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Travel Cuisine: Costa Rica

Dining in the sand is one of the best culinary experiences in Latin America.

It was warm, nearly 90 degrees warmer than the temperatures we left behind in the Twin Cities in mid-March, and instead of snow, the grounds were covered with a walkable swimming pool.

I sent a few pictures of Costa Rica, snapped from my iPhone, to my younger daughter back home—a brilliant orange sun setting behind a palm leaf, a couple dining on the beach while boats gently bobbed in the deep blue water, a saleswoman balancing painted birds on her head as she walked the beach. My daughter’s response: “I’m starting to dislike you.”

So rather than talk about how glorious it is to be outdoors and warm in March, I’ll concentrate here on the food. According to one guidebook, while Costa Rica is known for its beauty, it’s not known for its food.

The cuisine, while rice-and-bean based, doesn’t have the spiciness of Mexican food, nor the complexity of other Latin cooking styles. What it does have going for it is an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables and locally caught fish, predominately sea bass, shrimp and red snapper. 

On the road to the hotel we passed a number of signs for “Sodas,” which I later learned meant diner, not Coca Cola. (The transport buses were “Jokes,” but on the rough roads, the butt-numbing rides were no laughing matter.)

Costa Rica is known for its mild, flavorful coffee. The preparation here is to pour hot water through what a server called “your grandmother’s sock,” or a material similar to stockings. 

We didn’t venture far from our pool at the JW Marriott, but the best meal we had all week was at a tiny restaurant in Tamarindo. Twin Cities restaurants would kill for its patio seating, just a few yards from the ocean under giant wind-weathered trees. I had lobster tacos, topped with fresh greens, avocado and mango, and my husband ordered what I thought would be weird, a rice, cheese and palm hearts dish (jasmine rice with melted string cheese that put macaroni and cheese on notice). It was paired with French fries, salad and plantains. It was similar but not quite the traditional casado, which roughly translates to “married man.” It’s a meal with all the basic nutritional needs met—rice and beans, salad, fried plantains and a protein—which  wives used to prepare and wrap in a banana leaf for their husband’s mid-day meal as he labored in the fields.                                                    

Our first meal included a popular Costa Rica dish, Sopa de pejibaye, a cream soup made with a local fruit the hotel’s room service menu described as a cross between a roasted chestnut and a buttered baked potato. It may be an acquired taste. The same is true of

Ceviche Costa Rica style is often served in a coconut with plantain chips or patacones.

rosquillas, traditionally prepared just for the holy week. Looking like an oversized Cheerio, rosquillas are made from hominy, dried cheese powder, fat and baked in a wood-fired mud oven. Another local favorite on the breakfast buffet was a rectangular pastry made of sour milk, corn and cheese that resembled a smoky bread pudding.

We took two cooking classes, the first on the Costa Rican version of ceviche. The four of us cut up local sea bass, limes, red peppers, onions and cilantro. The sea bass was dressed with just enough lime juice to cover it, and then a few minutes later about four ounces of ginger ale was added. To the “cooked” fish, we added the chopped vegetables. We returned to the table with frozen mint limeade and were served a large bowl of ceviche with plantain chips. 

It was delicious, but unfortunately, ceviche had been my lunch an hour before the cooking class. At the pool bar it was served in a coconut with shrimp and sea bass, accompanied by patacones, flattened green plantains that have been fried twice. A server caught me trying to pry the coconut free from the shell, and promised to have the cook do it for me, if I’d stop. 

The second class was on empanadas, more Argentine than Costa Rican, but one of the participants from the first cooking class requested it. Unfortunately, the second class had 12 people eager to cook. The sweeter version of empanadas, incorporated plantains in the dough and were stuffed with white cheese. The more traditional version was stuffed with a meat mixture of hamburger, garlic, green olives, red pepper, raisins, cumin, onions, paprika and cilantro. After cutting circles from our rolled-out dough, we were taught how to continually fold the outer edges almost like a braid to seal them. 

A ball of the plantain dough, which was a little more sticky, was flattened by patting the dough between a folded-over sheet of plastic wrap. After the cheese was placed in the circle, the plastic wrap was used to fold it in half, and then the edges were sealed by the same pinch-fold motion. 

Top that off with daily breakfasts of fresh fruit and a nightly sunset that rivals anything painted by the great masters, and you have one more good reason to get the heck out of Minnesota in March. 

Rosquillas, once prepared just for the holy week, are now a treat eaten with coffee year round.

To accompany their domestic and imported
beef, the steakhouse at the JW Marriott served four types of salt, Persian, balsamic, red wine and sea.


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