Flower Powered! Flor de Itabo

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Its THAT time of year! You can see these on top of a yuca type tree, and hanging in the grocery stores, and you might wonder – whatever do they do with THAT?

Flor de Itabo is an edible and much prized seasonal culinary treat. The flavor is delicate and a little bitter if prepared with the centers. They are especially good with eggs and tomato based dishes. Preparation is simple, and the uses are many and varied.

Carefully strip the petals from the stems. Put them in a large pot or strainer. If you include the center pieces, it will have a slightly bitter taste. (I take mine out – the chickens don’t care).

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After rinsing, add them to lightly salted boiling water.  Cook a few minutes, until the petals go from white to a translucent.

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Drain well..  At this point you can add them to many things, or freeze them. They will keep a few days in the fridge.

I have used them in omelettes, frittatas, quiches, stir fries, and mixed with egg and a little flour as pancakes. They go really well with tomato sauce. I will be trying it on a pizza soon. Today, I have a decent container for the fridge, one for the freezer, and I threw some into a rice pasta dish with homemade tomato sauce and sweet potatoes for lunch.

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It was delish! Enjoy!

I “Heart” Heart of Palm

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Palmito – Heart of Palm is the spongy innards of certain palm species. Pejibaye, Coconut and other Palm varieties are used, all with slight variations in flavor.  Most popular are the pejibaye palms.  The palm tree sends up several hijos (literally “sons”) close to the mother trunk which can be harvested. Removing the outer spiny covering and inner needle-like fiber is not easy, a prickly and labor-intensive affair.  What you are left with is a porous, mild vegetable that is delightful and versatile.

When you cut down a tree, you get a LOT of palm heart.  But don’t worry – they will keep in the fridge for a few days (longer if pickled) and chunks can be given to appreciative friends and neighbors.

What to do with it?

Here are a few things I have done with palmito:

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1) Salad – This vegetable can be the star, or a respectable supporting staff member. My salad today had palmito with chopped parsley and scallion, drizzled with lemon juice, olive oil, sprinkle of sea salt and fresh ground pepper.  perfect.

2) Pickles – use the broth in my pickle post, or make your own favorite brine.

3) Add to stir fry, quiches, or stuff in tortillas or empanadas. (Yes, I will do this for you soon – promise!)

4) Picadillo – a chopped, sauteed version with garlic, onion, turmeric, hot pepper.

Palmito is something that lends itself well to almost everything, because it absorbs the flavor of whatever is around it.  Today, because my worker brought the palmito up while I was making bread,  I experimented with a palmito-filled bread roll, with cheese, palmito and a drizzle of olive oil.

It was yummy enough, I would do that again.

TAMALE time!

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Christmas in Costa Rica = tamales.  Families will make hundreds, to eat, to give to neighbors and friends, and to offer anyone who comes by for the next two weeks…Think of the tradition of fruitcakes in the US – but with EVERYONE doing it…

In limited doses, they are delish – so, of course, I had to get my vegetarian, gringa-ized ones made.

Cut (or buy already prepared) banana leaves. There is supposedly a kind that is better to use, but I just cut mine from the bananas I had here. Remove the center rib, wash them well, and soften them over an open flame.  You will see them change color slightly, and they will be very pliable. This is important, because you need to fold them later, without their breaking.

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Next, prepare your masa.  (Corn meal filling.) This is where I differ radically from the Tico preparation.  They will add some salt, manteca (solid palm oil) and maybe some pig fat. I do mine with butter, olive oil, sea salt, salsa Lizano and a smidge of hot sauce.  In the past, I have also used garlic powder, but I didn’t have any this time.  Add enough water until you get a soft squishy dough. Some people add mashed potatoes to the masa. This amount was one bag of masa, and made 7 pinitas (15 tamales).

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Prep your veggies, small strips to press into the top of your masa. For this year’s tamales, we used green beans, carrot, sweet pepper, olives, and cucumber pickle.  Start your large pot of salted water to boil.

Assemble your tamales. You will be double wrapping the tamal in banana leaves.  Wrap in one leaf, then wrap that in a second leaf, like a little package.

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Place 2 double wrapped tamales together, and tie together with cotton thread in a little gift bundle, called a pina. (not to be confused with piña, pineapple). They should be a little tight, so the masa stays and cooks in the leaves.

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Cook them in your boiling salted water for at least 45 minutes. Remove, drain, and enjoy, or store them in your fridge until unsuspecting neighbors come over…

Heat in a little bit of water, unwrap and serve warm. Enjoy!

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Palatable cow corn? Yes! – Chorreadas

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Growing up in New Jersey, August was the month of huge, sweet silver queen ears dripping butter.  Here, it is a little too humid for good corn. The varieties that grow here are good for eating ONLY when very young. After that, they are starchy and mostly tasteless, compared to the corn of my youth.  Good for grinding into masa (flour) for tortillas and tamales…or feeding livestock. My chickens love it.

