Musings about Food & the Politics of Food.

TartQueen's Kitchen


Makdous لمكدوس‎‎ا – Stuffed & Preserved Eggplant 1

Posted on September 15, 2017 by Sahar

As I have stated before in this blog, I’m not a fan of eggplant.  I don’t care for the taste, texture, and several bad experiences as a child have all left me wary of this particular nightshade.  However, over the years I have come to appreciate eggplant in two – YES! – two dishes; Baba Ghannouj and Makdous.

Makdous is ubiquitous all over the Middle East. It can be eaten for breakfast (the most common way) or as a mezze.

I’ve been searching for an actual origin story for this dish, but haven’t been able to find one.  No doubt it came, like most preserved foods, out of sheer necessity to get people through until the next harvest.

There is an odd alchemy that happens with Makdous during the preservation process. While it is generally known that you don’t store raw garlic in olive oil, especially at room temperature, it seems to work just fine in this recipe.  It could be the mixture of the nuts, salt, and pepper along with the alkaline nature of the eggplant.  You can store Makdous in the refrigerator or at room temperature in the pantry (as I’ve always seen my dad do).

There are several ways Makdous can be prepared.  One constant is the eggplant should be blanched and drained before stuffing. Some drain the eggplant by stuffing it first, placing it in the jar, then turning the jar over to let the liquid drain out; others will cut a slit in the eggplant, lay it slit side down, then let it drain overnight.  I use the latter method. (There is only one time I’ve seen a recipe that simply salted the eggplant and let it drain without cooking.)  Always use small or baby eggplant.  The baby eggplant will be more tender, sweeter, and less apt to be bitter.  You’ll be able to find baby eggplant in abundance in any grocery that caters to the Middle Eastern community or, if you’re lucky, at the local farmers market or farm stand during the growing season. (In central Texas, we have eggplant from roughly June through the first frost in late October/early November.)  There are also, of course, ingredient variations.  Some will use pepper paste (like harissa), a combination of sweet & hot peppers, cayenne, parsley, lemon, chili powder, Feta cheese (although they don’t last as long), cilantro (coriander), pecans, and pomegranate seeds.  The constants are always eggplant, walnuts, and salt.

This recipe was written in consultation with and advice from my dad.  He is a Makdous connoisseur and, along with my mom, has made Makdous in the past. I just hope he likes this batch once I get a jar to him.

 

The ingredients.

Japanese Eggplant.

“Dancer” eggplant. This is what I used in the recipe. I got the smallest ones I could find.

2 lbs. baby eggplant or small Japanese eggplant

3 1/2 c. walnuts, chopped

15 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste

1 tsp. Kosher or sea salt, or to taste

Olive Oil as needed

2 – 3 ea. quart-sized Mason ® jars with lids & rims, cleaned

 

Trim the tops of the eggplant, leaving the caps on.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add the eggplants to the boiling water, turn off the heat, and let the eggplant sit in the water for 10 minutes. (I like to put a small plate on top of the eggplant to keep it submerged.)

Weighing down the eggplant.

After 10 minutes, drain the eggplant.  Once it is cool enough to handle, cut a slit in one side (not all the way through and try to leave about 1″ at each end uncut).  Lay the eggplant on a rack, cut side down, and let drain overnight.

The cut eggplant. Sadly, no. It doesn’t keep its color.

Draining the eggplant. Some people will weigh the eggplant down at this point to drain out as much liquid as possible. I generally don’t; it’s up to you.

The next day, mix together the walnuts, garlic, pepper flakes, and salt.  Taste for seasoning and adjust as you like.

The stuffing. It’s almost like a nut pesto.

Fill each eggplant with some of the stuffing.  You want to get as much as you can in the eggplant without splitting them.  (You may have some stuffing left over; that’s OK.  It actually goes great on pasta or spread on a good crusty piece of bread.)

The (over) stuffed eggplant.

Place as many of the stuffed eggplant as you can in a Mason Jar with minimal crushing.  Slowly add the olive oil to cover the eggplant.  Set the jars on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a thick layer of paper towels or a dish towel you don’t really care about.  Place the lid (only!) on the top of the jar.  Place the baking sheet with the jars in a cool, dark place and let sit for 1 week.

The Makdous ready for preserving. Note how it’s just the lid on the jar, not the rim. You want to allow the moisture to escape.

There will be some overflow from the jars.  This is due to the moisture (mainly water) escaping and overflowing the jar.  Simply check to be sure the oil is covering everything in the jar.

After 3 days. Notice how yellow the towels are. That’s the excess moisture and some olive oil escaping the jar. You may also see some bubbles. This is from the water and air escaping and it’s normal.

After 1 week, carefully clean off the rim of the jar, tighten the lid with the rim, and wash off any oil residue off the jar.

I believe this is after 10 days. (We went on vacation.) I cleaned off the rim of the jar, put on the lid rims, then washed the residue off the jars.

The Makdous is now ready to eat.  You can store it in the refrigerator (just let it come to room temperature before eating) or in a cool, dark pantry for up to one year as long as the contents are always covered in olive oil and the lid & rim are sealed tightly.

I personally like Makdous on a good cracker.

 

Sahtein! صحتين!

 

Pickled Okra 0

Posted on June 19, 2017 by Sahar

 

Pickled Okra. Big and little.

Here in Central Texas, okra season is in full swing. Because the growing season here is so long, okra is essentially available from June through roughly October or until the first frost.

Pickled okra is a great Texas, and throughout the southern US, food tradition.  Every southern grandma seems to have a recipe.

People either love or hate okra. The main complaint about okra is the “slime” factor.  The slime is called “mucilage” (sounds gross, I know).  It is the result of protein and carbohydrates in the okra pods and leaves.  If you’ve ever had a thick gumbo, thank the mucilage.  When the pods are cut and cooked with liquid, the okra tends to become slimy.  The way to avoid this is to cook the okra whole; the best way to do this is over direct heat and pan roast (this is delicious, by the way).

There is a subtle yet distinct difference between pickling and fermentation.  Pickling is the process of preserving food in a highly acidic medium (usually vinegar).  Fermentation generally starts with salt as a starter and allows what is being fermented to create its own acidic liquid (lactic acid).  Fermentation is generally considered the healthier of the two processes because the lactic acid helps with the digestive process.

In short, pickling is controlled preservation while fermentation is controlled rot (but in a good way).

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A few notes on the recipe:

  1.  The type of okra I use in the recipe is called Emerald King.  It is more tender and less stringy than other types of okra.  While you can use any type of okra you prefer or have access to, I’ve used this because it’s what Carol Ann grows at Boggy Creek Farm.
  2. The reason pickling salt is used is to help draw moisture from the item being pickled.  It is a very fine grain pure salt that contains no iodine or anti-caking additives.  If needed, you can use kosher salt (but be sure it is pure). Because table salt contains additives, you shouldn’t use it in pickling or fermenting.
  3. Another way to help keep your pickles from becoming mushy over time (and they will as the initial heating as well as the acidic environment chemically cooking your pickles), you can use either fig or grape leaves.  These leaves contain natural alum that help to draw moisture from the pickles. You can also use up to 1/4 teaspoon of alum per quart of liquid if fresh leaves are not available.
  4. You can also use half & half white/apple cider vinegar or all white vinegar if you prefer.  Just be sure you use 5% acidity vinegar.  There is 9% white vinegar available (mainly in Texas and parts of the South), but it is used mainly for cleaning, not food.  Be sure to look at the label carefully.
  5. While I have included a pickling spice recipe, you can adjust this one to your taste or use whatever pickling spice blend you prefer.

 

The Ingredients

 

6 1-pint regular-mouth jars with lids and rims, washed

Pickling Spice:

1 tbsp. Red Pepper Flakes

1 tbsp. Mustard Seed

1 tbsp. Coriander Seed

1 tbsp. Black Peppercorns

2 tsp. Allspice

1 tsp. Fennel Seed

Clockwise from top left: red pepper flakes, lemon slices, black pepper corns, coriander seed, fennel seed, bay leaves, whole allspice, brown mustard seeds, garlic cloves

 

3 lbs. Okra, washed and caps trimmed

Emerald King Okra with tops trimmed

3 c. Apple Cider Vinegar

3 c. Water

3 tbsp. Pickling Salt

8-12 peeled whole garlic cloves, optional

Lemon Slices, optional

Fresh Grape or Fig Leaves

Fresh grape leaves

 

In a small bowl, mix the pickling spices together.  Set aside.

Place a jar rack inside a large canning pot and fill it with water.  Set the jars in the rack and make sure the water is at least 1″ above the tops of the jars. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil.  Turn down the heat to medium-low and let the water continue to simmer. Place the lids in a small saucepan of simmering water and let sit. (Don’t bring the water with the lids to a boil; it will melt the seal.)

Meanwhile, make the brine.  Combine the vinegar, water, and pickling salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to low and allow the brine to stay hot while you fill the jars.

Carefully remove the jars from the canning pot, making sure to drain all the water out of them. (I like to put the jars on a baking sheet lined with a towel for easier transport across the kitchen.)

In a bottom of each jar, place 1-2 grape or fig leaves (depending on size), a lemon slice (if using), and 1 tablespoon of the pickling spice. Carefully pack the okra in the jars, alternating tips up or down so that the okra interlocks and you’re able to pack as much in as possible. If you’re using garlic cloves, be sure to pack those in as you can in amongst the okra.

Leaves, spice blend, and lemon in the jar.

A few top down.

A few top up. You want to get as many in the jar as you can. It will save on brine and help limit air bubbles.  Air, in this case, is the enemy. Plus, more goodness in the jar. I swear there are garlic cloves in there somewhere.

Slowly and carefully pour in the hot brine in each jar, leaving 1/2-inch head space.  Use a wooden or plastic chopstick or the end of your headspace tool to remove any air bubbles.  Once you have done that, measure the headspace again and add more brine if necessary.

Wipe the rims of the jars, place the lids on top, and screw on the rings so they’re hand-tight.  Carefully place the jars back into the canning pot, making sure the water is at least 1″ above the tops of the jars, cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil.  Process the jars for 10 minutes starting when the water comes to a boil.

After you have processed the jars, carefully remove them from the water and place on racks to cool.  If the jars seal (you will hear a “pop” as the lids seal), tighten the rings.  If the jar doesn’t seal, you can simply put the jar in the fridge and eat it within 2-3 weeks.

Either way, let the pickles sit for at least a week before eating.

Classic Southern Delicacy.

 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nashville Hot Chicken 0

Posted on July 09, 2016 by Sahar

In my travels, I’ve eaten a lot of dishes – some great, some good, and some that should be buried in the backyard.

In my travels to Nashville, I’ve come across something that could only be described as one of the great ones: Nashville Hot Chicken.  It’s a wonderful amalgamation of fried chicken and spices that, up until 3 years ago, I’d never seen anywhere else.  Now, Hot Chicken is spreading all over the country with even KFC getting into the act (ugh.).

Here’s a brief history of the originators of Nashville Hot Chicken from wikipedia:

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that spicy fried chicken has been served in Nashville for generations. The current dish may have been introduced as early as the 1930s, however, the current style of spice paste may only date back to the mid-1970s. It is generally accepted that the originator of hot chicken is the family of Andre Prince Jeffries, owner of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. She has operated the restaurant since 1980; before that time, it was owned by her great-uncle, Thornton Prince III. Although impossible to verify, Jeffries says the development of hot chicken was an accident. Her great-uncle Thornton was purportedly a womanizer, and after a particularly late night out his girlfriend at the time cooked him a fried chicken breakfast with extra pepper as revenge. Instead, Thornton decided he liked it so much that, by the mid-1930s, he and his brothers had created their own recipe and opened the BBQ Chicken Shack café.”

Now, I have not had the opportunity to eat at Princes on my visits to Nashville; but, just by luck, Husband Steve & I have stayed at a hotel across the street from another very popular Hot Chicken stand, Hattie B’s.

Hattie B's

Hattie B’s

A typical Hattie B's plate

A typical Hattie B’s plate

If you want a seat, especially on Sunday, get in line early before they open.  It’s almost like the Franklin Barbecue of Nashville.

Now, of course, when Steve & I were back home, I wanted to be able to make this. I was spurred on by Steve actually wanting me to figure out how to make this so we didn’t have to wait for another trip to Nashville. (Although there are many great reasons to go there.) As an added incentive, Younger Nephew – Food Enthusiast – has pretty much requested I make this every time he visits.

I started by looking up what might be the authentic Hattie B’s recipe.  I made it and liked it quite a bit.  However, it seemed something was lacking; I wasn’t sure if this was simply an interpretation of the original, something was left out (which happens more often than most realize), or I missed something in the preparation.

I decided to take the recipe I found and tailor it more to my tastes – slightly more smokey and sweet-heat.  I still keep most definitely to the spirit of the original, but here is my version of Nashville Hot Chicken (as inspired by Hattie B’s).

 

The Ingredients

The Ingredients

The Spices

The Spices. Clockwise from top left: black pepper, salt, hot sauce, Spanish paprika, dark brown sugar, ground garlic, ground onion, paprika, cayenne

 

Marinating:

1 whole chicken, about 3 1/2 to 4 lbs. -or- the same weight of chicken in parts (i.e. wings, drumsticks)

1 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. hot sauce (i.e. Tabasco, Original Louisiana)

 

Dip & Dredge:

1 c. whole milk

2 eggs, beaten

2 c. all-purpose flour

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. black pepper

 

Spice Coating:

1/2 c. hot cooking oil

1 tbsp. cayenne (more or less to taste)

2 tbsp. dark brown sugar

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. paprika

1/2 tsp. Spanish (smoked) paprika

1/2 tsp. ground garlic

1/2 tsp. ground onion

 

Unflavored oil and/or lard for frying (approximately 4 cups total)

 

 

If you are using a whole chicken, cut it either into quarters or into 8 pieces. (I usually have the back as a separate piece and generally throw it into the freezer bag with  other chicken pieces for stock. However, if you want to fry it up, too, go for it.)

The chicken cut into quarters, plus the back, using my new favorite tool, chicken shears.

The chicken cut into quarters, plus the back, using my new favorite tool, chicken shears.

If you’re using just one type of part, like the wing, you can, of course, skip this step.

 

In a large bowl, toss the chicken with the 1 teaspoon of salt and the hot sauce making sure it is evenly coated.  Either keep the chicken in the bowl covered with plastic wrap or move it to a large zip bag and place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or up to 24.

The chicken ready to be marinated.

The chicken ready to be marinated.

 

After the chicken has marinated, take it out of the fridge and set aside.  Have a plate ready for the breaded chicken and a baking sheet lined with paper towels.

Have 2 large bowls. In one, beat together the milk and eggs. In the other, mix together the flour, 2 teaspoons salt & 1 teaspoon pepper.

The dip and the dredge

The dip and the dredge

 

First, lightly dredge the chicken in the flour, making sure it is fully coated, making sure to shake off any excess flour.

First dredge. It's a messy business.

First dredge. It’s a messy business.

Second, dip the chicken into the dip; again, making sure the chicken is completely coated and letting any excess dip drip off.

The dip

The dip

Third, dredge the chicken again in the flour, once again making sure it is fully coated and making sure any wet spots are re-coated with the flour.

The dredged, dipped, and dredged chicken ready for the fryer.

The dredged, dipped, and dredged chicken ready for the fryer.

Set the chicken aside and heat the oil and/or lard to 350F. I like to use a half & half blend of oil and lard.  I find lard alone to be too strong a flavor even though I like the way it cooks the chicken; so, I cut it with the oil and it is fine for me.  You do what you prefer.

*I know the more traditional amongst you will be appalled at the fact I use an electric skillet for my frying rather than cast-iron.  The fact of the matter is, I’m usually doing other things as well and I simply don’t have the time, patience, or attention span to constantly monitor the heat of the oil.  Hence, the electric skillet.

Once the oil is at the correct temperature, place the chicken in the hot oil and let it fry for 5 – 7 minutes before turning over.

Frying the chicken. As a general rule, white meat takes less time to cook than dark. A good rule of thumb is 15 - 18 minutes for white meat, 20 - 22 for dark meat.

