Monday, June 21, 2010

COOKING FOR BEN Part 1


I am standing in an unfamiliar kitchen with boxes and tubs of food all around me. I'm not sure yet where the pots and pans are and I can't seem to find the cutting boards. I have turned on a switch that says "oven warmer" and there is the unmistakable smell of burning fabric coming from somewhere near the stove.

This is just like the old days, hearkening eerily back to my time spent as a caterer. Recently, I have been taking my "Chef of the Jungle" act on the road. I have been donating my services and cooking skills as one part of a community effort to raise money to pay the hospital bills of a dear friend.

Ben Vaughn, one of the true "good guys" in our oceanside/jungle's edge paradise was brutally beaten while confronting some robbery suspects. Beaten to the point that he needed to be air-vacced to Costa Rica's only hospital with a brain trauma unit, where he spent nearly three weeks, much of it in intensive care.

Like so many of us here, Ben didn't carry nearly enough of the insurance necessary to cover the
monstrous medical costs that follow catastrophic injury. In response to the financial needs mounting from his shocking attack, this coastal community has risen up in support of Ben. A common bond seems to have united us and money from donations and fundraisers has been both pouring and trickling in to help Ben with the payment of inconceivably high hospital bills.

Ben has been released from the hospital and while he still needs a tremendous amount of therapy to even think about resuming his life, his recent appearance here showed the strength and character he will need as he faces the ramifications of this incident; physical, legal and spiritual, in the days to come. He has lost the sight in an eye and lost a step, but his willingness to do the work necessary is already apparent.

As donations and contributions began pouring in, my thoughts ran to, "what could I do?"

I don't have the money to make a straight-up donation and I don't have much to offer other than my skills in the kitchen. So it occurred to me that I could be offering my services in the kitchen in the form of fundraising dinners cooked in private homes. I would cater to small groups, meet with the hosts to create menus, cook for up to eight people, back out my costs and donate what I could to Ben's mounting assistance fund. I ran this idea by Geinier, my boss at La Cusinga and he generously offered to match what I could raise.

I put together my idea and posted it initially on Facebook. I got immediate response, not from prospective guests/diners, but from others who appreciated my idea. Beautiful flyers were donated and designed by Marcel and Rita at the magazine "Dominical Days", and a local printer did a stack of 150 of them for us for free. I was ready and willing, all I need was that first call.

And that first call did come, on a Saturday. On Sunday I was meeting with Sharon and Mac in their home in Ojochal and by Tuesday afternoon I was standing in their kitchen burning her napkins, kept, unbeknownst to me, in a pull out drawer below the burners, that was indeed an "oven warmer".

Sharon and I had met in order for me to, naturally, find the house, scope out the kitchen and, most importantly, write the menu. She had been part of a group in St. Thomas that had sponsored bi-monthly dinner fundraisers, so was a perfect first guest to try out my "Cooking For Ben" idea. And graciously, she went along with all my ideas, telling me to go ahead and cook what I thought would be best. Since that's the whole premise behind what we do at La Cusinga, it was on. I would do, essentially, a "greatest hits" menu, making it easier than trying to do something new in a new space.

Our menu would consist of four courses, just as it does at the restaurant. We would start with a chilled curried cauliflower soup, then move to a mix of lightly dressed organic greens augmented by crunchy "ceviche" of fresh palmito (hearts of palm). The entree would be fresh local fish (to be determined by Victoriano, the fisherman) with my "soon to be legendary" Salsa de la Jungla, a spiced rice pilaf, and whichever vegetables my organic farmers told me were the best. I offered a chocolate cake for dessert, but Sharon opted for mandarina pound cake topped with blackberry ice cream.

I put together my prep and purchase list on Monday, called in my produce orders, visited Victoriano to make sure he would be coming in with fresh fish and made ready. On Tuesday I went down to the little Feria that Citrus restaurant hosts in Ojochal and met with Mauren and Ademar, good friends and organic farmers. I came away with just picked whole heads of organic lettuce, fat/ripe tomatoes, small tight heads of sweet smelling broccoli and shiny red bell peppers.

Just across the main highway and down the rutted dirt road was Victoriano's fish stand and tiny home. There is no sign, just his raised concrete platform and his two ancient coolers indicating that someone might just sell fish here. We greeted each other warmly and I was given the customary kiss on the cheek by his buxom wife, Maria, whom he calls, with all the affection and love in the world, "Gorda". The lid to the cooler was thrown open, and there, glistening in among the chunks of crushed ice were eight, nine, maybe ten gorgeous silvery yellow Robalo, bright eyed and fat, each weighing at least 5-6 kilos.

Robalo (called snook in the US), is an estuary fish. It lives between the fresh and salt waters and the meat is pearly white, beautifully lean and mild. It lends itself very nicely to sauces and has just a touch of freshwater sweetness. I chose a six kilo fish, wanting to assure myself eight beautiful cuts. I have to figure on a 50% yield when I buy whole fish and need to do my math to make sure I get what I need. Victoriano packed it into one bag, packed that one into a bag of ice and I stowed it in the trunk for the short drive to La Cusinga.

I had the produce, I had the fish and I had brought the olive oils and herbs. That left me just a few short hours in the kitchen at La Cusinga to finish my prepping. I cleaned the stems from the beautiful mix of braising greens that my friends at Diamante Farms had brought me and picked the ends from the dark green "media metre" Chinese long beans that they grow as well. Bolivar from Diamante had chopped and cleaned a kilo of palmito for me and all that remained was to slice it thin and toss it with lime juice and olive oil, roasted red peppers and garlic chives. A few grinds of black pepper and a pinch of sea salt and it was packed up and ready.

The last thing I had to do was butcher the fish; the firm, fresh robalo. I marveled at how easy it was to work through the flesh is as I slid the knife down the spine and peeled the filets away from the bone. The filet knife slid again, between flesh and skin, leaving the whole filets ready to portion. I cut thick white steaks from the filets and packed them in a double wrap of plastic before putting them on the ice in my cooler.

The bags of produce, the ice chest with soup and ice cream, the fish on ice; it was all in the car and ready to go. I took a last look around, checklist in hand, and was soon behind the wheel and down the driveway at La Cusinga, on my way to Ojochal to cook some dinner.

So it was that I found myself in Sharon and Mac's kitchen, putting a light smoky glaze on her cloth napkins and kitchen towels and searching for the cutting boards. And it all came together quite nicely. I've done a lot of catering and it all comes down to preparation (back to the "mis en place is God" philosophy, for those of you who read that blog). I was well prepped and had left myself little to do but the actual cooking.

I made the rice, set up the fish to cook and when the guests arrived we were underway. Sharon had provided me with an interesting mix of two kinds of china and it was great fun to use different plates. The guests were charming and receptive; hungry and appreciative. The cooking and service flowed and the night passed smoothly and successfully. The oohs and aahs were deeply appreciated and it seemed that just because of the reason for each of us being there, there was a common feeling of sharing and unity.

At the end of the evening, as the envelope was passed, there was a moment that drew us all nearer. We were equals, chef and diners and it was clear that I was part of this and never considered "the help". The common denominator of each of us doing something for Ben was the glue that held us together.

It is unfortunate that sometimes it takes a tragedy, such as the one that befell Ben, to pull a community together. I hope it's not too naive of me to wish that we could feel that sense of sharing life and pain along with love and happiness without needing a common cause, but I suppose I do feel that way. At least for this small moment in time, however, because of what happened to Ben Vaughn, our coastal community is closer than I've ever experienced it being.
I do hope it stays this way.



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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
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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.