The bad news lurked, as bad news often does, in the fine print. For our upcoming trip to Costa Rica, the baggage weight restriction on the puddle jumper from San Jose to the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula was 40 pounds.
Immediately, my friend, Gail, and I were on the phone.
We’re in deep trouble, I said gravely.
I know, she wailed. What about the cookbook?
The book, “Gran Cocina Latina,” by Maricele E. Presilla, is our culinary companion during winter sojourns to the tropics. The James Beard award-winning cookbook is like an encyclopedia of Latino food, complete with history and anecdotes.
It’s all there, Brazilian caipirinhas, Peruvian ceviche, Salvadoran street corn, our favorite short ribs in chocolate sauce and more. It weighs, get this, more than five pounds.
That’s better than 10, Gail said.
So we foisted the cargo off on one of the guys and, soon after arriving in the tiny town of Mal Pais, were sitting poolside rifling through our cookbook, dreaming up dinners while listening to the mournful sound of howler monkeys as yellow-bellied birds zipped by.
Discover Exotic Foods at Mal Pais Market
Buy Fresh Fish Right Off the Boats
When traveling, I consider the local grocery stores and open air markets on par with museums: bustling wonderlands of exotic fruits, mysterious peppers and pastes, and here, gorgeous butcher counters heaped with goat, chicken, and beef. Let us not forget the endless aisles of South American wines.
At a tiny beach a short walk south of our rented villa is the Pescaderia, where fishermen drag skiffs ashore and filet the day’s catch of tuna, red snapper, mahi mahi, wahoo, and grouper. But this being the tropics, catching the fishermen at the right time is as tricky as catching a fish. We played the hit-and-miss, cat-and-mouse game for a few days and finally scored two glistening, forearm-sized tuna loins—for about $10!
My first turn cooking in our open air kitchen (where armies of ants stand ready to feed), I riffed on an old Italian favorite of chicken marinated in oils, vinegar, rosemary, and roasted garlic. Chicken here has more fat than our mass-produced birds. I couldn’t resist leaving left the fat attached to the thick, cream-colored skin when intending to brown the meaty thighs. But so much fat rendered into the pan that it became more like confit. The serendipitous result was luxuriously moist chicken, a hit all around.
Try Fresh Tuna Peruvian Style
Feel Free to Riff on a Recipe if Needed
For the tuna, I turned to the tome and selected a Peruvian preparation of steaks in a bold aderezo, or cooking sauce. I needed garlic, cumin, olive oil, onion, cilantro, lime, and something called mirasol peppers.
Oddly, we were having trouble finding limes. Once on a trip to nearby Nicaragua, I found a whole grove of them. Here, the fruits that looked like limes were yellow on the inside and tasted more like lemon. Once we spotted monkeys gnawing fruits from a tree at a bend in our driveway. We thought they were limes, but they turned out to be lemon-like, too.
I have no fear of riffing on a recipe, and when I couldn’t find those golden mirasol peppers, I opted to combine thick, local jalapeño and Tabasco sauces. Instead of ground cumin, I substituted available whole seeds. I used the monkey lemons and rice vinegar from the pantry instead of cider. Then I cut those loins into steaks and served up a main course worth repeating (and if I did this at home, I’d source ingredients at the Grand Mart on Newtown Road in Virginia Beach.)
As I write this, we still have a few weeks left in paradise. The recent discovery of a Friday farmers market in nearby Cobano will have us once again dipping into the pages of our trusty culinary companion, well worth its weight.
Enjoy these recipes!
Taste the Flavors of Latin-American Cuisine
Source Ingredients Locally for Best Flavor
Margarita on the Rocks (Margarita en las Rocas)
This is the version of margarita preferred by purists who don’t care for the distraction of the frozen slush version. You can play with the choice of tequila (use an anejo or reposado for mellower flavor, or try other brands), experiment with the milder Triple Sec or more distinctly orangey Cointreau, and adjust the amounts of lime juice and syrup to your taste. Serves 1.
- 1 ½ ounces tequila, preferably Herradura Silver
- ½ ounce Triple Sec or Cointreau
- 1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
- ½ ounce Simple Syrup, or to taste
Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice cubes Shake and pour into a short rocks glass rimmed with coarse salt.
Tuna Peruvian Style
For the tuna:
- 2 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste with a mortar and pestle or finely chopped and mashed
- 2 teaspoons ground, dried mirasol pepper or ½ teaspoon ground cayenne
- Juice of ½ medium lime (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 pound fresh tuna steak
For the cooking sauce:
- 6 dried mirasol peppers, stemmed and seeded
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 small red onion (4ounces), finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- ¼ cup cider vinegar
Seasoning the tuna:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the garlic, ground mirasol or cayenne pepper, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and cumin. Add the tuna and toss to coat evenly. Let rest for at least 15 minutes.
Preparing the cooking sauce:
Place the mirasol peppers and 3 cups water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until soft, 15 or 20 minutes. Drain, reserving ½ cup of the cooking liquid. Place the peppers in a blender or food processor with the reserved cooking liquid and process to a smooth purée.
Heat the oil in a 12-inch sauté pan or skillet. Add the garlic and sauté until golden, about 40 seconds. Add the red onion, mirasol pepper purée, cumin, and salt. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring, until the onion is translucent. Stir in the cilantro and vinegar and cook 2 more minutes.
Finishing the dish:
Add the tuna to the cooking sauce and cook briefly, depending how rare you like it. Stir in one 15-ounce can of white beans, drained.
Source: “Gran Cocina Latina,” by Miricel E. Presilla, 2012, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., $49.95
(Editor’s Note: Lorraine took a break from her regular column Food Finds—about local restaurants and eateries—and filed this story while vacationing in Costa Rica. Her regular column returns next month.)
Restaurant recommendations for “Food Finds” are welcome. Send your tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.