Frying the chicken. As a general rule, white meat takes less time to cook than dark. A good rule of thumb is 15 – 18 minutes for white meat, 20 – 22 for dark meat.

I will admit here I am the queen of turning over my chicken frequently in the skillet as it fries.  It’s easier for me to control how browned it becomes and I can more easily gauge the doneness of the chicken.

A note on frying: There are three basic mistakes everyone has made when frying: oil too cold, oil too hot, pan overcrowding. 

Problem One: Oil too cold – If your oil is too cold when you put in your food, it will absorb oil. A lot of oil.  The food must sizzle when you put it in; this is a result of the moisture pushing back against the heat of the oil. This is what helps to keep your food from becoming greasy. While frying foods will most definitely absorb some oil, they don’t need to be greasy, sodden messes.

Problem Two: Oil too hot – If your oil is too hot, it pretty much should go without saying that the exterior will be done, and even burn, long before the inside is done.

Problem Three: Pan overcrowding – If you overcrowd your skillet, the oil temperature will drop too low, the food will take too long to cook, become greasy, and if you have any coating it will fall off. Make sure that you have plenty of real estate for your food and that it doesn’t touch anything else in the skillet. Another added bonus, it’s easier to turn the food when the skillet isn’t crowded. This can be said for frying and pan searing. You want your food to fry, not steam or become greasy.

 

After several turns

After several turns.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, thoroughly mix together the cayenne, brown sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, the paprikas, the ground garlic, and the ground onion.

The spice mix

The spice mix

Once the chicken is done, take it out of the oil and set aside to drain. You can make sure the chicken is done one of 2 ways: a) Make a small slit on the underside and if the juices are clear, the chicken is done; b) you can also carefully use an instant read thermometer by sticking it into the thickest part of the meat making sure not to hit any bone (avian bones are hollow and absorb heat faster, so if you hit one, you will get a false reading). It must be at least 150F for the chicken to be done. (I’ve also gone so far as to make a slit in the meat all the way down to the bone to make sure there was no pink.)

Take 1/2 cup of the hot oil and carefully ladle it into the spice mixture and whisk together. (The hot oil cooks the spices and makes them taste less raw.)

The oil and spices

The oil and spices

You can put this blend on the chicken one of two ways: either toss the chicken in the spice coating (which works well if you’re using a part like wings), or brush it on (which works best for larger pieces).

Brushing the coating on the chicken. ake sure to get both the oil and the spices as you dip the brush in (The spices don't really dissolve and will settle at the bottom of the bowl, so frequent stirring is necessary).

Brushing the coating on the chicken. Make sure to get both the oil and the spices as you dip the brush in. (The spices don’t really dissolve and will settle at the bottom of the bowl, so frequent stirring is necessary.)

Traditional accompaniments with the Nashville Hot Chicken are white bread (think Mrs. Baird’s or Buttercrust) and pickles; additional accompaniments can be greens, macaroni & cheese, sweet potatoes (mashed or fried), cole slaw, beans, potato salad, and fried okra.

The chicken served with potato salad and fried okra. I discovered too late I did't have pickles.

The chicken served with white bread, potato salad and fried okra. I discovered too late I didn’t have pickles. I’ve never seen chicken served on white bread anywhere else except in the deep South. It’s another way to sop up the juices. Husband thinks it’s the best part.

 

Happy Eating!

 

Thoughts on Hiatus and Returning to Writing 0

Posted on June 02, 2016 by Sahar

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Just in case you hadn’t noticed, I decided to take a hiatus from writing my blog.  The reasons, while not terrible, were many.  Travelling, house remodeling, working, cat care, recipe writing & testing, teaching, and the holidays all played a part. The most looming one for me was, of course, the most distressing; I felt stuck and uninspired. I’m not a natural writer. And as I began to lose confidence in my writing, the process became slower and more fraught every time I sat at the keyboard.  It’s all right to write about recipes and travel, but when one feels frustrated with the process, it’s time to step back for a while.

And that’s what I did.

I’m feeling better about things now and am hoping to look at this blog with a fresh perspective.  I’ll still bring you recipes and travel, but I also want to talk about ingredients, maybe discuss a cookbook I like (or don’t), a photographic study, or do the occasional stream-of-conscienceness rant.  I like to think if I can keep this fresh and exciting for me, it will be for all of you, too.

 

 

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I’m still teaching at North Lamar Central Market Cooking School (the original CM!) as I have been for the last 18 years.  Funny how I still learn something about teaching every time I go in. (Shameless plug time – go to my “Classes” page and my upcoming classes are listed. If you’re in Austin, in the surrounding area, or even visiting, come by and see me.)

Another big change for me is my (almost) new part-time gig at Boggy Creek Farm. I started there as a farmhand volunteer a year ago and came on as a part-time cashier last October. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.  That farm is simply a wonderful place to be to clear one’s head and to learn about where, how, and, yes, why locally grown foods are so important; not only for one’s health, but for the health of the ecosystem as well.  The farmstand is open Wednesday through Saturday, 8am – 1pm.

Added bonus – not only are Carol Ann & Larry two of the best people I know, asking them a question about the farm, farming, fermentation, seasonality, woodworking, chickens, and even history, is like getting a Master Class every time.  Carol Ann has also made me the official farmstand photographer. So, I get to do one of the things I love the most – take copious amounts of photographs. Honestly, around the farm, it’s easy to get lovely pictures.

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So, I hope to bring you some new recipes along with other thoughts and wanderings starting again next week. Until then, enjoy a few more randomly selected photographs.

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I’ll see y’all soon.

 

 

 

 

Potato & Leek Soup 1

Posted on October 29, 2015 by Sahar

Now that the weather here in central Texas is (Finally! Hopefully!) beginning to feel like actual Fall, my own thoughts are turning to soup.

I know you can eat this extremely versatile dish all year, but I prefer the cooler months.  It’s honestly difficult for me to enjoy a lovely bowl of soup when it’s 100F outside.

This is one of my favorites.  It’s quick, simple, easily doubles, freezes well, and is open to variation and adaptation.  You can make it vegan, vegetarian, with chicken broth, pureed, or chunky.  It’s completely up to you.

In my version, I’ve added kale to the soup.  Dark leafy greens are excellent in Potato & Leek Soup.  The add a wonderful deep flavor and texture as well as help to stretch the soup a little further (excellent if one is on a budget).  Plus, it’s a great way to use leftover greens.

I started adding kale for my Aunt Cathy.  She would come to visit me in Austin during the wildflower season in the Spring and I would always fix a meal or two for us.  I made this soup during one of her visits and decided to toss some leftover kale in.  Cathy was a kale fiend – she loved it.  I can’t remember how many bowls she ate, but she certainly enjoyed it.  Sadly, she passed away several years ago.  So, whenever I make this soup, I think of her.

 

A few notes:

1.  I like to make this soup with waxy as opposed to starchy potatoes.  It’s a simple preference.  However, if you prefer to make the soup with starchy potatoes (i.e Russet, Yukon Gold), go ahead.  I’ve never made this with sweet potatoes, but I’ll bet it’s great.

2.  It’s up to you whether you want to peel the potatoes or not.

3.  You can puree the soup or not.  I generally don’t. I’ll just take my potato masher and mash a few down.  While I do enjoy a good pureed soup, I prefer some extra texture for this one.

4.  If don’t have or can’t find leeks, you can use one large onion.  Just be sure to slice it very thinly.

5.  This recipe results in a more stew-like thicker soup.  If you want a brothier soup, then add more liquid.  Just be sure to adjust the seasonings accordingly.

 

The Ingredients

The Ingredients. Not pictured: vegetable broth, cream.

 

2 tbsp. olive oil, butter, or a combination of both

2 leeks, cleaned and thinly (1/4″) sliced, white part only

Leeks. They basically look like overgrown scallions. Generally, only the white part is used in cooking. However, you can use the greens as well. I generally save them and use them in stock.

Leeks. They basically look like overgrown scallions. Generally, only the white part is used in cooking. However, you can use the greens as well. I generally save them and use them in stock.

The inside of the leek. AS you can see, it's got layers like any other onion. Unlike onions, these tend to get dirt in the layers; so, you want to be sure to wash the leek thoroughly after you cut it. This one was fairly clean, but you can still see some dirt in the lower right hand corner.

The inside of the leek. As you can see, it’s got layers like any other onion. Unlike onions, leeks tend to get dirt in the layers; so, you want to be sure to wash them thoroughly after you cut them. This one was fairly clean, but you can still see some dirt in the lower right hand corner.

 

2 lbs. potatoes, cut into roughly 1/2″ – 3/4″ pieces

I chose to use fingerling potatoes this time around. You can use any type you prefer, however.

I chose to use fingerling potatoes this time around. You can use any type you prefer, however.

4 c. vegetable or chicken broth

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. dried thyme, or to taste

Salt & pepper to taste

From top left:

From top left: black pepper, salt, olive oil, dried thyme, garlic

1 bunch cooked and chopped kale, optional

Some lovely kale. Just trim off the leaves and use the stalks for compost or stock.

Some lovely kale. Just trim off the leaves and use the stalks for compost or stock.

1/2 c. whole milk, half-and-half, cream, optional; or, plain soy or nut milk, optional

 

 

  1.  In a large pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil or butter.  When the oil is heated, add the leeks and garlic and sauté until the leeks have softened, about 5 minutes.  Be sure to stir frequently.
Sauteing the leeks & garlic. Stir frequently. You want the vegetables soft, but not browned.

Sauteing the leeks & garlic. Stir frequently. You want the vegetables soft, but not browned.

 

2.  Add the potatoes.  Cook and stir until the potatoes are coated in the oil, leeks & garlic, and are a little warm, about 5 minutes. This will help the potatoes jump-start cooking as well as absorb some of the flavor of the leeks and garlic.

I didn't realize some of the potatoes were pink (or, I guess, red) until I cut into them.

I didn’t realize some of the potatoes were pink (or, I guess, red) until I cut into them. I wonder what would happen if I threw some purple ones in the soup.

 

3.  Add the salt, pepper, and thyme.  Cook and stir frequently for another 2 – 3 minutes.

Adding the salt, pepper, and thyme.

Adding the salt, pepper, and thyme.

 

4.  Add the broth.  Cover the pot and bring the broth to a boil.  Uncover, lower the heat to medium-low, and simmer the soup until the potatoes are fork-tender; about 30 minutes.

Adding the broth.

Adding the broth.

The potatoes will absorb the broth, so the volume will go down. This is normal. If you feel the soup is too dry, add more broth. However, this is a fairly thick soup and if you decide to add cream, then you may want to hold off on adding any broth.  Otherwise, add more broth and adjust the seasonings accordingly.

 

5.  Meanwhile, prepare the kale (is using).

To trim the kale, simply strip the leaves away from the stalks and wash. Don’t tear the pieces too small – you want them still fairly large as they go into the steamer so there will be less chance of the kale overcooking.

Take a medium saucepan and fill the bottom with about 1/2″ of water.  Place a steamer insert in the bottom, put in the kale, and cover the saucepan tightly.  Over high heat, steam the kale until it is just wilted and still has some bite to it (you don’t want the leaves too soft); about 3-4 minutes. (Carefully take a small piece out and taste it to be sure it’s ready.)

Steaming the kale.

Steaming the kale.

When the kale is ready, take it out of the steamer (the easiest and probably safest way to do this is to dump everything in to a colander; be sure to drain the kale thoroughly if you use this method), place it on a cutting board, and roughly chop it.

The cooked and chopped kale ready for the soup.

The cooked and chopped kale ready for the soup.

At this point you may ask, why don’t you just throw the raw leaves into the soup? Well, because I find the kale (or whatever green I’m using) tends to impart too strong a flavor into the soup that I don’t necessarily want.  Steaming the leaves ahead eliminates that factor.  I still get the flavor without it overpowering everything else.

 

6.  So the following two photos are an example of do as I say, not as I do.

When the potatoes are done take the pot off the heat.  If you like, either puree the soup (time to pull out that stick/immersion blender you got as a long-ago gift or impulse bought), use a potato masher (as I usually do), or do nothing (another great option).

Once you have achieved the consistency you prefer, add the kale and cream – or whatever it is you’re using – and taste for seasoning.

IMG_7436

Adding the kale and cream. I did this step a little backwards.

IMG_7437

So, you want to be sure and take care of the consistency before adding the cream and kale.

 

7.  Finally, time to eat.  I like to serve the soup with either some stoneground crackers or a good crusty bread.

IMG_7440

 

Enjoy!

 

 

Sayadieh الصيادية 1

Posted on September 25, 2015 by Sahar

Sayadieh (الصيادية), or Fish with Rice, was a staple meal for my sisters & me as we were growing up.  It’s a wonderful and simple amalgam of white fish, rice, onion, saffron, and lemon that we would eat until we were in food coma.  Two of my aunts ( عمـاتـي), Ahlam and Layla, considered to be the best cooks in the family, make sublime Sayadieh.  However, the best I have ever eaten is from my mom. I still don’t know what she does, but Mom’s Sayadieh is, and I’m not exaggerating, ethereal.

I’m not sure what the origin of this dish is, but it does figure prominently in Lebanese cuisine. Like any other regional dish, it has its variations – with caramelized onions, with a spice blend (or, specific individual spices), pine nuts, almonds, lemon… The list goes on.  The two must-have ingredients, however, are, of course, fish and rice.  The fish is always a firm-fleshed white fish (i.e. tilapia, haddock, cod) and the rice is always long-grain white.  Some recipes have the fish cooked separately from the rice while others have them cooked together.

This is very close to the recipe I grew up with.  The fish is marinated in lemon, lightly breaded, browned, and then cooked with the rice.  The dish is usually served with a tahineh-radish sauce (recipe follows).

 

The ingredients

The ingredients

Clockwise from top right:

Clockwise from top right: cumin, olive oil, salt, saffron, pepper, pine nuts

 

1 lb. white fish

1/4 c. lemon juice

1/2 tsp. salt

flour

2 c. chicken broth or water

1 c. clam juice, fish stock, or water

1/2 tsp. saffron (opt.)

1/4 c. olive oil

1 med. onion, diced

1 1/2 c. rice

1/2 tsp. cumin

Salt & pepper to taste

3/4 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds, lightly toasted

 

 

On a large plate or in a large bowl, carefully toss the fish with the lemon juice and a good pinch of salt.  Let the fish marinate for at least 1/2 hour, tossing if needed to make sure the pieces are evenly marinating.

My personal preference is for Tilapia. Not pretty, but it works.

Marinating the fish. My personal preference is for Tilapia. Not pretty, but it tastes good, it’s cheap, and it works.

Meanwhile, if you are using saffron, heat the stocks or water in a separate small saucepan with the saffron.  As soon as it comes to a boil, remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside. If you aren’t using saffron, you can skip this step. (But, it doesn’t hurt to have the liquid hot or at least warm before you add it for the final cooking.)

By heating up the saffron with the liquid, it helps to release the flavor and color of the saffron.

Heating up the saffron with the liquid helps to release its flavor and color.

Remove the fish from the lemon juice and lightly dredge it in the flour, carefully shaking off any excess.  Save the lemon juice.

Don't have too heavy a coating if flour on the fish.

Don’t have too heavy a coating if flour on the fish. I did shake these off a little more.

In a large saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat.  Once the oil is hot, place the fish in the oil and let brown. (You may need to do this in batches.)  You don’t need to let the fish cook all the way through, just enough for the flour to brown.  Take care not to try to turn the fish too soon or the coating will stick to the bottom; the fish will let you know when it’s ready to turn.

Browning the fish. The flour coating helps to hold the fish together during cooking.

Browning the fish. The flour coating helps to hold the fish together during cooking.

If there is any burned flour, take the saucepan off the heat and carefully wipe it out with a thick layer of paper towels.

When each batch of fish is done, take it out of the saucepan and set aside on a plate.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the saucepan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and add the onions.  Saute the onions for 5 – 7 minutes, or until they begin to soften and become translucent.

Sautéing the onions. Be sure to stir frequently.

