Cooking and eating through a new culture

Archive for the month “February, 2011”


I am torn.

I should say we, because Rafa feels the same way. We are conscientious consumers. The local farmers market is a great joy for us and we utilize it as much as possible. Living in an environment where incredible fresh food is available 365 days a year made us try to stick to the hundred mile rule because…it’s damn easy!…and it’s the food snob in me. What we wrestle with are the other products we consume; the non edibles and such.

I have three grocery stores within walking distance of the apartment; Auto Mercado, HiperMas, and MaxMenos. Wal-Mart has bought out the last two as well as anything else they can get their grubby hands on. Auto Mercado is your Safeway/Wegams chichi store and it is always packed with gringos…and I am one of them. It bright and pretty and the food is lovely and you can find so much more there that I ever expected (Frank’s Hot Sauce! WTF?)

Auto Mercado…so pretty

The impact of the tourism trade (yes, you US) has really changed the dynamic of Costa Rica. It is estimated that 2 million visitors come here a year,  and the revenue from these tourists totaled some $2.2 billion, or 7% of the Costa Rican Gross Domestic Product. That brings growth, jobs and economic stabilty…but it also brings Wal-Mart, Costco, Hooters. China also has infiltrated Costa Rica and there are monster stores that pretty much dump here what the US won’t take. Rafa and I went into one. Rafa crinkled his nose, “What’s that smell?’ China, I said. It’s creepy what they sell; food, furniture, infant supplies. Consumer protection be damned! Lets face it, everybody wants to save a buck, or colón , and we are on a budget…but I am drawing a line.

My balance, of conscious and cost, is that food will remain within the 100 mile rule. Our biggest cheat being olives and olive oil (why don’t they grow that here?) and, believe it or not, pasta. There are some local pasta companies but they are expensive and they don’t make whole grain pasta. Breaks are to be given for indulgences like wine and beer. Granted, beer is brewed here locally, Imperial, but it tastes like ass. I will continue to look for local chocolate, but when the urge strikes, I cannot guarantee I will be that magnanimous. The non-edibles will be by cost and, I cringe when I say this,  from the big box stores.  A trip to Costco with Rafa’s mom allowed me to stock up, especially on cleaning supplies (bulk bug spray! WooHoo!) A gallon of Listerine and 1000 q-tips sounds a tad excessive, but you gotta know Rafa.

Must admit, I was feeling rather self-righteous about my purchases; Costco is a lesser evil than Wal-Mart, bulk purchases waste less, saving money in the long run, etc. I was patting myself on the back right past the frozen food section, and there staring lusciously at me, were blueberries. I literally squealed…and startled the people around me. I hugged the bag to my chest, soaking my shirt in melting ice.  And once again, confirming in Rafa’s moms mind that I am batshit crazy.



Whoa. It’s been awhile. I would like to say my time was taken with watching the revolution unfolding in Egypt, but I think I was just having a lazy week. That, and weird things just kept popping up. So when Sunday rolled around, I NEEDED to do something.

So what better way to spend a Costa Rican Sunday, than in a sugar cane field. But let me back track a bit.

My family is addicted to sugar. Both sides. When my grandfather had open heart sugary in the 80’s, my grandmother told stories of how she would find caramel and peanut brittle stashed all throughout the house. Ice cream was his crack and he begged neighbors to bring him some when grandma was out shopping. He kicked the two pack a day habit, but not sweets. While in college, I worked at three different chocolate factories and can still suck chocolate syrup straight out of the bottle…during certain times of the month.

While driving down here, I was in awe of the endless fields of sugar cane. Guatemala and Honduras had the most, just based on sheer miles through them. Huge slow-moving trucks would haul the cane to the processing plants, littering the streets with errant stalks. Pepsi and Coke have huge operations in Central America and based on what corporation owned the surrounding fields, the adjoining town would be literally wallpapered with their logo. Even the cop cars had logos on them. I imagined towns coming to blows over taste tests results…A Latino West Side Story, based on soft drinks.

Costa Rica produces its share and usually exports between 130,000 and 140,000 tonnes of sugar a year. Not very much on the global scale at all considering world production is at a record 168.955 million tonnes. That makes my teeth ache.

Needless to say, there is still a lot of sugar here. Since I have never been a big fan of over processed, bleached products, I wanted to buy real raw Costa Rica sugar and yes, you can get that at the farmers market. It’s cool. Farmers take ripe cane and run it through a mill squeezing out all the juice, dehydrate out the water and you get Tapa dulce. My OJ guy does that too. He runs the raw cane through right there and you can buy the fresh sugar-water by the glass…and it is divine. I am afraid to buy more than that for fear I would down a whole bottle and be awake for a week. You can buy sugar in two forms; a packed circular cake or roughly ground. I buy the ground for the sugar bowl. It has a smooth caramel-like flavor and the little chunks that the grinding process misses are a treat (I am also a little afraid that if I bought the cake, I would just gnaw on it constantly.)

