Cooking and eating through a new culture

Archive for the month “March, 2011”

Third World Zen

Goodbye apartment in the shitty neighborhood. Hello house that needs to be gutted.

I am in the process of once again packing all my belongings and moving. Granted, this was part of the “plan” so I am tackling this with aplomb. My new kitchen is an empty room at the moment, but it is spacious and has a nice, sunny window overlooking the small front garden which will hold some tomato plants and variety of herbs. The design is straight forward. The biggest issues being hooking up the utilities. Rafa does have mad skills but he still has yet to master the time/space continuum of the universe (otherwise known as biting off more than he can chew.) I have been assured the electric will be set up very soon allowing the stove and dryer to function. I gently remind him of this, along with the huge black smear of soot near the old electric connection (good thing concrete houses don’t burn).

My other concern (deep breath) are insects. Ants and cockroaches to be specific. This is the tropics after all, and my biological background has more than prepared me for the insect hordes. That doesn’t stop me from squealing like a school girl at the sight of a five-inch long centipede in my bedroom. My wimpy little fly swatter did nothing to it other than have it rear up and basically flip me off. It was only dispatched by my mighty Doc Martins, completely impractical to wear here, but wonderful to crush exoskeletons. Unlike flip-flops which have no traction on the slippery tile floors allowing you to slide a good couple of feet on cockroach guts. Cockroaches are so big here that I can identify them by markings, like Broken Antenna, Black Butt and Bob. These guys give me enough time to acknowledge their existence but vaporize when I grab something large enough to throw at them. They apparently like to fuck with me while I am in the shower and when I am making coffee. Both, rather vulnerable times.

Ants, on the other hand, have the decency to stay out of my bedroom, but not out of my kitchen. They are some of my biggest cooking fans. They also have pavlovian sense when it comes to my meal preparation. The kitchen can be spotless and the moment I turn on the stove, the counter is covered with ants. They are tiny little suckers and I am resigned to the fact that they will always be part of my recipes.

My plan is to get in to the house this week to clean and do some proactive pest control. I want to assemble some idea of a kitchen, at least to cook basic meals. The sink may be in another room but I will be able to open the stove without relocating the fridge. Funny, how excited that is making me. We also need to set up our computer. I have been told internet is already available but who knows when we will get everything hooked up. Just wanted to give you guys a heads up…all three of you that read this.

I have been leaving piles of stuff to take over to the house for Rafa, breaking down the apartment a little at a time. Rafa came home for lunch today(raviolis and fresh, homemade sausage) and a second load. He told me the lumber and supplies were delivered for the little roof over our newly painted wall. All carefully deposited right where my kitchen will be.

Deep breath…


March Mango Madness

OMG! It’s mango season! Mangos, mangos everywhere! I am so excited!

Seriously, my New Years resolution was to eat a papaya, a mango or an avocado every day and I am sticking to it. I’ve eaten an avocado over the sink at 9:30pm just to keep my promise. The problem I was facing was that good avocados had been disappearing at the market, replaced with larger, mexican avocados that cost more and are less flavorful. So far, we have had a steady stream of papayas and I still buy them from the shy farmer with bright blue eyes, but lo and behold, the market was PACKED with huge, luscious mangos. Some places you can get 4 kilos for 1000 colon (that’s two bucks!).

I cannot pin point where my love for mangos came from. I did have a job that allowed me to “sample” fruits from all over the world and from that, I have developed some odd cravings. Mango being the tamest. Once, while in the Caribbean, I was given a bag of mangos and passion fruit from a local farmer I had stopped to chat with. At the hotel, I did not have access to a kitchen and the first slice with the butter knife left over from lunch, produced a juicy mess. The simple action of putting fruit to mouth was covering me  in pulp to my elbows. So…I just got naked and ate them in the tub. Seriously. I was sober too…and unfortunately alone.

Mangos, besides being delectably delish, are a storehouse of vitamin C, copper, iron, magnesium and beta carotene (Vitamin A).  These antioxidant carotenoids are known for  their protective power against certain cancers. Various enzymes in mango help in digestion by breaking down proteins, not to mention the added “push” of fiber. Mangos also supply ample potassium, making them ideal for anyone looking to replenish energy after physical activity. The high vitamin E content is suppose to boost sex drive too. So what’s not to love?

