Tuesday, December 18, 2012



We got our first blizzard warning of the year last Sunday.  It arrived in a modern and hi-tech fashion, via an unearthly screech from Kathy's iPhone. The screech brought breaking news from the weather watch that our specific area of the world, tiny little Scotts Mills, was going to undergo a series of wind storms with gusts topping out at 65 MPH.  Our personalized disaster forecast also advised us that we were in severe danger of power outages and falling timber as well.  Well.

We've been through the drill before so we went about our various chores designed and assigned to ensure that we would have light, water, heat and the other necessities should we indeed lose electricity.  Not only does electricity power our lights and stove, but our well is run by an electric pump; no power, no water.  I filled the five gallon and one gallon containers and together we cut kindling and stacked wood.  Kathy checked the flashlights, the lanterns and the candles.  I wheeled the generator out of the shed, fed it some gas and pulled the cord.  Lo and behold, it fired up on the third pull.  It seemed we were ready.

I made the executive Chef decision NOT to move any of the food to the outside freezers (which the generator would power) until such time as the power really did go out.  We are all well aware that the weather bureaus do have a wonderful time indeed working themselves up into a lather when the weather promises to get exciting.  If the power does go out our inside freezers give us a comfortable four to five hours before we even need to consider ferrying the groceries out to the back.

Ironically, or fortuitously, depending on how you see these things, I had begun a large batch of bird stock the previous day, incorporating the thanksgiving turkey bones into our large stock pot along with the remains of a few roasted chicken dinners and sundry leg and wing bones.  The stock had gone for many many hours at this point and probably could have been strained at that point, but as I am always greedy for every last little bit of flavor, I wanted to let it go as long as I could.  

That morning we had discussed the evening's dinner plans and Kathy let me know that yes, we still had leeks out in the garden.  They and some carrots were the last survivors of the year's garden.  Well yes, there was that giant ugly horseradish plant that I had insisted on buying, but it doesn't really count.  We've got buckets and buckets of home-grown potatoes so potato-leek soup was just the right thing.  Just the right thing because it seemed a perfect meal given the weather and just the right thing because that was what we had; potatoes, leeks and stock.

Potato-leek soup is such a simple joy, particularly if one doesn't mind peeling potatoes and cleaning leeks (I don't), because that's just about all the work that goes into making it.  Kathy was kind enough to brave the high winds and the mud to do the dirty work in the garden and together we uncovered one of our "winterized" water spigots and washed off ten nice leeks along with a dozen or so carrots she had rescued as well (more about the carrots later).

I split the leeks about 3/4 of the way up several times lengthwise and ran them under running water to get the grit and the mud out.  I diced them fairly small once they were clean and I had about a cup and a half of diced leeks when I was done.  I put the leeks in the cast iron dutch oven on a medium heat to get a bit of the water out and when the seemed to be dry I dropped in a nice chunk of butter along with some salt and pepper.

While the leeks were stewing to a sweet smelling transparency, I peeled eight medium sized red potatoes (we have yukons as well, but the reds go soft faster) and cut them into cubes.  When the leeks had gotten themselves into a nice gloppy green mass I stirred the potato chunks in and covered the whole thing half with stock and half with water and brought it to a boil.  That's pretty much all there was to it.  I let the potatoes completely turn to mush and then pureed the soup with a small immersion blender.  I add a bit of salt as the potatoes had sucked up a lot of it, as they are prone to doing, added a half cup or so of milk and it was ready.

I did let it sit and simmer for an hour or so on the lowest possible heat just to let the flavors do their "getting together" thing and adjust the salt and pepper right at the end.  We had nice steaming bowls of it along with some oldish but reheated La Brea roasted garlic bread and butter.  Warm, satisfying and yes, very very simple.  And no, the power never did go out

An addendum to this story is that today, two days later, we woke to 2-3 inches of snow.  The yard was covered, the cars were covered and still Kathy had to go to work for her final day before he Holiday break.  Since she was out in the weather I thought I would make something nice and warm for her to come home to, so I threw together a small batch of carrot-ginger soup.  We'd had the carrots and onions and the day before I had picked up a chunk of ginger about the size of my thumb, or maybe your thumb, at the store.

I followed pretty much the same process as for the potato-leek soup with the carrots.  I chopped one medium onion and grated about a teaspoon of garlic.  I stewed these very slowly in butter while I peeled and sliced the last survivors of our carrot crop.  I did stir in a teaspoon of brown sugar with the onion-ginger mix and cook it for a couple of minutes before I added the sliced carrots.  I stirred them so that they coated with the butter and then covered the vegetables with water.  Since the carrots have such a sweet delicate flavor I didn't want to overwhelm them with the predominant turkey flavor that the stock had come out with.

The soup cooked for about fifteen minutes, or until the carrots were quite tender and then, once again, I took the immersion blender to them.  Presto, a lovely fragrant carrot-ginger soup.  Don't tell Kathy, but I did adjust the salt level just  a tiny bit.  

So when the weather is nasty, keep it simple with your cooking.  You get more reading done that way.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Freezer Full of Fruit

A Freezer Full of Fruit; Ruminations on Smoothies and more...

Those of you who have been following me and this blog with any regularity (and Lord knows how, at this stage of our lives, we hate irregularity) might remember a little paean I wrote in my final days in Costa Rica to the ritual of my morning smoothie.  Ah yes, the passion fruit growing at my door, the locally made (by the Mennonites, yet) goat yogurt, any one of a  number of species of mango or papaya; oh they were smoothies to behold, rich and dreamy, fragrant and lush.  I would sit out on my back patio on those jungle mornings, smoothie mustache in place and glass in hand, and listen to the symphony of the tropical birds while I pondered what passed then for the absolute bliss of life.

