Cooking and eating through a new culture

Archive for the month “January, 2011”

Mercado Central

Wait…lemme get my game show voice on:

“Costa Rica’s Central Market is a well-known place, where many tourists experience the real daily Costa Rican life.”

Shit, I’ve only been here a few weeks and even I know that’s bull. It still took me that long to get down there though. Yesterday, Rafa brought some things from his parent’s house for the cabinas we are setting up in Cahuita. Let’s do a little dialog for a moment:

Me: Cool. Where did your mom get this?

Rafa: The Central Market.

Me: Huh…Why don’t you drop me off there tomorrow and I will check it out?

Rafa: No.

I must admit, I was a tad shocked. Did I not prove my chops already? I have been hoofing it all over the city without any trouble. Okay…the language is still an issue but for the most part, it has been cool. Yeah, I am a gringa but I certainly don’t stick out as most of them do in their brand new Keens and boonie hats, so to get a flat-out “No” was a little disconcerting. Rafa did soft pedal it a bit. He said it was shit hole in comparison to other markets, both here and abroad, and that every stereotypical third world country issue manifests there; prostitutes, pick pockets, drugs, lost children, you name it. This is the “real daily life of Costa Ricans”? Sounds like the bars I use to hang out in. Let’s go!

The Central Market is located downtown. For the most part, San Jose is not a pretty city. There are a handful of beautiful buildings but it’s like the 70’s vomited up bad architecture. Rafa ranted about the Central Market saying it should be leveled and rebuilt. For a place that is so heavily touted in all the travel brochures as the place to see, it was rough.  Stepping into the Central Market immediately made me think it was a cross between the Star Wars bar scene and a brighter version of the city in Blade Runner. It’s this enormous, block sized building that houses everything imaginable. The narrow aisles zig zag in a labyrinth of shabby tiny kiosks and food vendors. Animals scurry around or cry from cages. The smell of meat and fish nearly knock you over. It’s like Seattle’s Pike Place market on LSD. It’s awesome.

I hold onto Rafa’s hand as he navigates me through the maze of craziness. This was an exploratory mission for us and for the first time, I am slack-jawed at the swirl of activity (just put a boonie hat on me). There are souvenir shops and a local artisans to cater to the tourists but the few foreigners I did see are just as shell-shocked as me. I settle into the buzz, even enough to cut a bit out on my own, while Rafa  haggles prices. Produce is slightly more expensive than our local market but there is a ton more meat and fish sellers. Bags of opened spices and dried herbs line a traditional apothecary. Rafa begins to circle around the sodas ( aka cafes). I know he’s hungry and we squeeze into a narrow counter. Eating out at a soda is like just getting a huge plate of starch; yucca, rice, tortilla, plantains…with a little meat in a sauce. I am the daring one. I go for ceviche. Ceviche, for the uninitiated, is seafood “cooked” in citric acid like lemon, orange etc. It originates from Peru but is found all over Central America. It’s a small step up from sushi. On Facebook, I read that a friend of mine felt bad for taking an out-of-town buddy to the “best” sushi place only to have him hurl for the rest of night. My first thought was “Duh. You live in OKLAHOMA.” Who would eat sushi there? Yet, here I was feeling I was doing the same thing.


It was good. And it was ALOT. Usually, ceviche is a small side dish but this was a bowl. After plowing through his plate of starch and chewy meat, Rafa finished mine too. And I am happy to say, we were no worse for wear.

We never did buy anything for the cabinas but there was much we missed. Driving home we checked off the things we saw and what was cheap to buy. I had a decent handle on the layout of the place and felt confident about navigating it solo. So I asked Rafa to drop me off during the week to check it out again.

Rafa: No.


Beans, beans, the magical fruit…

Beans are pretty much ubiquitous in cuisine. Every corner of the globe has their bean recipes and traditions.  They are naturally low in total fat, contain no saturated fat or cholesterol, and provide important nutrients such as fiber, protein, calcium, iron,folic acid and potassium and lets face it, who doesn’t like cheap and easy?

