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9 Bleisure Ideas for Your Costa Rica Business Trip

You’re going to Costa Rica on business?? Thoughts of pristine beaches and lush rainforests cross the minds of your mouth watering colleagues, envy ensues. What they don’t realize is the trip consists of three days of back-to-back meetings within four walls.

In comes bleisure to save the day. Adding a weekend day at the beginning or end of your stay (or what the hey, why not both!!) will make the trip both a more fulfilling and rewarding experience, both personally and for business.

 

What is Bleisure?

Bleisure is a blending of business-oriented trips with personal time, and according to Fortune Magazine, “Bleisure is not only popular among employees; employers are starting to realize that it is a prime opportunity to endorse work-life balance.”

Most business trips to Costa Rica take place in the capital city of San Jose, and there are plenty of options for an authentic experience without even changing hotels.

 

Short Day Trips from San Jose

West Side Highlands

La Fortuna-Arenal Volcano and Thermal Waters

Drive Time:  2 to 2.5 hours

The drive from San Jose to La Fortuna-Arenal winds through mountain towns with great views of the countryside. La Fortuna is ideal for nature lovers and offers canopy tours, cycling, horseback, and ATV tours. The area is also known for its hot springs resorts which include restaurant and bar service. Don’t miss the great views of the on-and-off active Arenal volcano.

Hot Spring Options:

Baldi Hot Springs 

Eco Termales Fortuna 

 

Volcán Poas

Drive Time: 1 hour

Volcán Poas is an exceptional national park close to the La Paz Waterfalls. With just about a 1 KM walk from the parking, you can be at the crater, a large open space with a water deposit at the bottom. For the more adventurous, there is also a great 3 KM trail across altitude forest to the lagoon.

 

 

Doka-Grecia-Sarchi

Drive Time: 1 hr

This is a shorter trip on the road to La Fortuna. Sarchi is a town known for manufacturing of the traditional oxcart, once used as the only means of transporting the country’s most important crop, coffee. This trip can be combined with a visit to see a traditional coffee drying plant (Beneficio), and the town church.

 

 

Zarcero

Drive Time: 1.5 hours

This small, traditional Costa Rican town is well known for its church and cypress gardens full of shrubbery sculptures in different forms. This is a good stopping point if going to La Fortuna, or a nice side trip from Sarchí.

 

East Side Highlands

Orosi

Drive Time: 1.5 to 2 hours

The valley of Orosi was the first permanent settlement by the Spaniards in the 1500s and is a charming traditional town. The drive is a little longer than others on the list, but the scenery along the way is worth the trip. You will travel through the city of Cartago, the first capital of Costa Rica. Go for lunch at Orosi, where you can visit the church and the ruins of the first formal church built in Costa Rica, in nearby Ujarras. Another alternative would be to combine it with a visit to Volcán Irazú.

This is one of my favorite lunch digs in the area: http://www.lacasonadelcafetal.com/

 

Volcán Irazú

Drive Time: 1.5 hours

This volcano is known for its 1963 eruption and ash showers, coinciding with President Kennedy’s first, and only, visit to Costa Rica. Nice drive up from San Jose — about 1.5 hours — interesting landscape, good to combine with either Cartago or Orosi.

 

Dota-Santa María and San Gerardo

Drive Time: 2 hours

One of the lesser visited options, this area is about 2200 meters in altitude, and to get there one must travel along the highest mountain range in the country. About 2 hours from San José, but totally worth it. The neighboring towns combine one of the premium coffee producing regions (Santa María) with great cloud forest views and trekking  (San Gerardo).

 

The Coast

bleisure, business trip, business travel, Costa Rica

Jaco

Drive Time: 1.5 hours

The coastal town of Jaco has a large array of services, restaurants, and activities — from lounging poolside to surfing lessons with locals. Want to have a beautiful sunset experience? Stop for a drink at Villa Caletas on your way back. If the beach is not really your thing and you want to immerse in nature, you may also consider a stop at Carara National Park and Scarlet Macaw sanctuary.
Day passes are available at several hotels.

