Sunday, October 29, 2017

ALMOST THERE, PART 2 Building a Menu


Part 1.

Almost there, yes, we are almost there.  It has been an interesting and occasionally nerve-wracking couple of weeks planning, waiting, planning some more, and then waiting even more.  In the midst of rainy season here on the Costa Ballena our piddling plans to have a special dinner and then install a new Chef with a partially new menu, there have been a few minor setbacks and some serious intervention from Mother Nature.

We weathered a major hit from Hurricane Nate that left several areas near us underwater.  It poured buckets, sheets of rain for 48 hours.  Power was out for anywhere from eight hours to two days depending on where one was and we lost water at Ballena Bistro for nearly three days.  Two low-lying towns, Cortes and Sierpe were nearly washed away.  Food drives, clothing drives, and house-cleaning drives (you should have seen the mud!) were organized as the community came together to help people get back on their feet.

But as will happen, Nate blew over, life went on, and so did Anja and my progress in building, or rebuilding our new venture.  Feeling confident at that point we planned a special four course Dinner with the Chef of the Jungle for Friday night, October 27, and darned if we didn't book every seat within 24 hours. I wrote a menu that was comprised of favorite dishes I had done at La Cusinga, as a sort of "re-introduction" of me and my cooking style to the community.  The dinner was creating a buzz, even during the "low season" and we were buzzed.

 I got in the kitchen the Monday before the dinner with a couple of bags of nicely ripe tomatoes and made a batch of my Roasted Tomato Soup, a simple recipe, and a bit of a signature item for me.  Simple it is, but delicious as well.  We'd decided on "Death By Bananas" as a dessert and after I caramelized a couple of batches of bananas with butter and tapa dulce, the local cane sugar, Anja turned out some wonderful caramelzed banana ice creams.  We were ON it!  We'd made arrangements for the delivery of four pargo, the local ocean-going red snapper as our entree, to be paired with a green gazpacho sauce.  We had put in our order for organic produce  with my suppliers from seven years before, the married couple  Mauren and Ademar.  We were set, or so we thought.

 But there was to be more.  On the heels of Nate came Ophelia whose promise and portent was deemed of even greater impact by the prognosticators.  No, this is not a trait exclusive to weathermen in the US, or anywhere else.  It would seem that there is no TV weatherman anywhere who doesn't love a prediction of impending disaster.  For the two of us the notion of impending disaster did not fit in at all well with dinner plans four days hence and after 24 hours of nervous pacing, multiple texts, and yes, that hand-wringing, we pulled the plug on the dinner.  Sad, but even sadder would have been having several hundred dollars (or thousands of colones) worth of food and no way to cook it and no one to serve it to.  People understood.

The postscript to all of this is that although we got some heavy rains we never did get the full power of the storm and it sat off the coast for a couple of days and gradually dissipated.  Murphy's Law of restaurants tells me however, that if we had gone through with the dinner the storm would have clobbered us.  The dinner will be revived at some point, but the next step comes this Tuesday with a partially new menu and a new kitchen for Chef Dave.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

First Day in the Kitchen

First Day in the Kitchen

It was about time.  Anja and I had gotten the semi-permanent version of our first menu in place, so it was up to me to show that the Chef really could cook these things.  We chose a Monday, but it would have had to have been a Monday as it's the only day the restaurant is closed.  I didn't want to be stumbling around asking a bunch of stupid questions about where things were in front of the current staff, at least one of whom I would be working with.

Thus far, before being able to spend this day in the kitchen I had made it through moving out and all its attendant craziness; a killer cold that I contacted three days before I left Oregon but didn't really get to fully appreciate until I started getting on airplanes, one that lasted ten days;  a day and a half of traveling, a hurricane and serious flooding, and a completely debilitating stomach virus that caused me to lose several (probably not really needed) pounds.  So I was damn well ready to make the most of whatever time I had in my new kitchen, thank you very much.

We have decided, popular demand not withstanding, to make a few alterations to what is unquestionably a menu the locals, my soon-to-be regulars, have come to see as a constant in their lives.  Each time I meet someone new, (or someone who "kind of " remembers me) I get asked to please, please, please not change this, that, or another item on the menu.  Unfortunately if I am to honor each and every request no changes will be made at all and that's not what brought me here.  So let's figure out how to turn on the oven.

