Archive | Foodie Corner

Villa Vanilla Rainforest Spices

 While visiting Manuel Antonio Park we discovered a treasure 10 miles East of Quepos—the Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation now known as Rainforest Spices. One of my passions is cooking so I was excited to see this farm and the process of growing and cultivating vanilla. To my surprise this 27 acre farm went well beyond traditional organic farming of vanilla. The farm boasts a rich cultural environment of epiphytes, orchids, bromeliads, tilandsias, spice trees, cocoa and medicinal plants as well as goats, chickens and cows.

The crops are grown bio-dynamically a process, the owner Henry Karcyznski, discovered through research after a blight effected his farm. In fact, he is the only demeter certified farm using bio-dynamic cultural sustainable practices. This diverse system prevents diseases and land use problems associated with single-crop agriculture.

Henry met us upon arrival and we quickly hit it off. Both Henry and my husband spent time in Jamaica and they started sharing stories. As we walked through his farm my senses were infused with visual beauty, amazing floral scents and flavors. The tour is more than just delighting the senses, even though that is a major part, it is also very educational. After walking through the epiphyte trail we saw a vanilla vine in bloom.  I admit I really got excited!  As I took in the sight of the beautiful blossom Henry explained once the plant blooms, there is a 24 hour window for pollination and each blossom must be hand-pollinated–a labor intensive crop.

Preparing vanilla orchid for pollination

Stimulation of your taste buds is a large part of the tour experience.  Tasting  is two part–on the trail and at the cabana area.   As you walk along the path through the farm–you will taste leaves plucked straight from the tree each with a distinctive flavor bursting on your palate.  I tasted peppercorns fresh from the tree-the heat erupting in my mouth and true cinnamon called ceylon shaved directly from a branch–the flavor surprised me both spicy and sweet.  I was in sensory heaven but it doesn’t stop here.

Celyon

Cassia

As an alchemist Henry understands the medicinal properties of plants. He informed us on the benefits of Ceylon—true cinnamon and cautioned us on the use of cassia which has been banned in Germany—the pretty well formed cinnamon sticks that many people use. True cinnamon, or Celyon, is lighter in color and the sticks are delicate with flaky layers—more like cigar tobacco. The thick, dark sticks are cassia. Henry informed us that Ceylon is the healthy type of cinnamon.

Cinnamon is beneficial for detoxification, promotes insulin production and has very good anti-oxidant properties. As a retired nurse, I was very interested in the medicinal benefits of the plants he grew. The second part of tasting is located in a lovely cabana area called Rainforest Viewpoint.  There is a bar, table and chairs to sit at. We were served Ceylon tea and desserts made from pepper, cheesecake and chocolate cookie with vanilla ice-cream made from farm fresh milk and cream from their dairy cow. The desserts are delicious prepared by their own pastry chef. I was surprised how sweet and delicious the Ceylon tea was without any added sugar. Henry steeps the Ceylon bark for 24 hours to produce this lovely tea. The recipe for Ceylon tea is printed on the package of Ceylon bark pieces available for purchase in their “Spice Shoppe.” We purchased about a Kilo of vanilla beans, extract, ground Ceylon, pepper seeds both white and black and cocoa pods.

These have made wonderful gifts for our family and friends. His vanilla is the best I have ever used. If you are anywhere near a “foodie” you will not be disappointed in this tour. It is still one of the highlights of my time in Manuel Antonio and I look forward to returning for another visit. Update: Time for another visit, the vanilla beans are getting low and the extract is long gone.

Tours are half day and available in the morning and afternoon. The tour description and driving directions can be found on his website at www.rainforestspices.com as well as informative articles. Or you may contact him directly cell: 506-8839-2721 or at the farm 506-2779-1155.

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Getting the Squeeze

It’s all in the Squeeze! Because there is nothing like fresh-picked flavor.

Central America is blessed with many abundances and the flavor of just-picked fruit is one of the many memories that last long after a trip. So what’s that amazing flavor? Is it grown on site, nearby? Ask your host where it is sourced. It could come from their garden, grandpa’s garden, a local grower, the farmer’s market (mercado), a road-side fruit stand, even semi-frozen packets of fresh fruit pulp.

Local farmer’s markets are a feast for the eyes and the camera as the colors, the aromas, the faces, the hustle and bustle and the sounds combine to make it a chance to check out the local lifestyle.  Mercados (markets) carry fresh locally grown goods, cheeses, coffee, and seafood, however we found that even in the tropics of Costa Rica, great looking grapes (Chile) and apples, peaches and pears (USA) were on the tables; clearly not indigenous to the region. Don’t be shy, you probably won’t be denied a chance to taste any of the goods on display if you show interest.

Growers in Costa Rica can chose to sell locally or use the efficient global transportation and distribution networks to export products. For you, it means produce can move across continents as quickly as it can across states or provinces, bringing great tasting produce to a local market near you.