Mangos are a member of the cashew family of flowering plants; other species include the pistachio tree and believe it or not, poison ivy. People who are allergic to cashews or natural rubber latex can suffer a potentially serious “cross-reactivity” from eating mango due to similar antigens in the plants.  And the skin of a mango can induce a rash in people who are sensitive to poison ivy. The flesh is safe for them to eat; they just need to ask someone to take on mango-peeling duty.

Mangos may have originated in India but they are all over Central America, growing up to 60 feet high. They are a lovely shaped tree with a broad evergreen canopy and strong arching limbs. We have one on the property in Cahuita and it’s not uncommon to see them in many back yards. There are over a thousand varities worldwise, but the six major varieties available in North America are: Ataulfo (grown in Central America), Francine (Haiti), Haden (South America), Keitt (United States), Kent (Central American) and Tommy/Atkins (South America).

"Candy" mangos. So much flavor packed into these little guys.

I have never been big on Indian cuisine (dot, not feather), so don’t expect any chutney recipes here. Besides, mangos are best served fresh and uncooked. Smoothies and fruit salads may be my favorite way to eat them, but I do make a ravishing sweet and spicy shrimp gallo.

Clean and de-vien as many shrimp you are hungry for. Saute up some onion and chopped red pepper in a mix of olive oil and butter. Add shrimp with as much Caribbean Jerk sauce you feel comfortable with (I make my own) and cook the shrimp until pink. Spoon some shrimp mix onto a heated tortilla and top with cubed mango. It’s so wickedly easy to make and tastes just as sinful. Rafa has been working some crazy hours and this is a quick easy meal to whip up at a moments notice. Especially, if went I want some of those aphrodisiacal qualities to kick in.

Bocas del Toro, Part 2-The Islands

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During the 45 minute ferry ride to Bocas, I began to worry that this trip may crumble. I had become “hangry”; a brilliant term coined by a friend meaning hungry and angry. Granted, the drizzle dissolved away by the time we docked giving way to a soothing sunset. But what really knocked me to my senses was Bocas itself. The place was booming. Let me clarify that by saying it was lively, clean, quaint and lacked any horrible commercialized establishment. The placed is packed with gringos.

Bocas del Toro is actually the name of the providence in Panama and consists of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago but pretty much the whole area is rather difficult to access, as we personally found out. Bocas Town on Isla Colón and is the largest on the islands. The native Ngöbe and Buglé people still make up a large portion of the population, as well as Jamaican descendants from the banana plantations, but the gringo population far exceeds them both. Obviously, English is widely spoken.

Our hotel was a short taxi ride away. Feeling energized after a quick clean up, I made my way to the hotel restaurant set over the water and ordered a beer. Oh, blissful paradise! The restaurant offered a simple menu of fresh seafood, which I had a ceviche of fresh mackerel. Delish! Rafa and I decided to venture into town to check things out. Since Bocas was wonderfully without any traffic, other than taxies and cops. Two MAJOR things about Bocas: First, it is safe. At night, the streets are full of people and cops. There are gringo families walking with children, mixing with locals enjoying the festive atmosphere and open markets. People bike everywhere and hardly any are locked up. The zombie factor of razor wire is nil. This is a feeling I rarely get in Costa Rica, even in Cahuita.  Second, no beggars. From the first step into Central America, there have been beggars, pawing and pleading at every turn. It’s heartbreaking. But there is not a one in Bocas. I have a feeling the cops can be pretty heavy-handed here, not that I want to test that theory, but we did view them descending on a few rowdy gringos. Those poor sad SOBs. I’m sure the term “paradise” doesn’t extend to the pokey down here.

The next morning, Rafa and I went into town again to book a trip to the out lying islands. Any native with a boat offers day trips around the archipelago and we stroll around looking for a good package. I am in full-on tropical gringo resort wear: large straw sun hat, bright linen beach shirt, oversized sunglasses and of course flip-flops. I am a magnet for these guys peddling their services. They flock around me with their catchy English phrases, only to have Rafa swoop in to haggle away at the price. It was hysterical. We settle on Willy and I end up being the only gringo in the boat. What a surprise!

