Cooking and eating through a new culture

Archive for the month “June, 2011”

Truth be told

Backyard zen

I’m off tomorrow for a quick jaunt back stateside.

I have a pile of goodies to pick up and many glasses of wine to share with friends and family, hopefully over plates of good food. Let me rephrase that: plates of different food.

I have been able to experience food here that defies immagiantion…at least for me: Rafa’s Mom cooked beef with papaya that to this day still makes me drool when I think about it, eating cheese empanadas on a volcano, with wine, watching the full moon rise through a thin veil of clouds, my first taste of guanabana ice cream.

The kitchen here is still in the planning phase. We have gone as far as drawing the cabinets on the bare walls. I have a lot of experience bringing a house back from the brink. Granted, mine was four times as big and not as habitable. In fact, I had to bribe the housing inspector to let me live it while renovations were being done, but this place certainly presents its own challenges and I am going to miss the chaos. Seriously, whatever this country can throw at me is nothing in comparison to the viciousness I left behind. It’s a bitter-sweet return, but as a wise and dear friend told me, “Happiness is the best revenge.”

Last night, Rafa and I talked into the wee hours of the morning. It was a six month review of how far we have come, where we are going, how much we need to do. There is a clarity to my life now like I have never experienced. I had swallowed the “American Dream” hook, line and sinker and it nearly killed me. People move to Costa Rica because it’s “paradise”, or for the “pura vida” life style. Well, it’s not. No place is. It is just as much as an illusion as the American Dream. Personally, I was looking for something more significant and it was no place I could find on a map. To do that I had to let go of everything. People were shocked. Many still are, but I approach love and cooking with the same wild abandon. Paradise can be found. It’s in those tender moments between two people, curled around each other, whispering whole soul truths.

My new herb garden and path

Rafa is staying behind to work mad hours and live off of granola and yogurt. He is perfectly self-sufficient, not to mention an amazing cook too, but while I am away, regardless of what I will leave in the fridge, he will function on the bare minimum. I cannot believe I am actually worried about not being able to make him lunch. Me! Ms.-Independant-femminist-cut-your-own-path-liberated-riot-grrrl!

Ha! Who am I kidding? I love being a kept woman.


Bringing out the Big Guns


Time to pull out all the stops, throw down the gauntlet and show what I’m made of. No apologies, no excuses. This is the time for me to rise to the challenge and prove my mettle…or at least cook a fucking fantastic meal for Rafa’s parents.

Lets just say, that I knew this would happen eventually. Not me just cooking a meal for them, but cooking for my life…or at least my good standing. I am a foreigner, in a foreign country, who followed a man she adored into a strange, new wonderful family. I am also an only child, who never quite took herself too seriously and has a wicked, sardonic sense of humor…and something was lost in translation. I am mortified beyond belief. The funny thing is, his parents were not the ones to take offense, but another family member. Being an only child limits my understanding of big families, let alone Latino ones, and all I know is that I need to repair the damage and the only way I know how, since communicating is still limited, is cooking.

So, who do you turn to when you want the ultimate meal?

Oh yeah! Time to channel my inner Julia cause it’s Boeuf Bourguinon time!…with a Costa Rican flare. Not only am I cooking this famous recipe but I am doing it ovenless, with a lot of talk and very little translation flying around.

Cooking a Julia with limited resources is a little like herding cats but it keeps me focused, and calm. The recipe itself is wonderfully basic, leaving me without having to improvise on anything. One of the hardest aspects of cooking for me is proportions. I have been single so long, basically cooking for myself, that bigger dinners leave me sweating. So to cover me and also use up whats here, I am also making salted, rosemary potatoes too. It’s not an advanced recipe but any Julia requires ample amounts of love and patience.

It’s time to get my lardon! (I’ve always wanted to write that). Now, I don’t care what kind of mood you are in, but when you smell wine soaking meat cooked in bacon fat simmering away, all is well with the world. I pace myself and cook, prep and clean as I go. I am orchestrating a divine symphony of flavors and each ingredient yields perfectly to my desire. I am in my groove.

Needless to say, it was a hit. Devoured by all to a chorus of “Que rico!” and “Delisico!” All my worries about not fitting in or being ostracized evaporated. It was a great meal and all is truly well with the world.