Sautéing the onions. Be sure to stir frequently.

Add the rice and saute another 2 – 3 minutes.

Adding the rice. Cooking the rice like this will help it start cooking and soak up some of the favors of the onions and oil plus any other spices you add.

Adding the rice. Cooking the rice like this will help it start cooking and soak up some of the favors of the onions and oil plus any other spices you add.

Add the cumin, salt, and pepper.  Saute another 2 – 3 minutes. (You want to be careful how much salt you add, especially if you are using commercially made stock – those are loaded with salt.)

Again, be sure to stir frequently so the spices don't burn and that the rice and onions are evenly coated.

Again, be sure to stir frequently so the spices don’t burn and that the rice and onions are evenly coated.

Spread the onion-rice mixture into a fairly even layer on the bottom of the saucepan.  Lay the fish on top.

Ready for the liquid.

Ready for the liquid.

Carefully pour over the stock or water and reserved lemon juice (from the marinating).  Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and cover the saucepan.

Ready to cook.

Ready to cook.

Let the Sayadieh cook for 25 – 30 minutes, or until all the rice is cooked and the liquid has been absorbed.  (Occasionally, some of the rice at the very top will be undercooked.  If this happens, quickly pour another 1/4 cup broth or water over the top and quickly put the lid back on.  Let the rice cook for another 5 minutes and it should be cooked through.)

Sprinkle with the browned pine nuts or almonds and serve with the Tahineh-Radish Sauce.

 

Tahineh-Radish Sauce

 

The ingredients

The ingredients

 

For my money, this is one of the best brands of tahini you can buy. Tarazi is another good brand. Avoid Krinos, though. Yuk.

For the money, this is one of the best brands you can buy. Tarazi is an excellent brand, too. Avoid Krinos, though. Yuk.

 

1 c. tahineh (make sure it is thoroughly mixed; it will separate in the jar)

1 bunch radishes, washed and trimmed

1 c. chopped parsley

2 tbsp. lemon juice, or to taste

Water, as needed

Salt to taste

 

Place a small strainer over a medium bowl and use a small-holed (i.e. fine) grater to shred the radishes.

Grating the radishes. If you don't have a small grater, you can use your food processor with the fine grater attachment. Just be sure to drain the radishes afterwards.

Shredding the radishes. If you don’t have a small grater, you can use your food processor with the fine grater attachment. Just be sure to drain the radishes afterwards.

Once you have shredded all the radishes, press down on the shreds in the strainer to get out as much of the liquid as you can.  Remove the strainer from the bowl, pour off the liquid, and place the shredded radishes back in the bowl.

Amazing how much liquid comes out of a bunch of radishes.

Amazing how much water comes out of a bunch of radishes. That’s close to a cup of liquid.

The finished radishes. The whole shredding and draining process goes much faster than you would think.

The finished radishes. The whole shredding and draining process goes much faster than you would think.

Add the tahineh, lemon juice, and a good pinch of salt.  Mix.  The tahineh will start to thicken due to the lemon juice (it’s an acid-base reaction; chemistry!).

The tahineh with the radishes and parsley

The tahineh will start to thicken when you add the lemon juice. It’s a chemistry thing.

Add water until the sauce loosens up and becomes a smooth consistency.  Adjust the seasoning.

Adding the water. You may not think this will come together, but it does. Trust me.

Adding the water. You may not think this will come together, but it does. Trust me.

Once the  sauce has smoothed out and it is the consistency you like, stir in the parsley.

Told ya.

Told ya.

 

Serve with the Sayadieh.

I think I ate this in about 5 minutes.

I think I ate this in about 5 minutes.

 

Sahtein! صحتين!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vegetarian Kibbeh الكبة النباتية 0

Posted on August 31, 2015 by Sahar

Kibbeh is ubiquitous throughout the Middle East.  If you know anything at all about this dish, you know it is usually made with meat – beef, lamb, or, rarely, goat. It can be baked, fried, or eaten raw.  It is essentially a meat feast with a little wheat thrown in.

However, during Lent, many Christians throughout the world – including the Middle East – give up eating meat.  So, a vegetarian version was created (most likely in Lebanon) so they could still enjoy Kibbeh throughout Lent.

I came up with my version of this dish about 15 years ago when my husband was still a practicing vegetarian.  He’s since come back to the dark side, but I still like to make this version on occasion whenever we are having a vegan week here at Chez Ray.

 

A few notes:

  • I use pine nuts in this recipe, like I do in traditional Kibbeh.  However, if you can’t find, afford, or don’t want to use them, you can substitute slivered almonds.
  • If you want to add some additional flavoring or bulk, you can also layer in along with the filling, sliced boiled potatoes, sautéed squash, sliced tomatoes, or fried eggplant slices.
  • If you are making this for someone who is allergic to nuts, then you can use vegetables (see above) or seitan or tempeh.  However, if you decide to use either of these, be sure that either of them aren’t highly seasoned (like many commercial ones are – especially seitan).
  • I like to use fine bulghur wheat for this dish (#1 grind) because the crust holds together better with the finer grind.
  • If the crust mixture is too dry, add a little water; if it is too wet, add a little whole wheat flour.  However, make sure that you have everything well mixed before you begin adding any additional ingredients.  If you do have to add anything, adjust the seasonings accordingly.
  • A traditional accompaniment to Kibbeh is a cucumber-yogurt salad.  If you want to keep this completely vegan, then use a soy-based or coconut milk-based yogurt (however, check the label to make sure there’s no casein in the yogurt).

 

The Ingredients

The Ingredients

1 c. fine bulghur wheat

The wheat. Try to use a #1 grind. You can generally find it at any Middle Eastern market.

The wheat. Try to use a #1 grind. You can generally find it at any Middle Eastern market.

2 med. onions, diced

1 c. chopped parsley

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 c. walnuts, chopped

1/2 c. pine nuts or slivered almonds

Walnuts and Pine Nuts. You can substitute slivered almonds for the pine nuts. However, the walnuts are a must.

Walnuts and Pine Nuts. You can substitute slivered almonds for the pine nuts. However, the walnuts are a must. Most other nuts are going to be too sweet.

3 tbsp. olive oil, total

2 tbsp. pomegranate syrup (molasses)

1 tsp. cinnamon, or to taste

2 tsp. allspice, or to taste

Salt & pepper, to taste

Clockwise from top: pomegranate syrup (molasses), salt, pepper, cinnamon, olive oil, allspice, garlic

Clockwise from top: pomegranate syrup (molasses), salt, pepper, cinnamon, olive oil, allspice, garlic

Additional pine nuts or slivered almonds for garnish

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F.  Either spray or oil a medium baking dish (about 7″ x 11″) and set it aside.

 

2.  Rinse the wheat in a fine mesh strainer until the water runs clear.

Rinsing the wheat. You want to be sure to get off as much of the dust as possible. Processing methods are better than they once were, but some dust is still present.

Rinsing the wheat. You want to be sure to get off as much of the dust as possible. Processing methods are better than they once were, but some dust is still present.

Then, put the wheat into a bowl and cover with 1″ of water.  Set aside and allow the wheat to soak until it is “al dente”, about 20 – 30 minutes.

Soaking the wheat. Start testing it after about 20 minutes. It should still have some chewiness to it, but it shouldn't be crunchy.

Soaking the wheat. Start testing it after about 20 minutes. It should still have some chewiness to it, but it shouldn’t be crunchy.

Once the wheat is ready, drain it through the strainer again. (There’s no need to squeeze out all of the water; just be sure the wheat is well drained.)  Set aside.

The soaked, drained wheat. You just want to be sure that excess moisture is drained away; it doen't need to be squeezed dry. You'll need that moisture when you make the crust.

The soaked, drained wheat. You just want to be sure that excess moisture is drained away; it doesn’t need to be squeezed dry. You’ll need that moisture when you make the crust. (In other words, make sure it’s not dripping, but it’s not dry either; just nice and damp.)

 

3.  Make the filling:  Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Sauté the onions until they become soft, about 5 – 7 minutes.  Stir frequently.

Sauteing the onions.

Sautéing the onions.

Take half of the onions out of the skillet and place them into a bowl.  Set aside.

This half is waiting to be made into crust.

This half is waiting to be made into crust.

Place the skillet back on the heat and turn down the heat to medium and add the garlic to the onions.  Sauté for 2 – 3 minutes.  Stir frequently.

Adding the garlic.

Adding the garlic.

Add the pine nuts and the walnuts and cook for another 3 – 4 minutes, or until they have toasted (be sure not to burn them).  Again, stirring frequently.

Be sure not to let the nuts burn. You just want to get a nice deep golden brown on them.

Be sure not to let the nuts burn. You just want to get a nice golden brown on them.

Add in 1/2 teaspoon of the cinnamon, 1 teaspoon allspice, the pomegranate syrup, and salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently.  Take the skillet from the heat and taste for seasoning.  Allow the filling to cool slightly.

Mmm... This is what you're looking for - a deep maple color.

This is what you’re looking for – a deep maple color.

4.  Make the crust:  Take the other half of the onions and place them into a food processor along with the parsley, and the wheat.

The wheat, onion, and parsley in the processor.

The wheat, onion, and parsley in the processor.

Pulse a few times to begin mixing the ingredients, scrape down the bowl and add the other half each of the cinnamon and allspice, and a good pinch each of salt and pepper.

Adding the spices.

Adding the spices.

Process the mixture (scraping down the sides and pulsing as needed) until it is well mixed and has almost a paste-like consistency.  It should still have some texture, but the mixture should hold together.  Taste for seasoning.

The finished crust mixture. Try to resist the urge to adda any ingredients like water or flour. If the ingredients are well mixed, you shouldn't have to add anything.

The finished crust mixture. If the ingredients are well mixed, you shouldn’t have to add anything to adjust the texture.

5.  Assembly: Take half of the crust mixture and spread it evenly over the bottom of the dish.

The bottom layer. Be sure it's spread as evenly as possible.

The bottom layer. Be sure it’s spread as evenly as possible.

Spread the filling evenly over the bottom layer.

The filling. This, of course, is where you would add any additional filling if you wanted to.

The filling. This, of course, is where you would add any additional filling if you wanted to.

Carefully spread the top crust over the filling, smoothing it down as you go. (You may have to do this in sections.)

Eseentlially, this is ready to go into the oven. The top layer is a little thin because I used too much on the bottom layer. If that happens to you, just very carefully spread out the top as much as you can.

Essentially, this is ready to go into the oven. The top layer is a little thin because I used too much on the bottom layer. If that happens to you, just very carefully spread out the top as much as you can. It does smooth out; it may not be pretty, but it will work.

6.  Cut the assembled Kibbeh into serving-size squares; or, if you want to get fancy, into diamond-shaped pieces (it’s more traditional).  Press a few additional pine nuts on each piece for garnish. Spread or brush the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the top. (See above photo)

7.  Place the Kibbeh in the oven and cook until the top crust is slightly browned, about 30 minutes.  Serve hot or at room temperature.

Sahtein!

Sahtein! صحتين!

 

 

 

Chicken Fried Steak with Cream Gravy 0

Posted on August 18, 2015 by Sahar

Few foods scream “TEXAS” louder than Chicken Fried Steak. Along with Chili (The Official State Dish of Texas), few things cause more arguments amongst friends and rivals over whose is the best.

By the way, Chicken Fried Steak is the Official State Dish of Oklahoma. Go figure.

The origins of Chicken Fried Steak are a little murky, but conventional wisdom generally believes German immigrants to Texas in the early- to mid- 19th Century invented Chicken Fried Steak as a way to not only enjoy something similar to the Viennese/German dish Wienerschnitzel (traditionally a breaded and fried veal cutlet), but also to make tough cuts of beef palatable. (As we know, bovine back then weren’t the chemically enhanced behemoths we know and eat today; they were just as hardscrabble as the land and the people living on it.)

Another story is that it was accidentally invented by a short order cook in Lamesa, Texas, in 1911. When a waitress turned in an order for “chicken, fried steak”, the cook, Jimmy Don Perkins, misread it. He dipped the steak in the fried chicken batter, and a legend was born.

One of my favorite food writers, Robb Walsh, describes 3 different types of Chicken Fried Steak in his book, Texas Eats:  1) The Southern/East Texas version is dipped in egg and then flour, similar to the way Southern fried chicken is prepared; 2) Central Texas’s version is made with bread crumbs rather than flour, much like Weinerschnitzel; 3) A West Texas version that is made without dipping the meat in egg; this is related to what cowboys called pan-fried steak.

Robb Walsh also talks about the three most common ways people mess up a Chicken Fried Steak: 1) Over- or Under-seasoning  – “If you use a salty seasoned flour for the batter, the steaks end up too salty. Underseasoning is just as bad. Even the batter on a perfectly cooked steak can taste pasty if it isn’t seasoned”; 2) Too much tenderizing – The ratio of batter to meat is crucial, and it’s determined by the thickness of the meat. If you pound the meat too flat, the steak is all batter and the steak is overcooked by the time the crust is done [this also leads to the meat shrinking in the crust].” ; and, 3) Overheating the oil – To cook a Chicken Fried Steak so the crust is golden and the meat is cooked trough, it is critical to keep the temperature of the oil at around 350F.

 

My recipe is much like the Southern/East Texas Version. It’s what I grew up eating and the one that most people know.

 

A few notes:

1.  The best cut of meat for a chicken fried steak is going to be round steak. It’s a flavorful, lean, and relatively cheap cut of beef. You can buy it in the grocery already tenderized (where it may also be called “cube steak”). If you buy it un-tenderized, you’ll need to do it yourself with a tenderizing mallet. It looks like a square hammer with spikes on each end of the mallet’s head. You very likely have one in the recesses of your knife drawer.

2.  It’s best to have everything at room temperature before you start. This way, everything cooks at the same speed and there will be less chance of the meat being cooked improperly.

3.  You don’t want to have too much breading on your steak. If you have too much breading, it’ll take too long for it to cook all the way through and the steak will overcook and shrink.

4.  Correct fat temperature is important when frying. If the oil is too cool, the breading will soak up the oil and you end up with a greasy steak. If it’s too hot, the coating will burn before the meat is cooked. The fat but come to a full sizzle when you put the steaks in.  Proper frying temperatures help seal the coating and keep as much of the oil out as possible while still cooking everything evenly.

5.  This goes for overcrowding the skillet, too. Don’t do it. The oil temperature will drop too much and the steaks won’t cook properly.

6.  Purists will be appalled, but if you like, you can substitute chicken (Chicken Fried Chicken) or pork (Chicken Fried Pork) in place of the beef.

7.  Speaking of appalled purists, I genreally do my frying in an electric skillet. It’s much easier for me to control the temperature of the oil. Purists, however, will insist on using a cast iron skillet. It’s up to you.

8.  You have to have gravy. Period. There are no exceptions to this rule.

 

IMG_5857

The Ingredients

Peanut Oil, Vegetable Oil, Shortening, or Lard for frying

2 c. all-purpose flour

1 tbsp. salt

1 tbsp. black pepper

1 tbsp. garlic powder

2 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste

IMG_5859

Clockwise from top left: salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder

1 1/2 c. buttermilk

2 large eggs

6 ea. 6 – 8 oz. tenderized round steaks

 

1.  Mix together the flour and spices in a large, shallow bowl or on a large plate.  Set aside.

IMG_5861

The spices waiting to be mixed into the flour.

IMG_5862

Done. Be sure to mix as thoroughly as possible; especially if your spices (esp. the cayenne) are a little lumpy.

Beat together the buttermilk and eggs in a large bowl.  Set aside.

IMG_5863

Eggs and buttermilk batter. Be sure that you beat the eggs thoroughly so the whites are completely broken down and incorporated.

2.  Take each steak and dip it first in the flour and lightly coat.  Be sure to shake off any excess.

IMG_5864

The first dip. This will help the batter adhere to the steak.

Next, dip the steak in the batter and coat completely. Take the steak out of the batter and allow the extra liquid to dip off.

IMG_5865

Make sure the steak is completely submerged in the batter.

Dip the steak back into the flour and evenly coat all over.  You want to be sure there aren’t any wet spots.