Fast forward, and in reality, kind of a slow gentle forward, and here I am in the first week of my second October on the east side of the Willamette Valley.  If I walk 400 yards down the gravel road that passes in front of our house I can see the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.  Fate, Life and Love have brought me here and that's a good thing.  Something that has NOT changed is my morning desire for a fresh fruit smoothie, however.  Whereas in Costa Rica the changing of the seasons was not overtly reflected in the day to day availability of fruit here, in one of the richest farming valleys in the United States, the seasons rule.

Last winter, my first in Oregon, I made plans.  I was bound and determined not to have there be the slightest interruption in my precious morning ritual. I saw the amazing abundance of fruit that seems to become ripe all at the same time and all of it practically overnight and I wanted it all.  I bought fruit, mostly berries, flats of berries; raspberries, blueberries and blacks.  I bought a lug of peaches, I bought a lug of pears.

I froze my precious fruit in a mountain of ziplock bags.  I was certain that I would be ready for the cold barren winter and that while others were eating instant oatmeal I would be enjoying my fresh fruit smoothies; blackberries, blueberries, pears, peaches and the ubiquitous banana (for ballast) all winter long.  The trusty blender and I hummed together contentedly imagining the taste of summer in each glass.

The bitter, cold and angry truth was that I didn't even make it out of January.  I had grossly under-calculated the amount of fruit needed to make it through the winter and I was stuck with bananas and whatever the hell else I could cobble together for the next many months.  I used canned pears, really expensive store-bought frozen peaches and bags of frozen berries from the local farm stand store.  I felt defeated, but I had learned.

Fate would have it that sometime in early summer this year we inherited a stand-up freezer from the catering company where I work.  It went right into the shed; tall, clean, empty and waiting.  I knew what I had to do to fill it and I began to eye the berries covetously as they crept toward ripeness, the pears as the formed on the trees.

Let me stop here and digress, however briefly, about what it is for me that makes the best, the proper, the most satisfying smoothie.  Three, yes three fruits are required, and this is only in Chef Dave's World of course, for the perfect smoothie.  Two fruits, no matter the ripeness and quality fall short in filling out the palate of flavor a smoothie requires.  Four fruits or more merely muddle the mix.  No, three is the perfect number and one should be and is always, a banana.

The banana serves (as mentioned above) as valuable ballast.  I am of the school that believes, truly, that the only good banana is a ripe banana and so I buy them several days before the using.  I allow the natural sugars to develop because if I wanted a starchy smoothie, I'd just throw in a potato.  Granted, I was spoiled, ever so spoiled, by the bananas in Costa Rica but that is such a long and deep "other subject" that we won't go into it here.  Suffice to say that the banana forms the semi-neutral flavored "body" of the smoothie.

The medium notes of flavor seem to best come, at least in these parts, from sweeter and only mildly acidic fruits such as peaches or pears.  These take the part of the "mango/papaya" flavor in the middle body of the Oregon smoothie composition.  I had scarcely expected to find decent peaches here, but lo and behold they grow rather nicely and I availed myself to two twenty pound lugs of them.  They called them #2's at only $.50 the pound and oh my God what a deal.  I didn't require them to be unblemished, I required them to be sweet and flavorful and they were all of that. I remember smiling to myself as I stood over the kitchen sink peeling them and paring them into their zip-lock homes.

I had never considered the pear to be a good smoothie fruit, but then I had never been in place or time where I need to make such a consideration, either.  It turns out that the Bartlett pear for which Oregon is famous makes a seriously good middle flavor to sit on top of the banana.  It generously provides a lovely sweetness along with a hint, just the slightest hint of acid.  Again I waited until the peak of the season and again I scored two 20 pound boxes at a steal of a price.  I read online that one needs to pack pears into a syrup or to blanch them for freezing.  Malarkey!  I tossed them in the juice of a few lemons and they are solid and ivory white in their clear plastic homes in my tall stand-up freezer.

And lastly, but hardly leastly, the berries.  The Willamette Valley is home to what may be (and yes, I know I will get argument here, but I am prepared to face it) the best and broadest selection of berries in the US.  I could have bought examples of at least 15 kinds of berries to freeze, but I contented myself with the basics of the valley:  Raspberries, Blueberries, Marionberries (cheap and plentiful from the Russian family down the hill) and of course (see the previous post) the gloriously free Blackberries that grew ten minutes from my own front door.  And those berries in Oregon do exactly what the passion fruit in Costa Rica do for the smoothie; the lively acid squirts up between the ballast of the banana and the middle notes of peach/pear and sings, yes practically sings at the top of the palate.  It is the acid of a raspberry or the acid from the maracuya (passion fruit) that elevates my smoothie into a SMOOTHIE!!!

And so the freezer, that tall deep freezer is nearly filled with fruit.  I have managed, I hope and pray, to collect, process and freeze enough to tide me over until at least the early signs of summer.  Oh, I may cheat along the way; just this week I bought several pounds of local Bosc pears to use instead of raiding my supply, but I do believe that 3 flats of Raspberries, 25 pounds of Blueberries,  8 gallon ziplocks of Marionberries and another 8 gallons (plus 12 quart yogurt containers) of my own hand picked Blackberries will be enough.  Nancy's of Springfield provides the yogurt and the store bought bananas, as long as I stay ahead, will be as sweet as they can get here stateside.  The blender is Kathy's mother's Osterizer from the 50's and it should purr and hum and blend and grind forever.  Bring on the winter.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Blackberry Sunday

It is Sunday, September the 16th, the first day of the second half of September and one of the last five days left this summer.  The sun is bright, the air is warm but "fallish" and it is the perfect day to grab my heavy wool shirt, ask Molly the Moo if she'd like to "go for a walk", and stroll down the dirt road that runs in front of our ridgetop house.