The common bean is thought to have originated in southern Mexico and Central America over 7,000 years ago, and evidence of its use has been found in excavations of prehistoric dwellings. Based on some of the looks I get when I ask about the beans I am eating, the family recipes have been around that long too. For the time being I am going to talk about black beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, also known as turtle beans, black turtle beans, black Spanish beans, Tampico beans, and Venezuelan beans. (They’re not the same beans as those used in Oriental cuisines. Fermented black beans and similar items are made with black soybeans.) This is my quest for perfect gallo pinto, otherwise known as black beans and rice.

Think about your normal stateside grocery store for a sec. You may get to an aisle that is all cereal, or soda, or pet food. Here is Costa Rica there will be an aisle for beans. Not canned beans either, but bags and bags of dried beans. So forget the metallic tasting crap from a can, dried beans are easier than you think, and three times cheaper.

Beans require a little fore thought since they need to be soaked, over night or for at least six hours. I have read and used the quick soak method touted in the Joy and in other recipes, but honestly a well soaked bean tastes better to me. Be sure to remove any foreign objects and any floaters. After the time alloted, drain and rinse the beans. Put the beans in a heavy-bottomed, oven-safe pot. A wide pot, not a deep and narrow one, is best for cooking beans; you want the beans to cook evenly without getting crushed. Cover with two inches of cold water and bring to a boil. Skim any foam off the top and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Now, if you are pretty savvy in the kitchen and have some home-made beef or chicken broth, you can add that with the water. Just know that salty broths may slow the cooking time.

At this point, your beans are ready for your personal touch. Add fat. I don’t mean a drizzle of olive oil or plop of butter, I mean real fat. Pork works great: couple big chunks of bacon, or rendered pork fat is divine, although in a pinch I have used chicken fat and it hasn’t been bad. Don’t sissy out here and give me that “Oh, my arteries!” crap. Your high blood pressure is do more to your lack of exercise and stressful job than bacon. And let me add, a hormone free, open range hog is not only humane, but has higher levels of vitamin E, healthy Omega-3 fatty acids,and many other nutrients than conventionally raised pork. (stateside I had access to this, but at the moment I am hunting for a Costa Rican farm…but that’s another article)

I like to add a couple of whole peeled cloves of garlic, a bay leaf and cilantro. Carrots, celery and onion are options as well and also sweeten the beans. Red peppers are in season here now so I usually chop one up and toss it in too. A whole jalapeno, or similar hot pepper will certainly spice up the beans. Acidic ingredients like tomatoes or vinegar need to be added at the end since they can prevent the beans from softening. Rafa’s mom adds epazote and some believe that counters the gasy side effects, but for me the taste is rather strong. Besides, Rafa works all day so I can fart freely.

Cook until the beans are tender. Sample several beans before you make this determination; they may cook unevenly. Beans may take anywhere from 40 minutes to two and a half hours to cook, depending on the type, how long the bean has been in storage, the altitude, and the hardness of the water. Check them as they cook. If the water level has fallen below the beans, add boiling water to cover. If you find you have extra water left over from your cooked beans, save it! It is a fantastic addition to soups and stews, giving them a round mellow flavor. I freeze it in cubes. For true gallo pinto, that liquid is added to the white rice. Salt last while your beans are cooling. Beans absorb salt slowly, so keep checking them and add to your liking.

Yes, that is my fridge to the right

Now, I may have trotted into town and thrown down a kick ass chayote dish, but my gallo pinto still needs work. Dinners usually get rave reviews, but my gallo pinto only elicits a “Meh…” from Rafa. I’ll watch him destroy a plate of it at Sunday breakfasts at his parents house and wonder what I am missing. He may not admit it, but I KNOW he scoots over there weekday mornings too. His mom heaping huge portions of gallo pinto on his plate with a smile and thinking, “You ain’t no Tica yet, Gringa.”

The Power of Pipas

A year and a half ago I listen to an article on NPR about coconut water. It talked about how over the past five years it has been gaining popularity and that Coke and Pepsi were trying to tap into the market. The show noted that annual sales have grown from near zero five years ago to 30 to $35 million today.