On a cloudy, windy day Rafa and I went out to breakfast after running errands. Not in the mood for coffee but still wanting something to chase the chill, Rafa ordered me a leche dulce, which is just warmed milk and the raw sugar. Very yummy. It’s funny how cocoa is literally growing off of trees but there is very little in the way of chocolate here.

So yesterday…knowing that V-day fell on a Monday with work and school for Rafa, we packed a small bag and headed out to explore the area. Driving down the highway, Rafa pulls over deep on the shoulder, “Okay.”

Okay, what? All I see a wall of sugar cane. All the same, I grab what I can and hike after him, up a small hill and onto a deep rutted dirt road. Within a minute after getting into the cane, the highway was muted by the tall stalks. The dirt road led to a small shady grove of mango trees and a cluster of large rocks. It obviously was the resting area of the cane workers but on a Sunday, the place was blissfully deserted. Rafa assured me that farmers here don’t shoot people.

Cane fields and mangos

Costa Rican Chicharrons, yucca and wine.
In the shade of ripening mangos and the wind shaking the cane, making a sound like the tearing of silk, we unpacked a modest meal of delectable tender chicharrones, buttery yucca and an excellent bottle of Chilean wine.
Now I have read a lot about food, especially now with the holiday. People who have bragged about eating caviar by the heaping spoonful, or dining in some exclusive, star-studded restaurant and I think…Philstines.
And that my life is pretty damn sweet.

Traveling through Eden

We will now return to our regularly scheduled broadcast…

Rafa and I have taken on the responsibility of running,managing and repairing his family’s property on the Caribbean. They are sweet little cabinas set between the ocean and jungle.  With a little elbow grease, and lots of bug spray, they will be lovely. So any opportunity to go there is amazing…including traveling on a bus, with Rafa’s mom.

At the moment, we are not actively renting them  since we want to do more renovations, but the family has had long-standing occasional renters and some wanted the cabinas for the weekend. Are you familiar with the word entropy?

a : the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity b : a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder…or c: anything in a humid, tropical, bug infested environment for more than one hour.
I have SCRUBBED those cabinas until I my hands were raw and I was high from cleaning products, only to go to the beach for the afternoon and come back and find the place like it had been left for a month…with the doors open…after an insect frat party. There are times when I thought I needed a chair and bullwhip to chase those critters out of the cabinas. So needless to say, things need to be freshened up before people can comfortably sleep there. So when Rafa asked me to accompany his mom, without hesitation, I agreed.
“Great! Bus leaves at 6am.”
Bus? Hmmmm….
 I must admit, I had visions of chickens running down the aisle and the ungodly aroma of bus funk but Rafa assured me that I was overreacting and that he would be there the next day after work with the promise of foot rubs and mimosas. How could I refuse? So yes, I overreacted. The bus was fine and lacked any safety requirement that makes US bus travel so horrible…the windows opened! The occupants consisted of a handful of Ticos and a majority of gringos, so lively and fresh-faced I wanted to slap them.
Now the road to the Caribbean…there’s one. Only one. And it’s not for the faint of heart. Comparisons to the Yungas road in Bolivia are very accurate. This is not a overstatment…trust me. There are no lane dividers. The small stretches of guard rails have been completely encased in jungle. How does galvanized steel grow ferns? The only thing that may keep you from plunging to your certain death should you happen to leave the narrow confine of the road, would be the encroaching rainforest. This is not the friendly, divine, jungle of the lowlands but a vicious black/green mountainous biomass that would swallow you in a heartbeat. Any break the jungle allowing you to see beyond 20 feet will only reveal a milky cloud of rain. The mountain will occasionally slough off of rock and mud wiping out sections of road and any unlucky vehicles too. Velociraptors regularly pick off slow-moving cars. Just kidding. But the bus did stop for more than two hours only to creep past the smoldering remains of semi tractor. The charred trailer still somewhat intact.

No exactly the needs to be rainy-er.