At the end of this particular straightaway the road itself bears right, but Molly and I know to go to our left, through the yellow gate and onto the logging road.  That's where the blackberry bushes are.  It is also where there is a spectacular view of the first slopes of the Cascades.  And it is where we are completely alone.

It's an odd and wonderful feeling to stroll past densely packed bush by densely packed bush and to think that no one else comes here to pick, to revel in, to be AMAZED by, all these perfect blackberries, not to mention the view.  And maybe that's good.  It seems a waste, but then each time I come down here with Molly I know exactly where the biggest ripest berries will be because they will be right where I left them.

 I have filled quart yogurt jars, gallon zip-lock bags and even a blue plastic dishpan with blackberries here and never seen a soul.  I have seen deer and Molly has had her chase at them.  The bees buzz around me in warning, but we co-exist. We think we've heard the bear huffing and snuffing, but haven't encountered him yet.  We can hear the cars crunch by on the gravel a couple of hundred yards away, but other blackberry pickers?  Never.

I always have a song in my head and today while I pluck the ripest and fattest of the shiny berries from the thorny vines I sing snatches of the Byrds' version of Bob Dylan's You Ain't Goin' Nowhere.  The buzzing of the bees and the sound of the thorns catching at the sleeves of my heavy shirt are all I hear as I half hum-half sing, "...gate won't close the railings froze...".  Later, as I wander a little farther down the weedy logging road I find that I have morphed into Bob Will's "Stay a Little Longer; "pull off your coat throw it in the corner, don't know why you don't stay a little longer..."

I'm wistful today, from the changing of the season as shown to me by the ripeness of the berries, I suppose.  Some are so ripe they fall from the vines when I pick the ones next to them, while others are withering and drying.  The fattest of the berries are plump and full of flavor and juice, nearly collapsing into themselves as I drop them into my bag.  This spot, this splendid isolated smidgen of paradise may not be here next year in this secluded form.  I can see the blue and orange plastic ties of the lumber company on some of the bushes and Kathy has mentioned that this area may be cut in the coming year.

I wander from patch to patch, smiling at how the size of the fruit and even the temperature of the berries changes from bush to bush, and from one side of the road to the other.  I don't linger at any one bush, but meander past all of them, "berry picking" only the fattest and ripest.  After all, they ARE all mine.  I have learned, from Kathy's advice, to wander around the sides of the bushes and behind them, to find secret stashes of berries that catch a perfect morning or afternoon sun.

This is my time, Molly's time.  We have no schedule, just a plastic bag to fill, or not fill.  Molly sniffs and wanders, never quite sure why we need to come to this particular spot, but happy to get to go.  Just the going is so important to her.  To me, it's the solitude, the quiet, watching the subtle changes even in the berries.  I love to stretch for branches just out of my reach and to step down on the vines that protect the inner fruit.  I could wear long pants and get farther in, but why?  It seems enough of a concession to wear the long sleeves.

I work my way down one side in the shade and back on the other in the sun (but not religiously, sometimes veering and varying).  The shirt is getting warm and the bag has a little tiny leak from catching on the thorns.  Molly walks ahead a bit and comes back, walks ahead and comes back.  She's getting bored, but I am lingering just a bit.  Will this be the last visit this year?  I know I need to come back, but schedules, work, life, all those things get in the way.  I have today, I have my songs, I have my berries.  I think we'll go home.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cooking At La Cusinga!!!

Cooking At La Cusinga with The Chef of the Jungle

Yes, finally, my cookbook of recipes culled from my time at La Cusinga Lodge in Costa Rica is finished and available in a number of different formats.  The book is in color and has a number of very nice color photos of food, ingredients and the area around the lodge.

I am selling a beautifully printed high quality paperback that is both signed and numbered out of my home for $24 with postage and handling included.
It can be bought with a check sent to:
David L Mahler
PO Box 397
Scotts Mills, OR  97375,
or, by Pay Pal payment to:

I am also selling a downloadable .pdf file through the same payment channels for $12.

Cooking At La Cusinga is also available as a "print on demand" paperback and/or as a kindle download through Amazon.com.  Additionally it is available as an ebook through Google books.

Those who have bought the book have been effusive in their praise and here are some of the comments I have heard:

"Greetings Chef Dave; Gayle and I just picked up our signed copy of your wonderful cook book....and are sitting here this moment drooling over the many delicious culinary delights you put in there. Thanks so very much for sharing this wonderful cooking experience with the world."

From Patrick Pealer, "Hey Chef, we got the books! You should be extremely proud. (as I am) They are beyond gorgeous. We thank you more than words allow."

Received your fabulous book yesterday afternoon! My husband and I are so excited about cooking fish over an open fire! We have a firepit, and a grill that fits on top of it...so we are pretty much ready to go!!!! Also learned something totally new about olive oil. Just read your explanation to my David. One of my favorite sections is Salsas/Sauces...these are going to be such fun to prepare and enjoy!!!!! Thank you, Chef Dave! Your book has a special place in our kitchen and in our hearts ♥ ♥

My friend Pat Benson received her cookbook yesterday and this is what she had to say:
"David, your cookbook is amazing. The details, photos and of course recipes show what a talented and dedicated Chef you are. Thank you for keeping this project alive and bringing it to print. It was a long road, for sure."

