December 8, 2014

ELF ON THE SHELF! - Real Holiday Spirits!


Holiday Spirits!
Photo by Mette Nielsen



The spirit of Christmas is, well, elusive. But real spirits are easy to find and to give. Those visions I waxed on about in last week's post, the walnuts and pomegranates, cards and the tree, remain just visions.  It sounded pretty good, right?

I've got a quicker fix for home made gifts. Holiday spirits, real spirits, some for me and some to share. Flavored Vodkas. Vanilla, citrus, rosemary, apricot, cranberry vodkas are easy to make, lovely to give.

Use good vodka, one that is clean tasting yet indistinct (not too expensive). Find great looking bottles and jars.  Do it now and it will be ready in a week or so.

It's not as messy as making cookies, quicker than putting up chutney. And, it is home made.

Here's how:

Vanilla Beans:  Split 4 to 6 vanilla beans down the center, put into tall container, fill with vodka. Give just as they are.

Rosemary:  Rinse 4 to 6 rosemary sprigs and put into a tall container, fill with vodka. Give just as they are. This vodka makes an awesome Bloody Mary!

Kumquats: Cut the kumquats in half, put enough in to fill the container 1/2 way. Fill with vodka. Before gifting, strain off the vodka, remove and discard the kumquats. Put a few sliced kumquats in the container and refill with the flavored vodka.

Cranberries:  Fill a container with cranberries. Add the vodka. Before gifting, strain off the vodka, remove and discard the cranberries. Put a few fresh cranberries into a container and refill with the flavored vodka.

Apricots:  Fill a container with dried apricots. Add the vodka. Before gifting, strain off the vodka and remove the apricots and place in a different container. Put a few new dried apricots into a container and refill with the flavored vodka. Put the vodka soaked apricots in another gift container (these are delicious sweetened with a little sugar and spooned over ice cream or cake.

December 3, 2014

Elf on the Kitchen Shelf

Cranberry Chutney
Photo by Mette Nielsen 


Making Christmas! ... Make it Fun



Christmas busts through the front door like a wild-eyed puppy. Hurry hurry! There are cookies to bake and cards to create and errands to run. We haul the fresh cut tree from the top of the car and string it helter-skelter with white lights, kid-crafted ornaments, and heirloom treasures. It stands, open-armed, like a diva, sending forth her resinous, riotous scent. We drag bundles of spruce, holly and mistletoe home from the farmers market, fill bowls with pomegranates and pecans in their shells. Crimson cranberries brighten breads and sauces, are tossed into salads and onto roasts.

Cranberries, heart-breakingly beautiful, are the last fruit of the season, a bright and bitter taste of celebration. One of the very few North American fruits, they come in from the bogs of Wisconsin, fresh cranberry capitol of the world. New Jersey and Massachusetts grow cranberries for processing into juice and jellies. (NYTimes got it so wrong.)

With a little sugar and a bit of love, cranberries make a tangy fresh salsa or chutney. These are pretty on the holiday table, and make wonderful gifts.

Fresh Cranberry Salsa
Makes 2 cups

This fresh, zesty sauce is great with chips, spooned onto roast turkey or pork, swirled into yogurt.

1 bag fresh cranberries, rinsed and picked through
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger, or more to taste
1/2 cup sugar, or more to taste

Put all of the ingredients into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and grind until finely chopped. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

Hot Sweet Cranberry Chutney
Makes about 8 cups

A brilliant red condiment for roasts and the cheese plate, this keeps several weeks in the refrigerator. If you plan to process it, follow the instructions on the canning jars.

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
4 cups cranberries, rinsed and picked through
4 cups chopped onions
4 cups chopped, cored apples
4 cups chopped, cored pears
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped crystalized ginger
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots

In a large deep pot, combine the vinegar and cranberries and place over medium heat. Add the onions, apples and pears and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Stir in the sugars, a little at a time so that they dissolve.  Adjust the heat and simmer gently for until the mixture begins to thicken, about 30 minutes. Stir in the ginger and apricots. Continue simmering until the mixture is thick enough to mound onto a spoon, an additional 20 minutes, adding a little water if it begins to stick on the bottom of the pan. Spoon into mason jars and allow to cool. Cover and store in the refrigerator.





