Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Promised Land/Back in the USA

"tell the folks back home this is the Promised Land calling,
and the poor boy's on the line..."

That's what Chuck Berry said, but he wrote that in the early 60's, and as I've been finding out in the seven weeks I've been back, a few things have changed. Not that I was expecting my transition from two years in the jungles of Costa Rica to the United States to be easy or different, I was just not quite prepared for HOW eye-opening it would be.

I had been buying organic produce in Costa Rica, raised by local farmers in local fincas (farms) and had gotten used to the notion that I would be paying a bit more for the quality I would be receiving. What I certainly wasn't prepared for was arriving here and finding out that it was going to put a strain on our budget just to put a fresh green vegetable (and not organic or necessarily local) on our dinner plates each night.

Granted, it has been a long and difficult winter (and granted that this NWestern Oregon valley will turn into an agricultural wonderland sometime soon) and granted the the farmer, the trucker, the broker and the vendor all need to get their nickel (?!) out of the deal. I understand that, but when it costs nearly $1.25 per person just to have fresh sauteed spinach with one's dinner, that is frightening, horrifying. Zucchini was $2.99/# in our market the other day, fresh asparagus trucked "all the way" from California were $4.49/# and artichokes were THREE blinkin' dollars each!! Our default and "go to" vegetable has been broccoli, which is the only vegetable here under $2.00/# and it only gets under that by a penny.

Until I made a wonderful discovery (see below) just this past week, I had nearly given up on the notion of fresh fish, a staple of my eating habits in Costa Rica. We are a mere 90 minutes from the coast and the fish we see here is either water-laden, old and dry, or frozen. On top of that, the prices make a grown man holler; or perhaps weep would be more accurate. I paid $7.99 for "fresh: Canadian rock fish filets (they were on sale) last week and when I opened the package, at least two ounces or water came out of it. And it is just not feasible (even as a treat) to pay $17.99/# for halibut that looks like it went for a long, long ride from the coast before it ever got to us.

I have gotten used to cooking meat again, not that I'd forgotten how, but I needed to re-adjust my thinking to cooking for home. There is a very high quality local range chicken that comes on sale at $.79/# once a month or so at our local market and we have taken to buying three at a time and freezing them. If I do a simple and tasty roast chicken, we can get a first night dinner from it. Another night I shred it either for enchiladas or pasta and Kathy will still have some for sandwiches for her lunch. By buying the whole bird, we are able to get the cost down to about $.70 per person per portion. The irony here, is, of course, that we are able to eat a good portion of protein for less than the cost of our vegetables.

I've also been finding bargains with pork which seems to go on sale fairly regularly as well. I picked up an 18 ounce pork tenderloin on sale at $4.99/# and we got a really nice dinner and three lunches out of it. Pork loin comes on sale here quite a bit as well and that's something I've been able to stretch. We get dinner for two off a two pound roast the first night, escalopes cut thin and sauteed for another meal, another enchilada dinner (I've been honing my Mexican chops) for a third and yet more sandwiches for Kathy to take to work. Again, we can get our portion cost down to less than $.70 per, and again, that is less than the green vegetable that goes on the plate to accompany it.

All of this makes it easier for me to see why fast food restaurants do so well. I am a professional cook who doesn't mind spending time in the kitchen, and it takes time to be creative with where the various parts of our animals are going to go. For single parent families or families with both partners working, it isn't always feasible to buy economically and plan meals accordingly. A quick trip to the local fast food outlet feeds the family quickly, relatively cheaply and requires no planning; fresh vegetables be damned (well, there is lettuce and tomato on the burger, isn't there?).


A recent discovery through a tip from a co-worker may have done a bit to help with my seafood craving. Pedro, the lead cook at my new job told me the other day that he had seen a place on Lancaster in Salem that had live fish in tanks and that also had whole fish on ice. I had done my internet searching and had even gone old school and used the yellow pages, but as far as I knew there was no such place.

