Wednesday, October 12, 2011


We are in the process, at our house, of (nearly) desperately trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Or, more realistically, preserve some of the tastes and memories of a summer that wasn't nearly long enough. Same thing, I guess. In any case, we are filling our freezer and cupboards with stacks and stacks of bags (thank God for zip-locks) filled with goodies that will help us to get through a long and rainy winter of tasteless vegetables and virtually no, good fresh fruit.

I have never really been a preserving, canning, drying, jarring (well, I can be a bit jarring) kind of guy. I've always worked in restaurants and being in that position can easily create the illusion of plenty. Sure there are no more asparagus, but we're going into green bean/snap pea/hell, brussells sprout season. Or, what, no peaches? Okay, we'll change that recipe up and do it with pears, or mangoes, or papayas or something. This is just the way it is in the restaurant biz, particularly when one is working in, or is close to an urban center (or better yet, living in the tropics where things just GROW).

But now things are different, far different. Kathy and I live at the Eastern edge of the Willamette Valley, nearly 25 miles from Salem, the nearest "large" city, and hardly an urban center. Even the "good" grocery stores here are not exactly hotbeds of produce bargains and while during the harvest season it is possible to eat locally, most of the food here comes from far, far away. Our summer here lasted about six weeks and we are at the tail end of a growing season that gave us late season tomatoes and squashes, but now is down to apples, pears, cauliflower and cabbage.

When I got here at the end of last winter I saw green beans for sale in the local supermarket for as high as $3.49/#, and the cheapest thing around was broccoli at $1.99/# and oh boy, did we ever get tired of broccoli. So our answer was to blanch and freeze as many of the green things as we could and we've now got bags and bags of our own homegrown beans and peas flash blanched and safe in the freezer. Sadly, I've got to admit, we absolutely BLEW through our own homegrown broccoli; what a difference!!

When it came to tomatoes we were of two schools of thought. Kathy is a dryer and she is the undisputed Queen of the Dehydrator (more about that later). As a result, we have several bags of dried tomatoes ready to contribute their concentrated flavors to everything from salad dressing to pesto to sauces.

I, on the other hand, am a freezer, and to me this means getting those tomatoes into a frozen state so that they are ready to contribute flavor immediately. I like roasting halved tomatoes in a hot oven (425 or so) along with sliced onions and whole garlic cloves on sheet pans in olive oil until everything is just taking on the edge of caramelization. The cooled and concentrated product is then rough-chopped and stored, flat, in ziplock bags. And we now have 12 large ziplocks filled with roasted concentrated tomatoes in the outside freezer. I will use these in braises, bean dishes, soups and any number of other applications. The only caveat is if we lose power and the freezer goes down.

Also helping to fill up the outside freezer are 20# of frozen local blueberries, 12# of frozen local raspberries and a couple of ziplocks each of peeled and chunked peaches and nectarines. And yes, the Willamette Valley does surprisingly well in the peach and nectarine department. I pretend that some of these fruits will end up in pies or crisps or cobblers, but truth be told, they lay in wait for several months worth of my morning smoothies. I use bananas and yogurt as a base, but the real flavor comes from the berries. My mornings are not complete without them.

Right now the previously mentioned dehydrator (and I can here it doing its slow turns right now) is filled with thin slices of Willamette Valley Bartlett pears, doing their drying out thing. Kathy brought home a 42# lug of the beautiful ripe fruit and she is doing her utmost to make sure that we have at least the taste, if not the whole effect, of those sweet pears all winter long. Her regimen involves peeling, coring and slicing and is indeed a labor of love. Last winter while I was still in Costa Rica she sent me several bags and I fell in love with their minerally and slightly grainy texture and their sweet expression of pure pear flavor. And now that the Bartletts are done, dried and in their bags, we're going out for a lug of Bosc. One can really never have too many dried pears.

Our last mission in the process of putting food by will be the last harvested vegetable in this valley, cauliflower. These too, will be flash blanched in boiling salted water and frozen. Fortunately I've found a woman who loves cauliflower as much as I do and we've both been watching the fields right near our house with great anticipation of the harvest.

I made the Fall's first cauliflower gratin early this week and it was wonderful, but even more, I love simply tossing big chunks of florets (1/4-1/6 head or so) in olive oil and sea salt and simply roasting them in the oven. I never, ever got passionate about cauliflower until I ate it this way. It is an amazing expression of pure cauliflower goodness, but if you feel like sprinkling a little grated Reggiano Parmesano over it just as it comes out of the oven, I certainly couldn't fault you for it.

And as much as I would like to think that this frozen and dried bounty is going to take us through the winter, I know better. Sadly, most of this will be eaten within the next three months leaving us, somewhere in the middle of January or so wandering the aisles of the supermarkets eying over-priced and underloved produce from far away. Kathy will hate me for saying this, but we'll just have to make the garden bigger next year.

As much as I would love for this frozen and

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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.