Thursday, February 11, 2010


This piece was written for the March edition of Dominical Days.


Tomatoes! Ripe tomatoes everyday!

Yes, good quality ripe tomatoes are available year round here right near us and they’re cheap, cheap, cheap. You don’t have to settle for those rock hard, chalky, pale imitations being sold at our local mercados. If you are like me and unwilling to accept (or just not include in your menu) mediocre tomatoes until the “season” arrives, this is heaven.

Any regular visitor to the Feria in San Isidro can find “Tomato Nirvana”, seemingly year round. There are a number of vendors taking advantage of the amazing growing climate here to keep rotating crops in order to keep luscious flavorful ripe tomatoes on their stands weekly.

There are numerous stalls around the Feria that sell tomatoes at wonderful prices, but the one I frequent has mountains of tomatoes separated by size and price. It is run by one family and while Madre takes the cash, Papa and the sons keep piling more and more tomatoes onto their red mountain.

The cheapest tomatoes are the smallest and least cosmetically perfect. For these I pay the princely sum of 350 colones/kilo*, and roast for sauces and soups. The middle size is a perfectly decent tomato, great for sandwiches, salads and dozens more uses. The price for these skies up to 450 colones/kilo*. And finally, the largest of the three, great for featuring sliced as a salad command an outrageous (!) 500 colones/kilo*.

Yes, it’s true you will have to pick through the tomatoes to find the ones you like, but this allows you to vary ripenesses and plan your week of tomatoes. At La Cusinga I ripen them on shelves and have them arranged so that I always serve the ripest first. I NEVER REFRIGERATE TOMATOES. EVER. I look forward each Thursday to shouldering into the crowd, grabbing my three or four bags and pawing through the perfect and imperfect beauties so I can have ripe tomatoes every day of the week.

*For those of you reading this in the US, these prices translate at from $.32 to about$.48 per pound

Roasting and Roasted Tomatoes

A perfectly ripe tomato is one of nature’s treasures and shouldn’t be altered (except perhaps with a little sea salt, some fresh cracked pepper and a droplet of olive oil), an even better way to intensify tomato flavor is by oven roasting them. I first started oven roasting tomatoes in the US in an effort to coax flavor out of cottony, out of season imposters.

It seemed to me that if I was able to wring flavor out of nasty juiceless specimens, just think what would happen if I roasted ripe tomatoes. I did, they were great and they have become a fixture in my kitchen. No more long cooking tomatoes for sauce, and better yet, no more canned tomatoes. I make rich-flavored tomato sauces and soups with inexpensive fresh roasted tomatoes. And you can freeze these in ziplocs and thaw with no loss of flavor. Dollop them on fish, add them to pan-roasted chicken; add capers, basil or citrus zest. You’ve got the basics, now have fun.

Here’s how:

Heat oven to 450;

Pour enough olive oil on a cookie sheet to coat it, thickly;

Core 20 small ripe tomatoes and cut in half;

Lay the tomatoes cut side down on the oiled sheet;

Slice 2 large yellow onions into ½” (1.27 cms); break into rings;

Arrange the rings around and over the tomato halves;

Sprinkle 12-15 whole peeled garlic cloves over all, and;

Pour another good drizzle of olive oil over the top.

Salt and pepper liberally.

Roast the tomatoes about 35-40 minutes until the tops start to turn brown.

Remove from oven and let cool.

For an amazing tomato soup, hot or cold, puree the tomatoes and all the juice in a blender.

For a great no stovetop tomato sauce hand chop the room-temp tomatoes, mix in a little basil and hand toss with pasta. So good.

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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.