IMG_5867

Nicely coated.

Shake off any excess flour.  Lay the steaks out in a single layer on a rack. (This will help allow air circulation around the steaks and help keep them fairly dry.)

IMG_5868

The steaks on a rack. If there are any wet spots, be sure to sprinkle a little flour on them.

3.  Have a 1″ depth of fat in a large skillet. Heat the fat to 375F, or until flour sprinkled in the oil immediately sizzles (but doesn’t burn) or a drop of water will make the oil pop (be careful of oil spatter).

4.  Once the oil has heated to the correct temperature, take the steaks, no more than 2 at a time, for 5 – 7 minutes total, turning once.  The temperature will immediately drop once you put in the steaks, so be sure to adjust the temperature as necessary to keep the fat at 350F.  (This is the optimal temperature to cook the steaks without making the batter soggy or overcooking the batter before the meat is done.)

IMG_5870

Don’t overcrowd the pan. The temperature of the oil will drop too far and will result in a soggy, greasy steak.

IMG_5872

After flipping. You only want to flip once to maintain the crust.

Take the finished steaks out of the oil and either place back on the rack to drain (my preferred method) or place on paper towels to drain.

After each batch is done, raise the heat back up to 375F before adding the next batch. Again, after adding the steaks to the fat, be sure to keep the temperature at 350F.

IMG_5880

Well, hello.

After the steaks are done, carefully drain off all but 1/4 c. of the drippings and saving any cracklings that may be in the skillet and make the gravy.

 

A note on the gravy: A good gravy can enhance your Chicken Fried Steak and a bad gravy can ruin it. You want a thick, creamy texture (but not pasty), a deep flavor (there are few things worse than a lumpy, bland, pasty gravy), and just the right amount of seasoning (over-salting is a common mistake).

Making good gravy is something that takes patience and practice. If you make this recipe for the first time and are a little unsure, just serve it on the side. You’ll do better next time.

 

Cream Gravy

1/4 c. pan dripping (if you have some nice cracklings too, great)

1/4 c. flour

2 c. whole milk, room temperature or warm

1 tbsp. black pepper

1 tsp. salt, or to taste

 

IMG_5873

The drained skillet. I left some of the browned flour in with the fat. Just be sure that anything you leave in the skillet isn’t burnt.

1.  Heat the pan drippings over medium heat (about 350F if you’re using an electric skillet).  Add the flour and make a roux.  You’re looking for something between a blonde- and peanut butter- colored roux.

IMG_5874

Adding the flour.

IMG_5875

Making the roux. You don’t want the roux too dark because the darker the flour, the less thickening strength it will have.

2.  Whisk in the milk and cook the gravy until it smooths out and thickens. Whisk in the salt and pepper.  Taste for seasoning.  If you want a thinner gravy, add a bit more milk.

IMG_5876

Whisking in the milk. Be sure to whisk constantly at this point so the roux and milk are completely incorporated.

IMG_5877

A nice, smooth, not-too-thick not-too-thin cream gravy.

3.  Serve over (or next to) the Chicken Fried Steak and whatever else is on the plate.

IMG_5881

The classic serving suggestion: Chicken Fried Steak, Mashed Potatoes, Greens (in this case, Kale).

 

Now I’m hungry.

 

 

 

Eating Locally Project 2015: June & July 0

Posted on August 12, 2015 by Sahar

Apologies to you all for not writing this up sooner. With all the family visits, travel, and, yes, a summer sore throat & cold, I’ve been a little neglectful in getting anything written and posted.

I only shopped at 3 places this time around – Boggy Creek FarmSpringdale Farm, and at the farmers market in Quepos, Costa Rica. As I stated in May, I volunteer at Boggy Creek, so I shopped there twice and only had time to go once to Springdale. Because we were out of town so much, it simply wasn’t feasible to go more often to the farms or even make it out to any of the markets in Austin.

 

June 18 – Boggy Creek

Volunteer Day. I was experimenting with travel time from my house to the farm. I gave myself almost an hour that morning and arrived at the farm 20 minutes early. I decided to use the time semi-wisely and take a few photos of the soon-to-be cut flowers

IMG_6279_2

Next time I go, I really need to ask what flowers they’re growing.

IMG_6281_2

Ditto.

IMG_6282_2

Rows of Zinnias

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Zinnia ready for its close-up

As I recall, it was an overcast and humid day. There hadn’t been rain for several days at this point, so the ground was beginning to harden. And, it was weed-pulling day. The weeds are almost a lost cause on the farm, but everyone does their best to keep them in check. Most of them are fairly easy to pull; but the Bermuda Grass – ugh. After the weed pulling, composting was next on the list. I know the compost they use at Boggy Creek is excellent quality because it’s steaming as you fill the bucket.

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After weeding and composting. Bermuda Grass – ugh. Trust me – this is so much better than any before picture would’ve suggested.

At the end of the day, I dragged myself into the farm stand to collect my “pay”. I wanted to be somewhat judicious since I knew Steve & I were going out of town again that weekend (it was his birthday), and I didn’t want to take the chance of anything going bad before I had a chance to use it.

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Heirloom tomatoes.

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Purple Bells.

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The first butternut squash of the season. I was excited; it’s my favorite.

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String beans are kicking in.

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The red tomatoes are Indigo Rose. The yellow ones are Sungolds.

After my shopping, I decided to stretch my legs a little and walk around the farm. I discovered if I didn’t do this – basically cool down after a workout – my legs became very painful on the drive home.

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Figs! I missed the crop she picked that day.

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Cinnatree flowers.

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Tractor study.

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Carol Ann’s tea roses.

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The okra is doing well.

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Okra flower.

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There they are. Baby Okra.

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Another flowering tree that I don’t know the name of. I really need to stick asking about these in the old brain box.

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Tatsumas. They’ll be ready in the fall. If the birds don’t get to them first.

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My purchases: Dandelion Greens, Butternut Squash, Indigo Rose Tomatoes

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Eggs. I gave these to my fitness trainer.

 

Saturday, June 27 – Boggy Creek

I missed my volunteer day at Boggy Creek that week (at this point, I can’t remember why), so I contented myself with heading out on Saturday instead; this way, I could also head to Springdale afterwards.

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Cut flowers for sale

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Basil and Dandelion Greens

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Curly Mustard Greens. My current favorite.

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Some of the Pursulane I helped to plant back in May. It has this wonderful sharp flavor to it. The leaves are almost like biting into a succulent.

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‘Tis the season for tomatoes.

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New potatoes. Always welcome.

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The ladies waiting until the people have all left so they can have run of the farm.

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Whatever produce Carol Ann feels isn’t good enough to sell, she feeds it to the chickens. They’re a happy bunch. That day, it was butternut squash.

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Keeping up with the weeds is a never-ending battle. There are squash plants holding their own in there, though.

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Taking a look at some of the rows I helped clean up.

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Okra still going strong.

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More of Carol Ann’s flowers

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Waiting for the pecan season to begin. I don’t know that the farm sells them, but it’d be great if they did.

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Caged pepper plants.

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Cinnabar

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My Boggy Creek Purchases, Part 1: Hamburger Patties.

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My Boggy Creek Purchases, Part 2: Basil, Curly Mustard, Figs, Dandelion Greens, Indigo Red Tomatoes, Sungold Tomatoes

After a quick chat with Carol Ann, Larry (Butler, Carol Ann’s husband and farm co-owner), and the lead volunteer, Dana, I headed to Springdale. They open an hour later than Boggy Creek, so I arrived a few minutes early. So, I took my time walking to the farm stand and took a few flower pictures.

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I really need to buy a Flowers of Central Texas guide.

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More posies.

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I think this is a type of Marigold.

Springdale’s farm stand is smaller than Boggy Creek’s, but where Boggy’s is neat, pretty, and utilitarian, Springdale really put on a colorful and artful show. I love to walk in there and see what Paula, Glen, and their staff have done that week. It’s always lovely.

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Case in point, the tomato table. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

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The pepper table. I think they had 6 – 8 varieties that day.

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The herb table.

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Dill flowers. I didn’t buy any because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them other than pickling. I’ll find something.

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Beautiful chicken eggs.

And, of course, after shopping, I wandered a bit.

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The ladies and gentlemen of the farm.

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Ahh… more flowers.

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Along the fence line.

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The ducks would have nothing to do with me.

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Ghost Peppers.

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I think this was an Anaheim.

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Some beautiful fungus growing out of one of the tree stumps.

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More tree stump fungus.

At this point, I decided to not go to any other markets since, yes, Steve & I were once again leaving for parts far away soon. I wanted to get what I bought eaten before we left.

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My Springdale purchases, Part 1: Thyme, Garlic Chives, Jalapeños, Mint

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May Springdale purchases, Part 2: Chicken Eggs (f), Duck Eggs (b)

Bonus: My mom was in town for a Contemporary Handweavers of Texas conference (she’s on the board), so I went to visit her. I gave her a goodie bag of the chicken eggs, figs, and about half of the tomatoes. I’m not sure if the figs made it back to Ft. Worth.

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Saturday’s Dinner: Baked Shrimp and Salad made with baby spinach, curly mustard, dandelion greens, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta, and extra virgin olive oil.

 

Saturday, July 11 – Farmers Market, Quepos, Costa Rica

I’ve already talked at length about this market in my previous post, La Pura Vida in Costa Rica, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

In short, the market is open late Friday (usually 4 – 9pm) and early Saturday (8am – noon).  The best time to go is early Saturday; the vendors are all set up and the crowds really haven’t gotten too big yet. The market is set up on the sea wall (Quepos is on the Central Pacific Coast) and the breezes coming off the ocean are a blessing and a break from the constant humidity.

The market isn’t large, but it is plentiful. Fruit, vegetables, seafood, prepared foods, handicrafts, and more than one general merchandise table were all in residence.

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One of the handicraft tables.

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Coconuts and (what I think are) Mamones Chinos – a type of lime with a hard shell and soft fruit. It’s related to the lychee.

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Potatoes and tomatoes are native to Central and South America. Carrots came along in the 18th or 19th Century.

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A cute, if formulaic, souvenir table.

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Pineapples, of course

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I think these were Fuji Apples.

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Beautiful produce.

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Mandarin Limes

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I was excited to see these – Otaheiti Apples. Steve & I first had them in Jamaica.

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We bought some beautiful Yellowfin Tuna from this vendor.

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Mangoes.

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And here is your general merchandise table.

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I believe these were the fruit of the Peach Palm. In the background are lychees; a lot of vendors were selling them.

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Bananas

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A stand backing up to the Pacific.

Steve found a gentleman selling fresh tamales and bought he & I some for breakfast. (Mom, who was with us and had already eaten, declined.) They were the most unusual tamales I’d ever eaten.

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Our view while we ate breakfast.

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These tamales had the usual masa base, bit they had a very soft texture along with rice and chunks of vegetables and pork. They were delicious.

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The still wrapped tamales.

After breakfast, while Steve decided to walk around town a bit, Mom & I walked our purchases back to the house. On the way, though, I ducked inside a carnecería and bought some epic chicharrones.

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Now, THAT’S a chicharron.

We bought potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, Mandarin limes, mangoes, pineapple, yellowfin tuna, prawns, Oteheiti apples, onions, and chayote squash.

Since it was our last evening in Costa Rica, we decided to make it a party. I made a large, simple dinner with what we bought at the market and whatever was left in the refrigerator.

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It took awhile to make dinner. The best parts – everyone enjoyed it and I didn’t have to clean up.

 

Thursday, July 30

Back at Boggy Creek after a 3-week hiatus.

We were tasked that morning with cleaning up 2 of the rows in the front field so they could be amended (Carol Ann’s organic secret recipe to add some nutrients back into the soil) and composted. I set about taking down the gherkin (small cucumbers) vines on my assigned row. It was great; the vines rolled up like a carpet.

After the rows were cleaned and we took our break, we laid a rather thick layer of compost on them. The farm is getting the fields ready for fall planting, so cleaning, amending, and composting at this point is essential for the new growth to be as healthy as possible.

The rows we cleaned, amended, and compsoted.

The rows we cleaned, amended, and composted.

We got lucky that day. There is a nice line of large pecan and oak trees lining the side we were on and it effectively shaded us pretty much all morning.

After our shift was over, we headed to the stand to collect our “pay”. Since it’s late summer, and we didn’t get the stand until after Noon, there wasn’t too much left to choose from.

But, it’s hard to complain about that when you’re getting the produce for free.

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A few squash but a lot of long beans and cucumbers.

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These are beautiful. I honestly had no idea they could be purple.

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More curly mustard. I’d better enjoy it while I can.

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Arugula.

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Okra. So good.

I picked up some curly mustard, long beans, okra, and arugula. (I forgot to take a picture when I got home.)

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More of Carol Ann’s flowers.

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More summer squash. Carol Ann told us basically, as long as you want to plant it before the first frost, it’ll grow.

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the ladies in the shade.

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Buddy, the farm dog, spent a good deal of the day digging a very deep hole a couple of rows away from where we were working. He kept on long after we’d finished. I have no idea what he was looking for or if he even caught anything. But, it was entertaining to watch. We were all rooting for him.

So much for June and July. On to August.

 

 

 

 

 

La Pura Vida in Costa Rica 0

Posted on August 04, 2015 by Sahar

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Just like Jamaica last year, Steve & I this year traveled to a place we never thought we’d go: Costa Rica. We honestly never had a desire to visit Central America;  it simply had no appeal for either of us. However, when Dad proposed this trip as a way for the whole family (Mom, Dad, three daughters, three sons-in-law, two grandsons) together to go someplace new and celebrate Older Nephew‘s graduation, what were we to say?

Sure, Dad. We’re in.

So, tickets were bought last September, a house was rented for a week, and activities studied and contemplated by one and all. And, since Dad and my younger sister, Danyah (mother of the nephews/grandsons) had already visited Costa Rica, the rest of us relied on them for advice and travel tips. They also unsuccessfully tried convince everyone to go zip lining.

 

For those of you who don’t know too much about Costa Rica, I’m going to attempt to give you a quick primer:  Costa Rica is in the southern part of Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. Because it’s less than 700 miles due north from the Equator, the climate is tropical year-round (basically, it has two seasons – wet and dry). It’s  sandwiched between the Caribbean on the eastern shore, the Pacific on the western shore, and a whole lot of tropical rain and humid forests with a few arid areas in between. The daylight and nighttime hours are split almost evenly (the sun would rise at about 6am and set about 5:30-6pm).  More than one-third of the country has been placed under some sort of environmental protection, making it one of the most bio-diverse nations on Earth. In fact, in 2012, it had the highest environmental ranking of all the Americas.

The economy of Costa Rica has hit a rough patch over the last 3 – 4 years, but it is still one of the strongest in the Central American region. Its main economic sources are tourism (especially eco-tourism), electronics (mostly cash registers and calculators), and agriculture (bananas, coffee, sugar, rice, ornamental plants, potatoes, etc.).

Costa Rica was believed to be first inhabited about 10,000 years BCE by peoples from the Mesoamerican and Andean regions, and was still sparsely populated by its indigenous people (namely the Bribri and Maleku) before coming under Spanish rule in the 1560’s. It remained an outer colony of the Spanish Empire until independence as part of the First Mexican Empire (1821-23), followed by membership in the United Provinces of Central America (1823-1840; several more attempts were made to continue the union until 1885), from which it formally declared sovereignty in 1847. Following a brief but bloody civil war in 1948, it permanently abolished its army in 1949, becoming one of the few world nations with no standing army.

Even after Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain and declared full sovereignty in 1847, years of invasion, American colonialism – both political and economic, yellow fever, dictatorship, and civil wars, it finally becomes a democratic nation in 1949 when then-president Josè Figueres Ferrer (father of Costa Rica’s “unarmed” democracy) declared a new constitution that granted full citizenship and voting rights to women and minorities.  He also created the foundation for the country’s modern welfare state. Indigenous peoples were finally granted rights of ownership in 1977, and the right to vote in 1994. However, the indigenous populations, like many in all of the Americas, still have their issues with the federal government taking over historically treatied lands and ignoring articles of protection.