"Book arrived yesterday; I second Pat's emotion. I got a particular kick out of checking off all of your dishes I'd eaten and jonesing over the ones I missed. Bravissimo! Your writing took me right back to LC. Very gracious tone about the whole work from One Classy Chef of the Forests North & South." Chris Migliaccio

So don't miss out on this very special cook book.  The recipes are exactly what I served at La Cusinga and the book is filled with great cooking tips and in depth explanations of techniques and "the why and wherefore" of the recipes.  Additionally the book has an in depth glossary of local ingredients and terms and is beautifully indexed.

Please get in touch with me now to get your own signed and numbered copy.

Monday, July 30, 2012


I am a chef.  And I am the author of a cookbook, a real live cookbook (“Cooking at La Cusinga with Chef of the Jungle”, available on Amazon and Google).  Finally.  It sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Lots of chefs write cookbooks, and lots of people who are not chefs write cookbooks.  How hard can it be to write down some recipes, especially if you create them every day?  As it turns out, the writing is the easy part, but self-publishing a finished, beautiful, heft-it-in-your-hand-and-drool-over-the-photos cookbook took a lot more steps than I knew existed.

The writing and publishing spanned two countries and two years.  Working at eco-lodge La Cusinga on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, new recipes tripped over one another as I discovered the underutilized bounty of amazing ingredients available.  Shrimp, mangos, ayote, mandarinas, hearts of palm, artisanal goat cheese—these ingredients don’t show up in the faux French restaurants that tourists flock to, and the locals stick to beans and rice.  I got to know the owners of tiny organic farms and bought fish right off the boats.  The lodge was full of guests and rare was the day when I wasn’t asked for a recipe for one my “fabulous” fresh tasting dishes.  “You should have a cookbook, why don’t you have a cookbook?”  I heard it so often I started to believe it.  My boss offered his backing, and we were off and running.

It took about 250 hours of writing and menu testing to get the recipes down on paper.  The photos I took on the fly as we served the food.  With a talented local artist working on the cover, we were getting closer to production.  Under the vagaries of life stepped in, and I found myself moving to the Willamette Valley in Oregon to be with my fiancée, leaving the tropics behind but confident that I could find a small publishing house interested in “Chef of the Jungle”.  After all, isn’t Costa Rica the darling of high-end vacationeers in the U.S. and elsewhere?  But I got a quick turndown in some cases and no response at all in others.  “No one cares about Costa Rica” was the opinion of one publisher.  I shelved the book.  I sulked.  I immersed myself in cooking.

Fast forward six months.  With strong encouragement (read kick in the pants) from my fiancée and family, I pulled the files back up and took a look.  It wasn’t bad.  It was better than I remembered.  In fact, it was even pretty good.  Good enough that I blithely thought, in this day and age of on-line wizardry, “I’ll just publish it myself.”  Ha.

It helps if you have a team.  My sister, a professional indexer, edited and indexed it for me.  (We all know how crucial a good index is to a cookbook, how many times have you cursed when you couldn’t find an entry for “chard” because it was under “Swiss”?)  My brother-in-law worked on the cover.  Together they formatted it and dropped the color photos into the right places.  My younger sister did the copy editing, weeding out stray commas with a vengeance.  They all, bless their hearts, made “suggestions”.  Suggestions incorporated, final adjustments to color, indexing, and table of contents made, photos in place and text formatted, it was starting to look like a book.
But there are more steps than that.  A book has to be copyrighted.  It has to have a barcode.  It has to have an ISBN number, two in fact—one for the hard copy and one for the .pdf version.  Check, check, check.  It was ready to sell.

Sell, yes, but how?  So many people had told me that it was incredibly simple, a piece of cake (no pun intended) to create an ebook through Google or Amazon.  Uh huh, right.  That would be for those of you that are versed in the intricacies of .pdf and jpeg files, of royalty and pricing platforms.  I floundered in the minutiae of Google’s instructions (where the book still languishes).  I did manage, after several false starts, to get the book into a Kindle format using Amazon’s KDM program.  Still working with Amazon I dug into their Create Space program to turn the book into a “print on demand” paperback.  Create Space reported the book ready to print and sent me a proof (not free).  Some issues remain, but with Create Space you can fix things as you go.

Some of us are still adherents to real books, made with paper and with pages you can turn, and I wanted printed copies that I could sign and sell, that you could prop up in your recipe holder or give to your aunt for Christmas.  I needed a small, high-quality printer that would do a run of 100 books or less, all that my budget would stand.  On a lead from an old Mennonite bookbinder practically in my own backyard, I found a small printer, Gorham Printing, up in the tiny town of Centralia, Washington.  The price was right, and off went the .pdf files.  Now I had both digital and hard-copy books I could sell.

Ah, yes, sell.  As in, marketing.  Ugh.  I turned to Facebook—mocked by many, but still a great way to reach people.  A copy of my book cover posted, I sent it to every “friend” I could think of, and, by virtue of Facebook’s pervasiveness, to some I couldn’t think of as well.  I pushed the ease and familiarity of buying it on Amazon.  I pushed yesterday, I pushed the day before yesterday, and I pushed this morning.  I wangled a full-page story in a Costa Rican newspaper, and put an ad in a coastal magazine.  I’ve been lucky enough to have a good number of pre-orders, some Kindle downloads, and a handful of “print on demand” paperbacks.  I got great help getting here from friends and family, but now it’s up to me.  Sales, R&D, bookkeeping, inventory control, and tech support.  And, oh yeah, I’m also the author of a cookbook.  And a chef.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Empanadas, Big Party and What We Learned

Two things, there are two things I did this Saturday past that I knew better than to do, but did, in fact anyway, thereby causing myself a certain degree of both misery and pain.

