Monday, November 29, 2010


Last night it didn't rain. Two nights ago it didn't rain. Yesterday was a glorious day filled with sunshine and the sunset was a gift from God; a flashing of colors and light, the first of its kind in many weeks. Could it be, could it just be that we are ready to move out of this extended season of deluge and into our summer season? I may be a bit emboldened here, but I believe I am speaking for everyone on this coast that We Are Ready For It. Bring on the sun, the warmth, the humidity, the bugs...well, let's not go overboard.

The last three months have seen monsoon rains, floods, roads washed away and tourism at a virtual standstill. I have been to the US, had the US visit me and slipped an engagement ring on the finger of Kathy, the woman I will spend the rest of my life with. I have finished, except for the final editing and a few add-ons, the cookbook from La Cusinga that I have been promising my guests for the last six months. I am six days from reaching the anniversary of my 3rd year of sobriety and like everyone else down here, I am ready for the change of season.

And maybe, just maybe, this past weekend was the indicator, the advance notice, that our change is in the air. I left home on Saturday afternoon with the knowledge that I had four for dinner. Ho-hum, another four. I had enough fish cut, soup made, a jar of "Salsa de la Jungla" and part of a dessert left from earlier in the week. I wasn't much inspired by it, but I knew I needed to use it all up. In these slow times, total utilization of product is essential, though occasionally uninspiring.

I pulled into the La Cusinga driveway and as I passed Cindy she told me we were up to six. No big deal, I still had enough to cover them. I changed and when I got back to the kitchen there was Cindy again tell me we were up to eight for dinner. And then I remembered to ask her if she was factoring in the two guests who had reserved through our front office in San Isidro; "visitantes" we call them. She said she hadn't been and suddenly we were up to ten. This sudden turn of events would require some rethinking. Olga, one of my nightly helpers had been given the evening off, so I was working solo in the kitchen.

My plan to use the fish was foiled. There simply wasn't enough to cover all and in order to keep myself organized and from becoming more confused than usual, I wanted to serve the same menu to each guest. If I were a staff of two or three or four I might go for doing a choice of entrees or perhaps even more, but simplicity and clarity are essential when flying solo.

I had received my weekly allotment of two (I said business had been slow) plump organic chickens from Finca Coreotos that morning so chicken it would be. I knew I had two legs remaining in the freezer (shhh) so would braise the six legs, roast the two breasts (they're huge and four will feed 5-6 people) and divide them up among the ten guests. I had roasted tomatoes earlier in the week and had chicken stock in the freezer so that part of the menu was set. Braised chicken in a roasted tomato-basil sauce over achiote rice was the entree.

I had half a flourless chocolate cake in the refrigerator from the previous night, but that would only feed six so as I was working alone, I went to my favorite default dessert, Mandarina Pound Cake. It comes together in about five minutes and bakes in 30, so hey, piece of cake (sorry). I always accompany it with Mountain Blackberry Ice Cream and I had plenty of that in the freezer. Now I was rockin'.

Olga, bless her heart, had cleaned the entire bag of braising greens that had arrived on Thursday so I was set for one of my two vegetables. I had both broccoli and cauliflower from that morning's Feria in the reach-in, but didn't want to be messing with any extra saute pans since I would be slicing chicken breasts for the plate. I love roasted cauliflower so decided to toss large florets of both the broccoli and the cauliflower in olive oil, sea salt and black pepper for roasting. They come out caramelized and delicious and better still, don't require "a la minute" cooking.

This was coming together nicely and I was quickly into the salad course. There were small heads of organic red and green leaf lettuces from Ademar's morning delivery and a bag of nice peppery arugula; those would be the base. I had small organic tomatoes from the San Isidro Thursday Feria ripening and they would be perfect with a drizzle of the pesto I had made the day before.

I had bought a disc of locally made goat cheese from the Mennonites and wanted to pair that with some organic cucumbers delivered on Thursday. I also had some fresh palmito, so I ended up cutting the cucumber and palmito in equal size quarter moons, mixed them with strips of roasted red pepper and a small dice of garlic greens and tossed them with balsamic vinegar, mandarina juice and olive oil. The goat cheese would get sprinkled over the top after all three components of the salad were on the plate. I was nearly there.

Soup; yes I would need soup for my traditional first course of a chilled soup and it would be perfect as a starter in our new found warm weather. I had taken a small container of roasted tomato/frijole tierno soup from the freezer and since I had both the roasted tomatoes and come cooked frijoles as well, I would be able to stretch it. I put the soup and a couple of spoons each of the beans and tomatoes in a tall container and put the stick blender to them. While I was pureeing the veggies, I added a squeeze of mandarina juice for acid and blended in a stream of olive oil as well for that added suaveness. A pinch of sea salt and it was ready.

