Tom and I are back from the birding trip to Costa Rica that I mentioned in my last post. Our very modest expectations for its gastronomical aspects were right on target: The food was fresh and flavorful, but there was a very narrow range of both ingredients and preparations.

Unexpectedly, breakfast was the meal we most enjoyed. At home, our breakfasts tend to be minimal (except on Sundays), but after arising at 5 am to spend the first hours of daylight out looking at birds, the prospect of coming in to a hearty breakfast is mighty attractive. As I said last week, the rice-and-bean dish called gallo pinto is an inescapable part of a Costa Rican breakfast. Here are a few that we had:

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages


Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake


Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms


For lunches on the road in rustic country restaurants, we always received casado, the archetypical Costa Rican mixed plate of rice, beans, plantains, and another vegetable or salad, surrounding a piece of protein – usually a choice of fish or chicken. The fish was often trout, sometimes tilapia, both of which are extensively farmed in the fast-running streams of the rain forests. Chicken seems to be the de facto national bird of Costa Rica (which, officially, is the clay-colored thrush). Though it was always good, I came to believe that most Costa Rican chickens were born legless – a disappointment to this dark-meat fancier. Dinners at the lodges where our birding group stayed were buffet-style, with only minor day-to-day variations on the same or similar food choices. (Tom has made me swear not to serve him chicken for at least the next month.) Some examples:


Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad


Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad


Chicken berast, plantains, rice, beans, tomatoes, vegetable frittata, tortilla

Chicken breast, plantains, rice, beans, tomato salad, vegetable frittata, arepa


So, all in all, the food on our trip was sustaining rather than exciting. But exciting the birding definitely was. In one week we saw nearly 200 species, including quetzals, trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, aracaris, oropendolas, cotingas, manakins, honeycreepers, flower-piercers, and 23 different kinds of hummingbirds. Here we are at the end of an aerial tram ride through the rain forest. Quite a change from our usual urban life!

Aerial tram 1

Tico Breakfast

Tom and I are away this week on a birding trip to Costa Rica – a terrific little country that we like very much. Dining isn’t especially a feature on these trips, but we hope to eat some good Tico food at the lodges where our group is staying. A few days before we left home, I thought to get us into the spirit of the local cuisine with a breakfast of gallo pinto with fried eggs and tortillas.


Tico breakfast


Virtually the Costa Rican national dish, this tasty mixture of rice and black beans can appear at any meal in that country, morning to night. I’d never made gallo pinto before, and I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with it on its home ground, so I can see how close my dish (from a recipe found on the Web) was to the real thing.

I hope to have some interesting food encounters to tell you about on my return. Pura vida!




Three Roman Soups

???????????????????????????????As a title, “Soups Roman Style” doesn’t have quite the cachet of “Marriage Italian Style” and “Divorce Italian Style,” those two mordantly comic films of the ‘60s, but in fact the Roman style of cooking produces some very interesting soups. I’ve recently made three traditional ones from Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds, Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book of recipes and lore from Rome and Lazio.

All three soups draw an underlying flavor from similar base ingredients, starting with a battuto of pork fat, onion, celery, and parsley, chopped together.


In each case, after a scoop of battuto is rendered out in the bottom of the soup pot, a small amount of tomato ­– fresh, puree, or paste – is added and cooked briefly. The main liquid is vegetable broth or water. And each soup is finished with a generous dose of grated pecorino cheese, which Rome and points south use much more frequently than they do parmigiano. So much for the similarities: The other ingredients in each one made these soups quite different from one another.


Minestra di pasta e patate

Our household really likes a dish of pasta with potatoes. It’s a combination that Americans often think odd – starch and starch! – until they taste it. I’ve enjoyed versions from several regions in Italy and even published one of my own (in my dear departed mini e-cookbook Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce). This Roman version is another good one, and very easy to make.

I stirred quarter-inch cubes of russet potato into the battuto-tomato base, added broth and freshly ground pepper, and simmered until the potatoes were just tender. Then I stirred in a batch of mixed odd bits of soup pasta and continued cooking until they were done. Finally I stirred two tablespoons of grated pecorino right into the soup. Between the cheese and the rather salty broth (I had used vegetable bouillon cubes), no extra salt was needed.

pasta and potato soup

This was a hearty, sturdy soup. More so than any other pasta with potatoes recipe I’ve tried, it had something ineffably Italian about it. I guess that’s the effect of the battuto. Everything blended into a comforting single flavor, given palatal interest by the different textures of potatoes and pasta. We enjoyed it very much.