September 18, 2014

APPLES OF MY EYE - FOR PIE

APPLE GALETTES!

Join me for Apple Tasting Pie Baking
Mill City Farmers Market - October 11
Seed Savers Apple Tasting




Oh the apple galette is a gallant pie. This rustic French tart exposes just enough of the apples so caramelize, while the crust bakes to a golden, buttery crisp. Apple season is upon us so get rolling. 

Look for a mix of apple varieties, blending softer sorts that will fall apart as they cook with those that hold their shapes. Balance very sweet apples with tart, mouth puckering fruit for depth of flavors, too. 

Dan Bussey, Seed Savers Orchard Manager, (and Pommologist, or apple geek), is rediscovering heritage apples, caring for the heritage orchard that now sports over 550 apples varieties. He's devoted his career to reintroducing the most interesting and delicious varieties and helping to make them available to us cooks. 

Swing by Mill City Farmers Market, October 10 around 10:00 am for a sampling of these new old apples and a celebration of pies!  

Meanwhile, check out the apples coming in to market, like Summer Gold, Bonnie's Best (Sweetland Orchard), chestnut crab (a lovely, tiny sweet crabapple), Connell Red, Harlson (my personal favorite). 

Recipes? Here are my picks:

Mile High Apple Pie
Makes 1 double crust 9-inch, double crust pie


1 Basic Butter Crust Recipe (see below)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch cloves
Pinch salt
¼ to ½ cup sugar, to taste
2-1/2 to 3 pounds apples, peeled, cored and cut into ½-inch wedges

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. whisk together the cinnamon, allspice, salt and ¼ cup sugar. Add the apples and gently toss, taste and add more sugar if necessary.

Roll 1 piece of dough on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin into a 12 to 13-inch round. Fit this into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim the edges leaving a slight overhang. Turn the filling into the shell.

Roll out the remaining piece of dough on the floured surface with the floured rolling pin. Cover the pie with the second dough round and trim, leaving a generous overhang. Press the edges of the dough together, then crimp. Sprinkle the piecrust with a little more sugar and cut three steam vents into the top of the dough.

Put the pie on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F. and continue baking until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling, about 45 to 50 minutes more. Remove and cool the pie on a rack before serving.

Rustic Apple Tart
Serves 8

1 Basic Butter Crust Recipe (See below)
About 2 pounds apples, peeled, cored and cut 1/8-inch thick
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pieces
¼ cup currant or apple jelly
1 tablespoon Calvados or apple brandy

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured work surface, with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to a 16-inch round. Carefully transfer to the prepared baking sheet. 

Mound the apple slices over the dough and fold the edges of the dough over the filling, partially covering he apples, pleating the dough as necessary. Dot the apples with butter.

Bake the galette until the pastry is golden and the apples are tender, about 40 to 45 minutes. 

While the gallette is baking, put the jelly and Calvados into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring, for about 1 minute.

Remove the baked gallette from the oven, brush with the melted jelly. Serve warm or at room temperature topped with Calvados Whipped Cream.

Calvados Whipped Cream
Makes 2 cups

1 Cup cold heavy cream
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons Calvados or apple brandy

In a medium bowl, whip together the honey and cream until the cream holds stiff peaks. Beat in the Calvados or brandy.


Basic Butter Crust (for double crust)
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon fine salt
1 cup cold, unsalted butter
4 to 6 tablespoons ice water

Blend together the flour and salt. Using your finger tips or a pastry blender (or in a food processor, fitted with a steel blade) cut the butter into the mixture until it resembles a lumpy meal. Drizzle in the ice water while gently tossing with a fork (or pulse into the food processor), until the water is incorporated.
            Using your hands, gather the dough into a ball. Turn it onto a work surface and divide in half. Lightly flour your hands and a work surface and flatten the dough into a 5-inch disk. Wrap each disk and refrigerate until fir, at least 1 hour or overnight.

