Thursday, November 29, 2007

Costa Rica Survival Kit

My clutch is acting up on my pickup so I took it in to Super Sevicio first thing this AM to have it fixed. I have a client from Chicago arriving this afternoon with $4 - $8 million to spend, and I am showing him properties all day tomorrow. But alas, I was thrown a curve ball in the form of a bad auxilary clutch pump that will need to be replaced, but will not arrive from S. Jose until tomorrow - which is precisely when I need my truck to show my client properties. Arghhh!

It's more embarrassing than anything. I'll either have to use my client's car, or rent one. Using his car is easiest, but most embarrassing. Renting at car involves a tiny ballet where I'll pick up my client in my truck and drive to Super Servicios (which is on the way to the properties I want to show my client), drop off the truck and have the rental delivered there. I can then drop off the rental and retrieve my pickup on the way back, and head back to Hermosa with my client. Sounds simple, but what can go wrong, will go wrong.

I'm typing this as I sit at a table in the Liberia Mega Mall (more like a mini-super) waiting for the Universal store to open. I need to get ink cartridges for our Cannon fax/scanner/printer. The yellow cartridge went on the fritz yesterday. We have a guy who refills old cartridges for a quarter of the price of new ones. But I think the old cartridges we have have run their course and I need new ones. I thought the store would be open at 9AM, but curve ball #2 was thrown at me - the store won't open until 10 AM.

So I figured I'd blog a bit at a table in front of the yet-to-open coffee kiosk to pass the time. I'm thinking of putting together a Costa Rica Survival Kit. Waiting is a pastime here, as well as power outages, car problems, computer systems being down, etc. So I was thinking the kit might include:

- 2 good novels to read while you wait (recommended reading: War and Peace, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).
- A flashlight to illuminate the novels during the power outages.
- Extra batteries for the flashlight to withstand the duration of power outages.
- An inflatable pillow for taking a nap after you've finished the two novels while waiting.
- A fifth of Ron Centenario (rum) for the next day of waiting.
- Bottled water to rehydrate after polishing of the fifth of rum during the next day of waiting.
- Beef jerky to go along with the bottled water.
- Sunscreen in case you're waiting in the sun.
- Ziploc plastic bags for your cell phone and wallet in case you're waiting in the rain.
- A collapseable umbrella in case you're waiting in the sun or the rain.
- A butane lighter in case you need to start a fire to keep warm or finish your novel because the extra batteries for the flashlight are spent.
- A machete to cut fuel for your fire and/or defend yourself.
- Insect repellent (2 cans or bottles).
- A basic First Aid Kit for when you're out of insect repellent and/or get burned by the fire and/or slice yourself with the machete.
- Zip-ties (you can always find a use for these).
- Duct tape (same as for Zip-ties).
- Deoderant (you figure it out).
- A clean, "Have a Nice Day", smiley-face T-shirt.
- Fast patch tire repair kit for the flat you'll get on the way home after you're done waiting.

I'm sure I could sell a million of these things.

Store's open. Gotta go!

Pura vida!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Dia de Gracias

Spanish for "Day of Thanks", or "Thanksgiving". It's a uniquely gringo holiday that was officially declared a national holiday by President George Washington in 1789 just after ratification of the US constitution. (It should be noted that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving also, but it falls in October and wasn't declared a national holiday until the 1950's, or something - copycat slackers!).

U.S. expats have only a couple of holidays (other than Xmas and New Year's) that even appear as blips on the expat radar - there are just too many Costa Rican holidays to be taken advantage of. The two big blips on the radar are Thanksgiving and Independence Day. Labor Day and Memorial Day are remembered only when one can't reach a friend at work by phone, or when an auto-reply via email stating that the person will be out of the office for the holiday. To self: "Ohhhh, right, it's Memorial Day." St. Pat's Day, Valentine's Day, Groundhog Day, Secretary's Day, Boss's Day (and any other Hallmark Holiday), etc., are lost. Father's Day IS usually observed, as it falls on the same day in Costa Rica as it does in the U.S. Mother's Day, however, is a different story - different day, and the fourth most important holiday after Xmas (Navidad), New Year's (Ano Nuevo) and Easter week (Semana Santa). Mommies RULE here in Costa Rica.

So I was invited by a fellow expat to a T-giving gathering. Apparently, her house and kitchen were too small so she decided to host it at my partner's much larger house. Besides, he had a swimming pool and a killer sunset ocean view.

Naturally, I wanted to bring a dish, so I asked my friend what to bring. I was told that she was short of pies. GREAT! I LOVE PIES! My favorite Thanksgiving pie is a sweet potato pie. I searched the internet for the right recipe based on my previous pie experiences with my ex-wife's family's cooking - black folks from the south side of Chicago, only a generation removed from the Mississippi delta and The Great Migration. Good southern cookin' (what white and black folks up north call ‘soul food’)!

I found a recipe for a Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie (a little flamboyant, but I like to mix it up every now and then), printed the recipe and headed to the grocery store with my list of ingredients.

The grocery store I go to in Coco is well stocked and caters to gringos as well as ticos - one can procure rice, beans, eggs and lomito, as well as specialty items like horseradish, pickles, wasabe peas, Chilean wine, Kentucky bourbon and Oreo cookies. But, alas, upon an exhaustive search, I could not find a sweet potato, nor squash, pumpkin or yam hidden in any corner of the market.

