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!

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