February 4, 2014

Tico Cuisine
Don't Believe the Bad Rap 

Classic Costa Rican Dinner

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.