The kitchen is larger and better equipped than a few I have worked here in Costa Rica, although much of the equipment, the gas grill and flattop grill for example, have gone unused by the current kitchen staff and are in need of heavy attention. In addition to those two vital pieces of equipment there are also ten burners, a deep fat fryer, and two operable ovens.  There's plenty of counter space, but sadly, no refrigeration on the cooking line itself so unless things are out of the refrigerators and well-iced, a lot of walking needs to be done to reach the necessary items to be cooked.  Every time.

These are all things that will soon be dealt with but we were there to cook.  We had chosen four, maybe five items on which to do trial runs and once I kind of figured out where things were it was time to get down to it.  When Anja had picked me up from the airport hotel a couple of weeks ago we had swung by a funky Asian market for ingredients and I was eager to get into those.  I had picked up a gorgeous organic chicken at that Saturday's feria in Uvita, as well as beets, kale, quinoa, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.

I cut up the chicken just to get to the thighs, which I boned, skinned, and pounded out a bit to get them nice and flat, but not too thin.  I wrapped up the other parts and set about making a Korean marinade that I had come up with when I was working up on Mt. Hood.  It's got a lot of the things you might expect in it, ginger and garlic, soy, raw sugar, sesame seeds and oil, vinegar, and, of course, the main ingredient, Gochujang.  Gochujang is a powerful paste distilled from fermented chiles and red beans and I love it.  Into the marinade went those nicely pounded thighs.  The cooking would come later and be done, “a la minute”, or as we say in the kitchen, “on the fly”.  The other part of this dish would be a warm cabbage slaw, something I hadn’t made yet, but sounded good to me, so I sliced cabbage and onions, and ran a carrot over the mandoline into thin strips.

Roasted vegetables would be major component of the new falafel dish (and if you sense a vegetable orientation, your senses would be spot-on), along with lentils.  Both of them would be pre-cooked and then tossed in a lemon-herb vinaigrette style dressing and would serve as a platform for the cooked falafel.  I cubed onion, zucchini, eggplant, peppers and halved peeled garlic and tossed them with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Into the oven they went for roasting at somewhere between (I don’t know my non-centigrade oven temps yet) 350-400 degrees.  I wanted them still firm but with a bit of color from the roasting.  For the lentils I sautéed diced carrots, onions, and garlic, added the lentils and water and slowly brought them up to a boil.  I wanted them cooked, but still a bit firm, certainly not mushy.

Next up was the Dragon Bowl, a vegetarian, and this case vegan as well, dish from my days upon Mt. Hood at Mt. Hood Medadows Ski Resort.  My rendition of it there been my best selling vegetarian dish ever so why wouldn’t I trot it out again?  The main ingredients are simple enough, cooked quinoa, shredded kale, medium slices of roasted chiles (jalapeno, and mild red) and onions, and some kind of nut or seed in a semi-spicy vegetarian Thai curry.  To get ready for it I cooked off the quinoa so it was nice and fluffy, tore the kale into bite sized pieces, and cut the peppers and onions into strips.  The sauce is simple--coconut milk heated with ginger, cilantro, miso, and Thai yellow curry paste.  A 20 minute simmer is all that's required for the flavors to come together and while they did I tossed the peppers and onions in light cooking oil and roasted them in the oven.  This is another dish that will be cooked at the last minute, taking only 4-5 minutes in the pan.

Anja had spied a salad she liked in a cookbook we are enjoying that employs thin cut planks of jicama but since we have no jicama here we decided to try both yucca and chayote.  Yucca is a fibrous root vegetable, local to our area, and it proved to be all wrong--too fibrous and not at all good tasting raw.  It also turns out that eating raw yucca can be bad for you, as it contains hydrogen cyanide precursors.  Good thing it didn't work.   It was also a good thing that our local chayote squash, peeled and sliced into planks on the mandoline were nicely crunchy and just mild enough for our purposes.