All of us had a great time in Bocas. The main item on all the menus is seafood and it is amazing. There are even places that will just fish out your lunch from under the dock. It’s that fresh. The meals are simple; coconut rice, plantains, and seafood. Everything has a decidedly Caribbean flare but hamburgers and pizzas are common as well. Panama is cheap too! At least half the price of Costa Rica on everything, and Willy told us that Bocas is the most expensive place in Panama.

The beaches are incredible. Each one better than the next. They go from bath water safe Starfish Beach to the world-class surfing swells of the Silverbacks. My only regret was that we didn’t have time to see them all.

Rafa and I were completely smitten with Bocas. While traveling through Central America, El Salvador won us over with its pristine beaches and sweet local atmosphere. But El Salvador has poor developement and much of the countryside lacks electricity forcing locals to cook with wood or garbage. This strips the countryside of forest and also covers the towns in a thick cloud of smelly smog. Bocas, on the other hand, has worked hard to keep the islands clean. There is recycling, solar power, rainwater collection, and a tight control on development…at least for the time being. Rumor has it, Isle Bastimentos including Red Frog Beach has been gobbled up by developers who want to build three marinas and a golf course. Bleech! I would like to see some of those tourist dollars boost up the mainland. A sewer plant to get rid of Hepatitis Harbor, please!

Word of warning: there may be no major mosquitos to deal with, but there are deadly sand flies and they will EAT YOU ALIVE. They are sneaky little bastards and you don’t realize you are getting bitten until you wake up the next morning, a mass of tiny welts. And those suckers itch! Sheesh, you’d think they would have enough soft, pasty-white gringos to chew on.

The hardest part about the whole trip was leaving. The drive back was uneventful. We pulled into Cahuita to drop off Rafa’s parents, who did not have to return to daily grind like we did, only to find the power shut off and that someone tried to break in. Rafa gave a heavy sigh and lamented:

“I miss Bocas.”




Bocas Del Toro, Part 1-San Jose to Almirante

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Okay…this may be the Consumingcostarica blog, but I did take a little nibble out of Panama.
Things being what they are, I needed to update my status in Costa Rica. That means leaving the country for at least 72 hours. Neither one of us had been to Panama before but with a little research we figured Bocas Del Toro would be a good destination. Granted, Lonely Planet gave it the kiss of death by saying it was a “must see” before tourism ate it alive. What? One of the most read sites on travel is telling people to see this before it’s over run with tourists….hmmmm.
This also offered an opportunity to travel with Rafa’s parents before they left for the States. So on an astonishingly clear morning, we headed over the mountains to the Caribbean. It is rare to make this drive without a cloud in the sky and the jaw dropping beauty of the rainforest made me forget the crazy road. I must add that they actually painted lanes over the mountain, not that anyone pays attention to them, but they are pretty and at least give you the idea of safety. Of course we stopped at El Yugo for my divine plátanos con queso.
The cool mountain air soon gave way to the humidity of the ocean. Rafa’s parents were completely bagged out in the back allowing us to chat and reminisce of our drive down here. Rafa and I do travel well together, even through the chaos of coming through Central America. The Sixaola crossing into Panama stunned me. “This is the ONLY bridge?”, I say pointing at a narrow decrepit rail bridge with boards between the ties to keep low clearance cars from bottoming out on the tracks. As I am saying this, a full tractor-trailer inches across. Needless to say, only one vehicle at a time. This border crossing is by far, the craziest we have been through. We creep across the bridge, people walking across barely move out of the way. I can’t look at the wide river below but ask if there are crocodiles. “Si! Mucho!” I’m told.
The Panamanian side is even weirder consisting of just a couple a dirty concrete shacks along a very narrow dirt road. Being well experienced in crossings, Rafa takes the info and I stay with the vehicle. At every crossing people try to hustle you and I watch with a cold chill in my belly as a heated argument ensued with Rafa and some guy. Rafa is asking for proof from a plain clothes, non identifiable guy who wants to go through the car. Those little placards hanging around necks don’t mean shit, show me a badge or a gun and then you will have our attention. Tempers settle and the car gets tossed. Not a big deal. Just wish Panama would invest in at least a border crossing polo shirt for these guys. I think my car was the first US plated vehicle to cross here. I know that’s not true, but holy shit, two hours to process us through! Sorry Panama, you’re the Central American loser in all our crossings. Both Rafa and I travel on US passports but they still somehow managed to screw up my nationality as Costa Rican, so we had to watch a seriously illiterate woman type our documents twice. It’s hot, were tired, and we have to make to ferry to Bocas before 6pm, plus we lost an hour to the time change but if it is one thing you learn about dealing with border crossings, is to be patient, polite and quiet. When we finally get to leave the border, we realize there is not a single sign to anywhere. Luckily, we get pointed into the right direction but are in need of constant updates to be sure we are on the right route. A woman pulls along side of us and says to follow her. She went out of her way to get us to the ferry and for that she needs to get some big karma points. One time when Rafa and I were heading to Cahuita we saw an US plated car make a wrong turn. We chased him down (probably scared the shit out of him too) and told him to follow us. We never saw him after we got him back on track but it was still a good deed.
The town where we pick up the ferry doesn’t boost my confidence much either as I watch a huge rat sift through the garbage along the shore by the ferry dock.  We leave the car in a lot and I wonder if this won’t be the demise of my gallant and stead fast Bu. We pack into the ferry as it begins to drizzle. Motoring slowly out of the harbor, I see the ramshackle homes perched in the mangroves. The bathrooms merely consisting of a small enclosure set over the water. If is wasn’t for our Panamanian friend and the butter smooth roads, I may have questioned coming to Panama.
I am beginning to realize living down here is a lot like drunk sex: sweaty, messy, and if you’re not careful…may leave you with a contagious disease.

