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...

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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.