In 1986, president Óscar Arias Sánchez, fully asserted Costa Rican independence by forcing out the Nicaraguan Contras the United States basically foisted upon his predecessor, Luís Alberto Monge, by again raising the banner of sovereignty and neutrality, and essentially drove them out of Costa Rica. Sánchez won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for uniting Central America and helping end the Nicaraguan War.

As it stands now, Costa Rica (literal translation: “Rich Coast”) is a green peaceful paradise with amazing wildlife, delicious food, wonderful people, and, as the Ticos like to say, “la pura vida”.

 

Day 1 – Monday, July 6

Travel Day.

Steve & I drove to my parents on Sunday to be in full readiness for our 6am Monday flight. We had to leave the house by 4am so we could be at DFW Airport and at check-in by 4:30. As part of my over-anxiousness with anything having to do with air travel, I went ahead and checked Steve & I in online the day before. Dad parked in remote parking and so we hiked to the shuttle station for a ride to the terminal. We met up there with Sister Danyah’s crew. I couldn’t even see the airport from the parking lot. That’s when I decided I really do prefer smaller airports. That’s when I also realized I’d overpacked. Again.

After Steve & I checked our bags – and paying the additional $25 per – we headed to security leaving Mom & Dad with Danyah’s (Husband Heath, Older Son/Grandson/Nephew, and Younger Son/Grandson/Nephew) family to do their check-in. (Sister Haneen and Husband Mark were flying from Newark to meet up with us in Miami.)

We all kind of gathered again near the gate and then spread out to forage for caffeine and a breakfast-type snack. One of the few caffeine sellers open was Starbucks (ugh), so Steve got us each a beverage. Coffee for him, hot chocolate for me.

Finally, we all boarded. I distinctly felt like I was being herded onto a cattle truck. Only with a little extra leg room that I paid for and a cubby for my camera equipment. Not long after we had settled in, I heard from Danyah a couple of rows up that Haneen & Mark were delayed out of Newark at least 2 hours due to mechanical issues with their plane. Dad tried to contact them, but, no answer. Family theories started to make their way around. Dad basically said there was nothing anyone could do about it and he’d try to get in touch with them when we arrived in Miami.

After getting a lecture from the flight attendant about sitting in the exit row (Yes. I can open the exit door. Trust me, I’ll be the first one out.), I, for grins, took a look at the in-flight menu.

Really, American? After all the other upcharges?

Really, American? After all the other upcharges?

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Ditto. Ugh.

 

After this, the Dramamine took over and I essentially fell asleep until we landed in Miami.

Mom & Dad rushed off the plane to try to contact Haneen & Mark to check on their progress. The rest of us finally made our way off and headed to the next terminal and gate. (I have to say, Miami Airport is one of the most disorganized and confusing I’ve ever been through, and I’ve been through a lot of airports.)

When Mom & Dad finally caught up with us, they said they hadn’t been able to reach Haneen & Mark. Dad theorized that they likely caught a flight from Newark to Charlotte and then were going to meet us in San José.  We all went with that; it sounded plausible.

After everyone had boarded, it was plain to see that it wasn’t a full flight. Once we were at cruising altitude, I moved over across to the aisle seat so I would feel like I had some breathing and spreading room (I was assigned the middle seat both flights). Bliss. Between dozing, reading, and talking to my sister, the flight was tolerable.

Finally, we landed in San José. Because our flight was early, we had to wait on the tarmac for 20 minutes before the plane was assigned a gate; I always figured this was planned somewhat in advance.

While we were waiting, the family grapevine passed the message that Haneen & Mark were only about 30 minutes behind us. They’d managed to re-book and be on their way sooner than we thought. Whew.

Then, there was passport control.

My first glimpse of Costa Rica.

My first glimpse of Costa Rica.

Passport Control. Always fun.

Passport Control. Always fun.

After queueing for 30 minutes, we discover that the flight attendant had given us the wrong forms to fill out. Or, rather, she had switched them – the family form and the immigration form. Hooray.

After the re-filling of the forms in the correct way and number and getting the passports stamped, we all met up at baggage claim where the bags were all neatly arranged and waiting for us. But, before we could leave the baggage area, one more security check. Just our luck, we were stuck behind a family who didn’t seem to know what they were doing; it was like they couldn’t figure out how to put their bags on the conveyor belt. Even Dad, the family model of patience, was about to lose it. Then, the other line cleared out and we took our opportunity. The entire Arafat clan got through while the other family was still plodding along.

Mom volunteered to wait in the security area for Haneen & Mark, but we persuaded her to go out with us; there was only one way out, so we decided they would figure out where to go.

Dad found our driver, Estilio, and enlisted him and everyone except he & Mom to take the luggage to the van that was going to take us on the 3-hour drive to Quepos.

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My second glimpse of Costa Rica from the top of the parking garage.

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Our transportation for the day. The best part – it was air conditioned.

My first impression of Costa Rica was green. So very green. The humidity hit me next. Then, the rain (we were there during the rainy season). However, despite being at the airport, the air still felt fresh and clean. Perhaps that was simply my brain fooling itself after being in airports and planes for the past 12 hours.

While we waited for the other two (Dad received continual updates on their progress), Danyah & I wandered a little.

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Pay phones!

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There were warnings everywhere to only use the red airport cabs. I guess there’ve been issues.

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Our first food in Costa Rica. These were damn good. Danyah bought another bag.

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Waiting. The photo is dark, but that’s from (2nd from l-r): Steve, Heath, Dad, Danyah

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Juan Santamaría International Airport, San José, Costa Rica

Finally, after more than an hour of waiting, Haneen & Mark walk through the doors. And the rejoicing begins. However, Mark’s luggage had gone missing and he arrived with only his guitar in hand. The airline assured them that his bags would be delivered via courier the next day at the house in Quepos.

Ah… The joys of travel.

Mom & Dad finally rounded up the crew and we headed up to the van and Estilio. Dad asked him to stop somewhere for all of us to get something to eat since none of us had really eaten anything substantial since… a while ago.  When Estilio asked him what we’d like, Dad said Costa Rican. Hell, we may as well plunge in.

Estilio took us to a restaurant in San José that was probably the best meal we had the entire trip – La Casona del Maíz (The House of Corn).

Our first real food in Costa Rica. Estilio chose well.

Our first real food in Costa Rica. Estilio chose well.

Our view from the table.

Our view from the table.

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Another view from our table.

La Casona was a large, open-air restaurant with plenty of room to spread out. It seemed like it was built to blend into the landscape it adjoined. The rain had cooled the air, and while it was humid, the cooler temperature made it tolerable. The air circulation was certainly welcome.

I noticed this beaur=tifully painted oxcart and thought it was unique to the restaurant. Turns out, painted oxcarts (carretas) are a traditional art form in Costa Rica with each region having its own design.

I noticed this beautifully painted oxcart and thought it was unique to the restaurant. Turns out, painted oxcarts (carretas) are a traditional art form in Costa Rica with each region having its own design.

Not long after we sat down, our server took our drink order (her in broken English, most of us in broken Spanish) and then she brought a couple of jars of some of the best pickled vegetables I’ve ever eaten. I ate a lot of the cauliflower out of the jar at my end of the table. It was just the right balance of tart and spicy. I’d like to think that they make these in-house.

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Yum.

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Birra Imperial. The National Beer of Costa Rica. Not a bad lager.

Not long after we ordered our food, it started coming to the table.

Wow. Was it good. Better than good – amazing.

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Guacamole with in-house made tostadas. Simple and delicious.

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Fried plantains with Montenegro Cheese. The sauce was a kind of mayonnaise. Honestly, I could’ve eaten a plate of these for dinner and been happy.

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My meal: Tablita de Chicharron. Essentially translates to Small Board of Pork. It was honestly some of the best pork I’ve ever had – seasoned well and fried with a great balance of chewy and tender. I only wish there were more tortillas. The salsa was fresh and the black beans had a wonderful sweet-smoky flavor. Bonus: more plantains.

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Steve’s meal: I thought I wrote it down, but, I didn’t. If I remember correctly, he had something similar to mine except his was chicken (pollo) instead of pork and it included a cheese quesadilla.

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Danyah’s meal: Arroz con Pollo. A dish you will find everywhere in Latin America from Mexico down to the tip of Chile.

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Haneen’s meal: Essentially the vegetarian plate. Her plate included fried egg, a soup of yucca & corn, avocado, cheese, plantains, salsa, black beans, rice, and tortillas. It’s a beautiful plate.

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The family enjoying our first Costa Rican meal. Clockwise: my plate, Younger Nephew, Dad, Mark, Haneen, Danyah, Mom, Older Nephew, Steve, Heath

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Complimentary rice pudding. Oh. My. God. Wow.

We came to the collective decision that if all the food in Costa Rica was as good as this, we were in for a great time.

While everyone was taking turns using the restroom, the rest of us stretched and wandered around the restaurant and simply took in the scenery.

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A coconut palm.

Soon, we were all back in the van to Quepos.  It’s only about 60km (about 38 miles) from San José if you go as the crow flies; but, because the only straight road is the Pan-American Highway, it’s really about 160km (about 100 miles) and takes about 2 – 3 hours to drive to Quepos. Most of the roads in Costa Rica, despite its excellent infrastructure, are small, winding, 2-lane affairs where you’re at the mercy of whatever is in the road and whomever is in front of you. I do have to give credit to the scooter and motorcycle drivers – they were a daring bunch of souls.

As everyone was conversing, dozing, or looking out the windows, we all began to notice that it was already getting dark, despite the fact it was only about 5pm. Certainly not something any of us expected. I can only speak for myself, but I suddenly felt very tired.

A view from the van.

A view from the van.

As we passed over a bridge, we noticed a large number of people looking over into the water.  Estilio pulled over and told us that it was the Río Tarcoles and there were about 30 American Crocodiles living under the bridge. Who were we to say no to this.

After carefully walking either on the edge of the road or on the bridge walkway, there they were. In all their glory. And, because the weather was beginning to cool a little and it was getting dark, they were becoming more active.

We all noticed this big guy.  At first, we thought he had his mouth open. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he lost the top part of his snout either in a fight or, probably more likely, a hunter. He seems to have done well despite the injury. It looked old and well healed up.

We all noticed this big guy. At first, we thought he had his mouth open. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he lost the top part of his snout either in a fight or, probably more likely, a hunter. He seems to have done well despite the injury. It looked old and well healed.

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Río Tarcoles

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Some of these are tree branches, other, crocodiles. You decide which is which.

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Mom, Haneen, and I crossed the road and noticed this one. It wasn’t moving at all. We just assumed it was dead. Then, it moved. I think it found some prey. Not sure if it caught anything or not.

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Río Tarcoles. I tried to catch a picture of some Scarlet Macaws flying overhead. I, sadly, wasn’t successful.

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Misty Mountain Hop

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Brahmas seem to the be the cattle of choice in Costa Rica. I admired the rancher who set up shop next to a river full of crocodiles.

After this little stop, we climbed back into the van and finished our journey to Quepos. It was fairly uneventful but it felt very long. I think everyone wanted just to get to the house.  However, before we made it to the house, we had one more stop to make. We were meeting our property manager and local contact, Ana.  Dad paid her for the week of our stay, got some paperwork, and we asked her a few basic questions about what we were to expect.

There was a full stocked kitchen equipment-wise, but we had to buy food. There was a laundry room and we could use their detergent. The maids come every day. There was air conditioning in the bedrooms. She and Estilio suggested that we go to the supermercado Maxi Palí to stock up on what we needed.

A very nice produce stand

A very nice produce stand

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Fruit, Vegetables, Monkeys

We didn’t see Ana again after that stop, but we talked to her quite frequently on the phone for the rest of the trip.

When we finally made it into Quepos, it was completely dark and only about 6:30. It felt so much later. Estilio pulled into the Maxi Palí parking lot and we all piled out. I have to say, trying to keep up with 10 people in a grocery store is like herding cats.

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We were frequent customers of various Maxi Palís and the regular Palís during our visit.

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Sugary drinks seem to be popular. Thanks, America.

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Mark is in there somewhere looking for some sweet duds to wear until his luggage arrives.

We stocked up on vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread, peanut butter, Nutella, Fresca, water, coffee, tea, sugar, lentils, eggs, tortillas, butter, juice, milk, the Costa Rican equivalent of Cheetos Puffs, a couple of shirts for Mark, and various OTC drugs.  The guys also grabbed what they thought was a pound of bacon. (When I went to cook it a few days later, I noticed it was a kilo [2.2 lbs.].)

Finally, we made it to the house. Estilio had a little trouble finding it in the dark. The place we stayed was a gated community with no outside lighting. So, if one was unfamiliar with the roads, it was easy to get lost. Plus, to compound things, the hills felt like they were at a 45-degree angle. After a couple of aborted attempts, Estilio finally found the house – Happy Jacana.

I can’t remember who got the door unlocked, but I know I was one of the first in and managed to find the light switch in the pitch dark. Upon first glance, the house looked lovely, if a little stuffy, climate-wise. But, whatever; we just wanted to get the van unloaded, stake out our rooms, get the groceries put away, and go to bed.

There were two bedrooms in the main house while the rest of them were either separate or on a different level.  Mom & Dad and Steve & I took the bedrooms in the main house; because, you know, we could. So, while Steve took our bags upstairs, Mom tasked me with putting away the groceries. Then, she took her & Dad’s bags up to their room while Dad helped everyone else find their rooms. It wasn’t easy in an unfamiliar house in the dark. I think it took close to an hour for everyone to find and pick their rooms and get settled in.

As for putting away the groceries, I put everything I could in the refrigerator when I noticed the various ant trails in the house.

Well, I figured, we’re in the tropics; not much we can do about the ants. Besides, the house geckos seemed to be enjoying their feast.

I think we were all in bed by 8:30-ish. Collective exhaustion had taken over.

But, just when we thought the fun was over, a transformer blew somewhere nearby and the electricity went out in the neighborhood about 9pm. I could hear Dad stumbling downstairs to call Ana. Whatever she managed to do, it worked. The electricity was back on by 11pm. Thank goodness. I was about to give up and go sleep by the pool. To hell with the bugs and whatever animals might wander by.

 

(A couple of notes here: a) We decided early on in the planning of this trip that everyone would do their own thing; we couldn’t and/or wouldn’t all be joined at the collective hip. I’m basically writing about what I, and those who were with me for various excursions, did during the trip; b) Also, because I can’t possibly write about what everyone ate every time we were together, I’m writing about my meals and, again, those who were with me or sitting near me in the restaurants or at the house.)

 

Day 2 – Tuesday, July 7

A little about Quepos: It is basically considered the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park (7km – about 4-1/2 mi.) and is known for the abundance of sport fishing in the area.  The town itself has a population of less than 30,000.  The town is in the Central Pacific Region on the Pacific Coast and is the administrative center of the Puntarenas Province.

Quepos is a fairly small town that has managed, for the most part, to keep a decent balance between the needs of the local citizens and tourists.  The town is laid out, grid-like, and, while there are no street signs, is still easy to get around if you simply pay attention to the landmarks.  It’s not the most picturesque place, but, the locals are friendly, the food and nightlife are great, and it was within walking distance from our house.

Quepos

Quepos

There was one main road that ran in front of the gates of our enclave – go right, Quepos; left, the road to Manuel Antonio. Most of the higher-priced restaurants, hotels, and general tourist stuff was on this road. For the most part, we opted to stay and do business in Quepos.

 

I was fully awake by 5:30am. I went downstairs figuring that I might be the first one or just my mom. Nope. Mom, Danyah, and Haneen were all downstairs already. I think we all silently decided to enjoy quiet conversation for as long as we could because, when the menfolk decided to stir, quiet would be over for the day.

After my breakfast of green tea and peanut butter on toast, I went back upstairs to grab my camera and get my first real photos of the landscape around our rented house.

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First photo from the balcony. The tree in the foreground with the red flowers is called the African Tulip Tree.

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I don’t know what the names of these trees and bushes are, but later in the day, the monkeys sure had fun in them.

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Ditto.

