Monday, October 18, 2010

RAINY SEASON BLUES (and greens and flowing browns and reds)

Mid October; well not exactly, but close enough; we've already crossed the halfway point of the month, and we are nowhere near the end of what has been a particularly heavy rainy season. According to some study done somewhere, we have received nearly 70% more rain this year than is normal (although, this being Costa Rica, normal is a bit of a nebulous concept). The fact of the matter is, however, that there is mud everywhere.

What I can tell you about it from my personal experience is that the front area of Casa de Uli, where I am now house sitting, turns into a lake, a marsh and a bog; pretty much in that order each time we get one our almost daily downpours. It makes the trip from the outlying garage to the front of the house an unpleasantly slippery, sloshy and muddy journey and is particularly memorable at night when I get home from work. I remember Uli's parting words being, "I wanted to put down a load of gravel there, but didn't get to it."

This is the time of the year when my feet never seem to get clean; you know, really clean. I suppose I could wear shoes that had ties at the tops, to keep the mud and the ooze from squeezing in, but that would require my tying the laces which is entirely out of character for me. I trudge through the sludge in my Chaco flipflops for everyday wear and my Keen's for hiking and walking the dogs. Yes, the mud slides in, but I don't have to go to all that work to affix these footwear favorites to my feet. And the added advantage is that I can just hose the mud off my chosen footwear. Sooner or later, even those in sensible shoes will step into or through a puddle deep enough to come in over the top and then one must suffer wet, gritty and muddy socks. Ick.

I guess, also, I could do what most of the Tico trabajadores do and wear shin high rubber boots, but have you ever smelled your feet after you've taken them out of rubber boots? It's enough to make you want to slip on your flipflops and walk through the mud just to get the odor out. There are a pair of Uli's rubber boots here, shiny and new, but his feet are also substantially larger than mine and I definitely don't need the blisters that would be incurred by even a short trek in those floppy boats. And there is also the cultural faux pas of looking like a gringo wannebe when you show up in town with a pair of practically new shiny rubber boots on.

Business? What business? All of Uvita is a ghost town except for us year-round residents and the action at La Cusinga is exactly the same. Every now and then one sees a couple of Euro-kid backpackers hop off the bus staggering under the weight of their giant designer backs. They look around, blink and head off to the nearest hostel. At La Cusinga our guests are made up of those to whom we owe favors or to those for whom we are extending a favor.

Last week we had seven young French guests ("what do you mean we cannot eat at 10:00? Sacre bleu!") who huddled on the upper deck in their ponchos and chainsmoked Costa Rican Marlboros. This week we have guests from a tourist agency who are bringing prospective clients from other agencies through, the off season being the only time to be able to check out prospective recommendations. Later in the week we are hosting a couple who are part of a group building a GPS system for the waterways and mountains of this area. This is a gratis stay and they have told us we can just feed them "rice and beans". Right.

Buying food to serve (and keep fresh) for this kind of business represents a serious challenge to my chefly abilities. Potatoes, onions, hardy green beans, even broccoli and cauliflower are no problem. The interesting veggies; my precious lettuces, greens for braising, long beans and others of that fragile nature are harder to protect. We rely on turnover and our vendors rely on our being able to buy in slightly larger quantities than you might for your home.

This buying pattern doesn't make me happy and it sure doesn't make my farmers happy. And as seasonality and bad luck would have it, this is a time of the year that so many of the rare and exotic come into season in the raised beds at Diamante Organico. Each week poor beleagured Marjorie calls me and I have to tell her that I can only take a kilo of this, two bunches of that, and fruit ordered by the individual quantity, rather than bags and bags of her organic goodies.
I have to be careful to keep enough food around for surprise local guests of whom I have had few in the last couple of weeks, but not enough so that it rots and turns to compost in the refrigerator. And you thought you had it tough.

Am I freezing fish? Why yes I am. I portion it and freeze it as deep and as fast as I possibly can.
And I would challenge you to be able to tell me that it's been frozen after I'm done doing my magic to it. But still; it is frozen and if and when anyone asks me, I look them right in the eye and then I look away and say, "yes, er, yes it is frozen; that is, no, it's not fresh". Damn do I hate to have to do that.

So come on October, kick it over into November and then we've only got one more (long and wet) month to go. December will magically bring the sun, it will bring the guests and it will bring loads and loads of fresh veggies and fish every single day. Pura vida. Chef Dave.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010



I returned to La Cusinga in January, 2009 with a dream in mind. I wanted to create a cuisine that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered their guests physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here. Just as La Cusinga represents a sustainable form of eco-tourism, I wanted to offer a cuisine that reflected that same sustainability. I was on a mission to show not just our guests, but also the people of this community that it was possible to create delicious, serious, mostly organic food using entirely local ingredients.