WTF! Bridge to Panama.

Stan’s Irish Pub

It’s true. There is an honest to God Irish pub in my hood. Now, it’s not uncommon to find businesses here appropriating numerous American monikers. Normally, that is the only thing linking them to US establishments cause the places usually suck. So when St. Patrick’s Day rolled around, I have to admit I was leaning towards the expat haven of Escazu to have a pint. Errands found us near the area but since the whole idea of naming and numbering streets is completely foreign here, we couldn’t find the place. So be it. Rafa instead turned us homeward and to a place I had seen on other excursions. I didn’t have my hopes up. I figured one bottle of overpriced Guinness would do it and we would be home before dark. Silly me.

Stan’s is awesome. We walk in to a tiny bar with four white-haired expats dressed in their finest Irish regalia already three sheets to the wind. OMG…I feel a little misty eyed already. We nestle in to a corner of the bar and are greeted by none other than Stan himself. I never knew you could find leprechauns in Costa Rica! Stan is born and bred in Zapote but moved to NYC as a baby. To hear him shift from Brooklynese to spanish is comical. A proud veteran of the US Army Rangers, he moved back to Costa Rica and opened the first true pub I’ve seen since I left NY.

With pride and an impish smile, Stan gave us a quick tour. The pub itself is cozy painted army green with great paraphernalia hanging on the walls. There are a maze of small rooms for dinning and a huge back room with an extra bar and stag for concerts. I was impressed. But not as impressed as the 34oz. mugs of Costa Rican Craft beer stout! Woohoo! Yes, to be a pub you must have draft beer and Stan proudly served local craft beer that was pretty damn good as well as an excellent selection of bottled beer. Oh happy times!

To keeping from sinking too fast, Rafa and I ordered some food and I dare say, we took some of the biggest ordering risks so far: chicken wings and corn beef with cabbage. Those are some serious Northeast boots to fill! The wings were big but needed to be fried better. The sauce was too light and needed more butter. (Stan and I are just going to have to sit down and have a chat.) The corn beef was good, then again it’s not too hard to screw up boiled meat. He gave it a little quick fried flare. Maybe that’s just to get Ticos past the whole boiled meat thing. Tasty taters and cabbage as well. As bar food goes, I give him snaps but I am going to have to do more taste testing sober. That may just be my biggest challenge…staying sober there.