In reality, one of them began far earlier than this most recent Saturday, when several weeks ago I was asked about, and was pontificating on, in a Chefly way, which hors dooveries we could serve at a big ol' wine tasting event (400 guests), one in which we would need 1000 pieces of whatever we chose (two items). I posited how it might be nice, and something no one else would be doing, to make and serve empanadas as one of our offerings. Yes, empanadas; little pastry crescents filled with some attendant goodness, baked and sauced appropriately. This is not something that I've often done, but it sure did sound good in my boss's office that day.

My other suggestion was to do Mushroom Risotto Cakes, something I've been doing for years. These are a surefire hit when topped with some kind of nice aioli, and I chose a green version flavored with vast quantities of green onions and parsley for this one. This is a pretty easy app to put together although it does require standing and stirring a massive steaming cauldron of napalm-like boiling rice for close to 25 minutes. Once that's done and the risotto is poured out onto sheet pans the rest is pretty easy. It gets chilled, cut out and breaded and is ready to be fried or baked. And it is a great vehicle for using up all the ends and funky chunks of cheese that a catering company/restaurant naturally seems to gather in the course of sending out multitudes of cheese trays.

My boss, said, "oh cool" or the equivelent thereof to my suggestions and so it was to be.

The week arrived upon which the party was to be held thinking ahead, as I am occasionally prone (prone indeed) to do I asked our kitchen manager to order me 20# of boneless beef chuck. I was thinking that I would braise it, days in advance, in a low and slow fashion, so as to have time to shred it and mix it with various and unique flavoring agents. Plan ahead and do this sensibly, day by day. That sounded good, at least in my tiny mind and on paper.

I ambled into the kitchen two days before the blessed event (lots of ambling going on when this is the only gig of the entire week) to get that big chunk o' meat in the oven along with some onions and garic and chiles and red wine, and received a major surprise. The big ol' chunk of meat I expected to drag out of the cold and into the warm is NOT 20# of beef chuck, but is instead, two 10# tubes (yes, 20#) of ground chuck. It was boneless, yes, but hardly suitable for our purposes.

So we did a lot of phonin' and we did a lot of moanin' and finally we arranged to have the 20# of boneless beef chuck delivered, but because it came from somewhere far away it would not arrive until the morning of the day before the blessed event. I began to mutter my favorite quote about mice and men. It was going to have to wait until Friday and that's just the way it was going to be.

I pulled in Friday morning and proceeded to ready the large chunk of chuck for the oven. I started off by sticking it all over with a boning knife, salting and peppering it and then rubbing it down with a paste of garlic, jalapenos and olive oil. I sliced five onions and spread them over the top and all around the spiced and rubbed meat. I poured in a two cups each of wine, stock and water, double wrapped it in foil and started it off on it's long relaxing journey to tenderness in a 325 degree oven. I didn't know it at the time, but this journey to tenderness would not come until waaaay later in the day, when I had left the building.

I hauled out the giant rondeau (a large, low and heavy cast aluminum pan) and after much stirring and not an insignificant amount of perspiring managed to get five sheet pans of garlicky cheesy mushroomy risotto made in the meantime (where does the phrase/word "meantime" originate from, anyway? Yeah, I know, google it). Next were the sauces for the risotto cakes and the empanadas. As I have mentioned, the risotto cakes would get a nice rich green herb aioli while the empanadas (which I have not mentioned) would get not one, but two sauces, each based on roasted peppers, one red and one yellow, but with decidedly different flavor profiles. Both would be olive oil mounted purees, the red flavored with roasted garlic and chiles, the yellow with sherry vinegar, shallots and dijon mustard.

So we arrived, the noble and hardworking Pedro and myself, at 9:00 Saturday morning knowing that we had to cut and panko (my kind of verb) the risotto cakes which would be a snap, if a time consuming one, but also that we had to assemble the empanadas from scratch. And this is where the first of my "knowing better" bells began to ring in the larger of my two heads. "This was dumb" it rang, "this is going to suck", it pealed. "This is going to take FOREVER", it gonged. And I tried not to listen, but it was far too late.

So, we shredded the 20# of very, very tender boneless braised beef chuck and then we chopped it by hand, the food processor rendering it too mushy. I blenderized it's pan drippings and the attendant flavoring agents (lots of onions) once they were defatted, and mixed the hand shredded and chopped meat with several cups of roasted corn I had stashed away and frozen back in the season, several more cups of nicely soaked and plumped golden raisins, and five or six finely chopped jalapenos. The rich braising liquid pureed with the nearly melted onions made sort of an onion soup to the Nth degree and was perfect as a binding/moistening/flavoring agent. But, The Clock Was Moving.

Now it was time to Make The Empanadas. We (I) moved into dough mode and began churning out small batches of the empanada dough in the food processor while the loyal, noble and hardworking Pedro began the rolling, filling, folding and crimping (yes, with a fork) process. It was slow going, stultifyingly slow going and I began to get a little, not a lot, but just a little concerned and somewhat manic. Failure is not something we cotton well to in the food business.

And it was here that the second of the two misery and pain producing things that I knew FAR FAR better than to have done occurred. On about the fifth or sixth, but could easily have been on the sixth or seventh, batch of dough I stopped the food processor because I didn't think the water I had just added had mixed in with the dry ingredients at the bottom.