Minestra di quadrucci e piselli

In this recipe, fresh peas take the place of the preceding recipe’s potato; small squares of egg noodles are used instead of dry pasta; and the liquid is water, not broth. This being November, I had to use defrosted peas, but they worked quite well. Again, I’d stirred about two tablespoons of pecorino into the soup pot before serving.

peas and quadrucci soup

This was a much more delicate soup than the previous one, with the almost solo voice of the peas sustaining it. The pecorino wasn’t a strong presence in itself, but it nicely moderated the sweetness of the peas. It felt like a springtime soup – as of course it would have been, in Italy.


Minestra di riso e cicoria

Here the main ingredients are rice and chicory – curly endive. If that second recipe was a spring soup, this one is definitely fall or winter fare. There was no chicory in any of my local markets this week, but I was able to make it with its nearest relative in the endive family, escarole. The greens had to be boiled, drained, squeezed, and chopped before going into the soup pot for a few minutes’ sauteeing with the battuto and tomato. Then I stirred in the rice and broth and simmered until the rice was tender. This time, the grated pecorino wasn’t to be stirred into the soup as it finished cooking but rather sprinkled on the individual bowls.

scarole and rice soup

This was a pleasant, mildly flavored soup (escarole being less bitter than chicory), but at the same time comforting and filling – good, hearty, chilly-weather food. The rice took up all the broth so quickly that I had to add quite a bit of water to keep the mixture from almost solidifying. I don’t know whether that might have been because I had on hand only American long-grain rice, not the short-grain riso comune, which Italy prefers for soup.


Final Thoughts

I also had to reduce the proportions of all the solid ingredients in all three recipes. An Italian minestra can be made to various degrees of thickness, from a truly soupy substance to what is almost a moistly sauced bowl of pasta or risotto. These recipes were heavily weighted toward the vegetables, pasta, rice, and pecorino. I was making half quantities of recipes indicated as serving four persons, and even with those reductions, my soups easily fed the two of us twice. It did make me wonder if the English translator, who claims to have made adjustments for an American readership, had ever actually made these dishes herself.

I may be becoming a crank on this subject, but too many recipes published today seem not to have had either proper editing or proper testing, making them recipes for failure. In the long run, that may make a lot of beginning cooks give up on the task of preparing their own food – and that’s a small but sad crime against humanity.

SandovalLast week I wrote about a deeply disappointing dish that I’d made from my newest cookbook, Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors. Despite the recipe’s problems, I resolved to give the book another try, so this week I got right back on the horse – with much happier results.


I was attracted to a recipe for Shrimp and Bacon Quesadillas. Very cautious reading revealed no omissions or contradictions, no disappearing ingredients. The dish seemed to entail a fair amount of work, compared to quesadilla recipes I’d seen elsewhere (I’d never made my own before), but the ingredients weren’t particularly outré, and the entire filling mixture could be put together hours in advance. It looked promising.



To start the filling I tossed peeled shrimps with chili powder, oil, and salt, then cooked them briefly in a skillet. Sandoval hadn’t specified the kind of chili, and what I had was de Arbol, a Mexican variety that’s extremely hot (“has tannic, smoky flavor with searing acidic heat.”). The specified tablespoonful of it looked like a daunting amount on my six ounces of shrimp, but I went ahead with it. They came out with considerable pungency.



The shrimp then had to cool in the refrigerator. While they did, I crisped some bacon, chopped it, and mixed it in a bowl with shredded sharp cheddar cheese, thinly sliced scallion, chopped pickled jalapeños, chopped cilantro, mayonnaise, and lemon juice. To me, that seemed an odd combination: the mayonnaise in particular. But I soldiered on. I confess, though, that when it came time to chop the shrimp and add them to the bowl, I wimped out: I put them in a sieve and sprayed them with water to rinse off some of the chili.

The completed filling went back into the refrigerator for the whole afternoon, and when I took it out in the evening, one whiff was enough to know that there was still plenty of chili in it.