I was curious. Coconut water? I never really liked coconut. Processed/bagged coconut tasted horrible to me and it’s consistency in baked goods reminded me of fiberglass. No, I was not a fan and pretty much avoided it at all costs. But the few times in my life I had fresh coconut, I did like it. There is a unique creamy sweetness to fresh coconut that is absolutely lacking in the commercial variety. The transition from processed/packaged was tremendous. My experiences with Asian foods brought me in contact with coconut milk. Used in recipes, I found it tolerable but I was always a bit leery. My food consumption and preparation was heavily leaning to the “100 mile rule” and that was just an easy way to keep coconuts out of my repertoire. But an opportunity to visit Hawaii blew that out the door. Coconuts are all over the damn place there, so when in Rome…I bought coconut water. And HOLY SHIT, it’s good!!!

I was hooked. Especially when I would go to my local co-op and see it in the shelves. Not necessarily a winter drink, but when the weather warmed, I found it to be wonderfully refreshing. It doesn’t taste like coconut at all. Fat-free, cholesterol-free, low-calorie, super-hydrating, naturally rich in electrolytes, what more can you ask for?! You can go the various web sites and they talk about coconut water be the equivalent of liquid nirvana. Yeah, and some people drink their own urine too. Truthfully, they do use coconut water as human plasma in some countries, like the one I am living in, but all the other “super” claims, who knows? I just like it…the coconut water, that is. Not the urine.

So imagine my glee while driving down here to see fresh coconut water for sale on the side of the road! To get this fabulous water you need to use green coconuts, known as pipas. Ripe, or yellow, coconuts have already absorbed the liquid inside to form the flesh we are used to eating. In green ones, the flesh is thin and rubbery. Not tasty at all. By mashing ripe coconut with the remaining liquid inside  and straining, you get coconut milk. For coconut water, all you need is a good Costa Rican can opener…aka, a machete. With a good sharp machete, you cut away chunks off the top until you get close to the core. They you pierce, or if you are really good with that machete, slice the top and insert a straw.

In the Caribbean, we have coconut trees on the property. Rafa will collect pipas water for me and will put in the in freezer to chill. Nothing says love than watching your man climb a coconut plant (cause it’s not a tree), braving snakes and spiders, to get your fix of pipas water. The funny thing is, he will not drink it. Rafa has bradycardia, which means his heart beats very slowly, and he says the coconut water makes him light-headed. All the more for me…

Now, I am about to share with you a secret. I have a tendency to imbibe in my fair share of alcoholic beverages (that’s not the secret) and on occasion I have been over served. How do you think this blog got started? There have been mornings were I have been a little numb and stingy. Some people like to call them, hangovers. Most people I know have their remedy, cause most people I know get over served too, but this is my favorite and by far, best:

Make a banana milkshake but with coconut water,  and sweeten it with honey. The banana calms the stomach and, with the help of the honey, builds up depleted blood sugar levels, while the coconut water soothes and re-hydrates your system. Don’t quaff it down either. It’s a sipping drink. Best served on a comfy couch, with bad TV.

Just Bananas…

First off, let me say how sorry I am for my friends stateside who think bananas and Chiquita are synonymous. Those perfect clusters of fine yellow fruit (otherwise known as Cavendish) are a poor substitute for what is truly out there. To be honest, I never gave bananas much thought either. They are convenient to carry, tasty on occasion, and have potassium. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. Silly me.

