Wednesday, March 24, 2010



Mangos. So many mangos. A fast start to the season and then as the supply dwindles, a longing for, a wistful glance back at all the things that could have, should have been done. When I got back last year, after a year's absence, I found myself wishing that I had bought truckloads of mangos, pureed and frozen them and then had them to work with for the remainder of the year. Instead, by late April I was scouring the markets for the few stragglers who had stubbornly hung on the trees so I could realize my mango menu fantasies.

This year, I've been a bit more pro-active. I just finished processing part of a 20 Kilo delivery of the delicious beauties into frozen puree for ice creams. Umm, ice creams. And the other part I turned into two large batches of an all purpose sauce I've been working on for the better part of a year, "Salsa de la Jungla". Yes, that's right. First it was Chef of the Jungle, now it's Sauce of the Jungle. I've wanted to create a sauce that was uniquely and exclusively Costa Rican in both ingredients and flavor.

What I've been working toward is an intensely flavored, all purpose sauce that is almost like a Costa Rican barbecue sauce, without the tomatoes of course. I have been looking to create a sauce that can be added to other ingredients to "bump up" the flavor, but also functions on its own as something that can be brushed on or ladled onto cooked fish, pork, chicken or even iguana. And I believe, that after many batches and much experimentation (all of it highly edible, of course) I have come up with a recipe for a bulk batch that may or may not find its way into smaller bottles for resale.

The primary component is, of course, mangos, cooked for several hours with citrus; I've been using both mandarinas and whole kumquats (when they're available) and have been including a few rinds for a semi-but-not-too-strong marmalade effect. To balance the tartness of the citrus juice and rind I have been adding a local raw sugar, tapa dulce (canela), the cooked extract from sugar cane. Additionally I have been adding "miel de la cana", or "miel de pulga" (honey of the the flea) as it is known locally, a liquid extract also from cane. I like it for it's syrupy property as well as its haunting organic flavor and aroma, somewhat like a pumpkin or hard squash smells when it caramelizes.

Naturally with all this sweet and citrus flavor competing and combining there has to be something that cuts through the density of the mango and the cloying sweet of the tapa dulce, and this is where the local ginger and habanero chiles come in. I use a fistful of grated ginger and a couple of habaneros, thinly sliced. As the habaneros are never of the same heat level every time, I bite the bullet and take a gentle lick of each one that I add. The little heat rush I suffer is worth the greater suffering of adding too much and making the sauce an "experts only" version. One can always add more chile and heat, but it's impossible to take it out.

All of this goes into a stainless steel pot and cooks slowly for a couple of hours. The cubed mangos begin to break up and the citrus juice bubbles up around the sides, combining with the sugars to make a deep golden syrup. I taste and taste as it cooks, looking for that perfect combination of the sweet, the sour, and the ginger/chile hit. I am also looking for that vague hint of bitterness that the citrus skins will add. I want the sauce to have a voice of its own; one that sits up and barks a bit, but I don't want it to be unapproachable.

After the sauce has cooked, combined and stewed for a few hours, I puree it and let it sit to cool before it gets refrigerated overnight. I taste it again the following day to see if any of the flavors have "won" out in the balancing act and need to be mellowed, or in some cases, strengthened. Now I have a gallon or so of a multi-use sauce. As I said, it is great brushed onto grilled or roasted meats, poultry or fish or added into other sauces to boost their flavor. Lately I have been cutting it with coconut milk, mustard, chicken or fish stock and olive oil for a sauce to go with fish or chicken over rice. I am finding that the possibilities are staggering. The mangos are here and this year I'm trying to make the most of them. It's time to order another 20 Kilos.


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.