17 March 2016.
Initial searches for a suitable restaurant looked promising as we discovered RomeroJo’s, the sole authentic Costa Rican establishment to be found here in the UK. Unfortunately, it lies somewhat outside the M25 – Whitby, to be exact. “Let’s go to Whitby!” says Steve. “I mean, I know we’re supposed to do this in London, but we did do Woking that one time”. Joe’s down. “Let’s do it” he says, nodding, raising thumbs. Before they can high-five, Sophie shuts it down. No, we’re not going all the way up there, it’s against the rules, and besides it’s ridiculous.
So here we are at Steve’s house, trying to cook it ourselves, trying to rebuild our shattered confidence after the debacle that was Republic of Congo. Sophie kicks things off with her starter, Picayillo de Choyote. This is an exciting start as it features a new ingredient (for us), the choyote or “vegetable pear”. Imagine if a pear was a vegetable. That’s what a choyote looks like. Sophie combines it with sweetcorn and red peppers, and makes homemade corn tortillas which we use to create mini-wraps with the choyote mix. It’s interestingly bland – the choyote isn’t unpleasant but there’s not much too it. The overall dish is quite good though, and you can feel the self-belief returning.
Next it’s time for Joe’s attempt at Costa Rica’s national dish, Gallo Pinto. (The ‘spotted rooster’ – a traditional breakfast dish, in fact.) This is most definitely comfort food – basically rice and black beans, which is common throughout the Caribbean. What really lifts this dish though, is the side order of Picadillo de plantano verde. A very traditional Costa Rica dish, it brings out the best of the plantain – in fact we vote it “best use of plantain in a foods of the world dish”.
Steve finishes off with a traditional Costariccense dessert, the Atol de naranja (Orange pudding). The recipe is in Spanish, and becomes hilarious when passed through Google Translate, but working back and forth between the original text and the translation you can work out what’s going on. The result is delicious, a sort of fruity soup (we didn’t have time to set it properly), topped off with cinnamon, cherries and mint. Unusual and delicious.
As digestif we sample some agua dulce or ‘honey milk’ – which does not actually have honey in it, but brown sugar. The real thing is made from a form of sugar moulded into little conical sections (see Costa Rica’s answer to brown sugar); we just used muscovado. It was quite drinkable, though not something I would necessarily drink again.
Musically, Costa Rica fares quite well. Their national anthem is really quite bad – it feels like a token effort from the composer – but we also find a rich seam of Costa Rican ska that keeps us amused for a good hour. Later, we switch to more traditional CR music, which is very relaxing and evokes a forest ambience that makes for a pleasant end to the evening.
Picadillo de Chayote
6 vegetable pears (chayotes), rinsed, peeled, and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 cup fresh or thawed corn kernels or 3 corn on the cob
2 1/4 cups milk
4 1/2 oz butter
1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup onion, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat butter, peppers, and onions in a saucepan over medium low until lightly brown. Add vegetable pear and milk. Cook until vegetable pears are cooked (20 minutes). Add corn, salt, and pepper. Simmer for 5 more minutes. Serve on tortillas.
Soft corn tortillas
Makes 10 -12.
250g masa harina (maize flour)
330ml hot water
Combine the flour and hot water to form a dough. Cover for 15 mins. Knead in more water if necessary – the texture should be clay-like but not sticky. Divide dough into 10-12 balls. Heat a dry pan. Roll out dough balls between non-stick surfaces or plastic wrap, until c. 3mm deep. Cook tortillas in the pan one at at time, for 15 seconds, then turn and cook for another 30 seconds. Turn once more, allow the tortilla to puff up, then remove from the pan and keep warm in a tea towel while coking the rest of the batch.
1 cup cooked rice
1 cup cooked red or black beans
3 tablespoons red bell peppers, chopped
3 tablespoons onion, chopped
2 tablespoons celery, chopped
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
4 scrambled eggs
Lardons to taste
Lightly fry the onion, bell pepper, and celery in 1 tsp of oil.
When they are crispy add the lardons.
Add the rice and fry all ingredients together; allow flavours to mix.
Add the beans.
Cover and let them rest for a while so the rice becomes somewhat liquid. Add scrambled eggs. Serve immediately.
Picadillo de Platano Verde
6 green plantains, washed and peeled and cut into three equal parts
1 cup coriander leaves, finely chopped
1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 cup onion, finely chopped
2 gloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons vegetable or olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Add green plantain. Boil until plantains are soft.
Keep liquid and transfer plantains to a cutting board. Chop plantains in 1/4 inch cubes.
Heat oil in a saucepan over medium high. Add cilantro, parsley, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, and plantains. Stir thoroughly until green plantains are golden brown.
Atol de Naranja
Para preparar unas 6 porciones, se parten naranjas a la mitad y se extrae el jugo hasta obtener unas 2 tazas, se le añade 1/2 taza de azúcar y se coloca al fuego hasta que hierva.
Aparte en una taza se disuelve 2 cucharadas de fécula de maíz (maicena) con 2/3 taza de leche y se añaden 2 yemas de huevo, una a una y se mezcla bien. Se retira del fuego el jugo de la naranja y le mezcla poco a poco la maicena diluida, NO se hace de una sola vez pues se corta y se forman grumos o pelotas. Se lleva de nuevo a la cocina a fuego medio hasta que espese. Se retira del fuego y se mantiene en refrigeración mientras se preparan las cáscaras.
Obvio estaremos usando las mismas de donde se extrajo el jugo. Por lo que debían haber estado bien lavadas previamente. Se les retira la membrana blanca con cuidado, es mejor hacerlo con los dedos para evitar que se rompan. Una vez listas se rellenan con el atol y se vuelve llevar a refrigeración unas horas hasta que corte. Si no puede esperar por ansiedad, disfrútelo así calientito que también es una buena opción.
(I also topped each orange half with cherries, mint leaves and ground cinnamon, based on other recipes for this on the Web).