Sunday, November 13, 2011

Roast Chicken Redux

The last time I wrote about Roast Chicken and the very act of roasting a chicken, the circumstances were significantly different. I was living in a house at the edge of, or perhaps right in, the jungle on the south Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The weather was tropically gorgeous; and the doors (doors? We had doors?) and windows were all open so that the sounds of the birds and the noises from the early evening habitues of the jungle were a soundtrack for the browning of the bird. I was wearing shorts, perhaps a light, and if so, unbuttoned short-sleeved shirt, and I was definitely, very definitely barefoot.

I wrote about the gently meditative quality that roasting a chicken offers to one's existence, even in a nearly equatorial environment. The simple act of seasoning the bird, placing into the hot oven and then drifting away into a book and some jazz was as close to cooking serenely as I could possibly imagine. The rich and comfortingly familiar smells of roasting chicken, coupled with the gentle sounds of a jungle evening were, at that time, the very definition of comfort.

This afternoon, one in which the sun is already so far gone it feels like evening, I am preparing another bird for roasting. But this is Oregon. And more specifically, Fall on the Eastern side of the Willamette Valley; right up against the slopes of the Cascades. The temperature is in the low 40's and the birds have all hit the skies for the south. The colors of the trees, at least the ones that are still in possession of their leaves, are golden, scarlet and rust made all the more striking by being set against the dark green of the firs.

In Costa Rica, I kept the accompaniments simple, not really much in the Roast Chicken canon goes with the tropical weather, and in truth, a good deal of the chicken ended up served over a neighbor's lovely creekside grown watercress. Here, I've got the weather on my side to create the full-on roast chicken experience. I've got a stalk of locally grown brussels sprouts and smoked bacon. I've got fat golden potatoes and pungent heads of garlic from our own gardens. And best of all, I've got a supply of rich chicken stock for the gravy that should so rightfully come from the pan once the chicken has vacated it.

I still have the jazz, oozing and snaking from the speakers, but this time the music wafts up into the smell of the smoke from our wood burning stove (not to mention the early scents from the chicken arising from the oven). The fading light from the jungles has been replaced by a wonderful steam on the windows and rather than easing into a cooling jungle evening, we are cozy and warm here in our wooded house on a cold Fall night. Best of all, I am not alone for this roast chicken, and it is SO much better to have someone with whom to share such a simple but basic realization of pleasure and yes, comfort.

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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.