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Notes from Costa Rica

What we’re exploring: Costa Rica

What we found:

  • Abundant wildlife and gorgeous scenery
  • Great recipe ideas

A couple weeks back, my sister, Tree, and I took my mother to Costa Rica for Mother’s Day. A lot of families take vacations in order to GET AWAY from each other, but my sister, my Mom and I get along really well and we travel well together. Tree and I have been all over Europe together, and Mom and I traveled to Amsterdam a couple years back. (We must get along well – I mean, who the hell goes to Amsterdam with their MOM?). As a trio, we’ve ventured to Ireland and several U.S. destinations.

Few moments in my life have been as special as Mother’s Day of this year, when we took Mom to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, where we enjoyed the splendor of the Costa Rican rainforest from up in the treetops. Not a bad way to celebrate your 68-year-old Mom!

Yes, Mother is quite spry, but after the hanging bridges, the rough ride to Monteverde on the largely-unpaved roads nearly turned  into Complain-fest 2010 (could this have been payback for all my childhood road-trip whinings of “Are we there yet?”)

No need to worry, awaiting us in Costa Rica’s Northern Zone was not only the misty, majestic Cloud Forest reserve, but some really good chow, too.

The Monteverde area is known for producing great coffee, and a great cup is easy to find, much to Mom’s delight – she’s a true coffee lover. We even took a tour of the relatively new family-run San Luis Coffee Growers. A few years back on another trip, Tree and I explored a much larger local outfit, the Don Juan coffee plantation. On that previous trip, Tree and I also fell in love with the restaurant Chimera (Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde), a Latin-fusion tapas restaurant. Their small dishes are lovely and highlight fresh, local flavors while bringing in some excitement with a variety of sauces, garnishes, and special touches. This time, we made it a point to also try the other restaurant in town owned by the same folks, called Sofia (just off Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde).

Sofia is a bit fancier, with a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style dining room and a fusion menu that calls upon Latin, Asian and Caribbean influences. I had a wonderful dish of pork loin with figs, which I have since been working to recreate. I’m not convinced that it’s exactly how I’d like it, but here’s my version:

Pork Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Fig Glaze

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 pork loin chops

1 Tablespoon butter

10 dried figs, stemmed and cut in half

1 T minced shallot

1 clove garlic, minced

1/3 C balsamic vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider, or apple juice

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

1. Soak the figs in very hot water. Season the pork chops liberally with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat and add pork chops. Sauté the chops until they are almost cooked through, about 4 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Set aside.

2. Add the shallot and garlic to pan and sauté for a minute (adding a tad more butter or olive oil if necessary). Add the remaining ingredients, stirring to combine and to release any browned bits from the pan. Boil until the liquid begins to thicken and reduce slightly. Drain the figs, discarding the soaking liquid, and add them to the pan, along with the pork chops. Simmer until the pork is cooked through, coating the pork with the glaze.

At Sofia, the pork was served with fufu, a side dish of mashed plantains with bacon and onion. In my research, I learned that fufu (with alternate spellings including foufou and foofoo) originated in Africa as a word to describe a variety of dishes that are starchy and mashed, sometimes made from yams, cassava, or even rice or flour. Fufu traveled to the Caribbean along with West African immigrants, and transformed along the way to use available vegetables and flavorings. Hence the Caribbean-style fufu I enjoyed in Costa Rica. Here’s a version I found on the web and played with a little:

Fufu

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients:

4 sweet plantains (peeled and cut into uniform pieces)

1/4 pound of bacon (cut into small pieces)

1 medium onion (diced)

4 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

1. In a saucepan, cover plantains with cold, salted water and bring to a boil.

2. Cook until plantains are soft (about 10 minutes). Meanwhile, sauté the bacon until slightly cooked and some fat is rendered. Add the onion and continue to sauté until the bacon is cooked and the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes more.

3. Drain the plantains (reserving some of the water) and mash.

4. Fold the bacon, onion, and about 2 Tablespoons bacon fat into the plantains. Discard any additional grease. If the mixture is dry, add some of the reserved cooking water. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm.

The pork and fufu go together marvelously. If you’d like a little heat to offset the sweetness of the dish, you can prepare a simple jalapeno salsa to garnish the fufu. Just mix 1/2 of a jalapeño pepper with 2 chopped scallions and a little fresh cilantro. Mix in the juice of 1/2 a lime and a pinch of salt and allow it to sit for 15 minutes or so for the flavors to blend. The heat and acid will balance nicely with the sweetness of the plantains and the sweet-and-sour glaze.

Our meal at Sofia was likely the gastronomical high point of the Costa Rican journey. However, great food was easily found elsewhere, too. Gorgeous, fresh fruit was in abundance everywhere we went – Tree made a sport of taste-testing mango smoothies in each of the towns and villages we visited. Furthermore, I love the Costa Rican take on breakfast, where black beans and rice, and sauteed sweet plantains are staples on the morning table. Though Costa Rica is not exactly a culinary travel destination, one could certainly do a lot worse. Go for the wildlife and scenery, but be sure to enjoy a few good bites along the way!

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