The place filled to the rafters quickly and Stan never wavered from his post behind the bar. He ruled his domain adeptly. Smart, quick, accommodating, Stan deserves praise for running a great pub. And as if my first St. Patrick’s Day away from the States couldn’t get any better, a bag piper came in. Beer, bag piper, Rafa…reminds me of an Irish blessing:

May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been
the foresight to know where you’re going
and the insight to know when you’re going too far.

With that said, I think I’ll have another beer.

  • 125 m west of Casa Presidencial, Zapote, San José, 10105
  • 2253-4360
  • Apple Pie

    This post may not directly deal with food, but it is mentioned.
    March 18th….Surprisingly, I wake up automatically before the alarm. Even on the few hours of sleep. I try not to move, approximating the damage caused from the night before. My head swims but levels and I crack open my eyes. So far, so good. I try to replay the evenings festivities. Was I talking to a crazy Latino? Stumbling to the bathroom, I grab some Advil and run the shower. Bits and pieces come floating back like lost slides from a projector. I chuckle to myself…I was so out of control. Scrubbed clean, I make my way downstairs for coffee. There is a card on my counter. Suddenly, memories shift and reveal: I was talking to a Latino! He gave me this card!….Huh, never see him again.
    Everybody goes through dark times in their lives. I am no different. Situations arise and it is your personal constitution that carries you through these storms….and for me, copious amounts of alcohol too. A year ago, I was not in a good place. An unprecedented series of setbacks brought me to my knees and I was seriously shaken to the core. I was angry, hurt, isolated, and unsure how I was going to deal with my uncertain future. Everything that I had placed value in crumbled around me. Each day I struggled to rise but somehow I kept putting one foot in front of the other. It’s just that many times those feet led me to the local bar.
    My best friend and co-conspirator at that time, was all I needed. Jess and I would wax poetically about evolution, engineering, sailing and occasionally, the many faults of men over cocktails. We were brutal. We laughed our asses off, but we tipped well too. So last St. Patrick’s Day, I couldn’t get to the bars fast enough and I was well toasted before the sun began to fall. Imagine my surprise to find a dapper Latino chatting me up. Mind you, my forays out on the town were not to troll for action. I was a wreck and I knew it. It was written across my forehead just in case my biting commentary didn’t frighten them away, unless you considered a blunt “Fuck off” coquettish.
    “Would you like to go get some cake?” I remember him asking me. Of course the local dessert shop was closed to keep out the drunken hordes but we did find ourselves at the local diner having apple pie. Something strange happened to me: I spilled my guts. In a drunken haze, I poured my misery and frustration over him. He remembers my passion. I remember sobbing like a baby. He said I quoted Pablo Neruda and I told him to never trust a woman who doesn’t know how to cook. I thought I was a lunatic. To this day, I still don’t know what attracted him to me. Hours slipped by and we talked as if we knew each other for years.  As we parted ways, he asked me to wait while he ran to his car. He came back with a card. Nothing written inside. Just a saying:
    Most obstacles melt away when we make up our minds to walk boldly through them.
    Sometimes grace can fall on you in the wee hours of the morning.
    He called me the next day. He wooed me. And as much as I tried to fight it, I was smitten. When you have been stripped to the bone of any vanity, people will love your true worth. He challenged me, pushed me to keep fighting, buoyed me with compassion and asked me to come with him to Costa Rica. So here I am.
    All it took was apple pie and kindness.
    Thank you for a wonderful year Rafa.


    Rafa’s drawing of our budding relationship

    moo pad prik sai tua fak yao

    Teeheehee…that just sounds so funny. It’s the actual name of a recipe I tried last night. Not from the “Cookbook” (translation and ingredients have limited me at the moment), but from the web. We are heading out-of-town (rest assured, I will post about that too) and I am trying to use up what is in the fridge. While at the market over the weekend, it seems the big seller was green beans. Huge piles of green beans were everywhere and as much as I try to plan my meals, sometimes just the wonderful availability of produce sways me…especially at 500 colons a half kilo (that’s less than an US buck!).