So (and here's where it comes, folks; "Don't do it, don't go in the haunted cave" they scream from the cheap seats) I stuck my right hand down into the bowl of the food processor and in doing so managed, unbeknownst to me, to hook my middle finger under the cutting blade. And then what could have happened did. Upon attempting egress with my hand I caught the fleshy part of the top digit of my finger against the blade and pulled up. Halfway through the action and before it was complete I knew exactly what I had done. I ripped my hand out, causing the bowl and the top parts to fly across the kitchen and screamed, "No, no, you stupid asshole, no!!!" But it was too late. I had opened up a big crescent shaped gash in the previously mentioned fleshy part of the top digit of the middle finger of my right hand. And there was that moment, that priceless second where I looked at it and could assess the nature of the damage, just before the blood came pouring out.

So at that point the selfless, noble, long suffering and hardworking Pedro had to quit rolling and filling and folding and crimping (yes, with a fork) and also become the doctor. I got a towel on that sucker as fast as I could and squeezed it for all I was worth. Pedro got the goods and he proceed to first sterilize, then bind that damaged digit as tightly as he could, me urging him on to wrap it tighter and tighter. Oh yeah. And now it was big and bulky and white and a rubber glove wouldn't even fit over it, although Lord knows I tried. And The Clock was still moving.

It was now late afternoon and we were only up to 280 (four sheet pans) of empanadas. We kicked it in, although I must say, it is no mean feat rolling out dough, and cutting, filling, folding and crimping empanadas with a finger the size of an andouille sausage. Pedro, bless his noble and hardworking heart kept on rocking and rolling (not to mention, filling, etc...) and the two of us labored over the table in quiet backbreaking desperation. By 5:10 (we were to leave at 6:00 and still had to fry the cakes and bake the precious empanadas) we had 510 of those little suckers all filled and ready to go. Que milagro!

The final hour was a bit of a blur, but it all got done. I discovered, much to my delight and relief that I could avoid frying the risotto cakes by spraying them with non-stick spray and putting them on the very top rack of the convection oven. It may not have been frying, but it got them brown and hot and at that point that was just about all I was looking for. The empanadas were in the bottom of the two ovens, doing their level best to get a lovely golden brown and the risotto cakes were in the top.

Every last one of those perfectly browned 1050 morsels then had to be transferred from the sheet pans into 2" hotel pans (because they're the only ones that fit) for transport in our heated cambros to the site of the blessed event and somehow they made it. Josh, the dishwasher showed up about an hour or so after we really had needed him, but it meant that neither I nor the hardworking and fiercely loyal Pedro would have to clean up the colossal mess that can only be made by two people doing the work of four or five or six. Pedro and I jumped into the van with the alacrity of two men who have just worked nine straight hours on their feet without taking a break and we were off to the hills of West Salem and Zenith Winery.

The event itself, an Equinox benefit for something or another was massively anticlimactic compared to the day's events, but Pedro and I did get to wear our new monogrammed black Chef's jackets. We also got to rehearse our song and dance about what it was that we were serving because we had to do it a couple of hundred times each. And amazingly every single one of our 1050 bites of food got scarfed down my a bunch of folks from West Salem who somehow all seemed to get drunk drinking one ounce of wine at a time. The risotto cakes seemed to be Best in Show among all the food items, we were told our table and food were the best time and time again, and some guy in shorts stood off to one side of our table and must've scarfed down 30 empanadas all on his own.

There we stood at the end, bloody but unbowed. 13 hours our feet without a break (except for the bandaging process). My back ached from the time spent over the table lovingly preparing the empanadas and my finger was throbbing like the floor when you live over a houseparty. Pedro, the hardworking, loyal, trustworthy, brave, clean, thrifty and reverent Pedro turned to me and said, "Chef David, when I work with you, even when I work hard I always like it and I always learn something."
I eyed him dimly, a certain amount of fatigue coloring my view. "What did you learn today, if I may ask?"
He looked me right in the eye and said, "Never do empanadas for a big party."

Thursday, March 1, 2012



It's been pretty slow times around the catering kitchen and a by-product of that, if indeed the word "product" can be used when there is not a lot of anything being produced, is that I find myself doing a whole lot more cooking here at home. And since the by-product, or lack thereof, when one is not working is a lack of serious cash flow, one makes do as one must, with left-overs, freezer raids and eyes to that which goes on sale at the local market.

The last week has found me turning out soup, hash, tacos, a slow-cooked cheap cut of pork and in one fell swoop of a splurge, a whole roast chicken with risotto. The soup, hash and tacos were fashioned purely from refrigerator and freezer foraging and the pork and chicken were the result of carefully eying the sale section of the meat department.


The soup was a classic "homemade" project, based on some leftover barley and lentils that Kathy had made for a salad. I started by sauteeing your basic bottom of the crisper drawer vegetables; a couple of carrots, two or three ribs of aging celery, an onion and plenty of garlic in bacon fat (always a stash of that in a jar in the refrigerator door), along with two smoky pork sausages that were lurking in the back of the freezer.

Once that had filled the kitchen with it's splendidly garlicky aromas I added the lentil/barley mix and part of a bag (about two cups) of our "roasted tomato shmoo", (see earlier entries) made in large quantities last year as fall neared its end. I filled the soup pot with a little over a cup each of homemade chicken stock and water. There wasn't much to do at this point but bring it up to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for an hour or so into something resembling dinner.

And a fine dinner it was, served in deep bowls, steaming hot on a cold night. We stretched it out with warmed Tandoori Naan, a package of which had made its way home with me after a sample case had been left at work by our thoughtful Sysco rep. When I do work, it's good to work in the food service industry.