And suddenly there was Cindy again. "David, es posible para dos mas para cenar?" Could we feed two more people? We'd be up to an even dozen. And then she said he magic words, "Ellos quieren pescado". The would like to have fish. I keep a secret stash of small filets of pargo in the deep freeze and a piece serving two would be ready in no time. "Seguro, seguro", I told her, "no hay problema". And twelve it would be.

The first thing about serving four courses to 12 people by oneself, with essentially three different entrees (as I had to slice the chicken breasts and serve them differently than the legs), is to be organized; the second is to remain calm. I do have a tendency to get a teensy bit excited when I'm busy and when that happens, organization suffers. Oops, there go both needs out the window. But fortunately, Saturday night, calmness and serenity won out over the hyper-frazzle.
Once the chicken legs were in the oven with their accompaniment of white wine, roasted tomatoes and garlic and a touch of stock I knew it was going to be all right.

Just before service I poured out the twelve soups (damn I love serving cold soup) and put them into the refrigerator; Cindy would pick them up and serve them just after the guest sat. The braised chicken legs had come out of the oven looking and smelling wonderful and the four breasts were roasting at a higher heat. Against all odds, our guests came in in a perfectly staggered way. I was able to feed them two by two by two by two and then four at the end. It couldn't have worked out any better.

The salads required a bit of work as the greens needed to be dressed and placed first; followed by the wedges of sea-salted olive oiled tomatoes and their drizzle of pesto at the top of the plate. Next was the mixed salad of cucumber, hearts of palm and roasted pepper which I placed in front of the dressed greens and a crumble of goat cheese went over all.

Dishing up the chicken legs was easy. The plate got the achiote rice in the center, a small pile of braised greens (best cooked in advance anyway) on one side and a couple of florets of the roasted broccoli and cauliflower on the other. I plopped (or placed artistically, depending on your viewpoint) on top of the rice, mixed a small handful of basil in with the rich tomato-wine sauce and poured it over the chicken and rice.

The two fish plates were quite easy as I roast them to order in 7-8 minutes. By the time I needed to slice the roasted chicken breasts everyone else had been served and I could concentrate on slicing and laying out the thick juicy slices of the breast. Again, the sauce got freshly cut basil added to it, was reheated and poured over the top. Damn this was a good looking plate! And now it was time for dessert.

I had already figured out who would get the chocolate cake and who would get mandarina pound cake and had pre-cut the cakes. The plate-up was easy and the ice creams even cooperated by balancing on top of the cake. Yes. The real reward to watch as each and every plate came back nearly scraped (or licked?) clean. Yes, calmness, organization (and serenity) had won out. And better yet, it appeared that the rainy season doldrums were on their way out and we were heading into the fat part of our year; finally, a change of season. Here comes the sun...

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I know there haven't been many food related posts here, but it has been a while since the opportunity to cook has arisen. That hardly means, however, that I am without adventures.
This is another one brought on, at least partially, by our record rainy season.

Each morning at between 5:15 and 5:30, Russell, the huge and untrained German Shepherd of whom I am in charge (?), begins to bark; a deep sonorous and resonant bark. He barks at the first things that move and continues to bark until I roust myself from bed and then go wrestle with him to get him off his chain so he can run and poop and pee. We wrestle because he becomes so excited at the prospect of being free that he begins to buck and rear like a small horse. Of course it is in no way obvious to him that this impedes the muddy path to freedom.

Thursday morning was the beginning of another day of thunderous driving rain. It had rained all night and all day the day before. The ground was saturated and swamp-like in front of the house and the walkway beneath the eaves that help to keep Russell dry was slick with mud and rain from his forays out to bark in the rain. At dawn's first bark I rose to do my unleashing duty, knowing that the more quickly I did it, the more quickly I could return to a warm bed inside and the sound of the rain outside.

I eased the door open and peered into the gray dawn and the equally gray curtain of rain and there he was, leaping up on me with muddy paws and rank doggy breath. I pushed him back and down, as I do every morning, yelling at him "down" and "sit" even though it's as futile as screaming into a vacuum. Russell knows not word one related to obedience. He is trained by his masters with a rolled up newspaper slapped into an open palm and it is the only thing to which he responds.

We began our morning grapple to find the collar and subsequently the grasping of the all too small clasp that needs to be squeezed and pulled to send him off on his morning duties. This morning, for reasons unclear, he was particularly unruly and when he completely reared up he knocked me back and off balance. I lost my footing in the pooled and muddy water on the concrete porch and fell backwards, my back hit the door just as I was twisting to try to keep my tailbone from crashing into the concrete and the door slammed shut. Shut.
As in locked out at 5:20 in the morning on a calamitously rainy day with no power and/or water.