Time to improvise (a daily occurence). I started thinking... my wife makes this great soup with a bunch of quartered tubers cooked together in a broth with meat and fresh herbs. I remembered that one of these tubers tasted sweet. So I conversed with a few people in the produce section and we were able to narrow it down to a camote (cah-MOH-tay). Camotes aren't the same size as sweet potatoes - in fact they vary widely in their size from small to medium. So I grabbed what I thought was about equal to four large sweet potatoes (I was baking two pies), then grabbed another camote just in case.

Camotes, for me (leftmost in the photo, followed by yucca, tiquisque and platano duro), are uniquely Costa Rican. And as I looked at my list, I got a hankering to make a few more substitutions of the tropical persuasion. I substituted rum for the bourbon and a chocolate pie crust for a regular one. The brown sugar became azúcar con caramel (sugar with caramel). Everything else stayed the same: raisins (soaked in the rum), milk, eggs, salt, cinnamon and vanilla. My 'Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie' was now a 'Rum Raisin Camote Pie'.

I had to be in the office the morning of Thanksgiving, so Carla volunteered to peel, cook and mash the comotes, and soak the raisins in Ron Centenario, so that I would have a head start on cooking when I returned from work.

When I arrived at our house at about 12:30 PM, she was just finishing up the mashing of the camotes. One thing struck me immediately - camotes are light green when mashed - not the brilliant-orange carotene color of a sweet potato. Whatever! I measured the camote to be about 6 cups - about 3 pies. So I doubled the ingredients, but tripled the eggs and rum. After mixing all together, I had enough for three pies. The mixture was became a light chocolate brown, which looked great against the dark chocolate pie crust. Holding back on the azúcar, vanilla and cinnamon (canela) was a good decision too - not sickeningly sweet or spicy.

45 minutes after placing the pies in the oven, I had two very handsome deserts. I garnished them with a floret made of whole almonds (the flower petals), with a chocolate covered coffee bean in the center of the array of almonds (pistils/stamens). Nice!

The pies were a big hit: exotic enough for most, but not too far of a stretch of the imagination for the hard core gringos (half these people have been here for 5 years or more and still don't speak Spanish, and never will). The on-the-fly recipe adaptation made a good story for everyone for whom the word ‘improvise’ has become a daily mantra (i.e. everyone).

So I'd like to share my recipe with all of you gringos back home who, on the chance you can locate a camote, might want to amaze your friends with an 'exotic' recipe.

To make one Rum Raisin Camote Pie:

1 cup packed raisins
1/2 cup rum (or to cover the raisins)
2 tbsp. melted butter
Enough camotes to make between 2 - 3 cups of filling (peeled, cooked, mashed)
2 eggs lightly beaten
2/3 cup azúcar con caramel
3/4 cup hot, whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1-1/2 tsp. cinnamon (canela)
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1 (9") chocolate pie crust (Keebler makes a good one), or you can make one out of Oreo's)

Soak the raisins for at least an hour in the rum. Stir the melted butter into the mashed camotes. Stir in the eggs, azúcar, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and milk. Fold in the raisins and rum.

Turn the filling into the pie crust. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees F. Lower the temp to 350 degrees F and cook for another 35 - 40 minutes until the pie just looks right (or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean). Garnish as you wish (use your imagination). Cool before serving.

Happy Turkey Day! Pura vida!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Laila Davina

I took these shots of Laila almost 3 weeks ago (31 October). Laila continues to amaze all of us.

El Verano

Spanish for "The Summer". Summer has finally arrived here in Guanacaste after one of the wettest winters on record. A few weeks ago the central and northern Pacific coasts, and the Central Valley went through about a week of seemingly-never-stopping rain. The abnormal rainfall was a direct result of hurricane Noel's rampage through the Caribbean. The counterclockwise motion of the storm sucked warm, moist Pacific air overland where the it cooled and dumped enormous amounts of rain on a good portion of Costa Rica.

In my 'hood, the roadway portion of the iron bridge over the Rio Tempisque between Guardia and Comunidad was submerged for the first time that anyone can remember since its construction (in 20 years). The median river level of the Tempisque at the bridge is usually about 10-15 meters below it. If you can't imagine a river rising 15 meters overnight, see the phone pic at left taken by a passerby just before the river overtook it. It was awesome!!

It's quite amazing the bridge is still standing. Large uprooted trees slammed into the upstream side of the bridge damaging some structure and knocking down bridge railings. The flood completely gutted the Restaurante y Bar Cocodrillo, which is still rebuilding. It stripped the steep banks of the Tempisque of any and all vegetation. Huge trees that once stood on the banks no longer exist. When the inundation abated, debris hung to the bridge structure below the road, including giant trees and logs. One of my friends who owns a business next to the Kokodrilo, and who experienced flood damage, told me that the river rose 3 meters in one hour at one point during the night! It caught a lot of people off guard, including his security guard, whose car parked behind the building was completely submerged.

In Filadelfia, which actually sits below river level for most of the year, ostensibly protected by earthen dykes on the perimeter of town, over 1000 people were left homeless when one of the dykes caved in and a good portion of Filly was submerged.

Last week the rain stopped and things are much more pleasant. The leaves have begun falling as if someone suddenly flipped a gigantic power switch on the electro-magnet holding the leaves to the trees. The landscape will now brown out rapidly as the trees shed their chlorophyl solar panels in order to conserve energy over the long dry season. There's more good news too: the drought-stricken aquifers in the area have now been replenished and water shortages should be less of an issue this year. Ojala! (We'll see!).

Stay dry! Pura vida!