Hash was something I had not made since the days I worked at the Elite Cafe in San Francisco. There, each week, we used our leftover filet ends and trimmings to make an extremely peppery and popular poached egg topped hash for Sunday brunch. Here at our house it wasn't exactly the ends of beef tenderloins, but rather a largish chunk of turkey breast that had been cooked in the crockpot along with cream cheese, soy sauce, roasted red peppers and dried herbs according to an old recipe of Kathy's.

I had come across a ziplock bag of said turkey during one of my monthly freezer purges and had wondered what in the world I was going to do with it. As providence would have it, the night before I had cooked a simple dinner of some kind of protein product and served it with sauteed broccoli, red peppers and yellow crook necked squash. Quartered roasted potatoes from our "root cellar" had filled out the menu. I had asked Kathy what she wanted me to do with the leftovers and the first thing out of her mouth was, "make hash." The mother of invention, indeed.

I cut up yet another onion and sauteed it slowly in more bacon fat along with a quarter stick of butter. While the onions cooked I shredded the turkey, chopped the vegetables and cut the potatoes into small cubes. I caught the onions at just the point of turning a lovely golden color and sprinkled a tablespoon or so of flour over them to make a roux. I still had chicken stock because I almost always have chicken stock, so I poured some in, brought it to a boil, and there it was, the gravy that would bring everything together, binding the hash, if you will.

I knew I couldn't and shouldn't stir the hot gravy into the coolish turkey-vegetable mix, so I stuck it in the refrigerator while I went out for herbs. I snipped several lengths of chive, grabbed a handful of parsley and a couple of sprigs of thyme. I brought this back into the kitchen, destemmed it and chopped it up to add to the hash base. When the gravy was cool enough, I mixed it into the turkey and vegetables and it bound it all together quite nicely. The whole mix went into the refrigerator so the flavors could get to know each other informally before being cooked and eaten.

It didn't seem as if hash on its own would be enough so I put together a small green salad; red leaf (of which there seems to be a lot around this winter) lettuce along with some diced hothouse tomato (sigh) and a small Hass avocado. I heated up a non-stick 12" skillet and rubbed it with just a bit of bacon fat (can you tell how I feel about bacon fat?) before pressing the hash mixture into it. It browned nicely on one side before I did my former breakfast cook show-off thing and flipped it all over in one piece. I put the pan (and the hash) on the bottom shelf of a 450 degree oven for about ten minutes to assure that it would heat through and that each side would have a nice crust. Crust on hash is critical.

It came out great!! The top and bottom were crispy, it was just moist enough from the gravy, and the flavors had gotten to know each other in a most advantageous way. The green salad provided just enough crunch on the side and we had feasted yet again, while spending virtually nothing. I like that.


On a day we were snowed in the craving of the day turned to tacos. Oh yes, spicy and well garnished tacos on a cold and blustery day would be perfect! There was a chunk of flank steak, a nice ripe avocado, plenty of cheese, onion, tomatoes and even cilantro, but, oops, NO TORTILLAS.

This sent me scrambling in the pantry looking for something I wasn't even sure was there, but, lo and behold, there was a nearly full bag of "Bob's Red Mill Masa Harina", a corn flour ground right up the road in lovely Milwaukie, Oregon. Indeed there was even a recipe on the back for making tortillas which I set to immediately. Hot water mixed slowly into the masa, not too sticky, not too dry, roll into a ball and let rest. Easy, but in the back of my mind it seemed as if something was missing.

Putting that thought away, I turned to making a nice little "guisado", or stew, out of my meat and vegetables. I peeled a couple of cloves of garlic and sliced my onions into thin half-moons and tossed them in a skillet with some (yes!) bacon fat. I seasoned the stuff in the pan with chile powder, a dash of cumin, some ground chipotle, salt and pepper and a hit of smoked paprika while I sliced the beef into thin strips. I always cook my dry ingredients, particularly chiles, into the mix for a while to bring out their flavors. I added the meat, a chopped tomato and about half a cup of chicken stock and after it came to a rapid boil, turned it down to the barest of simmers.

I turned to the garnishes, everything that would elevate our tacos on this snowy afternoon. I peeled and diced the avocado and tossed it with a splash of lemon juice and a little bit of Cholula hot sauce. I grated a mix of pepperjack and cheddar cheeses, shredded a couple of leaves of romaine, chopped a bit of cilantro and plopped some sour cream into a bowl. The guisado smelled great and the liquid had cooked down just a bit; ready. Now for the tortillas.

I heated up a ten inch cast iron skillet and rubbed it with (yes, again) more bacon fat. Using a smaller cast iron skillet I pressed out the tortillas between sheets of wax paper. Surprising to me that we had wax paper, beyond the surprise that they still even make the stuff. The tortillas were not easy to peel off the waxed paper, however. When they were the thin-ness I wanted, it was damn near impossible, so I went for a thicker more rustic feel.

Into the pan the tortillas went, one at a time, and I called Kathy into the kitchen to stand at the ready to assemble our tacos. The first tortilla came out, crisp and smelling so, so very good, and it was here and now that it came to me what I had left out of the tortilla mix. As we folded them, they cracked at the back; they were not at all pliable and it was clear to me now why professional tortilla makers put lard in the mix. Yes, of course it adds flavor, but it also lends a certain moistness that enhances and strengthens the fold.

Despite having ingredients that fell out the back, we fell upon the tacos rapaciously. The snow fell, the ingredients spilled and we stuffed our faces, going back to the pan again and again. And this is something we will do again and again, at least when we forget the tortillas.