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Looking through the canopy at Quepos.

At this point, it was about 7:30 – 8am and just about everyone else was up and moving. Breakfast was (as it was most days) a fend-for-yourself affair. I was pretty obsessive about making sure the kitchen stayed as clean as possible because of the ants. Once everyone started throwing out their trash, the ants tended to congregate around the trash can. I was content to let them have at it if it kept them out of the rest of the kitchen.

After breakfast, Younger Nephew and I decided to have a look around in front.

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The front of the house we rented – Happy Jacana. Jacanas are water birds that has a widespread population throughout Costa Rica’s wet regions.

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Around the side of the house at street level. That’s Quepos through the trees.

I’m no botanist, but I know what I like, plant-wise. And just like in Jamaica, I remembered my love and enjoyment of tropical plants in Costa Rica.

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A type of Croton. It is a bushy shrub that can grow up to 3 meters (about 9 ft.) tall.

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Ixora. We saw these in Jamaica as well. They grow throughout tropical regions.

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Another type of Croton. This one is a narrow-leafed variety.

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This is the “fruit” from the Monkey Comb tree.

After I took the picture of the Monkey Comb fruit, I saw my first Iguana in the wild. I was so excited, I wanted to get my wide angle lens. I wasn’t paying attention and walked right on into the wrong house. Luckily, they were nice about it after I apologized profusely. I told them there was an Iguana on their roof and I was just going to grab a piece of camera equipment so I could get a better shot. They came out with one of their children and had a look. It was then that I took my opportunity to get the shot and sneak off.

Younger Nephew was just standing there. Smiling. Punk.

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Said Iguana that caused me to walk into the wrong house. It looks like the Spiny-Tailed variety.

When I went back to the correct house, I went to the back balcony again and chatted some more with Mom and whoever else was out there. Then, Mom saw it. A huge Iguana in the trees perfectly in our line of sight. She went to get her binoculars so we could all get a better look.

It was a large male Green Iguana out for a little morning sun and to, I presume, survey his kingdom.

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There he is in a Yellow Elder tree.

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The orange coloring on his face and body indicated that he was a breeding male.

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He was fascinating to watch. I’m not sure how long he was in the tree, but it was easily hours. Older Green Iguanas tend to be arboreal; the younger are terrestrial.

 

It was time to get ready. Danyah, Dad, Heath, Older Nephew, Younger Nephew, and I were all heading to the beach at Manuel Antonio. Our original plan was to go to the beach in the park; however, when we arrived, the line for tickets was crazy long. Plus, we had no idea that we would have to pay $15 a head to get in just to go the beach. So, we asked our driver to turn around and take us back the public beach next door. It was lovely and free.

So, with a promise to pick us up at 11:30, the driver dropped us off.

Playa Espadilla (also known as Manuel Antonio Beach #2) is a large beach with a mix of dark gray and yellow sand. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike. There were vendors walking around hocking everything from pottery to coconut water still in the nut. The beach wasn’t too crowded and the rain held off, so it made for a pleasant morning.

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First real glimpse of the Pacific.

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The other side of the rocks is the beach in Manuel Antonio park.

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When we arrived, the tide was going out. The beach seemed to get wider as the morning drew on.

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You could rent a couple of chairs and an umbrella for $10 for as long as you needed them. We did just that. Everyone, except the boys, took turns watching our stuff.

Swimming in the ocean isn’t something I do often. I had to remember to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t swallow a bunch of salt water every time a wave hit.

Also, my attempts at body surfing were unsuccessful.

The boys

The menfolk in the Pacific: Younger Nephew, Heath, Older Nephew, Dad

Danyah getting ready for her open water swim. The orange thing is her inflatable buoy so people could see her.

Danyah getting ready for her open water swim. The orange thing is her inflatable buoy so people could see her.

Dad taking over watch duties for me after his swim. He looks like a contented man.

Dad taking over watch duties for me after his swim. He looks like a contented man.

As always, I wandered a bit. I was done swimming for the time being. Plus, I was starting to feel a little sick from the sea water I swallowed.

Beach rocks. With a few shells and coral thrown in for good measure.

Beach rocks. With a few shells and coral thrown in for good measure.

The barrier between the Playa Espadilla and Manuel Antonio

The barrier between the Playa Espadilla and Manuel Antonio and part of the humid forest that makes up this region of the country.

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I believe most of the rocks and rock formations around the beaches are volcanic.

Not long after this, Heath came out of the water to rest – the boys refused to came out of the water until we basically forced them to right before the taxi arrived. Dad, Danyah, and I took a walk around the beach.

So there was this happy warning.

So there was this happy warning. Basically, it said that area was a crocodile habitat and the water had fecal contamination. FYI – this was at the back edge of Manuel Antonio Park and across an inlet.

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Some of the large volcanic rock formations on the beach.

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The inlet stream flowing into the ocean.

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Looking out onto the Pacific

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Looking towards Playa Espadilla

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One of the inlet streams coming out of the park. I had no idea whether or not I was standing in contaminated water. Nothing happened, so I guess not.

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Dad and Danyah

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Teeny tiny Hermit Crabs were everywhere.

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Looking down the beach towards the park

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Another little Hermit Crab. It’s in the center of the photo.

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Dad said this was a Sea Urchin. I wasn’t so sure. As a precaution, I didn’t pick it up.

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One final beach photo at the rocks.

While the others were packing up our belongings, I ventured back into the ocean to get the Nephews. They weren’t too thrilled about having to actually get back on dry land. We probably could’ve left them there and it would’ve taken them hours to notice.

So, back to the house to clean the beach sand off of weird places on one’s body and rinse out the swimsuits.

For our first full day in Costa Rica, it was decided that we’d go into Quepos for lunch. I don’t think we really had a plan; just find a place that looked good. We came upon a restaurant called Restaurante el Jardin del Mar (essentially “Restaurant Garden of the Sea). The food there was good and there was a lot of it. The restaurant wasn’t large, but it was open-air, and great for people-watching.

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Day 2 restaurant of choice. Like a lot of restaurants in Quepos (and, I suspect, in most cities), it was open for breakfast (desayunos), lunch (almuerzo), and dinner (cena)

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I hadn’t had one of these in years.

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Jugo de mango. Mango juice. More of a smoothie, really. It was really good.

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My lunch. Mariscada de la Casa. Basically, “Seafood Plate of the House”. It was huge. Steve ordered the same thing. We easily could’ve split one plate. There was snapper, squid, crab, shrimp, mussels, and one other fish I couldn’t identify. Other than the squid being a little overcooked, it was really delicious. The nephews had to help me finish it, though.

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Danyah’s lunch: Pescado en Salsa Limón (Fish with Lemon Sauce). By the way, French Fries are very popular.

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Younger Nephew’s lunch: Seafood Paella. I tried some of the rice; it was really  good.

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The family: clockwise from my plate: Steve’s hand, Younger Nephew, Heath, Mark, Haneen, Dad, Mom (hidden), Older Nephew, Danyah

After lunch, there was the usual debate when you’re with a large group as to what everyone was going to do next. While this was happening, Steve and Haneen went onto a nearby book and record store. About 10 minutes later, they came back and told Mom and I about a tour at a spice plantation on Wednesday. I must have given Steve a look of pure joy, because he said “I can tell by the look on your face, you’re in”. Haneen went back to the store and booked Mom, Dad, Steve, herself, and me on the tour.

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Quepos

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Quepos. Not the most picturesque or touristy town, but it’s what we wanted.

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Fruit on display in a carneceria.

After this, I, Mom, Heath, and I can’t remember who else, decided to take the taxi back to the house while everyone else stayed in town for a little longer.

Later in the afternoon, this happened. A small show was put on for us by the local family of Red Back Squirrel Monkeys. We were told that there was a good chance we would see some monkeys during our stay. The best thing to do was just watch them and stay out of their way. Don’t engage or feed them. They bite.

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It’s not the best photo, but here’s one on the roof.

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In the palm leaves.

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Mom & baby hanging out.

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The monkeys scattered after this bird started flying overhead. So, my best guess is it was a Double-toothed Kite because they tend to stalk monkey groups.

I didn’t do much the rest of the day. I swam a little in the pool, read, rested, and was generally quiet. Dinner was a fend-for-yourself event. In fact, I’m not even sure I ate dinner.

 

Day 3 – Wednesday, 7/8

Mom, Dad, Haneen, Steve, and I were outside waiting before 9am for the bus to take us to our tour to Villa Vanilla. And, we waited. at about 9:15-ish, Haneen went back inside to call the tour operator to see what was up. Turned out there was a small strike among taxi drivers that day because the government reneged on a promised salary hike. But, once our bus picked up some of the other tour attendees and made it through the traffic, they’d be by to pick us up.

Well, fine.

So, in the meantime, we entertained ourselves.

A spiny-tailed iguana that happened to be passing by.

A spiny-tailed iguana that happened to be passing by.

A Flycatcher. We watched it in action.

A Flycatcher. We watched it in action.

Bird of Paradise

Parrot’s Flower

There were quite a few iguanas coming out to sun themselves. The workmen nearby didn't phase them at all.

There were quite a few iguanas coming out to sun themselves. The workmen nearby didn’t phase them at all.

Amarillo Peanut. I didn't pull it up, but there was very likely a legume in the ground. The plant has become more popular as a ground cover because of the flowers.

Amarillo Peanut. It’s become popular as a ground cover because of the flowers and the way the plant spreads.

Lobster Claw

Lobster Claw

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I came across these, but I couldn’t find the name of the flower. They are lovely, though.

The parents. Aren't they cute?

The parents. Aren’t they cute?

Finally, the bus arrived and we were on our way. There were about a dozen more people joining us on the tour.

The trip to Villa Vanilla took about 45 minutes.  It’s only about 16km/10 miles way from Quepos, but once you’re outside of the main town and on the way to Naranjito, the roads become a little less vehicle-friendly.

My first glimpse of Vailla Vanilla. It was humid. Damn humid.

My first glimpse of Villa Vanilla. It was humid. Damn humid.

We arrived at the plantation and were greeted by our guide for the day, Giselle. She was wonderful. The first thing she did was take us to a small building on the property to show us how the process the cinnamon, vanilla beans, and, unexpectedly, cocoa beans and turmeric.

The cinnamon trees they grow are ones that produce Ceylon cinnamon (the kind we know more here in the US is Cassia). Ceylon cinnamon is finer in texture and sweeter than cassia cinnamon. (Giselle kept calling it “true cinnamon”.) Both are from the second layer of tree bark, but the cassia is much more dense and hard. (Here in the US, you can find Ceylon cinnamon at Mexican/Latin markets. It’s labeled “canela”.)

Cinnamon trees grow in the tropics and it takes 8 years before a tree is ready to be harvested. The outer bark is scraped off and the inner (second) layer of bark (the cinnamon) is then carefully shaved off, dried, and stored.  The remaining wood is used for firewood and/or made into charcoal that they use at the plantation.

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The gentleman (I forgot to write down his name) scraping off the outer bark of the tree. The branches underneath are white as he scrapes off the bark. However, they quickly oxidize to the gold color you see. The outer bark is composted.

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Our wonderful guide, Giselle. Her son, Roy, joined us later as we began trekking the plantation.

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Shaving off the second layer of bark – the cinnamon.

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The box of shaved cinnamon just before it’s spread out for drying.

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Mom with her piece of cinnamon. Everyone got a small piece  to eat. It was amazing to try cinnamon fresh off the tree.

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The wood ready for the fire. Everything on the farm is re-used or recycled in some manner.

After the cinnamon lecture was over, Giselle opened up the ovens for us so we could see what they were currently drying: cinnamon, cayenne peppers, and turmeric.

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The drying ovens.

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Turmeric.

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Cayenne peppers.

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The back tray is cinnamon.

The next thing she talked about was cacao. They don’t grow enough on the farm for it to be commercially viable for them except as ground cocoa. Which is too bad, because we each got a small sample of how good their chocolate can be.

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Some candies made in-house. The ingredients were cocoa, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. The texture was slightly grainy but that didn’t take away from the flavor. It’s really too bad they don’t grow enough to sell these commercially.

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Giselle showing us what the raw beans look like. We had a chance to try raw beans later in the tour.

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The dried beans. When they are crushed, they become nibs.

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The old way of crushing cocoa beans.

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Dried beans on display.

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These beans were in the middle of the 2-week drying cycle.

After the cocoa, Giselle started talking to us about vanilla beans. We quickly learned why they are so expensive.

The vanilla vine takes 2 years to become mature enough to grow the flowers needed for pollination. Because the flowers are only open for a few hours (3-4) one time, hand-pollinating is necessary to make sure that there will be a crop. This is done by running a small, thin stick through the pollen and then fertilizing another flower. Once the fruit begins to grow, it takes 6 months for it to come to full maturity.  The immature pods are dark green; the pods are picked when there is dark yellow coloration at the tip of the pod and it begins to split slightly. At this point, the harvest is continual to be sure that the pods are picked before they over-ripen.

Once the pods are picked, the drying process takes 2 months and then the pods are aged for 1 year before they are packaged and sold.

Giselle said that the pods will last for 60 (yes – 6.0.) years if they are kept in a sealed glass jar in a dark, cook place.

One of the ladies grading and sorting the vanilla beans.

One of the ladies grading and sorting the vanilla beans.

Piles of vanilla beans. It smelled so good in that room.

Piles of vanilla beans. It smelled so good in that room.

When we were done with the ripe beans, Giselle, now joined by her son, Roy, began the tour of the grounds.

Another variety of Croton

Another variety of Croton

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A little diety surrounded by flora.

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More flora: red ginger, croton, palm, ficus

Giselle showed us a cocao tree growing in the front of the property. She explained that the pods aren’t ripe until they have turned yellow.

A very tiny cocao pod.

A very tiny cocao pod.

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Some of the larger pods. These were still months away from being ripe enough to harvest.

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Bougainvillea

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Looking through the canopy

Thsi may be Quetzalcoatl for all I know.

This may be Quetzalcoatl for all I know.

We began our journey through the rest of the plantation. It was dense with vegetation and wildlife. And, it was absolutely fascinating and beautiful.

Butterfly's Nest

Butterfly Weed

Banana

Banana

A type of Heliconia

A type of Heliconia

Giselle stopped at the composting shed to show us what they use around the plantation. It is the usual mix of dead vegetation, some shredded wood, and sheep manure.

Giselle in the composting shed

Giselle in the composting shed

A wider view of the plantation by the shed. Those are cinnamon trees, allspice (pimento) trees, and vanilla vines.

A wider view of the plantation by the shed. Those are cinnamon trees, allspice (pimento) trees, and vanilla vines with a few palm trees in for good measure.

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Torch Ginger

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Rattle Ginger. Roy told us that the hummingbirds like it because of the water that gathers in the folds. He also told us that in India the water is harvested to make perfume. We used it to wash our hands and faces. The water smelled great.

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Red Dracaena

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Vanilla vines with the immature pods.

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More vanilla pods.

I did wonder what an immature one would be like. The thought did briefly cross my mind to pick and pocket one. Then, I thought the better of it.

Fairy Queen

Fairy Queen

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Red Dracaena, Palms, Croton

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Rattle Ginger

A turmeric root Haneen came across.

A turmeric root Haneen came across.

It was at this point that I realized I had stopped listening to Giselle and became absorbed in taking photos. I honestly felt a little guilty.

But, Roy was there to help.  Plus, I think he had a little crush on my sister.

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Roy with a ripe cocoa pod. He was very sweet.

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Coconut palm

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Yes.

Here was a surprise. Allspice (Pimento) trees. Allspice is grown all over the Caribbean. We didn’t see any berries on the trees, but Giselle pulled a couple of leaves off the tree. They smelled like allspice, too. I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

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Allspice (Pimento) tree.

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The leaf that smells like the spice.

Next, we stopped by a pepper vine. I always thought peppercorns grew on bushes. She pulled off a bunch so each person could try a peppercorn.

I find them to be far more spicy fresh than they are dried. I couldn’t finish mine.

