Monday, July 07, 2008

Latin American (Costa Rican) Food and/or Cooking Day Four

Hola! I am back from Costa Rica and ready to continue my reflections on Cooking School and everything else that's been going on.  While I'm on such a food binge with these posts (I've also just read the book "Best Food Writing 2007," which I highly recommend), I can't help but write about the food in Costa Rica - it was absolutely delicious! As a non-fish eater, I was a little nervous about the selection, and feared I'd end up on a rice and beans diet, but I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of food served and the care with which it was cooked.  

The typical Costa Rican breakfast is called a "Gallo Pinto," or "colored rooster," and consisted of rice and beans sauteed with peppers and onions, alongside scrambled or fried eggs.  At both of the places we stayed, this was a big hit - and the first hotel even topped it off with sausage and fried plantains!  It was a tasty and filling meal, perfect to start a day of hiking and exploring the rainforest.  Our lunches varied, but were always delicious.  We had burritos, sandwiches, rice and vegetables, and even pizza - made with delicious sauteed vegetables and meats underneath the melted cheese!  Dinners also varied, and continued to have a latin feel, but reminded me of meals I cook at home - steak and vegetables, pork chop and potatoes, chicken kebabs, etc.  

Overall, the food was a lot less spicy than I was expecting.  I always think of Central American food as having that southwest-mexican chili taste, but we really did not encounter that often.  There were specialty sauces you could add (ask Wright about Lizano, the smoky brown sauce he poured on top of every bite he ate), and some were hot, but in general the food was more about fresh flavors, and focused on fruits and marinades more than bold spices.  I was pleasantly surprised, and reminded, again, that our vision of international food in America is often not very authentic.  

The fourth day of cooking school centered around Latin Cooking, so I considered it a preparation for Costa Rica.  It had more of a Mexican than Costa Rican feel to it, mostly because our walking tour of the day was up in Spanish Harlem, to a number of Mexican bodegas, where we picked up various types of chilis and vegetables that I'd never seen before.  Our chef, Richard Reuben, was enthusiastic about everything and especially loved chilis, so he was a great resource.  
Back at the school, we cooked a number of dishes, including lamb with a green chili sauce, a chili cabbage salad, potatoes with herbs and queso fresca, rice and beans (of course), fried plantains, and a wonderful coconut flan for dessert (Part of our buffet is pictured above). The highlight, though, was a Chicken Mole that just melted in your mouth (in the large pot in the picture).  I'd never made a mole before (mole means "concoction," and essentially is anything that blends different flavors together; guacamole, then, is an avocado concoction), and can't take full credit for the one we made in class, but I was captivated by the melding of flavors (there was a list of about 20 ingredients including different chilis, spices, tomato, chocolate, etc.) into an indescribable sauce that cooked into the pulled chicken so well.  I can't wait to make one on my own when I get back to Charlottesville (it's an extremely messy procedure, so I don't think Mom's white kitchen walls would appreciate my experiment).  It also freezes well, so Richard recommended making a big batch, then freezing portions and eating it over a month or so (again, the mess would not be worth making this on any sort of regular basis).  

Our meal was delicious, and got me very excited for Costa Rica, where I didn't exactly use my newfound knowledge of chilis, but I certainly appreciated every meal I had! 

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