Everything that I’ve read about Costa Rican cuisine mentioned that it was simplistic. And I tend to agree, even though I’m sitting here exhausted after being in the kitchen for the past six hours, more or less.
I actually looked ahead and realized that the gallo pinto I was making listed Salsa Lizano as an ingredient that you top it with. I had never heard of this, but rather thought I could probably just buy it at one of the local Mexican grocery stores perhaps. I’m glad I did a little research on it, because I found a blog talking about it – saying that it’s the flavor that is truly Costa Rican – but that most of the brands sold here in the US contain MSG and other chemicals we don’t need. (Our family especially can’t have MSG in the house: it gives my husband extreme migraines and seizures if he has it. But really, NO ONE should be eating that mess.) So, I used the recipe given and made my own last night. When I think of salsa, I usually think of something tomato-based, but that’s not necessarily true. This used onions, carrots, chiles (I used green chiles), sugar, lemon juice, vinegar (I used white wine vinegar), ground cumin, salt, molasses, and chicken broth – and everything goes into the blender. It was pretty strong; next time, I’ll use half of the cumin and half of the vinegar. My husband really liked it, though.
Today, I started with the bread. For this, I chose yuca bread. I did manage to find yuca flour at the international market. It also included sour cream, a stick of butter, and white cheese, which I used queso fresca. It came in a “wheel,” so I grated it first, hoping that it would work better. It’s a naturally crumbly cheese, so grating it was no trouble. The recipe pretty much called to mix everything together and put it in a 9x9 inch pan, but I used a metal loaf pan instead. It also didn’t list how many minutes to bake it for; it just listed until it gets brown (For me, it was around 40-45 minutes). This bread had a crusty top and was soft on the inside; the cheese and the sour cream gave it a creamy flavor to die for. I’m pretty sure heaven has this bread. I think this has got to be why Costa Ricans live longer than us.
And this must be a special country, because I couldn’t just stop at one thing to bake: I had to make two. The other one I couldn’t live without was Queque Seco de Naranja, or Orange Pound Cake. I had never made a pound cake, and actually I’m not sure if I’ve ever made a cake from scratch before. If I have, it’s been so long, it doesn’t count anymore. It starts out with mixing your oil and butter together. I don’t have a hand mixer, so I used a whisk and stirred quickly for… geez, I don’t know, it seemed like forever. Then I had to add two eggs and four egg whites and mix again. Now it was time for the wheat flour, sugar and baking soda. By now, it was pretty creamy. Then I had to slowly add in the orange juice, milk, and vanilla extract, stirring until everything was mixed and smooth again. After I took it out of the oven once it was done, there wasn’t anything listed about any kind of glaze or anything that goes on top. I didn’t really want a dry cake, so I made my own. I took a little bit of apricot preserves I had and mixed in a little ground cinnamon and ground ginger and spread a very thin layer on top and the sides. Then I sprinkled just a little cinnamon and ginger on top. The cake was so moist, it almost looked like it could’ve been used in a commercial. The flavor was subtle, yet my husband and I decided it tasted a little like a spice cake without the spice. One thing that I want to try next time would be to substitute almond extract instead of the vanilla extract. We also think it would be great with some crushed pistachios in it as well. Mmm… My kids were confused why I was making a cake, because normally I only bake cakes for birthdays. But actually, my little sister finally entered her 30s todays. (As a friend of mine described it, “The decade where you can have both pimples and wrinkles at the same time.”)
Ok, so now on to the meal itself. I chose chiles rellenos. I used red, orange, and yellow bell peppers, brushed them with olive oil, and put them in the broiler for about 15 minutes. The tops got a little burnt, but that’s ok since I was cutting it off anyway. I was filling this with browned ground beef, onions, garlic powder and a little salt and pepper. I added an egg to help bind it together. Once the peppers cooled just a little bit, I cut the tops off and scooped out most of the seeds and filled it with the ground beef mixture. Now, here’s where I veered from the recipe. It calls to dip it in batter and fry it. But I was far too tired to mess with all of that. So, I topped them with cheese and dried cilantro (since my fresh cilantro was no longer fresh anymore – it turned into some sort of slimy mess that came from the X-Files). Regardless if it wasn’t “authentic” it was still good.
To go with this, I made what’s called “gallo pinto.” I found a recipe for the quick version of this national dish and latched onto it. I fried some onions, then added a can of black beans (gravy and all), added in long grain rice that I already cooked, some Worchestershire sauce, and some coriander. This is what the Salsa Lizano is supposed to go on, but I also poured some of that salsa on the chiles rellenos as well.
Altogether, this was one of the best meals I had in a long time. (Ok, I know I say that every time I cook. But I’m not lying.) Even if I find that I don't follow a recipe exactly. But really, who does? Even if it’s a dish I make all the time, I make it slightly different each time. Sometimes I feel like adding something new, or sometimes I didn’t realize I was almost out of something when I started cooking. And sometimes these improvs just get written into the recipe. I do try to stay close to the recipe for wanting to try to make it authentic. But imagine finding a recipe for something your mother used to make. For most people, they’ll say, “Well, my mom added this,” or “We didn’t put that in there, but it might be good.” For every recipe, there are hundreds of variations. I always think that it’s ok to change up recipes to meet your and your family’s own personal preferences. Invent, improvise! I see recipes as merely suggestions on how to make a dish, even though I do try to stick by them for the most part. As I tend to say, “You never know when you’ll find your next favorite.”
Up next: Côte d’Ivoire