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Irazu Challenge

Rafa steps out of the car, wind and rain lash against him, “I’m not happy.”

In all honesty, I feel the same way but I am way too excited. We trudge across a soccer field/parking lot to a little building with dozens of people milling about. It’s pouring and the wind is blowing the rain sideways. We huddle inside. Everyone is dressed the same, geared out in boots and jackets and awaiting the start of the Irazu Challenge, a 10k hike around the volcano.

The Irazu Challenge, organized by Decatlon, actually has a number of races: 10k, 20k, marathon, ultra marathon and bike races too. I have been pleasantly surprised at how athletic Costa Rica is. Rafa has been running a number of 1/2 marathons and I have been trying to get out and run with him as much as I can. Rafa has a gazelle like stride and grace, where I am more like the Shetland pony, plodding along steady and sturdy. So when Rafa suggested the Irazu Challenge, I was eager…just not for the run. Trail running is great but it puts a toll on your body, especially with those brutal hills. The hike was more my speed.

So here we were, waiting for the hike to begin. Like most things here, it was on Tico  time and the funny thing being that the race was run by a French guy. Go figure. As luck would have it, as soon as the bell sounded, the rain lightened and within a matter of minutes stopped all together for the rest of the hike.

The first kilometer or so was on paved road until we came to a rocky farm road that parted fields of potatoes and cow pastures. Rafa and I like to go on mini day road trips checking out the surrounding towns. We will find a spot to stretch out a blanket and have a small picnic and some wine. Great times. But this crazy rabbit warren of roads cutting through the countryside are breathtaking. All you hear is the wind rustling the trees and a few random moos. The air is fresh and crisp and clouds converge and part offering unimaginable views. It truly is magical and I promise you, the pictures do not do it justice.

For the first 4 or 5k, it was all uphill and when we finally turn downward, we bounded down the trail careening around the uneven ground. I was amazed I was able to stay on my feet. Farmers looked up from their labor to see us bouncing down the hill laughing like mad. Periodically, there would be a rest area offering water and some goodies. Should you find yourself in a race or craving something sweet, I highly recommend these little jelly packs. They are about the size of a Halloween candy bar and come in a variety of flavors called Tricopilia. My favorites are fig and guaybaba. You can buy them in the stores too but beware: they are very addicting. It was a good thing I had some on hand when we hit the last hill, cause it was a bitch! The last kilometer was a painful climb nearly straight up and into the wind. Gusts of wind would nearly knock me backwards. What was truly amazing were the little homes hunkered along the road on this incredibly steep hill, miles from the nearest paved road. These people would have to haul themselves up this road regularly to catch a bus into town. Oy Vey!

In two short hours we conquered the Irazu challenge, tired, happy and no worse for wear. While we rested a bit before heading back down the volcano, my legs tingled with exertion and my face flushed with color. Rafa sat across from me munching down a banana and sandwich with a smug, satisfied look.

“What a great day.” he said between bites.

Next year, we’re doing the 20k. Can’t wait!


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.”

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