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would create a new cuisine of coastal Costa Rica. I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the relationships that will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level. Dairy farmers, cheesemakers, rice farmers, ceramic artists, vanilla growers and cacao farmers; all are included in this vision.

I am often asked if I cook entirely locally and my answer, somewhat surprised, is always, “Yes, of course, why wouldn’t I?” This should be every Chef’s dream, to be able to provide the food for his guests with ingredients grown less than an hour away. Between the produce we grow here at the Lodge, the lovely organics I am able to buy from my loyal and local farmers, and the fish that come from the ocean I can see from my kitchen, we have created a cuisine here at La Cusinga that is original and unique to this area.

What we are doing is by no means unique internationally; after all the French have been using this model for years and the United States is home to a huge “farm to table” sensibility. But here in Costa Rica our world class fish and produce have been pushed to the side in an effort to create a more homogenous cuisine for tourists. I don’t believe we have to do that and I believe that the ingredients I get here at tiny La Cusinga rival those of any kitchen in the world.

I am proud of the food we serve at La Cusinga. I am proud that organic growers here have risen to the challenge of producing top flight produce and I am proud to be able to go right to the boats where our fish are caught. But mostly I am proud to be able to put food on our tables here that honors and respects the hard work of John and Bella, of Geinier and Henry and of all the people who make La Cusinga the world class Eco-Lodge that it is.

Monday, October 4, 2010



I must confess to being a bean lover and nothing is better, to me, than using a bean fresh, that would normally be dried. In the States, these are called “shelling beans” and they are taken right out of the pods and sold fresh. They are available at the Feria in San Isidro and during the season, there may be four or five types available.

The joy of these beans is that they cook in 45 minutes or less, cutting at least two hours out of the time on the stove. The real pleasure of them though, is the flavor and texture. These fresh beans have a richness, a creaminess and almost a “meatiness” when cooked that is unsurpassed.

When I see them at the Feria, they are usually laid out in bins, with a few kilos bagged up ready for sale. They are plumper and more colorful than their dried counterparts and there is a sheen to them, as if they have a healthy glow. The colors range from a pale pink to a mottled variegated pink and white to faint shades of green and yellow. Among my favorites are the heirloom variety, “Cua” which is a yellow-brown color, a bit more rounded than elongated with a deep almost nutty flavor.

I cook these beans much like I cook dried beans (except for a substantially smaller amount of time) and find that it’s best to start with a sauté of whichever vegetables you choose and the fat and meat from whatever pork product you like to flavor them. Sauteeing the vegetables gives them a greater depth of flavor that just adding them and letting them boil. For additional flavor I like to add a couple of spoons of of roasted tomatoes, or a handful of roasted pepper strips. You can of course, cook these beans in a purely vegetarian style, but they don’t call it “Pork and Beans” for nothing.


1 Large Yellow Onion, cut in ½” dice;

6 Cloves of Garlic, minced;

1 Carrot, cut in ¼” dice;

1 Jalapeno Chile (optional), cut in fine dice;

6 Strips of Bacon, or 1 Smoked Sausage (hot or mild), cut in cubes; or, 2-3 Smoked Pork Chops (it is quite tempting to use a combination of the three);

1 Ounce Light Cooking Oil;

1 Heaping TBS of “Jambalaya Spice Mix”

3 Fresh Thyme Sprigs (or ½ Tsp Dried Thyme Leaves);

4 Bay Leaves

Add the oil and pork products to a heavy pot and bring up to a good heat. If you are using bacon, try to get some color on it. Stir frequently and add the vegetables and the Spice Mix. Stir often, scraping up the spice mix if it should stick to the bottom of the pot.

Add the beans and herbs (and tomatoes and/or peppers, if you like) and cover by 2 inches with water. Bring the pot of beans to a boil and then reduce the heat until the liquid is just bubbling. Allow to cook for 15 minutes and then check the level of the liquid. It is best if it remains about an inch above the beans. Try not to let the beans cook at too high a heat or they will break up and not remain whole. It is important to keep the beans in enough liquid while they cook, but after about 30 minutes, as they get closer to being done, let the liquid cook down until it is just even with the beans. The beans are done when you can just squish them between your fingers. Remember that they will keep cooking as they cool.

Frijoles Tiernos are great served alongside grilled fish or meat, sausages, or along with either a highly seasoned and flavored rice dish for an upscale version of “gallo pinto”.

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.