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How I spent my Costa Rican Vacation

If you hadn’t already figured this out about me, food and cooking have been the dominant theme most of my life. For example, when the other girls were outside playing hopscotch or baseball, I was at the kitchen table creating recipe cards, pouring over the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook– completely engrossed in the double-paged spread in the Family BBQ section- or trying to figure out how to make cream puffs from scratch. It was like that when I was a kid. It’s like that now.

So, as you can imagine, when I was a kid, lounging on the couch after school watching one of my favourite TV shows about a ship-wreck on a desert isle, I was more interested in solving a culinary puzzle than in the romantic storyline of that particular episode of Gilligan’s Island.  And, unlike all the other kids who were willingly suspending their disbelief when Maryann appeared in her gingham dress with a dreamy coconut cream pie for the Professor, I sat trying to solve the puzzle, crack the culinary code, unravel the threads, as it were, of the big question; how the heck did she pull it off?

Where did she get the equipment? That cute apron? Those ingredients? I mean, I could figure out the coconut part, that was easy, but the sugar, the flour, the butter? Who takes all that on a “three-hour tour?”

As I said, food has always been a central focus for me, so you will understand my need to pull a “Maryann” on our recent trip to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Staying in a pretty little casita beside the Caribbean surrounded by coconut palms, was just too much of a temptation. So, one afternoon I made my way into town, past the white sandy beaches filled with the normal tourists who were soaking up the sun, to buy my ingredients.

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First stop, a fresh coconut, which I actually purchased at a butcher’s shop underneath a vegan restaurant, run by a Costa Rican who had lived in Canada for 18 years, but that’s another story. Luckily, I had the foresight to ask the butcher to crack it in half for me. Next stop, the little grocers down the street to slightly torture a young shop clerk with my endless requests for help in finding the various “ingredientes.” After a near-disaster buying sour cream instead of whipping cream, I lugged everything back to the hottest kitchen on earth to bake my first-ever-from-scratch-with-a-fresh-coconut, coconut cream pie. Did I mention that the temperature was 38 degrees Celsius and 100% humidity?

Step one- the pastry. Well, the pastry was a breeze, but baking the pastry blind posed a bit of a problem seeing as I had neither parchment paper nor dried beans. Luckily, the casita had an inordinately large fridge/freezer, so I just threw the unbaked crust in the freezer to chill for a little while and then popped it into the counter-top oven, which I had moved onto the back deck of the casita as the temperature in the kitchen had begun to hover around 50, give or take.

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Step two- the filling. The custard was really no problem at all, but I have to tell you, there is a bit of a knack to getting the coconut meat out of the shell. After struggling for what seemed like an hour, I finally pulled up a Youtube video and things moved along very nicely. Rule Number One- if you can’t figure it out, somebody has probably made a video!

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Once out of the shell, the coconut meat required a little more work than the sharpest, that is to say not sharp in the slightest, knife in the kitchen could muster and so I bunged everything into the blender. In went the coconut meat, coconut milk, flour and cream, a few blasts of the motor later and out poured a beautiful coconut emulsion.  Heated on the hotplate, then whisked into the egg yolks and voila; a perfect coconut custard.   Pouring the custard into the cooled pie shell I made sure to leave a little in the bottom of the pot and while the custard set, I sat on the back stoop savouring every last drop. I am sure that Maryann would have approved.

Postscript…

After topping my pie with whipped cream and toasted coconut, I proudly carried it over to our Spanish teacher’s house where we were having a casual Spanish lesson while cooking dinner and drinking some very nice Chilean Chardonnay. Luis, our Chilean teacher and Almut, his German wife, who run a hotel and language school in Puerto Viejo had also invited a Costa Rican carpenter friend to join us. Before serving the pie, I, of course, had to tell them the whole Maryann/coconut cream pie/Gilligan’s Island story. You want to talk “lost in translation!” The more I tried to explain in my pidgin Spanish, the worse it got.  Nobody had a clue what I was talking about, except Doug, who was doing his best to salvage the story, but more importantly, to move things along so we could get to cutting that pie.   All of a sudden, a lightbulb went off and Elias, the Costa Rican, turned to me and with a glint in his eye and a little smirk, said quietly, “Meester Howell?” “Meesus Howell?” Giiillllleeegan?” and in that moment, a stranger became a friend. Which just goes to show, lounging on the couch watching sitcoms isn’t the worst thing a kid could do.  Thanks, Maryann… thanks, Gilligan!

