Wednesday, January 27, 2010


The following is a piece I wrote for the Ester (AK) Republic, in an attempt to explain Pura Vida and how it applies to we gringos.


Pura vida literally means "pure life", but the meaning is closer to "full of life", "purified life", "this is living!", "going great", or "cool!" It can be used as a greeting, as a word of farewell, to express satisfaction, or to politely express indifference when describing something. The phrase has become widely known; this highly flexible statement has been used by many Costa Ricans (and expatriates) since 1956. Some foreigners view the phrase as an expression of a leisurely lifestyle, of disregard for time, and of wanton friendliness. However, Costa Ricans use the phrase to express a philosophy of strong community, perseverance, resilience in overcoming difficulties with good spirits, enjoying life slowly, and celebrating good fortune of magnitudes small and large alike. Wikipedia

Chances are, if you know someone who has been to Costa Rica, or you are fortunate enough to get off the airplane there yourself, you have seen, or will see, a T-Shirt touting Imperial, the local beer, and the slogan “Pura Vida”. It is the Costa Rican national slogan and is probably identified with the country as strongly as the Hawaiian “hang loose” symbol and slogan are in that tropical paradise. “Pura Vida” appears on T-shirts with jungle frogs, toucans, monkeys, surfers, volcanos, the local beers and smiling brown skinned girls with prominent cleavage. “Pura Vida” is used in ad campaigns, travel posters, clothing displays, restaurant promos and more. “Pura Vida” is what Costa Rica sells to the rest of the world.

So up there in the northern 50, you say to yourself, “So what is this Pura Vida crap and what the hell does it mean anyway?” Good question, because down here in the jungles of Costa Rica, where I am, this is a point of some contention.

“Pura Vida”, means, literally, pure life. It stands, or should stand for, the purity of life as the Costa Ricans (from this point forth, known as Ticos) have come to see it and theoretically live it. It embodies the natural simplicity of things. It is a mantra of tranquility and a reminder of a gentler pace and ease of life. As you leave the grocery store, goodies in hand, the checker might see you off with a sweet, “Pura vida.” It can be the sincere “have a nice day” of the Ticos, or a thrown off response meaning nothing.

Pura vida can also be the response to a simple “como estas”, or how are you, And sure, Pure Life may be how you are my amigo, and since you’ve been saying it for countless generations, that counts. But, sad to say, it all too often rolls off the tongue of too many Ticos in response to any question, problem, issue, or point of confusion/bone of contention. Pura vida has become something more like a national excuse.

If your mechanic accidentally misconnected the ground wires and your engine is on fire, “Pura vida.” And when the car that you desperately need just to buy essentials like groceries and beer sits untouched in his garage for three, four, five days? “Pura vida”. When the electrician you need to finish the wiring job on your house so you can turn on your refrigerator and lights doesn’t show for several days in a row, “Pura vida”.

And damn, if it isn’t such an ingrained part of the culture here that, as an excuse, it actually works; at least for them. No one, no one, can allow their anger to show at “pura vida”. The Ticos are a nationally non-confrontational people, and to argue with “pura vida” violates their national ethos.

It grieves many Ticos to disappoint those who depend on them and often a lie (not a big one, but a lie) replaces the truth when answers are given. “Will you be here tomorrow?” is often answered “si/yes” when in all reality, the individual answering has absolutely no intention of being anywhere near that place tomorrow. Estimates of times of repair are often understated so as not to disappoint, or cause the worker to look bad in the eyes of the customer. Two days ago I was at a garage and a job that was quoted to me as taking 15-20 minutes ended up taking over an hour and a half. Perhaps you or I would have grunted in displeasure early on in hearing the honest time given, but would have gone about our business, making one plan work for another. To many Ticos it is embarrassing to admit that a job might take longer than you or he would like, and oddly he doesn’t mind nearly as much seeing you sitting (or pacing, in my case) in the waiting room for an hour.

Every gringo (mostly Americans, but can be Canadians, too) has their favorite “Pura Vida” story about jobs gone unfinished, loans left unpaid and mechanical work gone awry. Early on in one’s residence here in this lovely country, that first “pura vida” moment will strike and the only response allowed is a puzzled shake of the head and a grimace at one’s wallet.

