May 14th, 2011

What are those things?

Sleep Inn guests might encounter some unusual fruits as they walk around San José. A few vendors near the hotel sell jocotes, manzanas de agua, and nísperos, tropical delicacies that a foreigner might not recognize. For the intrepid fruit-eater, here is an introduction to each.

A jocote looks like a smooth-skinned, miniature potato. It can vary in color from green to red, and it has a large seed. Jocotes grow on trees. The fruit is dryish, rather than juicy, and the eater mostly gnaws at its flesh. In Central America, people often salt their jocotes as they eat them. For some, jocotes are eaten more as a pastime than for their delicious flavor.

A manzana de agua–or “water apple,”–looks like a pale and slightly elongated apple or, perhaps, like a pale red pear. This fruit grows on trees as well. True to its name, the manzana de agua mostly tastes watery, although its flesh does have a slight sweetness. The fruit is so aromatic that some people describe its flavor as more of a perfumed fragrance than an actual taste.

The níspero is a fragrant yellow fruit that is small, like a grape, and slightly fuzzy. It, too, grows on trees and has a few shiny, brown seeds. The flesh of the níspero is sweet and fragrant, once again seeming almost like an aroma, as well as a flavor. In other countries, nísperos are known as “loquats.”

Of the three, we tend to recommend nísperos, as their flavor coyly suggests the tropics.

Read more about unusual Costa Rican fruits and an interesting Costa Rican vegetable.

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May 1st, 2011

Horchata

Besides cás, one of the best non-alcoholic drinks in Costa Rica is horchata. Visitors to the country might not see it on every menu, but we recommend that they order it when they do. Powdered horchata mix is also available at grocery stores or other food stores in downtown San José.

A popular drink in Latin America, where its main ingredients are plentiful, horchata is often available at Mexican restaurants, even in the United States. Latin Americans love it.

Horchata can be made from various seeds and grains–barley, sesame seeds or almonds, among others–but Costa Ricans make it from ground rice. Using a blender or food processor, horchata-makers grind uncooked rice with a bit of water to make a sort of a paste. They let this paste stand for a few hours or overnight. Once the rice has fully flavored the water, it is strained from the liquid. Horchata-makers stir milk into the rice-water, and the resulting cloudy white mixture is sweetened with sugar and seasoned with cinnamon or vanilla.

Horchata is served cold, in a tall glass with a straw and ice. Its reassuring hint of rice adds a pleasant depth and richness to the drink.

Some Costa Rican cooks use the strained rice to make arroz con leche, another Costa Rican rice-and-milk concoction.

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May 14th, 2010

Pasta de Guayaba

One of Latin America’s best culinary concoctions is pasta de guayaba, or guava paste. Made from the aromatic and seed-filled guava fruit, this paste is almost as good as candy and incredibly versatile. The Sleep Inn blogging team has a few recommendations for happy guava paste-eating as a great leisure-time activity.

On their own, guavas can be difficult to eat. Their flesh is peach-colored and sweet, but it surrounds a core of pulpy seeds that some people find unnerving. When most people eat guavas right off the tree, they either swallow the seeds whole or spit them out, often making for messy eating. Another drawback to the guava is its attractiveness to worms. Any fruit that lands on the ground almost immediately becomes a home for worms, making tree-climbing a near-requirement for the enjoyment of the fresh fruit.

Guava paste solves all of these problems. Made by cooking the guava flesh with some sugar, the paste has no seeds and, of course, no worms. It’s also conveniently available in every grocery store. In Costa Rica, the paste often comes in flat rectangular “bars,” perfect for slicing and eating plain. However, several interesting combinations can enliven the basic guava paste.

Some people layer squares of guava paste and cheese, spearing both with a toothpick. Queso fresco, the mild Costa Rican cheese, is an ideal cheese accompaniment to guava paste. The layered mouthful is a charming combination of sweetness and mild creaminess, and it makes a perfect hors d’oeuvre.

Other people enliven their guava paste-cheese combination with a cocktail onion. The addition of the onion provides a tangy and crunchy counterpart to the fruit and cheese.

