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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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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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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