The Jungle (cook) Book
These bad boys are cheap and plentiful. I prefer the tiny ones, the size of your fingers! SUPER high in potassium and other great things. I’m not a big enough fan to simply snack on them, so they get chopped up and frozen for morning smoothies. Better yet, blend them alone to make banana ice cream!
I have never cried as much as I have in my first weeks here. Shallots (they’re cheaper than the big onions) and garlic are at the base of just about everything I make right now, whether it be fried in some olive oil before adding peppers and black beans, thrown in the rice cooker, or the foundation to a hearty soup. Plus, they’re cheap and you can buy them by the bushel!
Cans of these line the bodega, making them one of the cheapest (free) ingredients and therefore a staple. Plus, it’s what Tico’s eat so it’s not hard to blend in. I’m still perfecting my “gallo pinto” – the traditional dish here with rice, beans and some form of protein on top. My favorite’s a fried egg. Cumin, tumeric, cayenne and cilantro are what bring the beans to life.
Sweet red peppers. Though I usually eat them raw before I can get to making something with them, they make the onion-garlic base a little more exciting for basic recipes. Better yet, roast them with diced tomatoes, add some herbs and throw it in the blender. Add a dash of cream and you’ve got a fancy (plus cheap and easy) roasted red pepper and tomato soup!
It’s taken some effort, but I’m learning to love papaya. They’re PACKED with nutrients (Some might say a super food), plus their seeds can be dried and used as a black pepper substitute. How cool is that?! When I can’t handle the smooth texture they add great flavor to smoothies and I’m dying to try substituting bananas for them to make papaya bread…
My new addiction. Maybe saving money just tastes good to me, but simply roasting (brushed with olive oil, sal,t pepper and fennel seeds) sliced cabbage heads are SO GOOD. They get caramelized on the outside and soft on the inside and are fun to eat…layer by layer (It reminds me of a way healthier version of the bloomin’ onion at the outback). When I can stop eating these fresh out of the oven I’m going to try making a roasted cabbage cole slaw.
So, I live in the jungle. And while my friends like to imagine me hunting things with spears and machetes or foraging for roots and berries…I’m quite happy to dispel the myth. I live in a jungle, you live in the suburbs. The only real difference is that I have fist-size bugs join me for dinner, while you have neighborhood kids. Other than that, things really aren’t that different. Our house has a fully equipped kitchen: cutting boards, a blender, pots and pans, refrigerator and a new gas stove and oven. It’s pretty cushy actually, by international standards. We even have a crepe pan and a cheese grater.
So why the big adjustment?
For starters, we don’t have a lot of fridge space. Four girls using one refrigerator means little room for leftovers, or things that need to chill or marinate. Then, there are ingredients. Again, by international standards (compared to cooking on the go, or in hostels for example), this is luxury. Nonetheless, it’s an adjustment. Food that has always been part of my routine grocery list is either super expensive, or simply doesn’t exist. Forget anything processed. Or packaged for that matter. No more ramen, Kraft mac and cheese or lean cuisine’s when I’m feeling lazy. The Cliff and Luna bars I survived on through college? Too expensive. Soy, almond, or coconut milk? Same thing. Things like aged cheeses, the blues, brie, and goat cheeses I could afford to indulge in once in a while are hard to find, often not as good, and carry a hefty price tag. It’s not like some countries where things simply are not available – almost anything can be bought here, but for a price.
So, I’m working on a solution. We have a “bodega pantry” here with staples. Since it could potentially save me a LOT of money, and challenges me to be creative when making meals up…I’ve turned it into a hobby. My goal is to figure out the most delicious, cheapest and healthiest way to survive on this food and the main produce that I find in town. Fruits and veggies are cheap, and the variety is large. They come in some pretty strange shapes and sizes, and I’m discovering what exotic fruits are worth a few extra colones, and which aren’t. I’m learning to cook slowly, to taste test, and that herbs will be my lifesaver. I’ll try to share some recipes and take pictures along the way. With a small budget a big appetite, here is my cooking motto for the next 14 months:
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
– Teddy Roosevelt
Roasted cacao (chocolate) beans might be the best smell in the world. I’m looking forward to spending a few weekends on the organic farm that grows them to learn more about chocolate and coffee harvests.
“Pipa” are the iconic green coconuts with straws popping out of them. These are young coconuts, so they’re softer. They’re full of water instead of meat, at this point the thick white “meat” is just a little gelatinous layer. The water is one of the healthiest drinks out there and (shhh…) the worlds best hang-over cure.
Beets. Besides being obsessed with their color (which might make for some cool craft projects in the near future!), I’ve recently learned how to love them. Boiled and chopped up with hearts of palm and lime juice makes for a quick, delicious snack. (And only about 50 cents/serving!)…they also taste great roasted. Michelle discovered that cooking pasta in the juice after broiling makes for a funky pink/purple pasta too. 🙂
And the tears keep coming. For some reason every time I cut an onion recently, I keep remembering the Skrek scene where they’re comparing people to onions…you know, with the layers and all that. Then Donkey goes with the more favorable comparison of parfaits. “Everyone loves parfaits!” ….touche….
In an attempt to waste as little as possible, I’ve been taking the extra time to sort and wash the seeds from the squashes and pumpkins I’ve experimented with. These ones, roasted with honey and tumeric were a good idea….until they came out GLUED to the pan like peanut brittle. Looks like honey won’t be making its way near any more of my seeds…
A dangerous staple. I’ve perfected the “platanos maduros” or ripe plantains. Fried slowly and sliced when they’re disgustingly black (aka moldy) is when they taste the best. But I’ve recently been informed of their low nutritional value so have been trying to limit my intake. I ate 9 in my first 7 days. We’ll see how that goes. (They’re also rediculously good when stuffed with fresh cheese and baked)