 

Puerto Puntarenas

Drive Time: 1.5 hours

This popular port town is home to the largest fishing fleet in Costa Rica and a common day trip for Costa Ricans. The Tioga Hotel and the all-inclusive Doubletree Hotel offer day passes, so you can spend the day enjoying the pool and beach and have a place to shower and change, as well as bar and restaurant service. Enjoy the full experience and have either a late lunch or early dinner in downtown Puntarenas. After dinner stroll down the beachside promenade, Paseo de los Turistas, for a typical “Churchill” — a snow cone-in-a-glass loaded with syrup, ice cream, powdered and condensed milk. Your doctor will definitely frown on this one, but what the hell, you only live once…

Doubletree Hotel

Tioga Hotel

My favorite restaurant in Puntarenas: Casa Almendro

 

 

 

A Cultural and Immersive Cooking Experience in Oaxaca

If you are like me, when traveling you love having the full cultural experience: insight into people’s day-to-day lives, cultural history, native food, language, and color. Rarely have I had the opportunity to experience all aspects of a culture intimately in one day, but I received the gift on a recent trip to Mexico with my daughter Alana for her 19th birthday.

In search of the most authentic experience as possible, we decided to spend a few days in Oaxaca in south central Mexico. Oaxaca is an amazing melting pot of indigenous culture — dating back to before the Spanish colonization with 16 distinct groups that each hold their own unique language and a shared cooking tradition. Our research turned up  several cooking class options in Oaxaca. We decided on Sabor Zapoteco in Teotitlán del Valle, run by Reyna Mendoza,  as it seemed a full immersion option. I contacted Reyna and asked if she would change the content to a Mole Negro class — to which she graciously agreed –so we were on.

At 9:00 on a warm, sunny Oaxaca morning we met our driver Manuel at the entrance of the Ethnobotanical Museum for the trip to Teotitlán del Valle. After a pleasant 30 minute ride across corn and agave fields, we arrived at Reyna’s home, just as her neighbor was coming home  with a donkey-load of firewood — a clear sign of the cultural experience in store for the day. Reyna greeted us at the large front gate that lead to a pressed earth courtyard. A large, open kitchen served as  the anchor of a three-house compound where her family has lived for four generations.

 

After a brief introduction to the menu for the day — black mole, jicama and nopal salad with cilantro avocado dressing, chipil rice and tomatillo, and pasilla pepper Oaxaca salsa — we took our baskets and started the three-block stroll to the market. Far from the large and crowded markets  we were expecting, the Teotitlán market is an intimate affair where everyone knows each other. Rather than merchants these are mostly producers selling the product of their small plots and workshops.

Initially, there was some  shock at the dubious sanitary practices (by Western standards) of the meat section,but it quickly wore off as I took in the scene of mostly women in traditional garb, all speaking Zapotec. These  same people have inhabited this land for thousands of years, as unadulterated as you can get after centuries of western development knocking at their door.

As Reyna navigated the market she stopped to greet what seemed like every other person  with a soft shake of the wrist and a smiling Zac xtili (good morning in Zapotec). Later she would explain the Teotitlán community system, where each citizen must serve in the local community support groups in order to get accepted and supplied with basic services such as water and power. Foreigners cannot own property and can only really join the community through marriage. These practices have  kept the customs and culture of the Zapotec society alive in the Oaxaca valley.

After buying the ingredients we were missing –avocados, Oaxaca cheese, epazote leaves, cilantro, and some beautiful wild green tomatillos — we headed back to the kitchen. I took advantage of the opportunity to to pick up some essentials: quesillo (string cheese) to snack on later at the hotel, chocolate, a few souvenirs, and the traditional huacas to drink mezcal.

Back at the kitchen, we indulged in  in a classic Oaxaca chocolate to build energy to start cooking. Reyna used  Oaxaca cocoa prepared in a class earlier in the week and whipped up this magical beverage with the traditional molinillo. After this invigorating repose, we were ready to hit the stove.

 

Reyna’s is a traditional kitchen with a Zapotecan wood burning stove – two large clay comales built into an adobe base. These stoves are surprisingly versatile. We ended up cooking all the meal there–  only resorting to a modern stove to keep the mole warm. The other two utensils essential to the traditional Mexican kitchen are the molcajete and the metate. In Western cooking today, the food processor has taken over the molcajete and metate role. The results, while close, are not the same.

Reyna, Alana and I all took our turns at the metate — processing tool that requires a real physical commitment. After 10 minutes at it I surrendered, admitting I was not delivering either on quality or speed. Alana, on the other hand,  performed like a pro and carried the day to deliver a mole worthy of any Zapotecan celebration. I was more successful with the more utilitarian and familiar Molcajete (Mexico’s version of a mortar and pestle), and was quite satisfied with my tomatillo sauce and avocado dressing.