Apple Walnut & Honey Bars
Makes about 2 dozen bars

Base
¾ cup unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 cups all purpose flour
½ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt

Topping
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup honey
2 cups roughly chopped walnuts
2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼-inch pieces


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

To make the Base: In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse together the butter, flour, brown sugar and salt. Turn into an ungreased 13 x 9-inch baking pan and press evenly onto the bottom with a spatula or lightly floured hands. Bake the base until golden, about 20 minutes.  Remove.

To make the topping: In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan, melt together the butter, brown sugar and honey over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer and stirring occasionally, cook for about 1 minute. Stir in the walnuts.

Spread the apples over the base, then spoon the topping over the apples, spreading it evenly. Return the bars to the oven and bake until bubbly, about 20 minutes. Cool completely before cutting into squares.

            

September 15, 2014

Hard Cider, Easy Drink


In Brittany, France, Hard Cider is Easy to Find
Easy to Sip


CIDER!

Hard cider is an easy drink. Some like it strong, but I prefer it slightly sweet and fizzy, and served refreshingly cold. When I was in Brittany recently, apples are abundant, and cider is sipped all day long. In the morning, market shoppers snack on sweet crepes lathered with jelly and buckwheat galettes, laden with cheese and eggs. Come late afternoon, bars and bistros, pour cider in wide beer glasses nibbling peanuts and chips. Hard cider is just slightly alcoholic but strong enough for a nice bump.

Hard cider is one of the oldest drinks we know, it was brewed by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and early Europeans. The beverage of choice in Colonial times, it was safer than water, cheaper than wine, easier to make than beer. Just about everyone had access to apples for pressing. 

We're enjoying a cider Renaissance in our Northern Heartland as orchardists, brewers and chefs  rediscover this craft. The best hard ciders balance sweet apples with special cider varieties that are so tart and bitter they're impossible to eat. To ferment these brews, craft cider makers employ wine yeasts or beer yeasts or wild yeasts, for a range of beverages that run the gamut. Some makers age the ciders in maple, oak or walnut casks or use old brandy or whiskey barrels to imbue the brew with rich flavors as the cider matures.

Check out this recent piece on MPR Appetites with Tom Crann as I discuss cider making in this region today. Many of the local orchards sell cider on site. The best way to learn more about different techniques is to try them and ask questions.  Hoch Orchard, in LaCrescent, Minnesota is the perfect place to pick and sip on a crisp Autumn day. Stock up on apples for applesauce and apple butter, pies and for snacks, try the different styles of cider, bring some home. 

As Autumn approaches and daylight thins, hard cider is a fine choice for drinking and cooking -- a natural with sausages, duck, pheasant, and venison, use it in braises, soups and stews. The different styles of cider vary dramatically, so taste before adding hard cider to any dish, better yet, pour yourself a full glass, or two.

Hot Pot of Sausages, Hard Cider and Apples
Serves 4 to 6

Serve with plenty of crusty bread to sop up the juices

3 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 bay leaf
8 fat pork sausages, cut into chunks
3 large, tart apples, peeled, cored and cut into fat chunks
1 cup hard cider
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard, plus more for passing

In a heavy, deep pot, cook the onions in the oil over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until nicely caramelized, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the garlic, fennel seeds and bay leaf. Add the sausages and cook until lightly browned on all sides. Stir in the apples, cook for a few minutes until they release their juices. Pour in the cider and sherry and stir. Add the mustard and simmer, uncovered, for about 25 minutes. 

Serve over rice, noodles or cooked white beans, or serve in wide bowls with plenty of bread and more mustard.


August 25, 2014

FARMERS OF TASTE!



BLUE VISA FARM!



Blue Heaven

There's a soft plunk when the first blueberries hit the cardboard basket that Matt, Blue Vista's manager, Matt, hands me before I headed off into that lush wild blue yonder. The fields vary by berry -- some tall as my shoulders heavy with fat, dusty colored berries that are mellow and perfumy, then there are the lower bushes with tiny, purply intensely sweet tart gems. And who knows how long it takes me to fill the box to its brim for, always, I'm lost in time, amid buzzing bees, clouds lolling over the sun. One berry leads to the next and the next with endless bounty.

This farm's handsome weathered barn overlooks exquisite gardens of old fashioned favorites (gorgeous foxglove), butterflies feast and humming birds hover. You can see a corner of the lake over the old-growth trees.