My deep curiosity led me to wander through Salem and over onto Lancaster, a street mostly lined with fast food franchises and strip malls. I nearly drove past the sign it was so hard to see, but there is was, four lanes over; a papered-over storefront in a nearly uninhabited strip mall with a sign that said "Pescados Frescos". Yes, in Spanish. I was going to blow it off and save it for another time, but suddenly two whole lanes cleared to my left and I was able to swing into the left hand turn lane. I hung the left and circled around so that I could get to this nearly hidden outpost that may or may not have good fresh fish.

I pulled right up in front, the only car in the parking lot and ducked into the front door. There was a young Asian woman at the register and a few scant aisles of groceries, but there, at the back, I could see some rather opaque plastic cases and what looked like fish on ice right in front of them. I gave her a quick smile and headed straight to the back. Yes, there in front, on ice, were whole striped bass, mullet, rock fish and even trout. Behind them in the plastic cases were four sizes and types of shrimp, squid and octopus. Next to them was a tank with live Maine lobsters. This was good.

I was delighted with what I saw and my delight turned to near ecstasy when I scanned farther back and saw tanks, big tanks filled with water and live things. The motors of running water filters hummed above them. The only people in the store were the young woman at the register, an older Asian woman in an apron with a broom at the back of the store and me. I nearly skipped over to the tanks and there they were, in the front, sacks of oysters and clams; behind them, huge tanks filled with live tilapia and behind them, further still, live Dungeness crabs, hundreds of them. Eureka, I had found it. Finally, fresh fish and live crabs right here in Salem.

I had to flag down the woman in the back to get her help. She was not entirely interested in me until I expressed my deep desire in buying a crab. I told her I wanted the biggest one she could find. The larger the crab, the better the meat to shell ratio and I wanted meat.
She donned a heavy rubber glove, reached in and started grabbing. The first couple she came up with seemed fine to me, I was so excited by this point, but she shook her head and tossed them back in. After grabbing a step stool to give her a better reach, she immersed her hand way in the back and came up with a large and lively specimen. He was huge (by Dungeness crab standards) and I nodded, yes, yes, yes.

She stood in front of my for a moment, holding up the crab with his legs churning and waving wildly. With brilliant economy of movement she had him in a paper bag and then in a white plastic sack and was thrusting him to me. Nothing more was said. She gestured to the cash register and walked away. That was it; I paid my $5.99/# for him (it came to just over $15) and hustled out to the truck.

I cooked the crab that afternoon in a classic "crab boil" of hot water, cayenne, smoked paprika, bay leaves, black peppercorns, lemons, garlic and onions. I dropped him into the boiling water (and no, this doesn't bother me one bit), let it come back up to a boil, and turned it off. When the water was cooled to tepid, I reached in, drained the crab, put him in a bowl and refrigerated him. I do not rinse the crab off as it just rinses away whatever flavoring agents one has put into the "crab boil".

The next night Kathy and I dined on fresh cracked crab with a green herb aioli, garlic bread and a big green salad with tomatoes and avocados. I was in heaven. Fresh cracked Dungeness crab is one of the first seafood items I learned to eat, at a very young age, and is one of my food cravings. And no, there is no Dungeness crab in Costa Rica. I will go back to the market this week, perhaps for a whole striped bass, perhaps for something else. It depends on what they have and what looks good. It's nice to finally have the choice.


1/2 Cup Chopped Parsley
1/4 Cup Chopped Chives
3 Garlic Cloves, smashed

1 Whole Egg
Juice of 2 Lemons
Dash of Tabasco
1/2 Cup Canola Oil
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
S&P to taste

In a small food processor, blend the herbs, garlic, tabasco, egg and lemon juice. With the motor running, drizzle in the canola oil slowly at first and then more quickly as the oil is incorporated. Repeat with the olive oil and when all the oil is added check the aioli for thickness. I occasionally like to drizzle a bit of warm water into the sauce with the motor running to make it a bit thinner. Check for salt and pepper and chill for a couple of hours. The flavors improve as the sauce sits.

1 comment:

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.