 

After four hours between the market visit and food preparation, we were ready to enjoy the fruit of our labor. We started with a small huaca of mezcal to open our appetite. Reyna’s open kitchen with typical Oaxaca textiles and clay pottery was the perfect setting  for this very amazing mix of both bold and fresh flavors.

If you want to bring a taste of Oaxaca to your own dinner table, check out our recipes for cactus salsa and aderezo dressing. 

 

 

Ceviche: Quick, Simple and Healthy Taste of the Tropics

After a long morning at the beach frolicking in the surf, nothing is more appetizing than the fresh taste of ceviche, especially paired with an ice cold beer and sitting at a beachside shack with the warm ocean breeze in your face and sand on your toes. Or you can make as a quick and healthy lunch at home, and invoke the tropical setting with your mind, beer optional…

Ceviche (also spelled cebiche or seviche depending on location) is a mainstay of Latin American cuisine with origins dating since before the Spanish discovery. The origin of ceviche is generally accepted as Peru, when the Spaniards arrived there they found the locals eating a dish of fish marinated in a local fruit, Tumbo, in the family of Passion Fruit. The locals adopted European citrus as the marinating agent, and the present version of ceviche was born.

Today the term is used generally for any version of seafood marinated in lime, but has extended loosely to other marinated foods – green plantains in Costa Rica for example. I like to think there are 2 main types of traditional ceviche: the Andean style of Perú and Ecuador, and the Mesoamerican version, typical of Mexico, Central America and Colombia.

The Andean ceviche tends to have less herbs and marinate less time, some claim as a result of the culinary influence of Japanese immigrants to Peru. Mesoamerican ceviche may include chopped onion, bell peppers, cilantro, tomato and other, and generally relies on tomatoes or ketchup to mitigate acidity and add some sweetness to the dish. Andean ceviche utilizes yams and corn for this effect.

Ceviche: Quick, Simple and Healthy Taste of the Tropics
Peruvian Ceviche

There are however hundreds of variations of this dish, and your creativity is the limit. I found great inspiration in Chef Douglas Rodriguez’s The Great Ceviche Book, which provides a huge range of recipes. Variations are limited only by your imagination.

Sometimes ingredients can be non intuitive, and yield amazing results. In a recent trip to London I paid a visit to House of Ho restaurant in SOHO, after having seen head chef Bobby Chinn’s video of his Mangosteen Truffle Ceviche on Crane TV. His use of mangosteen, with a very delicate sweet/sour flavor, truffle oil and coconut milk applied to a mix of shrimp, scallops and corvina lightly marinated in lime, resulted in a symphony of flavors in my mouth. I tried the recipe at home minus the truffle oil, and it still was amazing.

I like the clean and simple version of the Mesoamerican fish Ceviche typical of Costa Rica for a quick, simple and healthy weekend lunch. It takes 15-20 minutes of preparation, and 30 to 60 minutes marinating time, depending on your taste.

As with everything food, the quality of the ingredients is essential, so make sure you start with very fresh, quality white fish, such as Sea Bass, Mahi Mahi, Flounder, or Tilapia. Ask your fishmonger for fish that arrived the same day, and ask to smell it and touch it. Your fish should not have a pungent smell, and should be firm to the touch, with an almost translucent white color. The lime is also especially critical for this dish, make sure you shop for very sour limes, such as messina or key limes.

Costa Rican Ceviche

Serves 4 to 6

1 pound fresh white fish such as Seabass or Founder, cut in 1 inch by 1/2 inch chunks

One medium sized yellow or white onion, chopped

One medium sized red bell pepper, chopped

Four tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 cup lime juice, about 4-5 large limes

1 teaspoon salt

Small lettuce leaves and sliced green plantain for garnish

Tortilla chips

Ceviche: Quick, Simple and Healthy Taste of the Tropics

Mix all the ingredients in a shallow container such as a pyrex 2 quart baking dish, and let marinate for one half hour to one hour at room temperature, depending on your taste.

Ceviche: Quick, Simple and Healthy Taste of the Tropics

Serve in a cocktail glass, small plate or ramekin, along with tortilla chips, ketchup and hot sauce, which you will want to add sparingly and taste. The ketchup cuts through the lime taste and helps balance the flavors, but you can easily do without it as well.

