally unique. The man is or should be a national treasure.

The next day was more errand running, but ended up at Austin's newest "see and be seen", tough reservation restaurant, Uchiko. Uchiko is owned by the same folks who own the nationally acclaimed Uchi and shares the same culinary destinations; truly fresh fish in Asian directed presentations. One side of the menu is all sushi and sashimi (and thank God there are no stupid show off rolls) and the other side has three headings, Cold, Hot and Grill.

The room is long, large and loud and it seemed as if everyone there was celebrating something and that they all knew each other some way or another. Despite the truly annoying offering of the waiter's name by both the host and the waiter himself (oh how I hate that, "And Tim will be your waiter tonight"; ugh), the service was exemplary and quite helpful. We started off with grilled (!) edamame and the best (ever) fried eggplant, cut in ultra-thin discs, I've ever had. The eggplant was sauced with a homemade "Sri racha" type sauce that was excellent.

This is one of those "order a bunch of plates for the table" places where the waiter recommends how many you'll need if you want enough to eat. We opted for six, two from the sushi/sashimi side and the others from the the more complete plates in the the Hot/etc, columns. The first plate was probably the most disappointing of the evening, a hamachi roll with a bland lemon mayonnaise on one side of the plate and some sweet goopy, plum-like sauce on the other. Fortunately, the next plate, a sashimi of fresh white anchovies with the tiniest cherry tomatoes you've ever seen, shavings of bottargo (dried tuna roe) and micro basil leaves was amazing and the pedestrian roll was soon forgotten.

From the other side we ordered and got (in succession): Roasted squid with Reisling pressed celery, baby chard and marinated apples; Norwegian mackerel with pickled bluefoot mushrooms and huckleberries (don't laugh, this was a great dish and the mackerel was outstanding); Rabbit confit with celery chips, poached egg and a madras curry sauce; and a "hot pot" style dish of two kinds of Asian mushrooms, bonito flakes, roasted onions and another poached egg. The "hot pot" was great and the rabbit was not. This is the only area our waiter fell down in; the two dishes should not have been served, one after the other, or he might have steered us in a different direction. The "hot pot" was umami at its finest.

We actually were nearly full after all this, despite the plates not being huge, and were waffling on dessert when "Tim" told us that since our first courses had been delayed that the house would buy us dessert. We opted for a celebration of sweet corn that included a sweet corn sorbet, a gelatinous sweetened polenta-like bar, toasted and caramelized corn meal and a tall architectural cookie made of pressed sweetened corn flakes; dots of tart lemon gel surrounded the corn creations. It was an odd dessert, but if one was agile enough with the fork to catch a bit of every component in one bite, the logic of the preparations came through.

It was an interesting and creative meal; thought provoking, which to me is good. We had enough time between courses to discuss them at great length and I like that when I eat.

The next day was a morning flight to Portland and pretty radical shift in climates. More about the trip out to the coast and the Pacific Northwest bounty soon...

Sunday, August 29, 2010



Last night at dinner l approached the table of some guests (friends of mine as it turned out) to ask them, as is typical for me, how everything was. Fortunately, the food was good and they were happy, but then my friend John pointed to my chalk-striped black chef shorts and said, laughing, "And do those shorts make the food taste better?"

l was caught a bit by surprise, something that happens to me much more often in places other than my own dining room, but recovered quickly enough to show him the "Chefwear" logo that appears on the right front pocket of these and any other pants made by Chefwear. This is hardly a plug for Chefwear, or Kitchen Collection, or even Birkenstock, for that matter, all of whose products l wear to cook in, but more an expression of wonderment that people are amused that those of us in my industry have our own work clothes.

We laughed about it at John's table and then he pointed to the fork logo on the brand tag of my shirt and we laughed again. l made a joke about how unprofessional it would appear for me to be cooking in my own clothes, or perhaps, board shorts and a raggedy T-shirt, and how that might create somewhat of a mistrust of the seriousness of my mission; we all shared a chuckle and they went back to eating.