The exception is the chorreada. A national favorite, it is a somewhat dry, large pancake of – you guessed it – ground corn.  They are very easy to do.

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Scrape off a few ears into your blender. Three small ears made about a cup of corn kernels.

I added a tablespoon of olive oil, (butter works too) and about a 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Other options to add here would be chopped garlic, some parsley, or some hot chili.  Ticos do it “puro”, but they generally don’t use a lot of spices. Blend on pulse, scraping and folding in the sides, until you have a thick, gloppy paste. It doesn’t have to be completely ground up.

Heat a skillet with a small amount of oil

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Put your chorreada mix into the pan, and spread with spoon, knife or spatula until about 1/4 inch thick.

Cook it longer than you would think for a pancake, the corn needs to cook.  If you haven’t cooked it enough, it will fall apart when you try to pick it up. When lightly browned, loosen your pancake on all sides, and flip it over

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Mine got a little TOO browned, but still tasted fine! The traditional way to serve it is smothered with natilla (sour cream). Here, I used homemade cream cheese, which I make from the leftover whey after making butter.

Mmmmm…..que rico! (delicious!)

A couple months earlier, at the time of the main corn harvest, friends invited me to their annual corn festival party. With about 60 people there, the chorreada making was in full swing. Here is the grinding and cooking operation. Traditionally, a flat pan is used for frying these over a wood stove.

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Tica-Gringa Mashups: Chayote Chips and Soup.

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Chayote – those funny looking pear-shaped things that you have NO idea what to do with them…In the squash family, just peeled and boiled, they taste like slightly chewy water.

But, don’t throw them out yet – there are many (wonderful) things that can happen with chayote. Today, we have chayote chips.

Wash and peel your chayote. For this, you want to do it under running water, because it gets slimy and knives can slip. I narrowly missed slicing off the tip of a thumb once. You also might want to oil your hands first, as the slimy stuff is like banana juice, it’s sticky and makes your hand look like a 90 year olds.

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Once your chayote are peeled, you can slice them on the long sides. I like to take out the pit, as it is a change in texture I don’t care for, but some people don’t mind, and it is edible.

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Once they are sliced, put them in a large bowl and add your seasonings.  Today, I used a favorite combination of sesame seed oil, soy sauce, mustard and brewers yeast.  I added about a half teaspoon of salt and 1 tsp of cane syrup to round out the flavors.

Sometimes I do the “Italian” seasonings – tomato paste, oregano, garlic, basil.  Really, just think about it like a salad dressing or barbecue sauce…Toss it all together and put those babies on your dehydrating tray.

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Now, this is really the first time I have done this in the dehydrator – all the other times, I have baked them on a lightly greased cookie sheet in a low oven. Bake or dehydrate until dry and slightly crunchy on top, turn over and continue until the other side is also crisped.

They will get more concentrated in flavor, and take on the flavorings you basted them in. I can’t stop eating these things!

Today you also get a bonus recipe…I used my side cuttings and pieces of chayote near the center pit and made a great creamy vegan soup too.

Here’s what I did:  Cut all the veggies you want to add.

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In your soup pot, start with a little oil of your choice (I use olive or coconut exclusively, uh, unless I use sesame for flavoring) and saute some chopped onion. Today, I made a vegan cream with almond milk (soak almonds overnight, rinse and blenderize with fresh water covering the nuts) but you can use milk, yogurt, heavy cream or any other vegan milk product. Add about a cup of the milk and all the above vegetables and spices to the pot. (Above there is garlic, ginger, carrot, chayote and corn – but again – this is flexible, use what you like and have). Add water, so that you have a mix of creaminess, but not too thick to cook your veggies.

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Cover and let them cook a while. Adjust your seasonings to taste. Today, I added some green curry powder that a friend gave me. I then ran about half of it through the blender to thicken it up.  It came out like a Thai style soup, really great.

DIsfute!/Enjoy!

Better Butter

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One of the things I really like about being in Costa Rica is having more control over the quality of my food. Growing organically, bartering with neighbors, making many of the things I used to buy, all good.

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Some friends have been making their own butter and yogurt for a while, and last year, I started making my own butter too. When I started reading the ingredients in the so-called “healthy” butters, I became very alarmed. If you want a good scare, read the Land of Lakes label sometime. Like, WHY would anyone want to ingest anti-freeze? (Propylene glycol is an approved additive in many processed foods, and is a known neuro disrupter and carcinogen.) And who knows what antibiotics and stuff they feed their cows, or HOW LONG your butters have been travelling before you get them?

Making your own butter is EEEEEASY!!! Start with fresh cream. Anyone who has cows is probably skimming off the cream to make natilla, and selling the skim milk or making cheese.

My neighbor has one cow. And one growing teenage boy who drinks a lot of milk.  She sells me her cream, or barters it for my picking up animal feed in town for her. I don’t know what kind of grass her cow eats, but she produces the butter-fattiest cream ever!