    So, what to do with a big bag of lovely green beans? I wanted to make a meal and not just a side dish. Green bean casserole would have been nice but I have already told you about the woeful lack of mushrooms here. The Joy didn’t pique my interest, so I began scratching around on the web where I found and the simple Asian recipe of stir-fried green beans with pork and chiles.

    I gotta tell you this. You may not believe it, but Rafa’s family had a restaurant when he was a teenager, specifically a Chinese restaurant. When Rafa and I started dating, I was dealing with quite a few trust issues. On the second date (and probably the second glass of wine) I asked what the hell he wanted with me. We have never been the couple to dance around any issues. So when he told me about growing up cooking in his parents Chinese restaurant, I naturally called bullshit. But Rafa is unflappable and it is absolutely true. The man has mad skills.

    I liked the simplicity of the reciepe…and the fact all I needed to get was some pork. I waved the fish sauce for soy sauce too. In the freezer I had a bag of chilies from Rafa’s mom and if it wasn’t for the Cookbook, I would swear she was trying to fuck with me. Okay, maybe that is a bit harsh, but I was instructed to use one chile per gallo pinto and when I sliced it up, the vile, toxic juice inside got under my fingernails and made me want to chew my digits off. Seriously. And it lingered for days. Afterwards, I was told NOT to slice it up but to only pierce them and add them to the beans. Arggg…I gotta learn Spanish faster.

    Needless to say, I did not use that many chiles either but I added some diced red pepper.  And I wore rubber gloves. Rafa devoured it. Even the next morning he commented how good it was.

    Stir-Fried Green Beans with Pork & Chilies
    (moo pad prik sai tua fak yao)

    1 1/4 lb green beans, washed and trimmed 1/4-1/2″ length

    12-16 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped finely
    6-9 fresh hot green or red chilies, cut crosswise into very thin slices
    5 tablespoons vegetable oil
    10 oz. lean pork thinly sliced
    1/2 teaspoon paprika
    1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
    3 tablespoons fish sauce or soy sauce                                                                                                                                                 1 1/4 cup water
    Put oil into a wok and place over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot add the garlic and chilies. Stir and cook until the garlic turns golden. Add the pork and cook until the pork has lost it’s raw look. Put in the green beans, paprika, brown sugar, fish sauce and 1 1/4 cups water. Cook, stirring on medium-high heat 8-10 minutes or until the beans are tender and most of the water has been absorbed.

    Sweat Equity

    I knew this was going to be a challenging year, on many levels. Currently, we are making plans to leave the apartment and move into Rafa’s parents house. I dare say I heard that collective gasp of dread all the way down here. Not to worry. Rafa’s parents are moving to Arizona to spend time with his sister who is going back to school and help take care of the grand kids. There will be no co-habitation. But the idea is that we are moving there to improve the place and by that I mean, pretty much a gut and redo…including the kitchen.

    This is not new to me and I am looking forward to a cooking space larger than a closet. In the meantime, Rafa and I have been hatching out design ideas and running them past his mom. So far so good.

    This is Rafa’s childhood home set in the district of Zapote, a middle class, working neighborhood tight with bungalows. The house is the usual concrete construction and the old addition on the back needs to be demolished in favor of a second story. We have our work cut out for us. But I am familiar with re-hab and design and with Rafa’s creativity and drive, we should be able to tackle the task.

    The first project was to wall the front and add an extra driveway. A word about Costa Rican homes: they are designed with paranoia in mind. Outsiders would think after driving around some neighborhoods, that they were in Mogadishu. What had probably started as just security for keeping windows open at night somehow morphed into homes being tricked out like Fort Knox. Some of the iron work on the windows can be quite artistic and lovely to down right penal. People adorn their homes here with the lacey cables of razor wire, sometimes up to three levels high! Like one barrier of flesh shredding evil wasn’t enough. There is razor wire around daycare centers. This baffles me. Statistically, crime has continued to drop in San Jose. It is higher here than in the US, but certainly not by much. Sure, there are murders and horrific crimes, like in any large metropolitan area, but the majority are familiar crimes, where individuals knew each other.  It wasn’t like this driving through Guatemala or Honduras, where people actually do vanish for unknown reasons. Plus, you can get ADT or similar security systems here. I just reasoned, that Ticos are far ahead of us all in preparing for the apocalypse and the zombie hordes. I told Rafa we should randomly throw fake human limbs and blood into the razor wire around the city to get people talking. “See! Someone WAS trying to take my cheap Chinese TV!”