I was wearing a pair of thin sleeping shorts and nothing else. I lay there on the cold wet of the front entrance with a huge dog panting over me and a locked door behind me. I kicked at him and swore at him. Neither of those things opened the door. I pried at it just in case, but it was clearly, firmly and absolutely locked. Thanking God that I at least have the good sense to keep my muddy shoes outside the front door, I struggled to my feet, slipped on a pair of muddy Crocs and began the slosh around the house to see if it could be broken into.

I had previously broken in through the octagonally shaped kitchen window when I had grabbed the wrong keys upon exiting in my first week at the house. But I had repaired the crack I had made and had strengthened the lock. Good work. Around the back is impenetrable as the back wall is a corrugated aluminum door on a roller, much like that of a garage or grocery store. The only possibility was the bedroom window; open but secured by a spider-web wrought iron sculpture that covered it completely. If one was to push in as hard as one could, one might almost; but no, way too small for me.

I was now soaking wet and shivering a bit in the early morning rain. It may still be Costa Rica, but when it rains for days on end, the sun never gets a chance to do its warming work. I made my way back to the front door to see if there was something, some method of breaking and entering my own house that I had overlooked. Again I pried at the doors, the windows; working at the jams and attempting to find a slim piece of something that might be used to prise that once-broken kitchen window open once again. Nothing. I made this trek in the deep mud two or three times, before giving in and giving up.

I stood outside the bedroom window, which would be my only hope. I pressed at the iron bars and gazed at the slender opening and knew that there was no way that I was going to get through there. I pushed at the chain that held the two parts of the ironwork together and knew it would never break. I needed a bolt-cutter, or, wait, a small person, a very small person. I knew that Dan and Kim, the couple across the street might just have a bolt-cutter, but for sure had a small person. They have two sons, Reese and Wyatt, five and six years old.

Because it was still shy of 6:00 AM I retired to my car, blessedly beneath a carport, laid the seat back, shivered, and repeated the Serenity Prayer to myself, over and over. At least now I had a plan; I just had to wait until a slightly more neighborly hour to put it into action. There was no electricity and there would be no lights to inform me of my neighbor's having risen to greet the day, but they do have a two year old daughter and she, naturally, gets everyone up early.

I waited as long as I could bear and then slogged across the river that our dirt road had become, letting the pounding rain pour off my body. There wasn't much to soak, but it was all soaked. I stood beneath the upper balcony where Kim and Dan's front door was and sensed (YES!) motion and the early morning sounds of a household rising. I called out, "Hola, hola". And Kim came to the front door, blinking in early morning surprise and through the haze of the recently awakened.

I briefly explained my dilemma and within a few minutes tall Dan and tiny Reese were wriggling into ponchos and rubber boots and were accompanying this nearly naked neighbor across the muddy road to the back window. I explained my plan and they nodded, each of them not quite awake and certainly not at all clear on why they were out in the rain and the mud at this time of the day. We reached the back window, Dan and I pushed it forward as far as we could and Reese slipped through easily, handily.

The only obstacle now would be Molly, my own dog. She would bark or she would hide, one or the other. I talked to her and she let young Reese through and he made his way through the darkened and unfamiliar house to the keys. But they were hung too high for him to reach, I'd forgotten how short one is when one is six. Dan and I looked at each other wondering at the delay, but then heard the sound of something being dragged across the floor. Reese had spied the tall bar stool I have and was working it to under the pegboard that held the keys. He was using a technique I am now certain he had used before to get to things that might perhaps have been intentionally hung a bit high for him. A moment or two later his pale face was at the window, thrusting the keys forward. Victory.

Dan and I sloshed around the house one last time and opened the front door. Reese and Molly both spilled out and I thanked everyone profusely. By this time it was nearly 7:15. I had been locked out for almost two hours. I thought about sleep, but instead made myself a pot of tea and began my morning routine. Afterall, I had some thanks to give.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


A letter from the tropics...

Well, my, hasn't it been "a week" down here; quite a week.

(After I'd written this the Giants went ahead and won the World Series, we got a day and a half of sunshine and it has now been raining for 22 hours straight. Two major segments of the Costanera Highway that runs up and down the coast have fallen away and it is closed again today (or was earlier this afternoon). It has been a "rainy season" to beat all.)

Yes, there is, of course, that amazing Giants thing. I fire up my laptop and go to where they have a program called "AT BAT" whereby one receives a computer generated image of a baseball field and a computer generated image of a batter, either left handed or right, in the appropriate uniform. The pitches appear on the screen as blue or red swooshes (for strikes and balls, silly) with their approximate location, speed and type of pitch listed along with them.

