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.

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.