In addition to scouring out the kitchen in search of cookable leftovers, I have also, for the first time in my life, been scouring the food ads (not to be confused with the food sections) of our local newspapers looking for deals on whatever may feed us and fill us without mauling our pocketbooks. And I struck pay dirt, so to speak. There it was, Boneless Pork Shoulder Roast, reduced to $2.39/# (limit two per customer). I made my way on down to Roth's IGA, our local grocery and picked us up a 3.5 # chunk of pork and happily brought it on home.

This is one of my favorite pieces of meat to cook and it takes so well to a variety to treatments. I decided to go with the "low and slow" version this time that is almost like a Mexican-style carnitas. I fine chopped 12 garlic cloves along with some of Philipe's Kitchen Witch (straight from N'Awlins) Seasoning and some sea salt. I rubbed this all over the roast, making sure to get it down into the crevices and cracks between the muscles. I thin sliced an onion, laid it over the top and into the refrigerator it went for an overnight get-together of flavors.

The next day it was an easy start: Put the meat in a low roasting pan, pour in a cup of water, cover tightly with foil, stick it in the oven at 275 and walk away. I came back four hours later, took off the foil, basted the top of the meat with the nice fatty juices that had collected in the pan and left it for another hour to lightly crisp the top. Presto! Crispy Carnitas without any frying, and meat that literally falls apart at the touch.

From this point on, once the meat is cooked, it becomes so many things to so many people. The first night we ate it over mashed potatoes with the pan juices (defatted, of course) ladled over the top. Oh My Goodness was that good. The second night I shredded it, mixed it with a bit of a red chile enchilada sauce I had made last summer and it became the filling for burritos. The other day while we were working outside in the cold, I darted in, heated some up, slapped it between two pieces of bread with cheese, griddled it in a pan and made toasted pork and cheese sandwiches. Tonight it will become the "World's Best" Pulled Pork Sandwiches and that still leaves us enough for soup and maybe another meal. It's hard to imagine a better deal for your dollar and the flavor of slow-cooked pork is to die for.


Last, but hardly least, Kathy's very best friend Terry was here visiting from Costa Rica so we put on a good show for her. Whole, locally raised Draper Valley chickens were on sale so that seemed like the way to go.

I did a simple roast chicken; salt, pepper and a lemon and butter rub. I roasted it for about an hour at 400 and it came out perfectly; crisp golden skin and very juicy. We served that over a risotto made with some liquid from the very last of some dried mushrooms we had mixed with chicken stock. I sauteed some fresh crimini mushrooms to make the risotto a bit more "mushroomy" and the chicken, sliced, went over that. We had just gotten some decent asparagus at the market and a simple steamed and buttered prep made the whole dish come together. I made a little gravy out of the pan juices and we sat down to a lovely dinner of roast chicken by candlelight.

We may not be working much, but we can still eat well, and sometimes, that's the best revenge and remedy both.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Foraging in a Blizzard

Here we are in the second day of being snowed in and the third, (or is it the fourth?) day of snow and I am learning why it is that we have a winter garden, a good storage shed, and, naturally, a freezer. While the snow comes down sideways and the vehicles remain anchored in the ice, I am inside making the most, yet again, out of what we have put away for a rainy/snowy day. And yes, we are both praying prayers of hope that the power/water stay on.

The household foraging began a couple of days ago when I pulled a ball of pizza dough from the vast and icy deep and made a pizza with homemade sausage, garden onions out of the storage shed and tomatoes we had dried ourselves. Kathy had made a small provisions run when we heard the snow was coming and we had a nice combination of cheeses to make the pizza really sing.

Yesterday was chicken stock day and the house was filled with the aroma of nicely roasted bones simmering with their attendant and complimentary vegetables and the house still has that roasty rich smell hiding in different corners and down the back hallways. I've always contended that, rather than the"smell of chocolate chip cookies baking" theory that realtors proscribe to for selling homes, that the "aroma of homemade chicken stock" would work even better.

While the stock hoozled and goozled happily yesterday morning we went to the freezer yet again looking for food to feed unexpected lunch guests. Kathy's daughter, son in law and granddaughter made the trek up the hill to visit us, (but mostly to play in the snow) and we needed a cold day meal for them. We went deep into the freezer and came up a container each of chile and a multi-bean soup, made long ago, and along with some homemade biscuits we had just the meal for hungry and rosy cheeked sledders.

Today we woke to a healthy six inches of snow on the ground and the first flakes of another heavy fall just beginning to fly. I had pulled a chunk of chuck roast from our neighbor's last cattle harvest out of the freezer and the plan was for pot roast. I had, however, used all the carrots in the chicken stock and Kathy, who had promised for the last several days to pull up some carrots from their winter bed, was now faced with having to do it in the teeth of the blizzard.

And like the true Oregonian she is, she threw on a parka and hat, got down on her knees at the edge of the raised beds, dug through a half a foot of snow and yanked up carrots. Meanwhile I was making another treacherous run to the shed for the garlic and onions harvested lo, those many months ago, to accompany the carrots in their support of the chuck. Moreover, we had the remains of an old funky bottle of red in the back of the fridge that was just what my recipe called for.

The snowfall is thinning slightly and it appears that we will be able to venture out away from this property tomorrow. But the scent of the pot roast is alluring and serves as a reminder of the beauty of stored food. There are times when the thrill of finding those hidden chanterelles or fiddle head ferns under the scruffs of fir at the base of tall trees is a forager's dream. Other times, however, and these are those other times, the best foraging is done by rummaging at the bottom of the freezer, digging beneath the snow, or rootling around boxes in the shed for the last of the summer's harvest.

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.