And then the bus got hit by a truck too.
Nothing serious. After passing the first accident, drivers jostled and sped, jockeying to get down the mountain as fast as possible, our driver being one of them. And while passing a line of vehicles on an unmarked, twisting stretch of road, a utility truck turned into us, scrapping down the right side.
Both parties knew what happened, but the narrow road does not allow for any room to pull over. Miles later, when the road finally widened enough, we stopped again.  This time, the passengers got off too, copping squats on the side of the road and sucking down cigarettes, banging away on their useless cell phones. A couple, dressed in their finest hippy chic, tried in vain to hitch out. People were justifiably cranky. I joined the crowd to stretch my legs but eyed the green edge warily, wondering if some huge green tentacle wouldn’t snatch one of us and drag us into the rainforest.
What I found ironic was, even though I had only traveled this route a couple of times before, I had a good idea we were close to civilization…namely my fried plantains with cheese and a bathroom. You would think it would be to the benefit of all parties involved to at least find a parking lot and not have people milling around a treacherous highway. Silly me. Another hour later, we were back on the bus. The driver didn’t bother with a passenger count and I stared at an empty seat with dread.
Within minutes, we passed El Yugo and my delicious plantains. A small whimper escaped me. Even though Rafa’s mom and I cannot communicate, she honed in on my distress. Digging through her bag, she beamed at me offering me, of all things, an apple.

Are you going to eat that?

I am at a loss.

First, I had no idea what to write about today. And second, I had no idea what I was going to make for dinner. Hanging on the fridge door, I wondered what the hell I could do. Part of me just wanted to go to the store and buy whatever sounded good but that would blow the budget. So no, the fridge is not empty, something could be done. The merging of those dilemmas has gotten me to this topic; wasting food.

Everyone likes to think that they use what they buy. But lets face it, we don’t. Some estimates out there contend North America wastes about 6.7 millon tons of food a year. That is purchased and edible food which is discarded, and estimated to be worth about $43 billion. Crazy…but why? Some say it has been the long-established worry of becoming ill. If it’s a perfect looking apple it must be ok. That makes retailers of food not put out blemished items, culling food before we even see it. Then lets say you shop on Sunday and buy your pile of groceries for the week. Lifestyles being what they are with work, children, unexpected stress; you might not get to your produce until later in the week, sending some products beyond their prime and probably into the trash. Let’s face it, cutting around the soft spot, the mushy top, black crud, is not an option to most. Why not? Failure to wash your food (and hands!) invites more risk if illness than doing a veg-sectomy. Some tribes in arctic areas had been eating 10,000 year old mastodons and lived to tell.  So just eat it (just watch out for that funky orange juice.) And some people (gasp!) just don’t know how to cook, let alone store and save food.

I can do this. Let’s tackle whats been in the fridge the longest; celery and two carrots. Celery is sold with the green tops here and makes a great addition to soups and sauces. With a little trimming, I wash and freeze the tops for later use. What’s left I separate into two piles: pretty and no-so-pretty. The pretty celery I am going to use in soup with one of the carrots. The not-so-pretty and the remaining carrot, get tossed into the food processor with an onion to make mirepoix for tomorrow. Fresh parsley, frozen peas and pasta finish up the soup.

I have one eggplant left but froze all my homemade sauce and no bread crumbs. I crush some old crackers, bread and fry the eggplant with spinach and garlic, top with a mix of leftover cheeses, and Voilà! Dinner is served. In all honesty, it was not that hard and it took less than an hour.


Don’t get me wrong, I love convenience just as much as the next person. Central America has these wonderful rotisserie chicken joints. Some are chains, some are mom and pops (the real good ones cook over mango wood giving the chicken a smokey sweet taste…drool). I will buy a whole chicken, de-bone the meat and boil down the carcass for a very flavorful stock. I can get at least three meals out of one small bird.  

I have included two websites that you should check out. Lovefoodhatewaste is an awesome site that is super easy to navigate and has a ton of surefire recipes. The second one is a list of 50 things you can do to waste less food. Tape it on your fridge. Even as I type this, a news clip came out saying world food prices are at a record high.

Rafa and I are decadent…but we are frugal hedonists. Sunday mimosas are much more of a priority than extra protein during the week.

The Buzzz

Oh sweet nectar of the gods…

Coffee. I love coffee. I cannot function without coffee. Not very well, at least.  I have my particularities about my morning ritual. Particularities lovingly shared with Rafa. On the way down here he made me promise to pack coffee and the French press in the car since “Mexico has crappy coffee”. I may choke down whatever I can, but Rafa with NOT tolerate a poor brew. I can’t say that I blame him after all, he had worked for Britt, the most popular coffee company in Costa Rica.