One needs to be a bit more creative in where to look.  Check out Latin, Mexican, Asian or Middle Eastern markets, all carry a dizzying array of fresh tropical fruit and frozen puree. Once in hand we tackle the next great challenge.

Why juice tastes better in the tropics. Great tasting food comes from the freshest ingredients. Let’s focus on citrus; lemons, limes and oranges.  Excellent in their natural state, but they also travel well encased in their own bubble-wrap skin. The method of extraction and handling fresh juice makes all the difference to maintain that wonderful taste until you serve it.

Tools of the trade for extraction or “The Squeeze”

Think about the term “fresh-squeezed juice”, the term defines the process; squeezed, not routed or reamed. While you could just use your strong hands to squeeze a half or whole fruit, we prefer the simplicity of time-tested tools over contraptions and spinning things  Professional bartenders get it right when they use the simplest, most durable and efficient tools when making drinks with fresh squeezed citrus.

The pithy white insides are bitter. These were squeezed on a rotary juicer.

The very effective metal style hand squeezer shown here is available at most Latin markets in North America for around $4-6.00USD, more at liquor chains or kitchen specialty stores. These markets often carry different sized models that match the size and color of the citrus intended to be juiced; green for limes, yellow for lemons and orange, well you get it. Just a word of caution, inserting the halved fruit can be counter-intuitive; the cut surface of the fruit faces downward towards the holes in the cup while the plunger side essentially breaks the back of the fruit and squeezes juice out through the holes over your bowl or glass. You’ll know from the tangy shower if you’ve loaded the fruit the wrong way.

Why the press or hand squeezer?  Hand squeezers always get it right.  Having said that, spinning or spindle devices can too, but while commonly sold, these devices that rotate the fruit over a spindle or a hand held spindle must be used sparingly, meaning the user must be careful to avoid over processing the fruit beyond the juice cells. It makes sense to want that “last-drop” for all the effort, but electro-mechanical or jar-top reaming devices can encourage an overuse of force and time in motion, meaning, after the juice has been extracted, we are only adding bitterness. The white sectional fibers and pith on the inside of the fruit extract a bitterness when over exposed to the reamer.  How much is enough?  Just the right amount, that’s how much, and that’s exactly what makes it so hard and easy at the same time.  We do use electronic juicers and every batch of fruit, based on its ripeness or softness changes the pressure we use or the time we keep it on the spinner.  Electrical devices can also friction-heat the juice, which, beyond what we have just discussed begins the oxidation deterioration of the flavor, our next topic.

Handling fresh juice: Time, temperature and air are the enemies of fresh fruit juice, of almost anything fresh, but fresh juice begins to deteriorate the moment a whole citrus is cut open, exposing the inside to air. Heating juice is essentially a form of pasteurization or preserving and we know what that does to flavor.  If your fruit is clean, fresh with no spoiled spots or insects, it should be bacteria-free. But deciding to heat, pasteurize or preserving is your decision. Fresh juice, especially the delicate lime, when exposed to air at room temperature will begin to deteriorate in flavor in just minutes; taking on a processed or bottled juice flavor.  Enough said about that, prep juice when you are ready to use it or cover and refrigerate till use.  Once mixed with a sugar solution, sugar is a preservative and will help to stabilize the favor.

Gadget or Gimmick: Now that you have that part down, lets talk about the other kitchen gadgets gimmicks. We love the variety of tools and toys available in the foodie marketplace. We’ve even got drawers full of one-time use gadgets we’ve tried over the years.  Like that mango slicer; how did that improve the rim of a glass method, or the natural appeal of a half sliced mango, scored and folded to open on your plate.  Digressing, those spring-loaded scissor-type devices will give you a squirt and a pinch but also take two hands to steady it and are not efficient enough to give (or your patience) enough quantity. Now the reamers and other tools, well its a combination of the above, and while they are great when properly used, its just more difficult than the old hand-held stand-by that we stand by.

 

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Pineapple Express

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We know things taste better in the tropics. Great tasting food and tropical desserts come from great tasting ingredients like limes, oranges, mango, pineapple and other exotic fruits. Excellent fresh-peeled and even more delicious as a cool smoothie or refreshing sorbet. We take you from market to kitchen for your own tropical delight.

Did you know there are many varieties of pineapple and they are members of the bromeliad family?  They usually arrive in your local store in various states of ripeness, and the variety of pineapples have a different shape, skin coloration, meat and seasonality.  Generally speaking, the more compact the pineapple, the more concentrated the sugars. In Costa Rica they often serve small, golden amber pineapple as a snack or dessert, small grained, non-stringy with very tight openings in the meat; it’s incredibly sweet.