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Eating Chile- Part 2

When we are in a new place and want to get a feel for the food scene we always head to the same place and Santiago is no different. Where do you go to find the freshest food in town? The Central Markets, por supuesto! And, Santiago’s markets definitely deliver. As many visitors to Santiago will notice, the city is quite orderly, clean and has rather more of a Euro than a Latino feel, mostly because many of the historic buildings have been lost over the years due to earthquakes. Chile has a long history of quakes, the most recent being a Magnitude 8.8 that hit the country south of Santiago in 2010. So, much of the city core is filled with new buildings and is very orderly and quiet.  Not so in the bustle of the markets. This felt like the real Santiago.

Mercado Central, the first stop on our guided tour, is one of the oldest buildings in Santiago. Designed by British Architect Charles Henry Driver, it is a beautiful building of cast iron and glass. Driver was known for designing railway stations and other iconic buildings in cities across England and South America. And while the architecture is beautiful, I am more interested in the rows and rows of fresh seafood. Everything from scallops and clams- called machos here- to sea urchins, trucha and, much to our chagrin, farmed Chilean Salmon- Chile is one of the largest exporters of farmed Atlantic Salmon. Something not known by many salmon lovers is that much of the Atlantic Salmon found on menus in North America is, in fact, farmed in Chile and never swam in the waters of the Atlantic. But, that’s a rant for another day!

Fresh Scallops at Mercado Central, Santiago

Fresh Scallops at Mercado Central, Santiago

 

Clams, or as they say in Santiago...Machos!

Clams, or as they say in Santiago…machos…nuzzled up to more types of fish I could count.

Meanwhile, back at Mercado Central, you can’t visit the fish stalls in Santiago without running into some congrio – conger eel – an apparent favourite of Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, who wrote an ode to the congrio entitled “Oda al Caldillo de Congrio.”   If you care to try a bowl, stop by one of the many seafood restaurants at the market. We chose Tio Willy’s and not feeling in the mood for an eel stew, I opted for a bowl of the seafood stew. I wouldn’t say it was the best seafood, I have eaten, but the setting made up for the slightly rubbery squid!

Fish Market, Mercado Central, Santiago

Fish Market, Mercado Central, Santiago

We visited the markets on New Year’s Eve and all of the fish mongers were in fine form.   Not quite the fish-throwing scene of Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, but close.  As Doug learned, be careful when you ask if they mind if you take a photo!

Dugla and the Crazy Fish Mongers at Mercado, Central, Santiago

Dugla and the Crazy Fish Mongers at Mercado Central, Santiago

Our next stop was La Vega, an enormous market brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables, food stalls selling pastas and olive oils, cheeses and breads, and, lucky for us because we just happened to be having a craving…Santiago’s first Espresso Cart!   Café Altura is located in the back corner of La Vega and they make a mighty fine cappuccino, I must say.

Cafe Altura

Cafe Altura

 

Mercado, La Vega

Mercado, La Vega

New Year’s Eve, like everywhere else around the planet, is a big deal in Santiago. Fireworks galore, people everywhere, firecrackers going off at all hours. Outside the markets, vendors were selling yellow underwear- good luck befalls the wearer as midnight strikes, or so they say- containers of spray-confetti, firecrackers, and basically anything you can think of that will make a racket! Not being ones for the giganto Año Nuevo scene, we decided not to go to the city centre and instead opted for dinner at a great little Tapas Bar directly across the street from our B & B. Run by a Belgian ex-pat, Ruca Bar  serves inventive small plates made with local ingredients prepared by an Irish chef. Octopus is a popular dish in Santiago and Ruca Bar served it with a twist. The Pulpo on the Rocks was a play on octopus cooked in the traditional way, on hot rocks. This time, the “rocks” were potato croquettes dyed with octopus ink. Perfectly grilled octopus and a nice glass of Chilean red?  Perfecto!  And, being suckers for a good burger, we had to order the Mini Pulled Pork and Osso Bucco Hamberguesas.   As we slid back across the street just before midnight, we were invited to join a small Año Nuevo celebration with the owners of our hotel, Monica and Claudio!  Chilean bubbly at midnight and loads of hugs and kisses from the nicest people?  Not a bad way to start 2015!

Pulpo on the Rocks

Pulpo on the Rocks

 

Mini Hamburguesas

Mini Hamburguesas

Our last night in Santiago was reserved for dinner at a new-ish gastro spot called d.o. Restoran. Known for its “cocina originaria” or, designation of origin cuisine, d.o. Restoran prepares local and regional Chilean ingredients in innovatively delicious ways. Without the Espacio Culinario sisters, Fran and Anita, we would never have found this great place. The chef, Juan Morales, was a runner-up in Top Chef Chile, spent ten years working in top kitchens in Spain and is the head of an NGO that works with street kids by providing them scholarships to culinary schools.