Guava paste is so mild and sweet that it also pairs nicely with very spicy flavors. Some people like to eat it with jalapeño, a tingling treat for lovers of the classic sweet/spicy flavor combination.

Of course, guava paste can substitute for jam or jelly in any kind of sandwich or bread combination. Some cooks also use it as a glaze for ham or pork, and others use it in the place of jam in baked fruit desserts.

We recommend guava paste in all its forms, and we welcome blog readers to write and let us know about their own guava paste concoctions.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 21st, 2010

Try a Casanova

For those who like their cocktails sweet and creamy, the Magnolia Restaurant is proud to offer its new Casanova, a heady mixture of rum, evaporated milk, condensed milk and beer. Served in a tall, curvy glass, the Casanova is like a lively vanilla milkshake, and it has already garnered much local attention.

In December 2009, The Tico Times selected the Casanova as one of the Top Ten Costa Rican Cocktails of the year. The drink is soothing and sweet–the perfect post-beach or pre-roulette concoction for intrepid visitors to the Sleep Inn. Try the Casanova and experience true cocktail inspiration.

See a photograph of the Magnolia Restaurant’s Casanova on the Tico Times website.

Read about the Magnolia Restaurant’s fabulous pisco sour.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 16th, 2009

Costa Rica, in Haiku

Costa Rica has long inspired literary and artistic tributes to its natural beauty and charming lifestyle. Painters and poets, enchanted by Costa Rica’s history and its people, create great artistic works with the country as their inspiration.

This posting showcases three haiku pieces that pay tribute to facets of the Costa Rican experience that visitors always find remarkable. The first haiku describes the ominous beauty of Costa Rica’s volcanoes, which lend a thrilling, dangerous edge to the country’s otherwise serene beauty. Visitors to the Magnolia Restaurant can enjoy a similar geologically themed painting, by artist Denis Salas, in the niche over the piano. The ethereal grays and blues of the painting suggest the smoky landscape around an active volcano. The haiku captures the volcano’s explosive energy:

Active volcano,
Red-rimmed, rumbling at night.
The violent earth speaks.

A second haiku draws its inspiration from Costa Rica’s abundant tropical fruit, a real tourist favorite. The lively fruit paintings in the Sleep Inn breakfast area similarly celebrate this marvelous tropical abundance:

Slices of sunshine
Lying on a morning plate.
Fresh mango breakfast.

A final haiku hearkens back to Costa Rica’s past, a quieter time when ox carts and their drivers slowly crisscrossed the countryside, delivering farm goods and supplies to a country not yet industrialized. Just outside the Sleep Inn’s smoke-free casino, guests can enjoy a beautiful depiction of the ox carts in old Costa Rica. The haiku showcases this same nostalgic sense of history:

Oxen and driver
In the days before cities.
Driving on the brink of change.

Read more about Costa Rica’s volcanoes.

Read more about Costa Rican mangoes and other tropical Costa Rican fruit.

Read more about Costa Rican ox carts, now a part of the UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 29th, 2009

Arroz Con Leche

Rice pudding, or arroz con leche, is one of Costa Rica’s most popular desserts. Often made with the zest of an orange or a lemon, Costa Rican arroz con leche is always very sweet and very creamy. Historically, rice and sugar have been important cash crops in Costa Rica, and these two ingredients naturally found their way into one recipe.

Costa Ricans have a special fondness for arroz con leche, because most ate it as children. Arroz con leche reminds Costa Ricans of naptime, cozy evenings and grandmothers. In fact, arroz con leche is such a childhood favorite that every Costa Rican knows the words to a popular nursery rhyme about the dessert. Although the lyrics sometimes change slightly, the words are basically as follows:

Arroz con leche.
Me quiero casar
con una señorita
de la capital.

Que sepa coser
que sepa bordar
que sepa abrir la puerta
para ir a jugar.

Loosely translated into English, the words are:

Rice pudding.
I would like to get married
to a young lady
from the capital.

Who knows how to sew
who knows how to embroider
who knows how to open the door
to go outside to play.

The Magnolia Restaurant serves a particularly spectacular arroz con leche, which quickly runs out, no matter how much the kitchen makes. Be sure you’re at the head of the line the next time arroz con leche appears on the Magnolia’s buffet menu!