    As far as I am concerned, this place is full of drama queens. Not that I would admit that to Rafa’s mom, who by the way, loves her new wall.  A wall that Rafa and I spent the day painting. It does look nice. Rafa went to great lengths to keep things traditional. The color is a soft gold that looks fantastic with the dark stain of the wooden doors. It also gives the tiny front yard a cozy feel. I can already see my hammock under the lime tree.

    Rafa’s mom lovingly tended to us while we worked. We had two great meals and numerous glasses of chilled fresco, a fresh blend of fruit and water. I was well slathered in an obecenely high SPF but my skin still has a tendency to pink up. Rafa’s mom fluttered around me, offering hats and long sleeve shirts fearing my pale gringa body just may spontaneously combust under the sun. I was no worse for wear. Tired and paint splattered, but extremely happy to offer a service to a family that has been so generous and kind with me.

    The sun was just beginning to set when we finished the last of the wall. My hands ached and I longed for a cleansing shower. While we were readying to leave, Rafa’s mom pulls me aside and hands me a homemade spiral bound notebook. The pages are copied from some other book. Some pages have little scribbled notes in the margin. It is her cookbook. It takes a while for it to set in and all I can say is gracias, over and over again. The conversation in the other room pulls her away and I am left alone to absorb the full scope of what just transpired. Alone in the front room, I clutch the book to my chest and bounce up and down, biting my tongue to keep from squealing.

    I am so IN!

    I dairy you

    I never understood the whole cow motif trend. Having worked on farms and with cows, it was unfathomable that people though they lived some idyllic life munching grass and being fondled by sweet-natured farmers. Most would be horrified to see how a commerical cow truly lives and to have people decorate their kitchens with happy Holsteins makes me wonder if they wouldn’t also adorn their walls with similar images of  orphans and homeless people. My years of experience with cows made me pity their very existence. That is, until I came here.
    I had stopped drinking milk well before highschool. Like most self-conscious, image hating adolescent girls in the 80’s, I wanted to cut calories. And I never really went back. A few months dating a guy that was lactose intolerant, I got into soy (if you read this: I swear, regardless of what you may believe, I never “poisoned” you with milk).  But other than some half and half for my coffee and occasional hankerings for yogurt, dairy was off the radar.
    Sure there was ice cream and cheese and as much as I would have liked to consume them on a daily biases, they were more for special times…of the month.
    I remember standing in front of the dairy case with Rafa frantically looking for half and half. I knew that leche was milk but I where was leche medio y medio? Looks like I would be SOL. It went from whole milk to heavy cream. So whole milk it is. Dos Pinos milk, that is. There are other smaller dairy/cheese companies in the grocery stores such as Monteverde and Coronado but Dos Pinos is ubiquitous. Here’s the thing, or at least what I have been told: Costa Rica is so small that farms couldn’t get mega big, like in the US. So instead, small farms sell their milk to Dos Pinos who in turn packages and sells it. They hold 85% of the market of commercial milk in Costa Rica and have the biggest cheese plant in Central America…and it’s a Co-op! How cool is that?!
    Dos Pinos Corporate Mission:
    “To manufacture and market, ethically and professionally, products with high nutritional value for our current and potential consumers, maintaining the highest quality and level of service provided by employees committed to our values and the use of the best technology available.”
    Still, I had a little concern. I mean, what if this milk Co-op went all China, and started mixing crazy shit in their milk. So we did a little exploring. And let me tell you something: dairy cows in Costa Rica have it MADE. It seems volcanos have wonderful rich soil, which in turn makes wonderful pasture land. Steep, but lovely. This was taken from the edge of cow field:

    Mimosas and Moos

    Go into the surrounding countryside and cows are everywhere in thick green pastures with the most stunning views of the valley. Look a little harder and you will see the small neat farms and roadside stands selling fresh palmito. Palmito is  a softball sized wad of string cheese made from fresh from cow’s milk, pulled and spun to create a delicate, lightly flavored cheese reminiscent of mozzarella. A trip up volcano Irazu weaved through amazing pasture land and fat, happy cows. Just before the park entrance was a small trailer that sold the most amazing fried cheese empanadas. Empanadas that, to this day, I still crave. Ticos love dairy. It may not be as refined as the Europeans, but cheese is everywhere. Cream too. But here’s the thing: it’s not sweet cream. It’s very common to have a big dollop of unsweetened cream with your gallo pinto. It has taken me awhile to get use to it, but I do like it. The same with  Turrialba cheese. It’s a white, semi soft “squeaky” cheese (it squeaks when you bite into it)  often served with breakfast. Yogurt is sold in the liquid form rather than cups and you can get awesome flavors like guanabana and, if you hunt hard enough blueberry!
    Rafa works long hours and the days can drag. Yes, I should be banging out more posts but sometimes, the inspiration is just not there and I will succumb to ennui.  Strangely, at times like these, Rafa will sneak out early and come home with a pint of ice cream.

    Date Night: Olio Ole

    I had been meaning to do this but things have been hectic here. Work, responsibilities, and worries weighted heavily on us but we always made sure there was “us” time. It was just a little few and far between. After six weeks, the pace has slowed and stabilized, for the most part. So when Rafa asked if I wanted to go out for drinks and dinner, I was giddy…and I wanted to do my first restaurant review…and it was high time I got to wear something other than flip-flops.

    Barrio Escalante is a little neighborhood with a cluster of curious bar/restaurants. I say curious because Costa Rica doesn’t have the service industry mindset like stateside nor do they like the uniqueness of a good drinking establishment. People will readily cluster in Subway or Pizza Hut (which has beer on tap), than the neighboring watering hole. Granted I have only been in a few places for a beer, but for the most part they are rather cookie cutter and play crappy american music. In our first week here, Rafa took me to Olio for lunch and I was happy when he suggested it for date night.

    Olio is a great century old brick one story nestled on the commuter train tracks. Seriously, if you stumble out of this place at the wrong time, you’re toast. I wonder why there are not deaths weekly, if not nightly here because if it ran as close to the places I use to frequent, there would be a blood bath.  There are no warning lights or sirens, just a slight rumbling which could easily be mistaken for the numerous earthquakes…or your state of drunkenness.

    The decor is not the usual thrown together mishmash of what Ticos think with draw customers. The place is actually cozy, well-lit and comfortable. I have seen it listed as a pub but I am a pub expert and this is more of just a nice bar/restaurant. Here’s the kicker: the service is good. A little back ground…90% of the restaurants in CR could care less about you. I know that sounds a tad harsh, but people don’t put any effort into to good service. And I am being nice! Rafa seethes at the service and has been known to hunt down the owners of places and chew them out. It’s really not that hard: water, napkins, appropriate music, a frigging smile. So when we get good service, we notice and we tip good. And is a country where tips are included in the final bill.

    Rafa says Olio has been around for over ten years. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes about the place. I’ve been here for only a few weeks and have seen restaurants open and shut down. Since it’s in a neighborhood and not around the main drags, you get a nice clientele of students, professionals, and *sigh* expats. This night was no exception and we walked in to see a table of drunk older american women, jostling and joking among empty pitchers of sangria. On the other side of us was a table of local art students in the latest Costa Rican boho chic (aka “what I looked like in the 80s”), with the guy sporting a spectacular mullet.  I dare say, I was feeling a bit homesick.

    The menus here are voluminous and this one is no exception with eight pages of items. Specialization is not big here. Olio has been listed as mediterranean/Costa Rican fusion (wtf…because they have olives?) but they do have fine pasta dishes AND (the real reason I was so excited to go there) fresh mushrooms. Fungi are not a big cooking draw down here. Auto Mercado will have your basic white mushrooms for an astounding $6-8 a package (not pound). And trust me, they don’t look good either.  I don’t know where Olio gets them (because I have looked) but they are fresh, flavorful and possibly hallucinogenic because the meal was rapturous…or maybe it was the wine…either way, it was good.

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