Once we've weighed in and checked out, it's not hard for my sons and I to polish off several pints as we drive away, but pretty soon, hate to admit it, we grow a bit weary of these berry treasures. So we jam. blueberry jam, any jam, really, is perhaps the easiest preserve to put up. There's enough liquid in the berries that I just let them cook away until they're a lovely thick mash of their rich, summery selves. A splash of lemon or lime juice, a little ginger, a dash of vanilla or black pepper. That's it.

Simply Blueberry Jam
Makes 4 pints

6 pounds blueberries
Juice of 1 lemon or lime
1 tablespoon shredded fresh ginger, optional
1 cup sugar, or more to taste

Put the berries, lemon or lime juice, and ginger (if using) into a large pot. Crush the berries slightly with the back of a spoon and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and stir as the berries release their juices. Stir in the sugar to taste and simmer until the jam has reduced to your liking, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Spoon into clean jars. Allow to cool, then cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month or freeze.


August 5, 2014

Taste of the Apostles!

Blue Vista Farm
Bayfield Wisconsin!


Summer Sampler!


Taste of the Apostles is a kayaking, camping, and local food trip in the Apostle Islands based out of Wilderness Inquiry's camp at Little Sand Bay.  Nestles between the tiny port towns of Cornucopia and Bayfield, it's an ideal location for kayaking and touring farms. We wake to the scent of coffee and bacon sizzling, kayak to wide sandy beaches through ancient sea caves and picnic on local artisan cheese and farm cherries. Come evening we cook fresh lake fish over an open fire on the beach as the sun sinks in to the lake, next night, we grill at Blue Vista Farm overlooking Lake Superior and pick fresh berries for dessert. (Last trip, Matt, the orchard manager treated us all to a hard cider tasting.)

The experience is an immersion into this magical, legendary place through outdoor engagement and food. What's more, we dine with many of the local farmers who provide the vegetables, berries, meats, cheeses (sheep, goat and cow), whitefish and trout. 

Here are a few of the recipes:

Wild Rice Salad
Serves 6 to 8

            Real wild rice, “manomin” is a sacred staple for the Ojibwe people, harvested by hand using canoes. It is nothing like the commercial paddy rice often sold at roadside convenience stores along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Though it’s two or sometimes three times the price of paddy rice, the flavor is far superior and it cooks in just about 20 minutes.

2 cups cooked wild rice*
½ cup dried cranberries
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup chopped toasted nuts
Dressing:
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup walnut or hazelnut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

            Turn the cooked wild rice into a large bowl. Toss in the dried cranberries, onion, parsley and nuts.
            Put the vinegar, mustard and oil into a jar with a lid, close and shake until the vinaigrette is emulsified.
            Toss the dressing over the rice and coat thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

* 1/2 cup real wild rice = 2 cups cooked rice
**To prepare real wild rice, rinse it well under cold running water until the water runs clear. Put it in a pot and cover with 2-inches of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the kernels open up. Drain and serve hot or cool and use in a salad.


Power Bars!
Makes about 24 bars

            These make power packed bars that are great for breakfast or as a fast snack. Feel free to add dried coconut, different nuts, and other dried fruit.

1 tablespoon sunflower or coconut oil
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup granola (I use leftover)
1 cup toasted walnuts or pecans or cashews or a mixture of all
¼ cup toasted sunflower seeds
1 cup dried cranberries, chopped
1 cup honey or maple syrup or combination of both
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with the oil.  In a large bowl, mix together the oats, granola, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and cranberries.
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, mix together the maple syrup or honey, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until it thickens to generously coat the back of a spoon, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Pour over the dry mixture and stir to combine. Dump into the prepared baking pan and spread out evenly with a spatula. Bake the bars until slightly browned around the edges and firm, about 15 minutes. Remove and cut into squares while still warm. Allow to cool in the pan before removing. 

Kicking Kale Salad
Serves 4 to 6

            There are all kinds variations on kale salad, but this one kicks the flavors up a notch of two. Add more ginger or substitute jalapeno peppers instead. It will keep several days in the refrigerator.

2 bunches kale, rinsed and chopped
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons dried cherries (or any dried fruit)
2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds (or any toasted nuts)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

            Put the kale into a bowl and add the sesame oil working it in with your fingers.
            Toss in the remaining ingredients and season to taste.