Listen to Arroz con Leche, the nursery rhyme. (In this version, the singer wants to marry someone from San Nicolás–”de San Nicolás–instead of from the capital.)

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 16th, 2009

Eat a Casado

Costa Rica’s most typical meal—for lunch or dinner—is the casado. Generations of Costa Ricans have enjoyed this near-perfect conjunction of some of the country’s best flavors. Up until the mid-1960s, most Costa Rican businesses closed at lunchtime. Workers who lived near their jobs would go home to a hot meal. Others ate lunch at nearby pensiones, whose owners cooked lunch for office workers every day. Whether they ate at home or at a pensión, almost everyone ate a casado for lunch. Now, most Costa Rican businesspeople and office workers eat the same fast-food lunches that their American counterparts do. However, the casado is still the national dinner dish, and it remains dear to the hearts of all Costa Rican lunch-eaters.

Although casados vary from house to house and from restaurant to restaurant, all have the same key ingredients—rice, beans, salad, and some kind of protein. The rice is a true Costa Rican specialty; glistening slightly with oil, each grain is separate from the others, and all have just the right amount of firmness. The beans served with the casado are almost always whole black beans, although some people serve refried beans with their casados. The traditional casado salad is a vinegary cabbage salad that mixes well with either the rice or the beans and gives them a pleasant crunch. Recently, many restaurants have begun to serve lettuce and tomato salads with their casados, a slight departure from tradition. A piece of beef, chicken or fish rounds out the casado. This protein is grilled, pan-fried with garlic or breaded and fried. Many casado-makers also add fried plantains and tortillas to the dish. While not essential, these two additions make for an ideal casado.

There has recently been some controversy about the origin of the term “casado.” Many people believe that the word “casado” is derived from “casa,” the word for house. This theory makes sense because of the homey origins of the casado. When everyone made lunches or dinners at home, the casado was the food of the casa. However, a recent theory has emerged, which traces the meaning of the word, not to the place where the food is prepared, but to the person who once normally consumed it. Thus, the theory is that a casado takes its name from the other word “casado,” which means a married man. When most women worked only in the home, it was only married men—or casados—who ate these meals during their lunchtime breaks.

Whatever the origin of the word, the casado is a wonderful dish. The Magnolia Restaurant serves a first-class casado, complete with fried plantains, perfect rice and delicious, smoky black beans.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 9th, 2009

Don’t Let Pejibayes Pass You By

The pejibaye is one of Costa Rica’s most intriguing fruits. Readily available all across the country, pejibayes add an unexpected dimension to Costa Rican cuisine.

Pejibayes grow in clusters on the very same palm trees that produce hearts of palm. Costa Ricans hack the entire cluster from the tree once the fruits ripen. The shiny orange skin of the pejibaye might suggest a sweet, fleshy, mango-like interior. But pejibayes are dry and not at all juicy like their other orange tropical fruit counterparts.

The starchy pejibaye, potato-like in its dryness, makes for very interesting eating. Costa Ricans drop whole pejibayes into vats of boiling salted water and cook them for at least half an hour. Once the pejibayes soften, cooks slice them in half and remove the large central seed from each one, leaving a perfect hollow for a dollop of mayonnaise. Pejibayes and mayonnaise are as happy a combination as bread and butter, the smoothness of the mayonnaise pleasantly mitigating the dryness of the pejibaye, the tangy creaminess gently sharpening the pejibaye’s shy sweetness.

Some adventurous gourmet chefs forgo the mayonnaise treatment. They cook the pejibaye as though it were an exotic potato, lending a vibrant tropicality to more staid potato recipes.

One beach restaurant serves mayonnaise-filled pejibayes alongside spears of hearts of palm, a clever pairing of two fruits from the same palm tree. The orange pejibayes cluster charmingly on their side of the plate, their sister hearts of palm lying cool in their paleness. And the combination is wonderful—a moist vinegar tang with a tropical starchiness.

Roadside vendors sell boiled pejibayes at makeshift stands all across the country. Their stalls often feature hand-lettered signs with various idiosyncratic spellings of the fruit—“pejivalles,” or “pejivayes.”