Luckily for us, Fran requested the eight-course tasting menu when she booked, and being one of only a few tables as it was just after New Year’s, we were given the royal treatment. And, annoying photo-taking access to the kitchen.  Always helps to have a couple of local foodies at your table!

Fran and Anita, food bloggers, photographers and cocinaras increibles!

Fran and Anita, food bloggers, photographers and cocinaras increibles!

Our first course was simple, fresh-baked mini Bocados de Damas,  served piping hot in a brown bag with pickled onions, octopus ceviche and a chilled Chilean lager on the side! Each course was served on simple Chilean pottery and featured traditional recipes made with indigenous ingredients, re-constructed for a modern twist.   Loco, a shellfish similar to abalone was perfectly “cooked’ in a lime marinade and served with pickled vegetables.

 

Bocado de Damas con Ceviche de Pulpo

Bocado de Damas con Ceviche de Pulpo

Trucha with Aceitunas y Quinoa

Trucha with Aceitunas y Quinoa

After our first course, we moved inside to get down to the serious eating. Roasted trout, coated with a black olive tapenade, sat on a cloud of quinoa and vegetable pilaf.  Loco, a shellfish similar to abalone was perfectly “cooked’ in a lime marinade and garnished with pickled vegetables. Slow-braised pig’s cheeks cozied up to pureed camote– sweet potato-  and cebolla frita- crispy fried onions.  Cow’s Tongue, to be honest, not something I would eat by choice, was made surprisingly delicious with a garnish of avocado mousse and vegetable ceviche.  Quinoa Salad, garnished with micro-greens… cannelloni stuffed with goat…I’m sure I’ve left a course or two out.

"Loco" Ceviche

“Loco” Ceviche

Chef Morales garnishing the Quinoa Salad.

Chef Morales garnishing the Quinoa Salad.

Drizzling the Cannelloni with Herb Oil

Drizzling the Cannelloni with Herb Oil

Each new dish seemed to out-due the last, and if I was a really diligent food writer, I would have taken extensive notes. But, we were having too much fun to get bogged down in the minutia. And, lucky for us, Anita is a trained sommelier and chose a delicious Chateau Los Boldos, Carménére that paired perfectly with everything.  Even the three, I kid you not, THREE…dessert courses!  Milk Ice Cream with sweet milk foam and candied papaya on a bed of white chocolate “sand,” a mini custard-filled beignet with mango helado and, just when we thought it had all, sadly, come to an end, the chef sent out a platter of quince jellies and mini bread puddings.

Mini Custard-filled Beignets with Mango Helado

Mini Custard-filled Beignets with Mango Helado

 

Leche Helado con "sand" de Chocolate Blanco

Leche Helado con “sand” de Chocolate Blanco

I’m not usually a fan of tasting menus. I find that the whole culinary experience is so contrived that you leave forgetting most of what you ate and feeling completely over-stuffed. Not so at d.o. Restoran. Surprisingly, we left feeling very content, in a bit of a wine glow, and lamenting the fact that the following day we would move on, leaving our new-found foodie friends behind. We vowed to return. There were way too many restaurants that still needed to be checked out and, let’s not forget, we never got a chance to try that famous Chilean hot dog, “ El Completo!”

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Eating Chile: Part 1

Rule #1:  In order to have the best time possible in Santiago, Chile, make sure to befriend a Chilean food blogger, food photographer, culinary specialist and all-round terrific person about six months before travelling.

Rule #2: Be prepared to eat a lot of deliciously grilled meat- Parilla-style, roast pork- aka, cerdo- salchichas, and loads of fresh seafood.

Rule #3: When you think you can’t eat another thing, never pass a Heladaria without grabbing a quick Dulce de Leche or Crema de Chocolata to go.

When Doug and I decided that the starting point for our South American travels would be Santiago, I contacted my friend Francisca Amenábar, immediately. Fran and I met at a food photography workshop in England last summer. I was doing the food, Fran was honing her photography skills. Fran and her sister Anita are the talents behind the popular Chilean food blog, Espacio Culinario. Who better to give us a crash course in all things delicious in Santiago?

Dugla, Fran and Enrique

Enrique, Dugla and Fran

After a long, overnight flight and a brief nap at our hotel, we met Fran and her boyfriend, Enrique, for our first night out on the town, Chilean-style.