An amazing alternative is the white pineapple, also cultivated in Hawaii. In the wild it has variegated leaves and coloration in the veins of the skin, including a reddish or purple tint as well as green and red hues. The white has the consistency of watermelon, not stringy, is quite juicy and tastes like piña colada; not too sweet, just right and perfect to enjoy “licuado” or smoothie-style.  On one trip to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, our friend Rafa of Pelican House showed us which pineapples were ready to cut and enjoy immediately and licuado.  Machete in hand, the white rules.

Its easier than you think to make a refreshing frozen sorbet in your own kitchen with just a blender and freezer. It’s a beautiful dessert, so light, creamy, acidic and smooth on the palate. Much better for you than processed treats because you can choose the type of sweetener and the amount that you prefer, if any.  Follow our tips on juice handling and you’re ready to make a delicious tropical dessert just like you remember,  maybe even better.  For presentation, make a serving boat from a cleaned out shell of 1/2 pineapple, wash and freeze. Serve the sorbet or ice cream in the frozen pineapple boat and garnish with mint or citrus leaf. Pineapple is a good dietary source of fiber, vitamin C, B6, manganese, copper and thiamin.

Pineapple Sorbet

  • 1 medium fresh pineapple
  • ¾ cup caster sugar (finely ground sugar) Substitute 1/2 cup extra light Agave Nectar. To make caster sugar place sugar in food processor and process until sugar becomes dusty at edges and finely ground but not powdered.
  • 1 tsp. Fresh Lime juice
  • 3-4 drops pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp. aged amber or dark rum (optional)

Wash, peel and core the pineapple and cut into large chunks. Place pineapple into food processor and process until pureed. Add sugar and lime juice and mix well. Pour into a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and press puree through the sieve to catch any fibrous pulp. This will give you a creamy mixture. Add the vanilla and the rum to the sieved pineapple mixture. Cover and place in refrigerator for at least one hour. Place chilled mixture into an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturers instructions. In a pinch, a blender will work to re-aerate the semi frozen mixture and then place back into freezer. The trick is to serve soon after it has set so it can be scooped out. If it is hard frozen you will need to let stand out of the freezer until it softens for scooping out. It is futile to try to extract home made sorbet from a hard frozen container.

white pine3white pine

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Oh! Limon Sorbet Too!

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More to love tropical flavors… Lime

Lime-Sorbet

Is it the exotic fresh fruit or simply being on vacation that makes everything taste sweeter and more refreshing? Answer; sweet, sour, tangy, acidic, colorful fruits are great wherever you happen to be. Great tasting food and tropical desserts come from great tasting ingredients like lemons, limes, oranges, mandarin, mango and pineapple. All are excellent in their raw state as well as prepared as a cool smoothie or refreshing sorbet.

About sorbet, its easier than you might think; in fact refreshing frozen sorbet is one of the easiest things to make in your own kitchen with just a blender and freezer. Follow our tips on juice preparation and you’re ready to make a delicious tropical dessert just like you remember in Costa Rica.

Let’s talk lime (or limon) for a moment. South of the USA, lime is pronounced limon, similar to how North Americans say lemon (the yellow thing), but both are called limon, so to distinguish, limon amarillo is the North American yellow lemon and limon verde is a green lime.  The yellow lemon is a sub-tropical fruit, found in northern Mexico and above while the green limon, also a sub-tropical, can thrive in the tropics. Dishes cooked with citrus are usually prepared with orange, limon verde or limon mandarina, a less sweet cross between a tangerine and limon verde, reputedly the source of Hanson’s Mandarin Lime soda.

Lime Sorbet

  • 1 cup fresh lime juice – about 8-10 limes
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup caster sugar (finely ground sugar) or substitute 2/3 cup extra light Agave Nectar and skip the cooking step. To make caster sugar place sugar in food processor and process until sugar becomes dusty at edges and finely ground but not powdered.
  • Zest of lime

Wash fruit and measure ingredients. Put water and sugar into a saucepan and bring to simmer. Cook until sugar dissolves.  Over cooking will brown the sugar and begin carmelization, adding a burnt or caramel flavor. Remove from heat and cool or place container in an ice bath to rapid cool. When cool, add zest and fresh juice, mixing well in a blender. Adding fresh juice to hot sugar water will cook the juice and change its flavor.  Place mixture in freezer for at least one hour. After an hour, you can use your ice-cream maker if you have one or whip up the semi-frozen mixture in a blender to aerate. Place back into the freezer until 10 minutes before serving. You want semi-soft so it can hold its shape when scooped.  If hard-frozen, leave it out for the ten minutes to soften for serving.

Like that serving boat idea?  Take your lime, hollow it out so the white inside sectional skins and pith are removed. Cut the tip from the bottom side of the skin, making a slightly flat surface for it to sit upright.  Flash freeze while you prepare your mixture to semi-frozen state. When semi frozen, pour into the frozen lime shells for a final freeze. Garnish with lime zest, a thinly sliced pice of lime or mint leaf. A couple of lime halves on a plate make a beautiful display.

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