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Slow Food Simmers in Costa Rica

2/1/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: medicinal herbs, lemongrass, spinach, coffee, chocolate, Costa Rica, yucca, bananas, ginger root, coconut, rice, beans, avocado, peppers, tortillas

We ate so well during our two weeks in Costa Rica, and still so much abundance went untasted.

Markus Wehrmeister first told us about the culinary and medicinal herbs that flourish in the rainforest while we toured Finca Exotica, his farm and resort on the Osa Peninsula. During our walk, Markus introduced us to cassava leaves (high in protein) and ate a stinky noni fruit, which I boldly remarked probably wouldn’t taste so bad if you were expecting to taste cheese. (I didn’t try one, though.) We got used to drinking fresh lemongrass tea and just-squeezed starfruit juice, eating spinach plucked from the kitchen garden and fish caught within minutes of the place. This jungle farm-to-table is good stuff—and you don’t even have to cheat for sugar, coffee or chocolate, which grow right here in the rainforest.

exotica dinner  

At Finca Exotica, all the elements for insanely fresh gourmet cuisine grow on site. Photo by Barbara Bourne 

exotica cartouk cooking 

Markus prepares jungle spinach with onions to go with fresh mahi-mahi marinated with cucuma, a prolific local herb. Photo by Barbara Bourne 

At Finca Bella Vista on Costa Rica’s southern coast, we broke bread with Erica and Matt Hogan, who are working their way to culinary self-sufficiency deep in the jungle. Erica and Matt started growing their own produce because they’re many miles down a bumpy road from the nearest grocery—which ain’t no Whole Foods. With help from Lauren Lubin, a resident whose Treetops Catering service delivers vegan and macrobiotic meals to guests and residents of this treehouse community, Erica and Matt are learning what to do with yucca (smash it and serve it like mashed potatoes) and green bananas (marinate and turn them into ceviche). Lauren, in turn, makes use of the herbs and vegetables grown in the community’s greenhouse to make fresh curries and spring rolls for her catering clients.

 exotica sugar cane 

Once you've tasted sugar fresh from the cane, you'll never want that white refined stuff again. Photo by Barbara Bourne 

Once we entered the San Carlos agricultural region, a breadbasket where the rainforest meets the dry forest, we found Slow Food waiting to happen. At biodynamic farm and resort Finca Luna Nueva, we harvested fresh ginger root, chewed on a weed that tastes just like wasabi and slurped the good milk from a just-picked coconut. We drank fresh, raw milk and ate homemade cheese from the happy cows at organic working ranch and resort Rancho Margot. We saw food raised right, pigs that eat better than most Americans.

nueva cooking leaf 

nueva spring roll 

At Finca Luna Nueva, banana leaves are roasted to make vegetarian spring rolls. Photos by Barbara Bourne 

nueva sarsparilla 

Harold, the farm manager at Finca Luna Nueva, makes a healthy soda alternative using fresh sarsparilla, ginger root, turmeric, honey and molasses. Photo by Barbara Bourne 

margot fernando 

At Rancho Margot, chef Fernando readies pizzas for the wood-fired brick oven. Photo by Barbara Bourne 

Interestingly, the foodies down in Costa Rica have just begun to play with their bounty. Often derided in guide books and travel articles, the native cuisine is basic—and some would say boring. Rice, beans and simply prepared meat are enough for the locals. That leaves a wealth of raw material—from the ubiquitous, nutrition-packed pejibaye, a nutrition-packed fruit, to the hearts of palm that grow wild everywhere—for curious visitors to play with. Pura Vida, baby!

 Lauren Lubin’s Gallo Pinto 

The co-owner of Treetops Catering, which delivers vegan and macrobiotic meals to guests and residents of treehouse community Finca Bella Vista, shares this gourmet interpretation of a traditional Costa Rican breakfast dish in her blog.

 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, diced

1 red pepper, diced

2 cups rice, cooked

¾ cup black beans, cooked

2 tablespoons Lizano salsa (or Worcestershire sauce)

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon Siracha sauce

2 garlic cloved, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup cilantro, chopped

1 avocado, sliced

4 tortillas

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium flame, add onion and red pepper, and cook for 5-8 minutes until tender. Add rice, bgeans, Lizano sauce, mustard and Sriracha sauce. Cook for another 3-5 minutes.

Cut heat, then add garlic, salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro. Serve a nice heaping pile of Gallo Pinto alongside some avocado slices and warm tortillas. 

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