It's kind of hard to follow anything if there happens to be any action. For example if there is contact the little box on the screen says either "ball hit (out)", or "ball hit (not out)", or in some cases, "ball hit (not out/run(s))".

Now the good news is that when there is not a major storm, all of these images are accompanied by one's choice of audio feeds; it is available from the home radio station of either team. Naturally, I choose the broadcast from KNBR (no, no more KSFO with it's jingle sung in wonderfully sonorous tones), and get the Giants regular announcers, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, or, as they are known affectionately in the Bay Area, Kruk and Kuip (kipe). I also get the glorious crowd noise.

The bad news is when the weather is bad it cuts off the audio connection, which leads us to the second part of what has made this "a week". We have been getting supremely intense rainstorms which are washing away the mountains and the roads and causing the rivers to swell up over their banks to flood out farm and family.

FromThursday morning until Friday afternoon we got 30 inches of rain in 36 hours. And the rain is so loud that it is impossible to hear music, the audio broadcast of the game (when it does come through) or someone talking to you on the telephone. The front yard here at Uli's is a swamp and on Thursday night, the laundry room (attached to the house but a couple of inches lower than the threshold of the front door) was three inches deep in water.

The small bridge that crosses one of the many rivers about five miles north of Uvita finally gave up the ghost and became one with the river yesterday morning, shutting down the highway for the rest of the day and until around 8 this morning. It has since been fortified with stone from underneath and one lane is open, but another good rain will wipe it out again. 15 kilometers south of us, just above Ojochal, where I used to live, the dirt has been mostly washed out from under a portion of the highway and all that remains of the outside half of either lane is a thin layer of asphalt.

I suppose I don't need to point out (but still will) that the road remains open, because this is Costa Rica, but one can only hope people are approaching it with some degree of trepidation. There is a huge amount of semi-truck traffic between the Northern part of the country and Panama, and this is their major artery. I am presuming that shortly one of them will crack off the remaining parts of unsupported road top and the truck will tumble off the road. That should be fun.

Thursday I drove over the mountain to the Feria and although I left in a time of no rain, by the time I got to Dominical I had passed through four spots where the water was over the tires. If I hadn't cracked off one of my remaining original crowns and teeth, and had a dentist appointment in San Isidro I would have turned around and gone back home. But coming back home was when the real adventure began. The drive back down the mountain was treacherous, but as I came around a bend in the road, almost back to the coast, traffic was backed up in front of me. "Oh shit", I thought, "this just can't be good".

I got out of the car in the driving rain and walked up about 15 cars to have a look. Sure enough a huge portion of the hillside had slid and covered both lanes of the road just 1 kilometer out of Dominical. And it was a huge slide. There was no way it was going to be moved anytime soon and no way anyone was getting through for a while. I ran back to the car, turned around before the oncoming traffic got too thick and covered both lanes, and headed back over the mountain to San Isidro once again.

I gassed up in San Isidro and then, trusting my instincts and what I'd seen, I headed south down the Pan-American highway to take the really long way home. It is 48 K south to Buenos Aires and then another 50 K northeast to Palmar Norte. The road winds along a river and passes by all the Del Monte holdings. Lots of pineapples. Palmar Norte is at the bottom tip of the Costanera, the highway that runs from Dominical through Uvita and Ojochal. It is another 40 K from Palmar Norte to Uvita. The entire time I was making the drive I was wondering if I had been too impetuous; whether perhaps I should have waited.

As I was pulling into the La Cusinga driveway after just over two and a half hours on the road I got a phone call from the La Cusinga office wondering where I was and if I was okay. It seems that I had made the right choice (and gotten out just in time); the road was shut from Dominical to San Isidro and there were slides in several places. The road wasn't cleared until sometime after dark and the people who had elected to stay and wait it out had sat in their cars in a driving rainstorm for nearly seven hours. It is a glamorous life here...

Last night, because of the bridge closure just to the north of us, we inherited a small wedding party. They had booked a ceremony and dinner at Costa Paraiso, just down from Dominical, for their tiny (13 people) wedding and couldn't get to it. We were happy to take them and their business, so I had an unexpected 13 for dinner last night. Where the Lord closes a door he opens a window or something like that.

On a different and much happier subject, Kathy arrives in Costa Rica late the night of the 10th and after she spends some time with her good friends Terry and John, I will drive up to Jaco (accent "o") on Saturday the 13th to fetch her and bring her back here. I CAN'T WAIT!!!!!

So there you have it, all the news that fits. The skies are darkening over and I'm kind of glad that the bad roads have kept guests from the Lodge today and that I get to stay home and "watch" the Giants on the computer.

peace, love and serenity


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.