On the drive down here, we would stop at various roadside stands and pick up fruit to munch on the way. Many stops had homemade pastries or dried fruits too. When the urge would hit us, we would pull over and Rafa would pop out and buy whatever the local special was. Bananas are all over Central America and we ate every variety, every way you could. One stop netted us a bag of homemade fried green plantain chips, cut length-wise, with salt and chili powder. I ate the whole bag. You could get baked sweet bananas on a stick, fried banana patties, banana chips, and nearly every morning meal had baked banana on the plate somewhere. I went from a passive banana eater to a down right connoisseur. Did you know there are over a 1000 varieties? A thousand!!! Bananas are like apples up north. But when you compare it to an apple, it has four times the protein, twice the carbohydrate, three times the phosphorus, five times the vitamin A and iron, and twice the other vitamins and minerals. The ultimate, for me, is what Rafa call criollo bananas but can also be called manzana, lady fingers, or sugar bananas. They are the third of the size of normal bananas and look like fat, stubby fingers.  The taste is the sweetest consistency of any I have ever had. I usually eat three at a time.

Coffee and bananas made Costa Rica. Seriously. Bananas have only recently been ousted by tourism as the country’s number one foreign currency earning industry. United Fruit has plantations all over the country, but mainly on the Caribbean side around the city of Limon. It’s not uncommon to see bananas growing along the road and many people just pull over and pull off what they need. The ultimate fast food.

Rafa’s mom gave me a huge bunch of green plantains (another trial, I suspect). They were smaller than what you would normally see at the markets, barely six inches long. Peeled they were tiny. I thought I could wait and ripen them up, but after a few days the stem began to mold. So before they got around to “tasting a little funny”, I decided to make something.

Green plantains need to be cooked, otherwise the starch and tannins are too strong. After peeling them under running water, I let them soak a bit in salt water to extract more of the bitterness. To fry them I used avocado oil instead of the usual olive. I think it gave a nicer flavor. After browning on all sides, I mashed them in a bowl and then formed patties with my hands. Re-fry the patties on both side, and Voilá! They were great for dipping, but we made avocado sandwiches instead.

The ultimate for me (it is impossible for me to pass this place without stopping, IMPOSSIBLE) are these baked ripe plantains…with cheese, we get on the way to Cahuita. They are divine. These are plantains that have been allowed to ripen and then they are slowly baked. At the end, they are sliced lengthwise and filled with Costa Rican cheese. I am drooling on the keyboard as I type this. I have no idea what the name of the place is. If you are coming from San Jose over the rainforest (there is only one road), it’s the first place you can stop to eat on the right hand side. It’s cafeteria style, but the food is great. This ain’t no SYSCO garbage.

Statistically, over 96% of American households purchase bananas (the Cavendish variety) at least once each month. Most bananas are grown on huge plantations, controlled by 5 corporate giants. It’s like OPEC, but with fruit. Big business controlling what you eat, sound a little conspiracy theory to me. I think my comrades up north should start a banana revolution. I mean, I’m the one living in a socialist country and we have choice in our bananas. Someone should call FOX News…

I am dedicating this page to my dear friend Dave back stateside who, when confronted with the suggestion that he give up bananas in favor of the local food “100 mile rule”, went well…ape shit.

Viva la revolución, Dave.

The Chayote Challenge!

Dude, WTF…

Yes, that was the first thought that went through my mind when Rafa came back from his parent’s house with a bag of chayote. I had visions of his mom buying these and thinking “Lets see what that gringa can do with THIS.” Now, that is not true at all. Rafa’s mom, and entire family, have been incredibly sweet to me despite the fact we can barely communicate. Judging by the looks of the vegetable (yes, it is a vegetable) it was probably a neighbor’s backyard product. It is in the squash family (feel free to Wikipedia it), about the size of a pear, and has an ass like seam on the bottom. In fact, there is one in the picture on the header, just under the S and U. It’s pretty damn common around here so it’s something I need to get a handle on.

I admit, I stared at these for a couple of days unsure how I was about to tackle them. I bounced around the web looking for recipes, but none really grabbed me or they called for ridiculous ingredients. Rafa and I packed about 500 lbs. of books to ship down here. Four of which are cook books: two Julia Child books, The Joy of Cooking, and some hippy dippy one I use for herbs and sauces. For the most part, I like to just “wing it” when it comes to recipes, with the exception of Julia Child which requires a precision and timing that makes me sweat.  You don’t necessarily cook those meals. You engineer them. They’re fabulous, but give me some time before I get my Tico chops ready. Besides, this ain’t no Latino Julie and Julia.