  • 9- to 10-inch, fireproof casserole dish , 3 inches deep
  • Slotted spoon
  • 6 ounces bacon (lardons)
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil or cooking oil
  • 3 pounds lean stewing beef , cut into 2-inch cubes
  • 1 sliced onion
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. flour
  • 3 cups full-bodied, young red wine , such as a Chianti
  • 2 to 3 cups brown beef stock or canned beef bouillon
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 cloves mashed garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. thyme
  • Crumbled bay leaf
  • Blanched bacon rind
  • 18 to 24 small white onions , brown-braised in stock
  • 1 pound quartered fresh mushrooms , sautéed in butter
  • Parsley sprigs
Remove rind from bacon, and cut bacon into lardons(sticks, 1/4 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long). Simmer rind and bacon for 10 minutes in 1 1/2 quarts of water. Drain and dry.Preheat oven to 450 degrees.Sauté the bacon in the oil over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Set casserole aside. Reheat until fat is almost smoking before you sauté the beef.Dry the stewing beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Sauté it, a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the bacon.In the same fat, brown the sliced vegetables. Pour out the sautéing fat.Return the beef and bacon to the casserole and toss with the salt and pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Set casserole uncovered in middle position of preheated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the meat and return to oven for 4 minutes more. (This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust.) Remove casserole, and turn oven down to 325 degrees.Stir in the wine, and enough stock or bouillon so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, garlic, herbs, and bacon rind. Bring to simmer on top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and set in lower third of preheated oven. Regulate heat so liquid simmers
very slowly for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Set them aside until needed.When the melt is tender, pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the casserole and return the beef and bacon to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms over the meat.Skim fat off the sauce. Simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons of stock or canned bouillon. Taste carefully for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. Recipe may be completed in advance to this point.For immediate serving:Covet the casserole and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve in its casserole, or arrange the stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles, or rice, and decorated with parsley.For later serving: When cold, cover and refrigerate. About 15 to 20 minutes before serving, bring to the simmer, cover, and simmer very slowly for 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce.

Tin Jo

The Spanish “j” is pronounced like the “h” in the word “hot,” except that it is “raspier”, as if you were trying to clear your throat. Think of Santa’s laugh, a garden tool or lets say…the base street term for a prostitute. I’ll get back to this point later.

Anyway…Who goes to a Central American paradise and wants Asian food? Me! Comm’on, who doesn’t love some good greasy noodles and non descrip meat? There may be just as many shitty Asian places down here as there are in the states. You can’t go a few blocks in San Jose without hitting one.  Probably because China almost runs this place. Even the cop cars have “Donated by the People’s Republic of China” on the doors. I figure it’s only a matter of time before that happens stateside.

Still, we would never gamble a date night on a crappy place and Tin Jo’s is a great destination.

Tin jo is a downtown tradition with over a decade of producing some great food. The menu is distinctly Asian, with dishes from India, Vietnam and Japan, as well as China. I initially though I would be throwing my good eating habits to the wind but I was very happy to learn that Tin Jo uses many organic vegetables, 100% vegetable oil and no MSG. Sweet!

There is a lovely wine list to choose from but try not to pass up their homemade ice teas. The ginger/lemon grass was divine, served in a carafe with a sprig of lemon grass. Being the lush that I am, I still had to have a nice Riesling. It’s date night after all! To sate my greasy noodle desire I order the Tin Jo Chop Suey and Rafa got the Murg Masala or chicken curry. Both entrees were great. Nice large portions, with an excellent balance of ingredients. Nothing worse than ordering a dish with shrimp and only getting two shrimp and a mound of cabbage. For all you hot heads out there, Tin Jo allows you to cater your spice level from 1 (being the mildest) to 5 (melt your innards).

Another excellent quality was the service. The staff is on point and run by a fantastic host. While waiting for our table, we watched him go from patron to patron to make sure they were comfortable and taken care of. An added bonus: he is perfectly bi-lingual for all you Spanglish speakers like me. It’s a prime location on a Friday night and I highly recommend reservations.

With that being said, get ready to see tourists at their best. I remember cocking my head to the side as the couple passed…the proverbial pink elephant. Was I the only one to notice? Or just the only one to obviously gawk?

“Gringos and their whores.” Rafa growled to me.

“But he has a wedding ring on!” I said, probably a bit too loudly and immediately stuffed the wine glass in my face, but continued to stare over the rim. Granted, the distinction between common Ticas and the “working girls” is rather slim. Lets face it, Latinos like tight clothing. The original Space Bags must have been developed down here because I have no idea how they can get clothing that tight. There’s gotta be some valve under a pocket where they suck all the air out from between their skin and clothes. That and they teeter on these ridiculous heels too, which is CRAZY when you consider the state of sidewalks. People may bitch about the roads, but the sidewalks are far more hazardous. I remember wondering why everyone carries their babies. I though it was because strollers may be too expensive. No. It’s because if you pushed your infant in a stroller down these sidewalks you would be charged with shaken baby syndrome.

So there was Mr. Mid Life Crisis and his tube top bedazzeled hooker. This, of course, immediately spawned the game of “spot-the-ho” with Rafa and I. Which he won.

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