A couple of days before that, my girlfriend, upon seeing another pair of striped chef's shorts, had remarked that l looked like l should be refereeing a soccer match. And just a day or two before that l had been in a meeting when the person next to me, seeing the Chefwear logo on my shorts had burst into laughter and then said, "Oh, how cute, Chefwear, did someone make those for you?" l wandered back into my kitchen, after answering John, but the question plagued my mind as to why it would seem so odd and/or humorous to people that we kitchen workers would have clothing specific to our industry.

Forty years ago, when l first got serious about cooking, one was asked one's jacket size and pants size upon taking a new job. This was because restaurants used to supply their cooks with the work clothes of the trade. A linen company would deliver, along with the tablecloths and napkins, racks of cook's clothing, on hangers, and separated by size; checked pants and white starched double breasted jackets. A lot of them even stenciled your name on the sizing label on the outside of the pants pocket. Yes, really.

Was l ever grateful to find that out. Previously l had worked for steak houses that gave you a logo shirt and you wore your own pants. And by the end of the shift your favorite or even less than favorite Levis were coated with a layer of grease, and by the end of two or three days they were no longer your favorite Levis. Now, in my new attire, no matter how greasy l got, at the end of my shift l could drop my dirty clothes into a linen hamper and forget about them. Yes, l still had to slide my greasy smelly body into my own clothes for the remainder of my day, but at least l hadn't worked in them. l wore shorts home a lot and some of the cooks would simply wear the next shift's pants home and back in the next day.

Naturally their were glitches; days when l wore someone else's chef's coat, snatched furtively from a hanger, and days when l wore pants that were either impossible to bend over in, or were cuffed three times at my ankles. But still, the "mud and the blood and the beer" as we used to say, were absorbed by someone else's clothes. And l liked that a lot.

Somewhere along the line, probably as early as the late 70's, but to the public's perception, more like the early to mid-80's, restaurants began to change. People's ideas about restaurants and food began to change as well. And accordingly the people working in restaurants began to change. For one thing, someone who pursued a career in the food industry was no longer consider a pariah, or a certified loser, as had been the case in my early days.

The older men l'd worked with, the ones with military kitchen and country club backgrounds; the ones who'd looked at me in derision at my lack of experience, were now gone; retired, moved along to the next place or dead. The restaurant "lifers", among whom l now considered myself, were disappearing. Dinosaurs, my few remaining cohorts and l called ourselves.

A newer type of cook was emerging. For some reason working in a restaurant became "hip" and leaving one's graduate studies to become a cook/chef was not at all unheard of. And these new cooks didn't take at all to the old style industrial looking cook's clothes. l started seeing a whole lot of my new kitchen mates coming to work in and then working in their jeans.

And much to my dismay, once restaurants saw this, they began, in a cost cutting effort, to stop supplying their cooks with the black and white houndstooth checks of my youth. They couldn't get away with discontinuing the jackets, as the starched white look was too classic, but the pants were fast disappearing. And in their place were the jeans and cords that the cooks would come to work in (it was a good thing more than a few pair of cooks checks had made it home with me).

But something new was happening and l'll have my hand shoved in a hot french fryer if l can remember when it began, but suddenly baggy chef's pants with elastic waistbands began showing up in kitchens. lt seems that a woman named Rochelle Huppin (of course, it had to be a woman) had not liked the old stodgy and starchy uniform she'd been issued at the Culinary lnstitute of America (and damn, they even had cooking Academys now) and had designed and sewn her own pants.

As if overnight, Rochelle's pants (so to speak) were in every kitchen in America that mattered. They were comfortable, they were cool, in more ways that one and they pushed the envelope of design and color. Yes, the came in the same old houndstooth, but NOBODY wore those. They also came in solids, wild and colorful patterns with food themes, and they came in stripes. Every kitchen had two, three, four cooks sporting different and wildly colorful pants.

America had a new industry. Sales of cookware, expensive knives and cookbooks soared. Chefwear spawned a wide array of imitators, some good, some bad, but as near as l can tell, most still in business. Chef's were on TV wearing logo wear. Housewives could suddenly quote Bobby Flay recipes and had monogrammed chef's jackets hanging in their kitchens next to their All Clad pan sets.

So this is in part why Chef Dave is in the jungle wearing striped Chef Wear kitchen shorts. Consider them the Carhardt or Ben Davis of my profession and please remember, best of all, l don't have to cook in my street clothes.

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.