World Cooking! International Food and Dining plus Recipes -

Tico Time, Cooking in Costa Rica

As a result of last years exploratory family vacation to Coast Rica we established that a return trip was necessary. Our travels began as a quest for tropical rainforests and warm water beaches but, like Napoleon’s armies, this vacationing family traveled on its stomach and dining in Costa Rica soon became its daily victories.
Our good fortune increased as we became more aquatinted with our hosts at the Pura Vida Hotel in Alajuela where we first stayed. Bernie and Nhi, émigré software engineers from the Silicon Valley had ambitiously remodeled a hotel with several bungalows. Nhi soon became the willing chef. With her Asian cooking background and California dining experiences a fusion of styles with local products became a winning combination.
After several meals and discussions of our like food philosophy, the Judd’s visited Mudd’s on their following trip to the states. Over dinner there Nancy, my wife, and I told them of our plans to visit again and Nhi asked if I would cook a meal for her guests. I couldn’t wait.
Tico Time
The Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos and their mantra and national slogan is “Pura Vida”. Loosely translated this means the pure live, but it also represents their respect for others and the environment. Costa Rica has the highest literacy rate of any Central or South American country along with the best national medical insurance. This of course came at a cost; the Costa Rican government disbanded their army in 1946 to focus on these other issues.
Comida Tipica
Native Costa Rican food relies heavily on rice and beans. There is definitely a Caribbean connection to these dishes. Though the native food is not very spicy it is filling and relatively healthy when you avoid the fried items. But there is a new Costa Rican cuisine and it has become a blend of the best of the Pacific Rim and European cooking. As you walk down the street of just about any busy metropolis or tourist destination you can readily pick from Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, South American, Italian and even German restaurants.
Choices, Choices, Choices
We arrived about at the Pura Vida Hotel at 10 in the evening and Nhi and I stayed up till one A.M. creating a menu based on Costa Rican products. This list is amazing; it includes mangos, papaya, coconuts, bananas, plantains, ginger, avocadoes, fresh hearts of palm, coffee, macadamia nuts, exotic fruits, traditional vegetables and the freshest fish, free -range meats and poultry. Eventually we paired down the ingredients and the menu was set.
We got up fairly early the next morning as Bernie had arranged a visit to a nearby culinary and medicinal herb farm to purchase ingredients for the evening’s meal. This was an incredible adventure up into the hills of Alajuela on a very bumpy dirt road.
Rows of sage, cilantro, basil, thyme and many other herbs were growing under translucent plastic tents protected from the often-damaging rain. Sampling from our choices of herbs I noted that the natural hot house of Costa Rica had produced the most intense basil I had ever tasted. We also chose some baby fennel and tomatoes to nearly complete the first course and nasturtium flowers for garnish on the dessert. Bernie was wondering why the owners had not promoted the farm on the Internet to get more business but as it turned out the cruse liners purchased so much produce and herbs from them that they couldn’t keep up with the orders. We also had a tour of the medicinal herb trail, which is another amazing story to be told at a later time but I will say that Allison, our guide, showed us a plant for every malady know to man from headaches to hemorids. Back down the hill and after a quick lunch at yet another fantastic restaurant it was off to a large hardware store to buy a blowtorch for the garnish on our dessert. Amazingly the price was less than in the United States. We stopped a few blocks away at Super Mercado in Alajuela for some of basic ingredients like flour, yeast, butter and milk. Then it was time for the fishmonger. The main course of the evening was to be Corvina a local salt-water fish that is much like halibut. Nhi who speaks fluent Spanish, Cantonese and French had Jose pick several large filets of the freshest fish I had ever seen. The fish market was located in this typical Central American Mercado — fresh poultry, produce and meats are available in row upon row of different stalls. Unfortunately we missed the Alajuela farmers market that is available every Friday. Like in the bay area this is where you have access to the most unique and freshest produce. Later in our trip we did stop at a large farmers market in Nicoya north and west of San Jose to purchase mangos, avocados and other treats for the remainder of our stay.
Cookin with Nhi
I was a little nervous since I had to produce a three-course meal with Nhi in a kitchen that I had only walked through. But Nhi, a very proactive chef, had every tool imaginable and a large Wolf oven. She also had the pantry and refrigerator filled with a good supply of important provisions. I started to calm down a little as her crew of well trained helped began to arrive around four o’clock.
We, of course, began with the prep that would take the longest — the dough for the pizzetta and pate choux for the profiteroles. I had one of the staff quarter tomatoes and slice fennel for roasting while I kneaded the dough for the first course.
Next all of the sauces needed to be started — a balsamic vinegar reduction, ginger beurre blanc and pastry cream flavored with local coffee liquore. Making the sauces early is basic to my chef training — you can always cut and cook a piece of meat or fish at the last minute, but the sauce needs to be prepared, tasted and adjusted if necessary in advance.
Nhi portioned the beautiful fish filets as I roasted the vegetables for the pizzettas and baked the profiteroles. Her lady chefs finished up other details like chopping the macadamia nuts, slicing Napa cabbage and cubing bananas.
The prep for the menu done we had a glass of wine and it was time for service and plating. The highlight of the plating experience was seeing Nhi, somewhat power mad, glaze banana slices with her new blowtorch for the dessert. With her seasoned kitchen helpers we flew though the courses and came down stairs to the dining area and applause. The experience was all I had hoped it would be…
Later on in the trip we stayed at a hotel on one of the many secluded playas along north Pacific coast. On the deck of our room I fleshed out the details of this article on my laptop only to have my concentration broken daily by a raucous troop of howler monkeys in the overhanging mango trees — but this is Costa Rica.
From warm, tropical climates, drop-dead-gorgeous-deserted beaches, bustling markets and active volcanoes, the rich cultural diversity and the friendly people make Costa Rica a growing destination for travelers from all over the globe.