But no variation in spelling can alter the allure of the pejibaye.

Click here to learn more about pejibayes.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 9th, 2008

Standing Around Outside, Eating

Costa Rica’s near-perfect weather is one of the country’s greatest charms. Visitors marvel at its breezy sunshine and tropical mildness. Locals spend much of their time outside, where it rarely gets cold enough for even a light jacket. Schools often have large outdoor courtyards, and children spend their free moments in the fresh air. Government buildings, like the immigration office and the driver’s license renewal office, usually have outdoor waiting areas.

Costa Rica’s mild, pleasant climate is, of course, as ideal for vegetation as it is for outdoor activity. Plants thrive everywhere, without fertilization, watering or any kind of human attention. Fruit trees sprout on the spot where someone tossed a few seeds, and many of these trees have edible stems and seeds as well.

The combination of constant outdoor activity and edible vegetation creates an interesting phenomenon in Costa Rica—a sort of opportunistic outdoor snacking.

Schoolchildren all know the bounty to be found around their schoolyards. The older children teach the younger ones which fruits and leaves are edible and how to go about eating them. One particularly common schoolyard fruit is the manzana de agua. Loosely translated, this fruit is a “water apple,” and the name is fairly accurate. The pale red fruit looks like an oval apple, and its flesh is like a watery version of the same. The fruit has only one seed, and it make for good between-class snacking. Another prevalent schoolyard fruit is the jocote. Shaped roughly like an olive, the jocote is greenish as it ripens and yellowish when fully ripe. Its flesh is thick and dense, and it clings to the fruit’s one large seed. Jocotes vary in flavor from sour to sweet and are ideal eating during down time in a game of tag. When jocotes are out of season, their leaves make fine snacks as well. Chewy and very sour, one small branch of jocote leaves can last an entire recess. Clover, too, is slightly sour and particularly good during games that require crawling near that ground or under bushes, as clover grows close to the ground.

Adults in the out-of-doors often find as many snacks as schoolchildren do. Mango trees grow wild all across the country, and their fruit is good both ripe and unripe. People in line at various government agencies often eat mangos as they wait. Guayaba trees are also fairly common, and people at bus stops can often reach the pink, aromatic fruits as they stand on the sidewalk. A variety of citrus fruits, ranging from the sweet to the very tart, grow wild in the city and also make pleasant on-the-spot eating.

Although Costa Rica has become very modern during the last few years, it still retains vestiges of its old rural self. Like farm-dwellers of previous decades, Costa Ricans can—and do—harvest the fruits around them, gathering treats as they go about their daily activities.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 4th, 2008

Guaro is Not Water

Guaro is a distilled liquor popular in several Central American countries, particularly Costa Rica. Made from sugar cane juice, guaro has a high alcohol content and a slightly sweet taste. Most people mix guaro with juice or soda, because its flavor can sometimes be harsh. In fact, guaro is often called “aguardiente,” a word that combines “agua” with “ardiente,” an adjective that means “burning.”

Like moonshine in the United States, guaro was once purely a product of homemade stills, a rural kitchen-sink alcohol. Guaro was a well-loved part of Costa Rican popular culture. One folksong warmly praises guaro as a wonderful by-product of Costa Rica’s beloved sugar cane. The song also alludes to guaro’s unpleasant side-effects, and it was these side-effects and the dangers of homemade distilleries that caused the Costa Rican government to take over guaro production.

Guaro is now bottled by Costa Rica’s National Liquor Factory (la Fábrica Nacional de Licores) under the name of Cacique. Homemade guaro production is severely frowned upon, and bottles of Cacique line the shelves of Costa Rican grocery stores and bars.

One odd fact about guaro is the similarity of pronunciation between “guaro” and “water.” Recently, a thirsty American tourist asked his waiter, in English, for a glass of water. The waiter, who did not speak English, thought that the tourist had asked for water. Pleased that a visitor would embrace his country’s own alcohol, the waiter returned from the kitchen with a glass of the clear alcoholic beverage. The tourist took a big gulp and had a hair-raising experience in thirst-quenching.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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