Peppercorns are green when they are harvested. After harvesting, the peppercorns are boiled briefly to clean them. The heat ruptures the outer membrane and this causes the peppercorns to turn black as they dry.  White pepper comes from the outer husk being rubbed off.  Green peppercorns retain their color with the addition of sulphur dioxide during the drying process. Green peppercorns can also be pickled. Pink peppercorns are actually members of the cashew family and generally aren’t considered to be real peppercorns. (Black pepper is part of the Piperaceae family.)

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Peppercorns on the vine.

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Giselle holding the bunch she sacrificed for our amusement.

The inside of the peppercorn. As much as I enjoy spicy, I honestly couldn't finish it.

The inside of the peppercorn. As much as I enjoy spicy, I honestly couldn’t finish it.

Dancing Lady orchid

Dancing Lady orchid

Starfruit in the tree. Giselle said when they're orange, they're fully ripe. The only ones I've ever seen are green.

Starfruit in the tree. Giselle said when they’re orange, they’re fully ripe. The only ones I’ve ever seen are green.

More croton.

More croton.

Looking through the canopy. The rain held off.

Looking through the canopy. The rain held off.

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Vanilla pods.

At the end of the tour, we were directed to a roofed, open-air seating area for a tasting. I don’t know if any of us knew about it so it was a wonderful surprise. All of the food either came from the farm or the nearby village.

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The fully ripe starfruit. I’ve never seen it this color in Texas. When I’ve seen it in the stores, it’s always been green or green/yellow.

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The ripe starfruit isn’t overly sweet. It still has a slight tartness to it and a juiciness that makes it really refreshing.

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Our view.

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More. It was certainly relaxing. I almost didn’t want to leave.

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Haneen, Dad, Mom

Next up came the biggest surprise of the tasting. Cinnamon Tea.

It was literally the cinnamon from the plantation steeped in water for 12 hours. We all thought it had sugar in it. Nope. No sugar. Giselle insisted that the type of cinnamon used makes all the difference.

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Cinnamon Tea

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Steve enjoying his tea.

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Taking it all in.

I will say right here that I am highly allergic to cinnamon. However, I really had to try this. While I didn’t have the reaction I was expecting, I did feel a little like I was on an alcohol buzz. It was a strange feeling.

Next up, Giselle broke open a ripe cacao pod for everyone to try. it’s really hard to believe that these raw white beans would’ve eventually became really good chocolate.

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The pod. The look of it was a little startling.

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To me, the white part of the bean tasted like a cross between mango and passionfruit. It had the texture of a mango, too. I could’ve honestly eaten a whole pod on my own.

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The bean after I ate off the white part.

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Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be purple inside. It tasted like a raw bean. Which, I guess it was.

Next on the menu was a wonderful vanilla bean ice cream with a spicy chocolate cookie. Again, most, if not all, the ingredients were from the plantation.

Yum.

Yum.

Then, there was vanilla bean cheesecake with a bit of unsweetened chocolate sauce on top. It was a lighter texture than I’m accustomed to; in other words, it wasn’t New York cheesecake.

More yum.

More yum.

Giselle finished off the tasting with some unsweetened hot chocolate (we had our choice between regular and spicy cocoa [they put a bit of cayenne pepper in their spicy mix]) and a cocoa nib cookie. I think the cookie was everyone’s favorite.

Giselle making the hot chocolate.

Giselle making the hot chocolate. She made it with the cocoa and water – much like the ancient way of making hot chocolate like the Aztecs and Olmecs.

Hot chocolate. Once we all had a sip, Roy came around and added a couple of drops of vanilla extract to everyone's cups. It made a huge difference in the taste; more than one would realize.

Hot chocolate. Once we all had a sip, Roy came around and added a couple of drops of vanilla extract to everyone’s cups. It made a huge difference in the taste; more than one would realize.

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Quite possibly one of the best cookies I’ve ever eaten. The cocoa nibs had a wonderful understated flavor and the cookie wasn’t overly sweet.

Once the tasting was over, we all went (of course) to the gift shop where almost everyone stocked up on spices. I bought cinnamon sticks, cocoa, turmeric, cocoa nibs, cayenne peppers, and vanilla beans. I’m mot sure what Haneen or Mom bought, but I know Mom outbought me.

Unfortunately, Villa Vanilla doesn’t have mail order. They only sell from the plantation or in a few towns nearby. They also supply some of the local restaurants.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it would be feasible for them to set up at the farmers market in Quepos. Or, if they even want to.

Henry. The Owner. A bunch of us watched him remove a snake from the eaves of his house. I had a short chat with him; nice man.

Henry. The Owner. A bunch of us watched him remove a snake from the eaves of his house. I had a short chat with him; nice man.

On the drive back, Mom & I decided that this was the best part of the trip. No matter what else we did, nothing would top this.

We were the first to be dropped off when the bus arrived back in Quepos. It was still fairly early in the day, so Haneen decided to do a little cooking so everyone could have some lunch. She made some egg salad, tuna salad with apples (I was surprised at ow good it was), and my favorite, a tabouli variation, but with lentils instead of cracked wheat. There really wasn’t anything left after all 10 of us landed on the food.

I come from a family of good eaters.

Haneen's creation: Lentil Tabouli

Haneen’s creation: Lentil Tabouli

The running joke all week was how many bags of cheesy poofs we went through during the week. My count was 6.

After lunch, I cleaned up and rested for a while. That’s really all I had the energy to do in the middle of the day when the humidity was over 90%.

Older Nephew in the pool. He was in there for about 5 hours straight.

Older Nephew in the pool. He was in there for about 5 hours straight.

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The other Costa Rican beer. Not bad.

Later in the afternoon, I walked into town with Dad and Danyah. She needed to get some aloe for the boys’ sunburns and we needed more groceries (we were out of cheesy poofs).

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Dad and Danyah.

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The photo doesn’t do justice as to just how steep this hill was.

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Bamboo.

Whenever we would walk into town, there was this one particular house we would always pass.  We finally nicknamed it The Chicken Lady’s House. She had no less than 20 roosters, chickens, and pullets running around at any one time. She became our landmark going and coming.

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At the Chicken Lady’s house.

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Try as I might, I couldn’t find the name of this church. It’s just the Catholic Church in Quepos.

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A bit of public art.

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Another street scene between rain showers.

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Local kids playing fútbol on the pitch.

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Mmm… I want one.

After a successful shopping trip, we headed back to the house and passed the night uneventfully.

 

Day 4 – Thursday, 7/9

Another activity day. Some were heading out for zip lining, some ATV-ing, some of us (me, Mom, Steve) were headed to do a walking tour in Manuel Antonio National Park.

A walking tour is generally in my wheelhouse.

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The view from my & Steve’s bedroom.

We were picked up by our absolutely fabulous guide, Pablo, and, after picking up a Dutch couple from their hotel, we were on our way to the park.

Manuel Antonio National Park  was founded in 1972 so the region’s biodiversity could be protected from developers who were already decimating the surrounding areas. The local people convinced the central government to set aside and protect the land so it could be protected and so everyone could enjoy its beauty. It’s names after the conquistador who was buried near the park.

It is Costa Rica’s smallest park (1700 acres), but boasts almost 300 species of animals. Because of the size of the park, only 600 visitors during the week and 800 visitors on the weekends are allowed in the park at any one time.  The popularity of the park belies its size; it’s basically the Yellowstone of Costa Rica.

Our first stop was at a tree near the park’s entrance. Pablo (who’s been doing tours of the park for 20 years) immediately spotted a frog in the tree. It took a while for the rest of us to see it.

The Gladiator Tree Frog. He was happy in the shade and anjoying the water splashing on him.

The Gladiator Tree Frog. He was happy in the shade and enjoying the water splashing on him.

After this first stop, we made it into the park. Almost immediately, Pablo set up his small telescope and pointed another creature out to us.

The Golden Orb Weaver. This is the fame; the males are smaller and duller in color.

The Golden Orb Weaver. This is the female; the males are smaller and duller in color.

In Latin, this is called a Heliconia Imbricata. Pablo called it a Rattlesnake Plant.

In Latin, this is called a Heliconia Imbricata. Pablo called it a Rattlesnake Plant. He said the hummingbirds loved it because it holds water in its folds; the snakes love it because of the hummingbirds. Plus, it looks like a rattlesnake’s rattle.

The park was crowded with both tourists and locals either on tours, walking on their own, or just heading to the beach. All the guides pointed out sights to each other (they’re a fairly close group) so no one – guides or visitors – would miss anything.

(Some of the photos I took were through the viewfinder of Pablo’s telescope; hence, the odd framing. They still look cool, though.)

This looks like a Helmeted Iguana

This looks like a Helmeted Iguana

Greater Fishing Bats literally hanging out.

Greater Fishing Bats literally hanging out.

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I think this is an immature Giant Grasshopper. The mature ones lose the striations and are green with large red wings.

Peach Palms. The whole tree, including the fruit, has been used and eaten by the ingenous peoples of Costa Rica for centuries.

Peach Palms. The whole tree, including the fruit, has been used and eaten by the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica for centuries.

And then, we saw them… Sloths. Two- and Three-Toes sloths are both common in the park. They are both arboreal, leaf-eaters, and are mainly nocturnal (although they can be active during the day).  However, the Three-Toes Sloth cannot support its own body weight, so it only comes down to the ground once a week to defecate in a small hole it digs with its stubby tail; it is also a good swimmer. The Two-Toed Sloth can support its weight and is known to crawl on the ground.

We were also told by Pablo, they don’t make the best moms. The baby clings to their fur, but, if it falls off, the mother generally isn’t willing to climb down from the safety of the tree to retrieve it.

Our first glimpse of a Three-Toed Sloth doing what they do best - hanging out.

Our first glimpse of a Three-Toed Sloth doing what they do best – hanging out.

We would see more sloths, but first, other flora and fauna.

A female Yellow-Headed Gecko.

A female Yellow-Headed Gecko.

The Great Pablo

The Great Pablo

Peach Palms

Peach Palms

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Hibiscus

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A sleeping Red-Eyed Tree Frog

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Halloween Crab. Pablo called them the most important animal in the forest. They basically do all the composting.

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Mom spotted this one in the leaves – Helmeted Iguana.

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I’ve no idea what this is. It’s very likely a bud. The contrast to the green is striking.

I'm really proud of myself for getting this photo. Long-Billed Hermit Hummingbird

I’m really proud of myself for getting this photo. Long-Billed Hermit Hummingbird

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More green.

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A closer look at the Peach Palm

As we got closer to the beach, we started to see more Mangrove Trees.

As we got closer to the beach, we started to see more Mangrove Trees.

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Vines on the Mangrove

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Fruit from the Peach Palm. There are quite a few animals in the forest that eat the fruit.

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Just a nice little stream.

I happened to see this off the side of the trail. I don't know what type of fungi this is, but itwas fascinating to look at; I've never seen this type before.

I happened to see this off the side of the trail. I don’t know what type of fungi this is, but it was fascinating to look at; I’ve never seen this type before.

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Mangrove trunk

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More fungi.

Another Mom discovery - the Owl Butterfly.

Another Mom discovery – the Owl Butterfly.

We finally made it to the beach. After traipsing through the humidity of the forest, the open air was welcome.

We stayed for about 30 minutes and rehydrated, rested, and took a few (more) photos.

The no-so-nocturnal Crab Eating Racoon. They aren't afraid of people.

The no-so-nocturnal Crab Eating Raccoon. They aren’t afraid of people.

We watched the raccoons search around for food in the usual places you would think (i.e. trashcans), but they weren’t shy about digging around in peoples’ belongings. And you thought only monkeys did that.

The world over, racoons enjoy a good barrel of garbage.

The world over, raccoons enjoy a good barrel of garbage.

Then, we looked up; along just about everyone else on the beach.

Mother Three-Toed Sloth with baby

Mother Three-Toed Sloth with baby

She was just hanging out in the tree right above the beach. If she hadn’t’ve started moving, no one would’ve noticed her. As slow as people say sloths are, she moved around quite quickly and deftly. Also, the baby did its job and held on.

Mother & baby on their way.

Mother & baby on their way.

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Bye.

Steve & I walked around a little on the beach. But, it was very high tide at the time we were there, so there wasn’t much beach to walk on if you didn’t want to get wet. Pablo told us that the reason the tide was so high so late in the morning was because they were expecting a tropical storm later in the evening. If it happened, it didn’t make it to Quepos.

The beach at Manuel Antonio. Also known as beach #1

The beach at Manuel Antonio. Also known as beach #1

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Tree on the beach.

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Coconut and the beach. A natural combination.

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More beach. Very high tide.

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Looking out into the Pacific.

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Walking down to the less crowded end of the beach.

The dreaded Manzanillo Tree.

The dreaded Manzanillo Tree. The fruit is poisonous, the sap causes blisters (you can see the sap – it’s the white stuff on the upper branch), and the smoke from burning the wood causes respiratory problems.

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Mom told us when she was growing up in Florida, she remembered people falling asleep under Manzanillo Trees and waking up with blisters from the sap.

After this, we started the walk back to the bus. As fun as the tour was, we were ready to go.

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I think this is what is popularly called Lengua de Gallina – Hen’s Tongue. It’s part of the orchid family. This looks like new growth.

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I can’t identify what all these plants are. I just know I really liked the way it looked.

More wood fungi.

More wood fungi.

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One last look at the beach. Fallen Mangroves and Palm trees.

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Last glimpse of the raccoons. Go forth and forage, you crazy kids.

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Termite nest. These are everywhere. Kinda creepy looking.

A Stream Anole lizard. Pablo called it a Jesus Lizard. Not sure why.

A Stream Anole Lizard. Pablo called it a Jesus Lizard. Not sure why.

We finally made our way out of the park. I noticed that the main gates were closed and we had to go through a sort of turnstile to the right (think the NYC subway). I figured the quota must’ve been reached and, if they were letting people in, it was on a one-on-one basis.

I decided to grab some coconut water for me, Mom, and Steve. I found a vendor who guaranteed his was cold, so, I bought some. Right in the shell. the price was right, too. 300₡ (Costa Rica Colones – about $.75)

Better than water at helping one’s thirst. Tasted better, too.

The gentleman prepping our coconut water.

The gentleman prepping our coconut water.

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Oh. Yeah.

On the drive back to Quepos, we asked Pablo what his favorite place is to eat in town, he suggested a soda (small mom & pop local restaurants) called Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. Mom, Steve, and I were all hungry, and Pablo hadn’t steered us wrong all day, so we took his suggestion.

It was the second best meal we had in Costa Rica.

This place was great. And cheap.

This place was great. And cheap. As locals places usually are.

This was some damn good fried chicken.

This was some damn good fried chicken.

Our proprietor. I think his wife was doing all the cooking.

Our proprietor. He was curmudgeonly in a charming sort of way. I think his wife was doing all the cooking.

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My and Mom’s lunch: Arroz con Pollo. Quite possibly the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m not sure if it’s just a Costa Rican thing, but the chicken was shredded and the rice was fried with all the ingredients.

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Steve’s lunch: Arroz con Gambas. I had a bite; it was great, too.

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Watching the bus trying to turn into traffic. It was a show.

After lunch, we caught a cab back to the house and spent the afternoon talking about each others’ excursions. Finally, I cleaned up, had a nap, and was ready to stay in and just be quiet.

Mark had noticed a restaurant on the road towards Manuel Antonio – Emilio’s Cafe. He said it looked good, they had live music, and wanted to give it a try.

Sure. Why not?

But first, we had to contend with a couple of things.

To begin with, Older Nephew had a rather nasty sunburn that had kept him up the night before and had been made worse during the day. He said he’d worn sunscreen, but didn’t reapply. As Danyah put aloe on his back, it was decided that he was to stay at the house while we went out. He didn’t object.

Second – Some Capuchin Monkeys decided to give us a visit.

Well. Hello.

Well. Hello.

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Capuchins live in groups of up to 30. They are omnivorous and have been known to use tools like apes (i.e. chimpanzees) do. They forage in both the trees and on the ground.

This was about the time we decided we'd better go into the house.

This was about the time we decided we’d better go into the house.

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They then took over the patio.

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Enjoying the pool facilities.