To say you are indoctrinated into coffee in Costa Rica is the understatement of the century. When coffee was first introduced, the government gave plants to the poor and offered free land to anyone who would plant coffee on it. Primary school children in the 1940’s learned to read with “Coffee is good for me. I drink coffee every morning.” In 1998, the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica ads extolled the health benefits of caffeine and described coffee as “the true aphrodisiac.” Ticos put coffee plants around their house like people stateside put evergreens. Rafa swears that when the coffee boom hit and the demand for Hawaiian Kona coffee exceed production, they imported the coffee from Costa Rica and sold it as Kona. Rafa is the coolest, calmest person I have ever met under pressure. But if you want to see that fiery Latino come out, just talk smack about Costa Rican coffee.

I must admit, my palate is not a refined as Rafa’s. I leave the coffee purchases to him, but I have certainly noticed a difference in the coffee down here. I no longer drink it just to kick myself into gear in the morning. The subtleties of a good cuppa coffee is what now makes my morning. You need to appreciate the classic, citric Costa Rica flavor profile. The fragrance of the dry coffee grounds is full of honey, refined toffee sweetness, and citrus blossom accents. Brewed, the aroma has dynamic orange and lemon notes, with a graham cracker scent as well as being malty and honeyed. The cup is dynamically bright, with fresh-squeezed lemon juice flavor adding a high-note zing to the cup, while there is a tenor-level of honey, caramel and barley sugar that fades elegantly, though rather fast, on the palate. I think people don’t know what a really clean, delicate, bright, mild, sweet cup of coffee actually tastes like. Needless to say, it makes Starbucks taste like it’s been filtered through a litter box.

Ticos religiously drink coffee twice daily. Obviously, the morning with breakfast (and mom’s gallo pinto) and mid afternoon with pastries or light tapas style snacks. Still, it’s common to have a cup throughout the day too. But Ticos don’t have that cracked out buzz going on like you see in other countries. There are a handful of coffee shops around but coffee is mainly shared at home with family. For a country that thinks Pizza Hut is fine dining and Taco Bell somehow turns a profit, the coffee chains are wonderfully absent. Costa Rica may not have had a standing army since 1948, but they would riot in a heartbeat if they imported coffee here.

I am conflicted about what information to give you about brewing coffee. As stated earlier, we use a french press and grind beans every morning. For those of you who like to flip a switch; a good bean, fresh water, and a metal filter is the way to go. Also, taste your coffee before you dilute it in sugar and milk. Pick up on the subtleties of the body and aroma. You wouldn’t put low-grade, watered down gas in your car. So why drink the equivalent in coffee?

As for the Coffee Institutes claims? I did quit my job, sell my house and move here…

What the market can bear.

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Stunning, isn’t it? I had to cheese out and give visuals for a change. Unfortunately, you can’t feel the energy of the place, with the callers, and hagglers and people jostling for space. We are on a third world budget. That is not a complaint, or a worry, just a fact. I really kinda see it as a challenge to make great meals on about $50 a week, give or take. This week, the cupboards were bare and we needed to hit the local market hard.

For about $30, we stocked up. This included the fresh orange juice and cheese too. Two quarts of fresh squeezed costs about $3.50 and it’s well worth it. They also have a special machine that runs through sugar canes to make raw sugar cane water. It is divine. Not tooth achingly sweet but very sweet, none the less. The operation is run by a family of immigrants. I say that in the sense that most americans are immigrants. The daughters are pale with freckles, the dad has bright green eyes. They are the typical rural Costa Ricans and don’t speak a lick of English. We bring our own bottle. The dad just takes it and fills it with oj. I don’t have to say a word. I’m being recognized now by the vendors since I usually stick with the same ones. I am called “Blanquita”. Just a nicer version of “whitey”. Rafa monitors my transactions, checking to see if I am getting ripped off. So far, it’s been fine. I even had a guy run after me when I walked away without my change. The market does have its fair share of gringos, good spanish speaking ones. Yet they look so odd to me. They poke around this culinary masterpiece of food and buy apples. Apples? Ugh…I rather eat sushi in Oklahoma. Usually, a tiny, sweet child will spot me and with an imploring tone, try to sell me apples. The Washington stickers are still on them. I will never eat an apple in Costa Rica. Never.

Food is not cheap. I would say the prices equal the US or are higher. But it is the odd things that are inexpensive; flax-seed, honey, eggs, raw sugar, and obviously the fruit. You are paying middle man prices at the market for the most part. The vendors I choose usually sell one product, meaning they are the direct farmer or just the neighbor with the better truck. Farm shares need to catch on here. But you can get a pipas for fifty cents and three Caribbean pastries cost $2. I guess it balances out.

I made a huge pot of tomato sauce (everyone has their own recipe for that) and every single ingredient came from the market. Two thirds was frozen and what was left was used on the eggplant parmesan. A simple stove top version. Basic but perfect. With good planning, I can make things stretch through the week. The sauce got me thinking… I may have to make my own pasta.

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