As I said above, I’d never made quesadillas before, and cooking these was a bit tricky, requiring a rapid assembly-line technique. Fortunately I was able to enlist Beloved Spouse to work with me. Here’s how we did it:

  • Heat a large nonstick skillet.
  • Put in a 6-inch flour tortilla, cook 30 seconds.
  • Flip it over, spoon a portion of filling on the bottom half.
  • Fold the top half over the filling, cook 30 seconds.
  • Turn the tortilla over (not letting the filling spill out), cook 30 seconds.
  • Transfer it to a baking sheet, put it in a warming oven.
  • Put next tortilla in the skillet and repeat.

In this partnership, I did the filling and the transfers between countertop, stove, and oven; he did the skillet work. If we’d been line cooks in a restaurant kitchen, I suspect it would have been a breeze; as it was, I couldn’t help thinking of Lucy and Ethel at the conveyor belt in the chocolate factory.

To my happy surprise, no disasters occurred; the filling didn’t even try to ooze out. In fact, I was a little concerned at how thin the layer of filling was. Would the quesadillas be too dry?



No, they weren’t dry at all. And, even though they seemed thin, they were quite substantial – and they really tasted good! The flavor was hard to describe: Everything had come together so that no one of the individual ingredients prevailed. We probably wouldn’t even have guessed shrimp or bacon if we hadn’t known they were in there. But the combination was delicious, with just the right amount of chili heat. To top it all off – or, more accurately, to wrap everything up – the soft flour tortillas had developed a rich wheatiness from the toasting. Each bite we took made us eager for the next one.

So the book stays on my shelves for at least a while longer.

Mahi Mahi Ceviche

My newest cookbook acquisition came about because of a very good dinner that Tom and I had at Pampano, an upscale Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan. All the dishes we had were so interesting that I asked if the owner-chef had a cookbook out. Of course he did, and home I went with a copy of Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors.

SandovalIt’s an attractive book, well designed and laid out, with enough glamorous color photographs to induce salivation. (A mild disappointment, when I got it home, was that, of all the food we’d enjoyed at the restaurant, the only item represented in the book was a chipotle aioli.) The chef’s exuberance encompasses Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, and Argentinian culinary traditions, and he loves to add recondite Asian accents. For my initial cooking venture, I looked for a recipe that wouldn’t put too much strain on my pantry and grocery resources. I chose Mexican-style Mahi Mahi Ceviche with Tomato, Cucumber, & Chile.

The fresh ingredients I had to buy were no trouble to acquire: the fish, a plum tomato, a cucumber, an avocado, a lime, and cilantro. I couldn’t get the recommended yuca chips for serving alongside the ceviche, but I found a bag of mixed yuca, taro, and sweet potato chips. And I made one substitution for a seasoning, as I’ll explain in a moment.

ceviche ingredients


Once I had “cooked” the mahi mahi cubes in lime juice in the refrigerator, I stirred in chopped onion, tomato, cilantro, cucumber, and serrano chile. That combination seemed to promise, fresh, bright flavors. Further, each serving was to be garnished with avocado slices sprinkled with salt seasoned with “pure ground chipotle chile.” I didn’t have any of that, so since it would need only ⅛ teaspoon, I decided that Spanish smoked paprika – pimentón picantewould do.

To serve, I set two little bowls of ceviche on plates and put a ring of seasoned avocado slices and another of vegetable chips around each.

mahi mahi ceviche


And you know what? It was terrible. Not terrible-revolting, but terrible-blah. The mahi mahi itself had almost no flavor – pretty much a waste of a good piece of fish. The condiments had no pep. The chips were horrid: stale, tough, tasteless. (That wasn’t the book’s fault, of course.) The chile-salted avocado was the only thing on the plate that tasted good.

I don’t know what went wrong, but two tricky little points back at the beginning might have been an omen: The recipe’s title mentions cucumber, but there’s none in the ingredient list or the instructions; and the ingredient list says lemon juice while the instructions say lime juice. Poor editing, at the very least – and who knows what other errors may have gone unnoticed? Well, one failure shouldn’t make me damn the whole book. I’ll try it again, with a different recipe.

I find it’s easy to fall into long-standing habits with the main meat dish for everyday dinners. I keep returning to preparations that use ingredients I keep on hand, that are too familiar to need a recipe, that don’t demand a great deal of tending, and that are always a simple pleasure to eat. In the case of pork spareribs, a rack of which often populates my freezer, I almost invariably make them one of these ways:

  • In sauerkraut, with onions, bacon fat, white wine and/or broth. Sometimes caraway seeds. Alongside, boiled potatoes. Maybe sauteed apples.
  • In tomato sauce, with garlic and olive oil. Accompanied by pasta, of course, and crusty bread.