I don’t know how long they stayed.

As we were leaving, Steve told Older Nephew that he expected three of the monkeys trained when he got back: a butler, an accordion player, and a cymbal player. Older Nephew just gave him with a “yeah. right.” look.

When we arrived at Emilio’s, we discovered there was Flamenco that night. Cool.

Emilio's. Very good. But touristy.

Emilio’s. Very good. But touristy.

It’s a nice space overlooking the ocean with a studied rustic charm.

Our view from the restaurant.

Our view from the restaurant.

The menu was billed as “Mediterranean”, but it was most definitely a fusion of Mediterranean and Costa Rican.

I wasn’t really all that hungry, so I opted for basically an appetizer for dinner. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a Passionfruit Mojito, though.

My Passionfruit Mojito. Meh.

My Passionfruit Mojito. Meh.

I was a little disappointed. The only passionfruit I could discern was the seeds. I drank it, though.

We decided to go all out on dinner; appetizers (entradas), salads (ensaladas), main courses (platos fuerte), and desserts (postres).

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Felafel salad. Not bad, although the felafel fell apart very easily.

Ceviche. This was excellent and arguably the best part of dinner.

Ceviche. This was excellent and arguably the best part of dinner.

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Fried Calamari. Very good; the breading was a little on the heavy side, though.

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Dad’s dinner: Fish Fillet with Tahineh Sauce. I had a bite; it was better than I expected. Dad seemed to enjoy it.

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My dinner; Broiled Octopus with Boiled Potatoes. This was an appetizer and it filled me up. I thoroughly enjoyed this.  The potatoes had a really good flavor and were cooked just to the right amount of doneness; the same could be said for the Octopus.

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Heath’s dinner; Bass with Ginger-Curry Sauce. He seemed to enjoy it.

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Steve’s dinner: Tuna Three Ways. I can’t recall the three ways the tuna was done. But, looking at the photo, at least one looks like a glaze of some sort. He said it was really good but there was too much. I’m not even sure he finished.

Younger Nephew, out resident Potato Connoisseur, helped out those who couldn’t finish their potatoes. I think he ordered the same thing I did and it wasn’t quite enough for him; he’s a growing 15-year old after all.

Then, dessert. Apparently, Emilio’s is known for its desserts and is quite proud of that fact. The waiter will take you to the display case where you pick your dessert like you’d pick a lobster in a tank. Then, they bring it to you in a floursh 15 minutes later.

I had Coconut Flan (that I failed to photograph). It was good, but nothing memorable. While the coconut flavor was definitely pronounced, the texture was a bit grainy; like it had been cooked just a little too long.

Key Lime Pie. Not Costa Rican, but the bite I had was really good.

Heath’s dessert: Key Lime Pie. Not Costa Rican, but the bite I tried was really good.

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This was Haneen’s dessert: Ginger Cheesecake. I didn’t try any, but she said it was excellent.

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Our digestive: a rather marginal Limoncello.

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Clockwise from left: Mom, Mark, Heath, me, Dad, Steve, Haneen, Younger Nephew, Danyah

 

After dessert was finished, the Flamenco started. Now, I love Flamenco guitar and dancing. I find it, well, sensual. This group didn’t disappoint. They were fun to watch, and were all terrific performers. I have no idea whether they were local or a touring group. As far as I know, Flamenco isn’t native to Costa Rica. However, I’m sure with the Spanish colonization, it was introduced to the region at some point.

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From l-r: Ximena Araya, José Fernández, Álvaro Madrigal, Allan Naranjo

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Yup. Sexy.

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She was great. I also liked the fact she was dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Unfortunately, we had asked our cab to pick us up at the restaurant at 7:30. We didn’t know about the Flamenco (it started at 7) and there was no way to contact the driver. So, a few of us decided to go ahead and go back to the house (me included – I was exhausted and starting to not feel well). We had to ask the driver to come pick up the rest of our group at 8:30. He didn’t look at all pleased by this; I think he just wanted to go home.

I asked later if he got a really big tip. Mom assured me he did.

Steve was disappointed that Older Nephew hadn’t used his time wisely and trained a monkey butler.

 

Day 5 – Friday 7/10

Overall, it was a pretty quiet day for me. I did make breakfast for most of the crew because we still hadn’t touched the bacon. So, I scrambled the rest of the eggs, fried up most of the bacon (there was no way I was going to stand over the stove and cook one kilo of bacon), put out some cheese, made some toast, and heated up some tortillas. Everyone who ate breakfast seemed happy. I finally managed to get a few strips of bacon and a couple of tortillas.

Then, I went all housewife and did my & Steve’s laundry. Ana had managed to get the maids to leave the laundry room key so we could use the facilities. It was like a dungeon down there. And, since my Spanish isn’t great, I had to use process of elimination as to which container held the laundry detergent. I finally got lucky. Then, there were the machines; their settings were in Spanish, too. (Well, of course they would be.) I must’ve done all right because I didn’t ruin any of our clothes.

About mid-morning, I walked down to Quepos with Dad. He wanted to check out the marina take a look around town.

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We passed this little guy enjoying the hibiscus flowers.

We decided to walk down to the sea wall and towards the marina. The weekly farmers market takes place on the wall, and I wanted to be sure I knew where it was.

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I’m guessing this is some sort of branding. Can’t seem to get away from Texas.

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Quepos

The next few photos are some of the bench art by the wall. I think there were about a dozen in all.

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When we got to the wall, the breeze was a blessing. It was a hot, humid day with almost no breeze in the canopy.

The Sanjuan

Sanjuan

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Looking towards the Pacific and marina at the sea wall.

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The Fisherman

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Walking down the sea wall.

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I don’t know whether these guys were joy riding or fishermen coming in or going out.

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I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to represent – my guess is a vegetable seller – but he just looked so sad with those weepy eyes.

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Coconut Palm

We finally made it down to the marina. The marina was opened in 2010 as a way to rebuild the old pier built by the United Fruit Company and as a way to bring in new business and jobs to the town. It has some upper-end restaurants and shopping on the grounds, but the real viewing was all of the fishing boats and yachts the 1% keep at the slips.

I felt like I was spending money just standing there. The marina did look a little incongruous given the surroundings.

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The marina.

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Some of the larger boats.

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A couple of the 1%-er boats.

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Morning Glory.

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Firecrackers

After exploring the marina, Dad and I decided to get some lunch. We went back to Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. I couldn’t resist.

Arroz y Pollo. I probably could've eaten this everyday from this same soda.

Arroz y Pollo. I probably could’ve eaten this everyday from the same soda.

After lunch, I did a little gift/souvenir shopping while Dad talked to the tour operator next door about something. After this, we headed back to the house and settled in for the afternoon.

The afternoon rain on the pool.

The afternoon rain on the pool.

That night, Steve & I decided to have a date night. We simply wanted to have a little time alone. Pablo told us of a place he liked called La Cantina on the Manuel Antonio road. He said they had great barbecue, especially their ribs.

Since it was on the Manuel Antonio road, I was skeptical of how good the food could really be. The restaurants on the road are generally catering to tourists rather than locals and the food can be rather dumbed down.

The first thing I noticed when our taxi dropped us off was the cold case carousel of entrees by the front entrance – for me, never a good sign. The second thing was the very heavy look to the place. As with all of the restaurants we’d been in so far, this one was open-air, but the very heavy wood furniture and fixtures still made the place seem somewhat claustrophobic.

La Cantina.

La Cantina.

To mitigate this feeling, I went all ’70’s and ordered a Piña Colada. I felt it matched the decor.

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My Piña Colada. Despite appearances (I had to keep stirring it), it was quite good.

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Steve’s drink: Peachy Mango.

After the waiter took our order (we didn’t get any barbecue), we saw Squirrel Monkeys frolicking in the trees. They were a big favorite for all of the tourists in the restaurant. Any locals and the staff were unimpressed. I guess they see this every day.

Out of all the photos I took of the monkeys, this was the only one that came out.

Out of all the photos I took of the monkeys, this was the only one that came out.

After the monkey show, dinner arrived.

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My dinner: Cazuela de Mariscos al Curry (Curry Seafood Stew). This was good, but nothing memorable. I seem to recall enjoying the curry sauce with the rice more than the seafood itself.

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Steve’s dinner: Pargo Crujiente (Crispy Red Snapper). He really enjoyed his meal. I told him to be sure to get any meat in the head. As you can see, this was a large fish; he managed to finish it.

After dinner, we decided to go downstairs and see some music and get some dessert. The combo was a trio of local guys who sang old standards and Spanish cover versions of American pop songs. They weren’t great, but one had to give them an “E” for effort.

The trio. They really tried.

The trio. They really tried.

The staff seemed to be either overwhelmed or disorganized – it was hard to tell. The restaurant wasn’t that busy since it was still relatively early. Since our cab was picking us up at 8:30, and they seemed to be dragging their feet on getting Steve’s dessert and coffee, I had to do one of the things I know servers hate – ask them to speed it up because we had to leave. (I didn’t say exactly that, but you get my meaning.)

I decided against dessert; Steve had tres Leches Cake and coffee.

I decided against dessert; Steve had Tres Leches Cake and coffee.

Steve finished, we paid, and we went to meet our taxi.

The meat counter.

The meat counter. The cooked meat next to the raw – ugh. I know it goes back on the grill, but, ugh. I’m sure it happens in restaurants more than I know.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

When we got back to the house, everyone else was there having a pizza party. I guess they enjoyed it because there was only one slice of cheese pizza left.

As I was falling asleep, I could hear the Howler Monkeys.

 

Day 6 – Saturday, 7/11

Honestly, this was the day I’d been looking forward to all week: Farmers Fair (Ferias del Agricultor). The ferias is set up on Friday night and is up and running full blast by Saturday morning. We went early to beat the heat and crowds.

When I mentioned this to Mom before we left on the trip, I asked her if she wanted to go. Her affirmative response was immediate. Steve decided to tag along, too.

It was another humid morning – as one would expect from the tropics – but once we were down at the sea wall, the breezes really helped to mitigate the oppressiveness.

It was a wonderful market. There were vendors who sold shoes and underwear, some who sold souvenirs, but most sold fresh produce.

For the more wide-angle shots, I didn’t really find it necessary to ask the vendors if I could take photos. I’m sure they either didn’t notice or they’re used to it.  However, if I was going to buy from and photograph a stand specifically, I would ask the vendor, “¿Peudo tomar su photo?” – May I take your photo? They were all very nice about it and said “sí”. It’s just a courtesy thing.

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Souvenir stand. I should’ve waited to buy the gifts.

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Looked like some really cute, if formulaic, stuff.

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Tomatoes and potatoes are indigenous to Central America. Carrots come along probably in the 18th or 19th century.

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Coconuts and what looked like Mamones Chinos (limes that have a hard shell and soft fruit. They are related to the lychee)

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More vendor stands

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At all of the stands, the produce was so beautiful.

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These look like Fuji Apples, but I can’t be 100% sure.

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Pineapples. Of course.

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Mangoes

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We bought a beautiful piece of tuna and some shrimp.

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I was excited to find Otaheiti Apples.

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Mandarin Limes.

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Another beautiful stand

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Bananas

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I think these are the fruit of the Peach Palm. I was also surprised by the number of vendors selling lychees.

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Shoes and undies

Steve went looking for breakfast for he & I while Mom & I were shopping. He came across a gentlemen selling tamales. Tamales for breakfast? Yes, please.

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There were 2 tamales per package. They were huge. And still very hot from the steamer.

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I’d never had tamales like this before. They certainly had the usual masa base, but these also contained rice plus chunks of vegetables and pork. They were also very soft, unlike Mexican-style tamales.

Those tamales were damn delicious. And, I couldn’t finish the second one. I tried to get Mom to try some, but she said she’d already eaten and wasn’t hungry.

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Our view while we ate breakfast.

We left shortly after this. It was time to get moving and the tweakers nearby were starting to concern us a little.

Steve decided to stay in town and look around while Mom and I took our purchases back to the house. On the way, I ducked into a carnecería and bought a half kilo of chicharron. They were still warm from the fryer.

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The maids pointed out this little guy to us when we got home. I have no idea how he didn’t just slide down off the glass. He was there most of the day just sleeping and sunning.

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My bag of goodness.

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Now, People, THAT is a chicharron.

I spent most of the afternoon finishing my & Steve’s laundry, reading, packing, and just generally being quiet. I was then distracted by a line of Army Ants moving up one of the walls towards a window carrying a piece of chicharron. I regret now not getting a picture.

Then, Mom called me outside and showed me this.

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Toucan Sam

I was lucky I got the photo I did. He flew off almost as soon as I snapped the shutter.

About 4pm, I got started on dinner. We bought potatoes, chayote, tomatoes, avocados, Mandarin limes, pineapple, mangoes, onions, Otaheiti Apples, tuna, and prawns. Along with all of these things, I decided to clean out the fridge as much as possible since we were leaving the next morning and had to either throw away anything left or simply leave it behind.

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Scallions, onion, chayote, potatoes

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Tomato-Avocado Salad

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Some beautiful large prawns.

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Mangos & pineapple; otaheiti & green apples; tomato-avocado salad; sliced tomatoes

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A lovely loin of tuna. I’m not sure what variety. Most likely, it was yellowfin.

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Cooking the potatoes. These took so long to cook, I was despairing about 90 minutes later.

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The chayote, on the other hand, cooked up rather quickly and was better than I remembered. Even one of my brothers-in-law, who hates squash, tried it.

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Cutting down the loin. The knives I used were pretty dull, so the cuts weren’t as even as I like. I just pan-seared the tuna until it was a medium-well. I figured that was the best way to go since not everyone likes rare or medium-rare tuna.

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Mandarin Limes. These are great. They have a slightly sweeter taste than Persian Limes (what we usually see).

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Dinner finished – finally. I made a sort-of Buerre Blanc with what was left of the butter, onions, and limes. I also sliced the rest of the cheese and put it out. The boys kept nibbling at everything before I finished cooking.

Everyone seemed to enjoy dinner. I was happy because there were almost no leftovers and I didn’t have to do dishes.

Then, came dessert. Heath had gone to a bakery in Quepos earlier in the day and picked up a lovely chocolate cake (it had the texture of a Tres Leches) for Older Nephew.

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Older Nephew with his congratulations cake.

Not long after I, and most everyone else went to bed, I received this photo via text from Steve:

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Yikes.

It turned out he and the boys were sitting around talking and Older Nephew noticed this on the couch. Steve tried to dispatch it, but he only succeeded in making it scurry back under the couch. Steve speculated that it had a nest either under or in the cushion; or, since we had the doors and windows open almost all the time, it could’ve crawled in who knows when.

They took all the cushions off the couch (except for the seat) and placed signs in English and Spanish basically saying “Don’t sit here. Scorpion in the cushion.” If that thing was living in the cushions, we were all really lucky it didn’t come out and sting anyone. Scorpion stings aren’t really too harmful to anyone who’s healthy, but they feel like a red-hot needle poking into you.

 

Day 7 – Sunday, 7/12

Not too much to tell about Sunday. It was travel back home day for us.

I went over to Haneen & Mark’s balcony outside their room and took a few final photos.

 

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Looking into the canopy.

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One final photo of a Flycatcher.

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Looking into the canopy.

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One final photo.

Estilio arrived just before 9 to pick us up to take us to the airport. Our flight was at 2pm, and with the drive and check-in, we needed all the time we could reasonably get.

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The American check-in line. Sigh.

Because Mom & Dad have some sort of priority status on American, they were able to check themselves and Danyah’s crew (Dad had booked all their tickets) in the first class ticketing line. The rest of us had to schlub through the economy class line.

Just as we were about to be at the head of the line, however, a customer service rep took us out of the line and checked us in at one of the kiosks. Problem solved.

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Paying the exit tax.

That’s all. Just two more flights, complete chaos at immigration in Miami, and a flight delay, we all finally made it back home.

 

I’ll definitely go back. Costa Rica was so much more fun and beautiful than I imagined. Those coupled with the great food and lovely people, plus hanging with my family for a week, made it a wonderful and memorable trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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