Put your heavy cream in a blender. Use a little salt if you want. I add about 1/2 teaspoon to a half full blender (about 2 cups cream.)

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Blend blend blend, for several minutes at high speed, using a spatula to fold in the cream on the sides. First, it will become like whipped cream.  Take some out if you want it. After a few more minutes, it will start separating, and will look like the fluffy chunks floating in milk above. And somehow, it magically turns color from cream white to pale yellow too.

At this point, gather your butter ball and gently squeeze out the whey.  This part is a little messy – so no photos… Save your squeezed whey – you might be able to make cheese from it. Mine are about 50/50 – sometimes they turn into a great cream cheese, sometimes, they just don’t curdle…but don’t worry – its also very good for dogs, chickens and (mixed down with water) plants.

Once you have squeezed out most of the whey, squeeze and fold your butter ball a few times in running cold water over your sink.

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Put your cleaned butter into a container, and refrigerate or freeze.

There’s NOTHING like fresh homemade butter on anything! I promise, you will notice the difference!!

Disfrute!

Bread and Bread type stuff

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Costa Rica is wonderful for many many things, but good bread is not one of them.  And that is being generous. And I have friends who own bakeries here. Sorry, but the stuff here is mostly tasteless cardboard. I needed to learn how to make my own, or face a life of only tortillas and crackers. Today, a friend reminded me I hadn’t posted anything for a while, so since I already had dough going for bread, here we are.

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I did figure out a simple adaptable dough that works well in this climate.  Today, I will share it with you, with one nice variation, in honor of a friend who just returned from Israel – BOUREKAS. Bourekas are a middle eastern version of empanadas.  Empanadas are available everywhere here and come with all kinds of fillings – potato, bean, cheese, chicken, pork, but they are ALWAYS deep fried, usually in some kind of palm oil mix. I eat them when really hungry if I’ve run out of my own food on the bus, as they are little self-contained sandwich units that don’t make a mess.

Dough – I reccomend the Nacarina brand here – it is the only one that has the consistent quality for bread. Sometimes I will mix in some oats or whole wheat. Today was just white. To about 3 cups of flour, I added 2 tsp sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, and the proofed yeast.

Proofing yeast here is critical – so many things can go awry. Put 1 tsp yeast in about 1/2 cup warm (NOT hot!) water with a teaspoon of sugar, stir gently and wait 5 minutes. If your yeast is good, it will bubble up on top and smell, well, yeasty. If it doesn’t do that, you need a new package of yeast. I store mine in the freezer in an airtight package.

Add your yeast water to your flour, and stir well, it should still be dry, and will need a little more water. Add water 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time, until you get your right consistency – this takes time to learn – it is soft, smooth, not too dry, not too sticky, but elastic – stretchy.  Knead by flipping and squishing, for a couple of minutes.  Put it in a greased bowl, and cover with a damp cloth. Put in a warm place.

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I use the the hood of my car for this – it is the perfect warmth, and the bread rises to double in bulk in about 45 minutes.  This is where the art comes in – it could be longer, or shorter, depending on your conditions.  I like to give my bread a shorter, second rising, before the shape and bake – the texture comes out better.

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While your dough is rising, make your boureka filling. I went out to the greenhouse and cut some pak choi, bok choy, spinach, parsley and scallions.  It looks like a lot, but as you will see, it cooks down to very little.

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In a frying pan, fry a small chopped onion, a little finely chopped garlic, and add your greens from hard to soft. I added about 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg (nuez moscada here), some salt, and a couple of tablespoons of the local grated cheese.

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At the filling stage, you can be completely creative. In India, its curried potatoes,  but you could fill with just cheeses and have Italian calzones, or squash, cauliflower, well seasoned yuca, or almost anything that can be chopped and put into a pie.

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Very important – strain the liquid out of the veggies – or your bourekas will open up while baking and be a mess. I press the juice out through a strainer. Its loaded with nutrients, so reserve and drink the liquid too.

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Here’s where I start my oven to preheat. (350 degrees F, or 180 C)

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Take a ball of your dough, roll it out to a circle about 1/4 inch thick. Note that my circles are not perfect. Place about a heaping tablespoon of the filling on one side  of your circle, leaving space around the edges for sealing.

With fingers dipped in water, wet a circle around the edge. Fold the top over your boureka and pinch the edges together. Put on your greased baking sheet, leaving a little space around them, and let them rise for another 15 minutes.

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Bake them until the bottoms start to brown, about 15 minutes. If you want to get fancy and have that glazed top, in the last couple of minutes brush the tops with beaten egg yolk. (As you can see, I didn’t.)

When they come out, loosen from the baking sheet right away, and let cool, or just eat them.

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Sometimes I  smother them with tomato sauce, or chimichurri (fresh salsa) Disfrute!