Ceviche: Quick, Simple and Healthy Taste of the Tropics

Get creative with hot sauce – make your own Hot Pepper Mash

Ever since the Spaniards discovered them in the new world, and the Portuguese disseminated them throughout their trading routes in the Tropics, hot peppers became one of the most (if not the most) prevalent spices in dishes from the warm regions of the world. I am always trying new hot sauces in the market, with variations of ingredients which provide all kinds of different sensory experiences. Often times I am looking to get the basic unadulterated taste of different hot pepper varieties as well as different levels of heat, and an opportunity to experiment. Lately I have turned to creating my own pepper mash, a simple process which requires some great peppers, a food processor or blender, a pinch of salt, a large jar, and patience.

I like to experiment with different varieties I can find in the market and keep tasting the mash as it naturally ferments. As an example for my previous batch I found beautiful and fresh Cayenne and peruvian Ají in one of the local markets. These gave me a good balance as Cayenne are pretty hot (I used the Carolina Cayenne variety) and Ají are milder and with a nice, somewhat citrusy taste. I processed them separately into a mash with a small dash of salt, two pounds of each, and let them ferment in a cool dark kitchen cabinet. I kept using as the mash in different dishes throughout 5 months, as the taste mellowed becoming less sharp but keeping the heat. After the 5 months I decided to process the remaining mash (about 50% of the original) into sauce to lock in the taste (see below for the recipe).

For my latest mask project I chose two varieties equally high on the Scoville scale of heat: Red Habanero and Rocoto. Although similar in heat I find they differ substantially in taste, with the Habanero having a fruity yet dry flavor, and the Rocoto being more fruity and aromatic, somewhat reminiscent of a red bell pepper. The Habanero is more commonly known, being native of the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, Central America and the Caribbean, where the Spanish discovered it early on. Rocoto’s origin is in the andean regions of Peru and Bolivia and has not been widely propagated elsewhere. I expect with the recent advent of Peruvian cuisine this variety will become more popular, being a mainstay of Peru’s kitchen.

Rocotos and Habaneros can be easy to spot, with Habaneros having an elongated and wrinkled shape and Rocoto being more reminiscent of an apple (hence the alternative name in Peru and Bolivia: Manzano after the word for apple in Spanish). Another clear differentiator are Rocoto’s black seeds.

I started with 2 pounds each of Rocoto and Habaneros, washed well and discarded the the stems. I processed each separately, seeds and all, adding about 3% salt by weight, until they were finely chopped. I then transferred to large jars, making sure the mash did not fill the jar more than two thirds in order to allow space for the mash to grow during the process of fermentation. The jars were stored in a cool and dark area, a kitchen cabinet with these conditions works. After 3-4 days I could see the mix rise as bubbles form from the fermentation process.

In this particular case, I let the mash ferment for 6 weeks and then processed into my sauce to lock in the flavors.

Simple pepper sauce:

  • 2 pounds pepper mash, fermented
  • One medium brown onion, coarsely chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 2 cups (500 ml) vinegar (you could use plain white, or experiment with other options. In this case I used organic banana vinegar to add a more fruity and sweeter taste)

In a 2-3 quart pot heat olive oil on medium heat, then add the onions and garlic and sauté until they start to caramelize, about 2 minutes. Then add the pepper mash and vinegar and bring to simmer, turn heat to low, cover and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Once done turn the heat off and allow to cool down. In the meantime make sure you wash the jars used for the mash thoroughly. Once the mash has cooled down, pour into a food processor or blender and blend until it becomes a smooth paste. Transfer to the jars, or if you prefer into smaller containers, and refrigerate. And voilá, your homemade pepper sauce is ready to add flavor to your favorite dishes.

Indonesian Gem on the Costa Rican Pacific Coast

I found this gem of Indonesian Food in the town of Ojochal, on the south Pacific Coast of Costa Rica,about 15 kilometers from the surf destination of Dominical. Getting there is an easy and very scenic 3 hour ride from the capital city of San José, going through typical towns, up a 10,000 ft mountain range, across coffee plantations and down to the beach.

Ylang Ylang is owned by a Dutch couple who immigrated  two years ago, after deciding to move from the Netherlands to warmer climates. It is situated sufficiently up a hill to enjoy a great view of the ocean, yet close enough to get the soothing sounds of the surf breaking below. The ambience is totally tropical, and open to the ocean breeze. The restaurant is maned by its two owners, Caroline and Hans so it is very intimate,  all food is cooked by Caroline, and served home style by Hans. The menu offers two different pris fix options for two, and a choice of desserts.

We chose the Java menu, which includes a Daging Rendag-chopped spicy beef boiled in coconut milk with exotic herbs, Ajam Gomeh-chopped chicken breast with coconut and spices, vegetables, steamed rice and Sambal.