My latest batch of spareribs would undoubtedly have met one of those two fates had it not been for a chance discovery: While taking down Marcella Hazan’s More Marcella IIClassic Italian Cooking one evening, to recheck her way of making batter-fried cauliflower (requested by Beloved Spouse), the pages flipped over to a recipe for Costicine di Maiale alla Trevigiana. Though I’ve had the book since it first came out in 1978, I haven’t used it much in recent years, and I’d forgotten about many of the things in it – including that recipe for Pan-roasted Spareribs, Treviso Style.

Marcella’s headnote calls this a “deeply warming, most satisfying” dish, with the ribs “browned in hot oil, then cooked with garlic, sage, and white wine.” Those are unquestionably good flavorings for pork, and it certainly looked easy enough to do. So a few days later I gave it a whirl.

The recipe calls for a three-pound rack, cut into individual ribs. That’s very small for a set of American spareribs, and the rack I had was particularly meaty; I used only half of it, which was nearly that weight. I was to brown the ribs in half a cup of vegetable oil. That’s a lot of oil for an already fatty cut of meat, but I followed the instructions. My ribs stubbornly refused to brown very much – beige was about the most they would do – so I moved on to add thinly sliced garlic cloves and chopped fresh sage.

browning ribs

Continuing to follow directions, as soon as the garlic colored lightly I added a cup of white wine (also a lot, it seemed to me), raised the heat briefly to get it bubbling, salted and peppered the meat, covered the pan, and cooked until the ribs were tender. Marcella suggested that would take about 40 minutes, but my thick ribs took much longer – well over an hour.

Next, after removing the meat and keeping it warm, I was supposed to draw off some of the fat and add water to deglaze the pan. I didn’t need the water because my pan still had a lot of liquid in it – so much that I wouldn’t call this a pan-roast at all: I’d call it a braise.

Since the ribs had been in so much moisture for the whole time, they hadn’t browned very much more, nor did the finished gravy turn into the predicted “dark, dense sauce.”

spareribs served

The ribs were nevertheless quite tasty, though we couldn’t actually discern garlic and sage flavors in them; those must have just blended into and enriched the flavor of the meat. There were still visible fat layers, but since much of the fat had liquefied, what remained was mostly a sort of tender lattice for former fat cells, light and tasty enough to let us persuade ourselves we weren’t indulging in too much real fat, just its flavorful ghost.

Bottom line: Something like this preparation might well become #3 in my set of reliable sparerib recipes, but I think I’d turn it into a more conventional pan roast by using much less wine, reducing it almost to evaporation right away, and doing the main cooking in the oven. That way, I think I’d achieve more browning, which should intensify the flavors, as well as more rendering of fat from the ribs.


Cooking chicken and leeks together in a dish makes both taste better than they do on their own. Evidently, it’s a real synergy: The combination creates umami, that mysterious fifth taste discernable to human palates. The chemistry of it seems complicated (ribonucleotides and glutamates) but the effect is simply to make certain ingredient pairings produce unexpected flavor.

T-L BritishThat was definitely the case with the Cockaleekie I made this week. The recipe I used – from the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series – is just about the barest version there is of this old Scots soup. Just six components: chicken, leeks, barley, salt, parsley, and water.




The full recipe (I was making half) called for a stewing fowl. What I had were very large chicken legs from my favorite poultry farm out on Long Island, and I knew such well-grown birds would yield plenty of developed flavor. I dropped the legs into a pot of cold water, brought it to a boil, and skimmed briefly; added the cut-up leeks, barley, and salt; and simmered until the chicken legs were almost ready to fall apart – about an hour and a half. On the face of it, this seemed to be the essence of all the old jokes about British cooking: Whatever it is, boil it to death. I took the legs out, let them cool somewhat, skinned and boned them, and cut the meat into shreds.


Then all there was left to do was return the meat to the soup pot, heat everything through, and sprinkle on the parsley.



I had worried more than a little that the soup might be too austere – as pale in flavor as in appearance. Some cockaleekie recipes buttress the broth with additional ingredients: celery, carrots, butter, thyme, bay leaf, chicken bouillon. A very traditional variation even includes prunes. But I meant this to be a test of the basic recipe, and to my delight this pure, minimal version passed with flying colors. It was subtly rich, warm and welcoming; the quintessence of chicken and leek. I’m not a food chemist, but I guess I achieved umami.


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