Le Menu
Corvina coated in Macadamia Nuts and Coconut with Ginger Beurre Blanc, Napa Cabbage Stir-Fry and Mango Slices

Pizzetta with roasted Roma Tomatoes, Organic Fennel, Garlic, Queso Fresco, Balsamic Syrup and Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Banana Profiterole with Tico Liquore Pastry Cream, glazed Banana Slices and Nasturtium Blossoms

All recipes by Ron Ottobre and Nhi Judd

Pizzetta with roasted Roma Tomatoes, Organic Fennel, Garlic, Queso Fresco, Balsamic Syrup and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Pizzetta Dough
3 1/2 cups flour
1 c. warm water (between 95° and 115° F.)
2 tbsp. (2 tablespoons, I like my dough a little yeasty. You can use less)
2 tbsp. sugar
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 tsp. Salt
Pour warm water into a bowl. The water should be about 85 to 115° F. Test it with your hand. It should feel very warm, but comfortable. Add the sugar and salt. Mix until well blended. Add the yeast and mix. Let this mixture sit for about 5 minutes. Add 1 c. of flour and the olive oil and mix until well blended. Add the rest of the flour (and any other additions) and mix well. The dough should turn into a ball. If the dough does not ball up because it's too dry, add water one tablespoon at a time until it does. If your mixture is more like a batter, add flour one tablespoon at a time. Adding water or flour as needed to get the right consistency will assure you always get a perfect dough. Just remember to do it in small amounts.

Once the dough is balled up, place the ball on a floured board and knead for about a minute. Place the dough in a covered bowl and store in a warm, dry area to rise.
After about 45 minutes the dough should have about doubled in size. Punch it down. Let it rise for another hour to an hour and a half. The dough is now ready to be rolled out.
Portion into 3 - ounce balls and roll out. Pizzetta should be about 5 inches across. Place on a sheet pan, and brush with olive oil. Let rise for 5 minutes then bake at 425°F until lightly browned.
Freeze any unused dough for the future.