 The salad we had seen was served on a pool of a minted emulsion sauce, but our efforts didn't give us what we wanted.  The sauce kept separating and it was back to the drawing board.  Anja's next effort, with basil rather than mint held together pretty nicely and tasted damn good.  In my mind it was a keeper. The other components of this salad were something red, berries (maybe pomegranate?) in the original, but roasted beet cut into small dice and soaked in red wine vinegar for our purposes; orange segments, and again, because we had them, roasted sunflower seeds for crunch.

All of this sounds as if it came together in scant moments, but with the working in a new kitchen (for me), the experimentation, the new ideas, plus a trip to the store it took over four hours for all of this to get ready to cook.  Once we had the deep fryer up and running the falafel came together easily and it was just as I had imagined it.  Separately I dressed the cooked chilled lentils and roasted vegetables in a simple lemon-herb-oil mix and set them on the left and right hand side of the plate.  A nice sprig of watercress went at the top and I drizzled that with the dressing for good measure.  I quartered the hot crisp falafel and set it on the top as casually cool as I could manage and drizzled it with a simple minted yogurt.  I liked it.  Anja liked it.  Her son Felipe like it.  Bingo.

Next up was the Dragon Bowl and it was a simple bang, bang, bang.  Into a hot saute pan went a tiny bit of cooking oil, some chopped garlic and ginger, and the torn moistened kale.  Sputter spit went the pan and I tossed the kale to coat it with the oil and and then dashed in some vegetable stock to help it  steam and wilt slightly.  On top of that went a small handful of the roasted chiles and onions.  I spooned in about a cup of cooked quinoa and retossed the pan so that everything was nicely mixed.  It was a simple process to add a cup or so of the yellow curry sauce and I turned the heat down to let it all simmer together.  I pull down a large wide soup bowl and using tongs lifted the mass of greens  veggies, and quinoa into the bowl and gently poured the curry sauce around it.  Crunchy toasted sunflower seeds went on top along with a mixture of chopped mint and basil.  Yes.  Again, we liked it.  A lot.

It was time to cook the marinated chicken and into a hot hot pan it went.  Part of the process with this dish is to caramelize the marinade on the outside of the chicken, forming a tasty crust.  Ideally I would cook this on a charbroiler or on a hot griddle, but a pan is what we had and it did what it was supposed to do.  While the chicken was cooking I heated chicken stock in another pan and added the thin strips of carrot.  I let that come to a boil and added the onions and cabbage.  I gave it a good toss and added white vinegar and pineapple juice to the pan.  I wanted the cabbage to wilt and be coated with a sweetened yet tart flavor.   When the cabbage softened it went on the plate and the two pieces of chicken went on either side with some cilantro over the top.

This was the first not fully realized dish but it would be an easy fix.  The chicken was good, crisp on the outside and moist in the middle but salty from too much soy.  No problem The cabbage was too tart, the plate seemed incomplete--it needed something else to bring it together.  It was decided that the legendary green rice would make the plate fuller and that less vinegar and more pineapple would be better.  It was agreed that the cabbage should wilt just a bit more.  And I decided that I want to put pieces of caramelized pineapple over the top of the chicken.   Like I said, easy fix.

Last was the salad and while Anja was harsh on herself and her creation, her son Felipe and I both raved about it.  The basil crema had been pooled on the plate, the planks of chayote were laid around and on it in a casually arranged fashion, the oranges were dropped in here and there as were the jewels of vinegared beets.  Anja tucked some sprigs of cress in and around the chayote and dotted the plate with toasted sunflower seeds.  Mis amigos, this one was a winner--crunchy, sweet, tart, creamy, all the things you like on one plate.  Yes, the red wine vinegar was a bit harsh for the beets but not overly so, balsamic will be better, but everything else on the plate worked.  I could tell that because Felipe used his fork to scrape every last bit off the plate.  The proof is in the eating.

Not bad for the first time in the kitchen and the first tries at these dishes.  There are some good tweaks, minor tweaks we can make, but I think we were all pleased with the results.  Now, of course, the test will be convincing those people who just can't bear for the menu to change.  I have faith, however, that we can and will slowly bring them around.  They might just like something new.

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.