Rye Berry and Bean Salad
Serves 4 to 6

1 cup rye berries
1 cup dried beans (navy beans are great)
2 bunches green onions, white part and 2/3 of the greens chopped
1 carrot, chopped
¼ cup toasted sunflower seeds
3 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil
3 tablespoons maple vinegar or cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

            Put the rye berries and the beans into separate bowls and cover with water by 2 inches and allow to sit over night. Drain, rinse with cold water and turn into separate pots. Add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring both pots to a boil, reduce the heat, cover. Cook the rye berries for about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until soft. Cook the beans for 30 to 40 minutes or until tender. Drain both.
            Turn the cooked grain and beans into a large bowl. Toss in the onions, carrot, and sunflower seeds. Toss in the pumpkin seed oil and the vinegar to taste. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or cold.





May 26, 2014

Asparagus! Now!



Photo by Mette Nielsen

There is a moment, just before the lilacs open, that the early asparagus appear at the farmers market. Tied in bundles these first mauve tipped spears are a delicate confirmation that the spring is finally here. There may still be a crust of snow in the shadiest part of the garden, but there is really no turning back.

Asparagus!. Soon as I get home with my bundles, the first batch is boiled quickly until bright green, then served, per my grandmother's instructions, with plenty of melted butter for dipping. She insisted the spears be presented on a white linen napkin, but I'm always too eager for such niceties. I try to resist devouring them standing at the counter, and at least sit down, attentive to their decidedly grassy flavor. As the season progresses, the spears will be fatter, more succulent, to grace every dinner -- grilled and served with lemon and grated Parmesan, sauteed with shallots for a light creamy pasta, or tossed into a faro salad. By mid-June, there will be but a few spears left, some woody and tough. But by then we will have moved along to early tomatoes, raspberries and summer things.

When you bring your asparagus home, if you're not going to cook them right away, trim the bottoms of the stalks to stand up in a cup or vase, as you would flowers, and store in the refrigerator. Then, just before cooking, snap the ends off where they are no longer pliable.

To blanch, drop the spears into rapidly boiling water and cook until they turn bright green, then drain right away.

To sautee, toss them raw into a pan with a little butter, roll, cover and "butter steam" until tender.

To grill, place them over indirect heat and roll until just tender and nicely charred.

Season asparagus with:
Lemon juice and shaved Parmesan
Melted butter and chopped tarragon
Chopped cooked bacon
Orange zest and freshly chopped mint
Extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Dark sesame oil and a splash of rice wine vinegar


May 5, 2014

Stalks and Eats

photo by Mette Nielsen

RHUBARB REUNION!

My grandmother grew rhubarb in her lush New Jersey garden, those sturdy shoots were the first to appear with the delicate chives. Her rhubarb cobbler wore a dense, butter-rich crumb crust and she stewed it into tangy sauce for plain vanilla ice cream. What's more, she made a terrific rhubarb lemonade and a wonderful glaze for chicken. I learned there's more to rhubarb than dessert. As those valiant stalks appear in my garden and are piled on farmers market stalls, I become that happy kid, joyfully snipping fat stalks to turn into something deliciously pink.

Tangy Ginger Rhubarb Sauce
Makes 2 cups
Great on chicken or pork

3 cups chopped rhubarb, about 1 pound
1/4 cup fresh orange juice or dry white wine
3 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
About 1/4 cup sugar, more or less to taste

Put all of the ingredients into a medium pot and simmer until the rhubarb is just soft. Add a little of the sugar and then add more to taste. It shouldn't be too sweet!

Rhubarb Lemonade
Makes 1 quart
This is great with a few sprigs of mint and even better with a couple of shots of vodka

3 cups chopped rhubarb, about 1 pound
1 quart cold water
1/2 or more sugar or honey, to taste
Fresh mint for garnish

Put the rhubarb into a glass pitcher and cover with about 1 quart of water. Allow to steep overnight. Strain off the rhubarb. Sweeten with the sugar or honey to taste. Serve over ice with fresh mint for garnish and a splash of vodka (if you like).