Toppings for 4 pizzettas

4 Roma tomatoes
1 baby fennel bulb only sliced thinly
1 c. balsamic vinegar (not the expensive variety)
8 basil leaves julienned
4 oz. queso fresco or mozzarella shredded
4 cloves garlic chopped
Kosher salt

Queso fresco can be purchased at many Mexican food stores. Substitute fresh or regular mozzarella if necessary.
Quarter the tomatoes and lay cut side up on a cookie sheet with the sliced fennel and garlic. Sprinkle with kosher salt and olive oil. Roast the tomatoes, garlic and fennel in a 400°F oven until slightly browned and caramelized. Remove and keep at room temperature.
Reduce the balsamic vinegar in a saucepan over low heat by 3/4s or until it seems to thicken.
Arrange pizzettas on a cookie sheet and top with roasted tomatoes – 4 quarters per pizzetta and divide the fennel and garlic over the pizzettas. Sprinkle with basil, top with cheese and bake at 400°F until cheese melts. Drizzle balsamic syrup over the top of each pizza and brush with olive oil. Cut into quarters and serve.

Corvina coated in Macadamia Nuts and Coconut with Ginger Beurre Blanc, Napa Cabbage Stir-Fry and Mango Slices

Ginger beurre blanc
2 tbsp. Shallots chopped finely
2 tbsp. Ginger peeled and chopped finely
1 c. white wine
1/2 lb. Sweet butter, cubed and chilled
In a saucepan over medium heat reduce shallots, ginger, wine and limejuice until there is almost no liquid. Add the butter a cube at a time stirring constantly. Season with salt. Keep in a warm but not hot place.

Ingredients for fish
4 pieces Corvina. Halibut or Sea bass (6 oz. Portions)
1/2 c. macadamia nuts chopped finely
1/2 c. shredded sweetened coconut
3 tbsp. salad oil for sautéing
Kosher salt
Mix coconut and chopped macadamia nuts together.
Season fish with salt. Sauté the fish filets in a non – stick pan with the salad oil browning on each side. Arrange on a baking sheet and top with the mixed coconut and macadamia nuts. Bake at 375°F until firm and topping is browned.

For the cabbage
4 cups thinly sliced Napa Cabbage
1 tbsp. Ginger peeled and chopped finely
2 tbsp. Salad oil
1 tbsp. Sesame oil
2 tbsp. Soy sauce
1 Mango peeled and sliced
Heat oils in a large sauté pan or wok until smoking. Add ginger and cabbage, toss quickly and season with soy sauce. Remove from heat.
Divide the cabbage onto 4 plates. Top with the baked fish. Drizzle plates with the sauce and garnish with the mango slices.

Banana Profiterole with Tico Liquore Pastry Cream, glazed Banana Slices and Nasturtium Blossoms
4 Bananas
4 Nasturtium Blossoms
Pastry Crème
2 c. milk
1/2 c. sugar
6 egg yolks
1/4 c. all purpose flour
1 tbsp. butter
1 tablespoon Coffee liquore (Tico Coffee Liquore, Kailua or Tia Maria)
Heat the milk in a saucepan. Combine the egg yolks, flour and sugar in a stainless steel bowl. Gradually add hot milk. Cook over simmering water until slightly thickened. Do not curdle the mixture. Finish with coffee liquore and butter.

Pate Choux
1 c. milk
1/4 lb. Butter
1/4 teasp. salt
1/2 teasp. Sugar
1 c. Flour
4 Eggs

In a gallon saucepot, heat milk and butter till butter is melted. Add the salt and sugar. Turn off the flame and add the flour. Blend well. Turn the flame back on and cook the “panade” for a few minutes over low heat. The mixture will ball up and come away from the sides of the pot easily.  Place the “panade” in a mixer and add the eggs one at a time. Mix until smooth. Use a 4-ounce ice cream scoop to place dough on a cookie sheet. Bake in a hot oven (400°F) for 10 to 15 minutes. Gradually reduce the heat. Try not to open the oven door, as this will make the puffs fall. Continue cooking for about 45 minutes. Turn off oven and leave the door partially open to let the puffs cool slowly.

Makes 4 to 6 puffs
Slice one of the bananas in half lengthwise and then in half. Sprinkle with sugar and glaze under the broiler or with a torch. Dice remaining bananas into small cubes. Cut puffs in half and fill with diced bananas. Top with pastry cream and the top of puff. Garnish with glazed banana and Nasturtium Blossom.

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