Like any good human born in the 70’s, I looked in the index (you can Wikipedia that too) of the Joy and sure enough, on page 365 Louisana-Style Chayote. Of course, I didn’t follow the full recipe. What I liked about it was that I had a lot of the ingredients and I knew how to ask for the ones I didn’t in Spanish. When Rafa brought these he told me about a Tico dish called picogallo and this recipe sounded a bit like it. The Joy calls for removing the pulp and saving the skins to fill and bake. I really didn’t feel like moving the fridge, so I cooked everything on the stove top.

Rafa devoured it! Between a shovel full he was cramming in, he said it was the best he has ever had. It was good, but chayote just takes on the flavor of what you cook with it. I do have a secret weapon, one not found in Tico town, that adds that little kick…Frank’s Hot Sauce. Oh yeah! Ticos don’t like to self mutilate themselves with ridiculously hot food, so Frank’s is perfect, adding just enough heat and flavor.  The downside was that Rafa bragged to his family about my chayote conquest. A point certainly noticed by his mother, at which I imagined her thinking, “The gloves are OFF gringa!”

Rice, Rice, Baby

Living out of a picnic cooler is rather challenging.

Now FINDING a refrigerator in Costa Rica is a down right struggle. First off, let’s get one thing straight here. Yes, Costa Rica has everything any expat can want…for a price. A stainless side by side can be delivered that day, but I have bought cars for less. We hunted all over town and settled on a scratch and dent place. There was a bit of a priority to our purchase since the day before I puked my guts out on fresh squeezed orange juice from the cooler that tasted “a little funny”.  Sometimes being that frugal is just not worth it. I spent weeks traveling through Central America eating things put in front of me that I had no idea what it was and never even suffered a bad burp. Three days after the farmers market fresh oj and I have my head in the toilet. Nice…

I will not lament my lovely kitchen back stateside…too much…but it was quite roomy. With the addition of the new fridge, my new kitchen has gone from quaint to cramped. I cannot even open the oven door without moving the fridge out of the kitchen.  Luckily the kitchen has a window overlooking a cinder block wall. But it is still a window none the less. A window with a sill wide enough for a few african violets. It works for me.

With the ability to store food longer than 24 hours and a tolerable way to cook, I began to think about how I am going to basically earn my keep around here. For all practical purposes, I am the illegal American house cleaner. A title I will proudly and happily carry. But let me make a few points about this before anyone gets their panties in a twist.  I entered into this deal knowing full well what I was getting into. I had no delusions about what moving to a third world country would be like. I love Rafa but that doesn’t mean we would not struggle. We have a small pot of money to dip in but we have to work. For the time being, Rafa is the sole bread-winner. And for someone who usually dated pasty white european boys, this whole Latin thing was new to me. But Rafa is no more a typical Tico that I am a typical American. There is not a machista bone in his body. So what do I do while he is bringing home the bacon? I keep the home fires burning…on a tight budget, with lots o’ love.

With three grocery stores and a weekend farmers market within walking distance, what does one look to make first? Beans and rice, baby.  But this also led me to my first dilemma. Typically, beans and rice here are made with a store brought bouillon packet. I must admit, even back stateside I mixed in a cube to punch my rice up a bit. I thought I was conscientious and purchased MSG free products. After all, I use to suffer from terrible headaches and made it a strong point not to consume MSG. Everything I saw at the store had MSG. So I went back home an re-evaluated my thoughts on MSG. Was it really that bad? Yep…it’s really that bad. Not only is it that bad, but it is in more products than I thought. I’m not a big fear monger but I do make it a point to eat the best food possible. Rarely do I purchase packaged products but after doing my research, I decided to stay away from them all together. Making stock is always an option, but the convenience of those little cubes and packets is hard to avoid. Until I found THIS:

The hard part for me was finding all the ingredients down here, all of which came from the farmers market with the exception of the salt and dried tomatoes. Cereraic root and fennel bulbs are non-existent. Although fennel bulb is known as bulbo de hinojo and can be found at certain times of the year. Just not now. So I upped the onion, leek ratio a bit. So far I have used this in rice and soup a couple of times and it is perfect. Rafa doesn’t even notice a difference. Not everybody has the time I do to putz in the kitchen but the ability to freeze this is invaluable. Try it! Tweek it. Make it your own. My next batch with have hot peppers. Nummers!