My first “Pura vida” moments came as I was trying to open a restaurant on a shoestring, a wing and a prayer. I depended on Costa Rica’s only wholesale grocery/delivery company to bring the bulk goods; sugars, oils, flour, vinegars, and such because they were necessary, but also difficult to transport when one has no vehicle. Countless times the truck would make it’s every other week trip up my driveway without sugar or salt or frying oil. I would listen in disbelief and horror as the driver (who loaded his own truck) would tell me that none of these vital ingredients happened to be in their huge national warehouse. And then he would smile grandly, clap me on the shoulder and utter, “Pura vida” as he climbed into the cab of his truck and drove away.

So yes, “Pura Vida” is the Costa Rican way. It is indeed about a pure and easy way of life. If you don’t do, can’t do, or won’t do something; pura vida. It certainly makes things far less complicated for the individual who cites the phrase. Many is the time that the phrase, “Pura f#cking vida” has crossed the lips of my gringo friends, and many is the time that it will cross them again. After all, it is a way of life. Pura Vida.

Friday, January 8, 2010


This is a piece written for Dominical Days with a limit of 320 words for each part; maybe that's good for me.


When I moved to Costa Rica over four years ago and started cooking with local fruits and vegetables I made a lot of wonderful and delicious discoveries. Much of the thrill from those discoveries were finding delicacies previously unavailable to me. due to cost or shipping issues, that were suddenly plentiful.

One of those treats was and is Hearts of Palm, or Palmito, as it is known here. For years I only knew hearts of palm as a sort of slippery, soggy and tasteless spear that came from a badly decorated can. And later, in the early part of this century, I saw hearts of palm fresh, but priced prohibitively, sometimes as high as $13-14 a pound.

So I was excited to discover, upon spending some time at the Feria, that hearts of palm were not only readily available, but also quite affordable. Fresh, they were crisp, refreshing and ready to pair with so many other flavors. And not only could I find them at the Feria, I discovered that they grow up and down our coast here, hidden in the jungles. It turns out that Costa Rica is the world’s largest shipper of hearts of palm to the US.

Hearts of palm, as we serve them at La Cusinga, are cut from wild palms on our property. Only the soft core of the palm is taken and the young tree dies. Much of the palmito grown here, however, is taken from pejibaye palms, grown expressly for the purpose of harvesting the heart.

One of the true ironies of dining here on the coast is ordering an “Ensalada de Palmito” in a restaurant and receiving canned hearts of palm which have been grown in Costa Rica, shipped to the US to be steamed in a can, and then returned to Costa Rica to be placed, bland and soggy, on top of a salad for an unsuspecting guest.


I like using palmito raw. There are a number of recipes here in Costa Rica for palmito stewed, or braised with other vegetables, but I find that seems to obscure the already delicate flavor. Palmito can be sliced thinly and tossed with lettuces and a light vinaigrette, or, it can be done as a salad on its own. At La Cusinga, I make a very popular palmito salad that I serve alongside a green salad and garnish with a few marinated cherry tomatoes.

Palmito takes very well to citrus flavors and here, with so many mandarinas available, I have used the combination of the two to great effect. This recipe calls for roasted red peppers (chiles dulce), but using them raw would add to the nice crunch from the palmito. When cleaning your hearts of palm be sure to check that the stringy outside part is stripped away. Much of the palmito sold at the Feria retains a bit of this stringy outer layer. An easy test is to see how easily a knife slide through it, or, better and tastier, just slice off a thin piece and pop it in your mouth.


1# (.5K) Hearts of Palm, thinly sliced;

2 large red sweet Red Peppers (Chiles Dulces), roasted, peeled and cut in thin strips;

3 green onions (cebollinas verdes) sliced thin, all the way up to the ends;

Juice (jugo) of 3 Mandarinas;

1 oz. Good Olive Oil (30 ml)

Salt and Pepper

Toss hearts of palm with mandarina juice immediately after cutting to prevent discoloring. Add slices of chile dulce and green onion and mix well. Pour olive oil over top and mix again. Salt and pepper lightly. Let stand for at least 30 minutes before serving. Check for salt and pepper again before serving.

Serve alone or with dressed lettuces.

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.