March 5, 2014

SHOOTS & EATS


PEA SHOOTS!

Last weekend, giddiness was palatable at the Kingfield Winter Market where, on the coldest day of the year, the Wild Acres booth sprouted all manner of greens - lettuce, pea shoots, spinach -- harvested FRESH just that morning. You have to be pretty desperate to fuss over spinach.  I was. With my basket piled full of the vibrant green I sped home before it froze in the back of my car. 

Ravenous, I tossed up a quick salad with blood oranges, avocado and almonds. Grapefruit, navel oranges, or tangerines would have been good, too. The acid and vitamin C in the citrus helps unlock vitamins and iron in the greens and makes these nutrients easier to absorb. What's more, this salad is light and sweet, crisp and satisfying. With few shreds of ricotta salata and chopped almonds, it makes a delicious lunch (if you eat the whole thing, which I did).

Winter Salad of Blood Oranges, Spinach, Pea Shoots, Avocado, and Almonds
Serves 1 to 6

Blood Orange Cinnamon Vinaigrette
1/2 cup blood orange juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon grated blood orange zest
2 teaspoons honey
2/3 cup olive or vegetable oil

Salad
3 to 4 blood oranges
1 large avocado, pitted, peeled and thinly sliced
6 handfulls spinach, washed, spun dry and torn
2 large handfulls pea shoots
1/2 cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped

In a small bowl, whisk together all the vinaigrette ingredients. 
Section the oranges. In a large bowl, toss together the greens and drizzle in enough dressing to lightly coat. Turn into a serving bowl onto a platter and arrange the avocado slices and orange sections on top. Drizzle with a little more dressing and then scatter the chopped nuts over all.

February 4, 2014


Tico Cuisine
Don't Believe the Bad Rap 




Classic Costa Rican Dinner
Casado!


Let's be clear. Costa Ricans don't care much for haute cuisine. Why should they?  Between all the hiking, surfing, snorkeling, bird-watching, and beer sipping, who has time to cook? The weather is perfect, the water is warm, beaches stretch for miles along the coast. Inland, the cloud forest rises far above the rainforest canopy. Who needs TV in this playground of monkeys, scarlet macaw, parrots, whales and dolphins? On an adventure with Wilderness Inquiry, along beaches, hiking through the jungle and trekking up Mt. Chirripo, I found the food to be straightforward, easy and fresh.  

Unlike their Central American neighbors, Ticos (nickname for these gracious people) don't care much for spice. Their flavors run more sour and sweet. No tamales, no jerk, no spicy chicharrones. The salsa is Chilero, thin as Worchestershire but with a little more kick. Ticos love mayonnaise, endearing their coleslaws to this Minnesota cook. Lime spiked Hellman's graces most grocery shelves.

The mainstay meal is "casado", meaning "man of the house." It's a big plate of rice, lime and chili seasoned black beans, fried plantains, and simple grilled or sauteed fish or chicken. The salad of mixed greens, diced peppers, tomatoes, hearts of palm is served with cruets of sesame oil and balsamic vinegar to dress yourself. salad with a side of vinegar and oil to dress yourself. (It sounds weird is actually pretty darned good.) 

Fruit -- pineapple, melon, papaya -- in generous portions, with slices of lime and a sprinkle of salt, often served with each meal, is so sweet and satisfying that on a 90-degree day, it's all I'd have for lunch. Call the food boring, I call it good.

Here's the recipe for a simple black-bean casada. Add grilled fish or chicken and a salad and wedges of lime. Though there's are no monkeys jabbering or parrots fluttering by, the scent of frying plantains carries with it a hint sea salt and tropical sun.

Spicy Black Beans
Serves 6 to 8

Serve these with white or brown rice and fresh tomato or pineapple salsa.

2 cups (about 1 pound) dried black beans, picked over and soaked overnight
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Lime juice for seasoning
Lime wedges 

Drain the beans. In a large pot, heat the oil, add the onion, jalapeno pepper, garlic and bay leaf and cook until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the beans, cover with about 1-inch of water and simmer until tender, about 1-1/2 hours. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Taste the beans and season with salt and pepper and lime juice. Serve along side rice garnished with chopped cilantro and wedges of lime.