The First Meal…

Seriously, where do you begin?

We rolled into San Jose on a bright, lusciously warm day, pie eyed at my new surroundings. The city sprawls through the valley and creeps up the mountain sides. Neighborhoods morph from shanty towns to suburbia and back again.  The apartment is cute: a second floor flat with red-tiled floors and big windows. Oddly enough, it is pretty bare bones, lacking any appliances including a fridge.  I am anxious to unpack and settle in. Moving from a three thousand sq foot home to a tiny two bedroom, it’s curious to see what you deem essential. In a nutshell, I brought clothes, artwork and cooking supplies squeezed onto four pallets and the back of a Subaru. A vintage milk crate held my prized and most beloved kitchen utensil: my cast iron frying pan.  It felt sacrilegious to place it on (gasp!) an electric stove. But beggars can’t be choosers and unless I wanted a propane tank to take up what little space I had in the kitchen, electric will just have to do.  Love makes you do crazy, wonderful things…including cooking on electric stoves.

A quick run to the store nabs the fixings of the first meal. Now, we are still fridge-less  so we stick with what can fit in the cooler and what stays relatively good at room temperature.

Fried green plantains with avocado and mango and papaya salad:

Take two good size green plantains and peel them under running water. Cut them into chunks about an inch thick. In a well oiled frying pan, brown them on all sides being careful not to burn. Remove and flatten the pieces between two greased plates so they form into discs. Return to the pan and fry both sides. About one minute each side. Mash one or two ripe avocados with salt and pepper in a bowl. Add a dollup of avocado mash to each plantain. Delish!

Papayas come in many sizes so be conscious of your portion size. I usually use one half cut lengthwise. Remove the seeds with a spoon. Now, be careful here. Know your boundaries because I am going to tell you how I cut fruit and yes, I do still have all my digits. Holding the fruit in one hand I cut a grid pattern being CAREFUL not to pierce the outer skin. Then run the knife between the skin and fruit. This should allow cubed chunks of fruit to fall away (in a bowl preferably, and not the floor). Sometimes I re-cut more fruit out if I leave too much on the skin. Discard the skins.  Now mangos are tricky and sticky. If you are not mango savvy, there is a large flat pit in the center that can be a challenge. What I like to do is slice away the two fleshy sides of the mango and basically do the same thing I did with the papaya. A good mango will be quite juicy, so be prepared to get sticky. After you cut away the sides, you will have a pit with a ring of rind and more fruit. Cut the rest of the rind away and pare off the remaining fruit. If you love mangos as much as I do, you might want to nibble away the goodness off the pit, just be sure to roll up your sleeves, do it over the sink, and make sure you have dental floss handy. It’s worse than corn on the cob. To finish the salad off, I squeeze in one lime. It adds a nice zest and keeps the fruit from browning too fast.

This is one of my favorite meals. Really. The starchy plantains are lovely with the creaminess of the avocado. Add to that the papaya/mango salad and you have one beautiful meal. Nummers!

Hello world!

This is my first belly ache.

Belly ache in the sense that I am ready to complain, er discuss, my issues with living and being a self-professed food snob in Costa Rica. I moved here a mere few weeks ago with the love of my life, a Tico, that swept me off my feet, cooked me lovely meals, and probably gave me too much wine.  Left it all; my job, my friends and family, and my magnificent kitchen to strike it out and create something new.

So here I am. And here I cook. Armed with what little I had shipped down, in a kitchen smaller than my closet was back stateside, I feel I am pioneering into unexplored territory. It is lovely. It is terrifying. It is the challenge of a life time.

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