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Antiques Markets in Barrio Italia

After touring the antiques shops of Barrio Italia, a walking tour of the city centre led us to the Santiguan institution, La Fuente Alemana for a Lomito Completo and a beer. Odd, you might think, this being Chile and all. The German Fountain? Who would have thought our first meal in Santiago would be inspired by Deutschland? Turns out that the restaurant is named for the fountain nearby that was donated to Chile by Germany upon its independence from Spain. I had read about this 1950’s style lunch counter, but, to be honest, wasn’t feeling inspired to hit a German-style eatery on our foray into Chilean cuisine. But, when Fran and Enrique suggested we drop in for a bite, La Fuente Alemana being a must on any food tour of Santiago, we wiped our minds of any preconceptions and submitted to the Completo.

 Lomito Completo

Lomito Completo

So what is a Lomito Completo, or Completo, for short? First off, the lomito is said to be the iconic Chilean sandwich– some say maybe even the unofficial national dish– a massive sandwich made from roast pork, braised for hours and thinly sliced, with a variety of toppings, on a freshly-baked soft white bun. A Completo, is actually a gigantic hot dog topped with loads of mayonnaise, avocado, tomatoes, ketchup and mustard. At La Fuente Alemana, as far as I could tell, the lomito and the completo became one as a towering sandwich, oozing with pork, mayo, tomatoes, mashed avocado and, get this… sauerkraut! Not a combo I would have thought of, but, I have to tell you, incredibly delicious. Entering La Fuente Alemana can be a little intimidating. The place is usually packed, three deep, and the only seating is at a u-shaped counter, surrounding the open kitchen where the all-women sandwich cooks, dressed in white, prepare the food.  Apparently it is normal practice to hover around people sitting in the stools at the counter until there is an opening and then to grab your seats fast. Within seconds, our order was taken and we were left to watch the cooks assembling sandwiches in unison, hardly a word spoken. No need for words, La Fuente Alemana has been in business for over 60 years and I am sure some of the cooks were there when it opened its doors.

Sandwich Ladies at La Fuente Alemana

Sandwich Ladies at La Fuente Alemana

Pilsner Meister

Pilsner Meister

As we were really only stopping in for a snack- it was 6:30 and most Chileans don’t go out to eat until at least 9:30- we ordered two to share between all of us and four mugs of icy cold Pilsner, pulled from the tap by a towering Pilsner-meister.  After staring down the sandwich and wondering how on earth we were going to get our mouths around it, Fran advised that the only way to eat a Completo is with a knife and fork. And so with cutlery in hand, our culinary initiation into Chilean Cuisine began!

All finished with our  our pre-dinner “snack,” we decided to cruise trendy Barrio Lastarria and see what the hip crowd were up to.  After passing a trendy hot dog  joint with the Anglo-Chilean name, Hogs Salchicheria and making a mental note to go back the next day for a Completo of the hot dog variety, we checked out Bar The Clinic, a local’s pub where Santiguans debate politics and drink beer in a bar that has bras hanging from a gigantic chandelier! According to Lonely Planet, “it’s the official watering hole of Chilean political magazine The Clinic” a political satire weekly started in 1998 after the arrest of former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. The newspaper took its name from The London Clinic, aka “The Clinic,” where Pinochet was arrested. As we learned more and more about Pinochet’s horrific military dictatorship of 1973-1990, a public place where politics could be argued freely took on greater meaning. And it was packed, and loud! Unfortunately for us, there wasn’t a seat or a square inch of floor space to be had. Just time for a quick pic and off to the next stop.

I think the message here is: Theives stay outside and, basically, #@x* off!

I think the message is: Thieves stay outside and, basically, #@x* off! But, I’m sure there is a political context here.

We knew that Chile was one of the major wine producers on the planet, so where else to go but a wine bar that had 400 Chilean wines on the menu, with 36 by the glass? Bocanariz, the name a play on “mouth” and “nose,” both needing to be in good working order to appreciate good wine, is considered one of the best places to taste Chilean wines in Santiago.

Photo Credit- Bocanariz

Photo Credit- Bocanariz

At tables filled with locals and the odd smattering of Gringos, were oenophiles and hangers-on, fully engaged in the art of wine-tasting. Being our first day and suffering from jet lag, we decided not to do a formal tasting (are we crazy?) and, instead, handed things over to Enrique who ordered us a beautiful Chilean red and a sampling of some traditional cured meats and cheeses.

Carne y Queso de Bocanariz

Carne y Queso de Bocanariz

Que perfecto!  Next visit, we will try to work our way through the wine list or maybe one of the many tasting flights! And so in a bit of a wine haze, Fran and Enrique led us to the subway station.   As we blundered our way home to a good night’s sleep, we looked at each other and said in unison…we’re in SANTIAGO!