Rip Off Costa Rica

Many and various are the rip offs in this country…mostly institutionalised and designed to rob the average citizen to the advantage of the government. Nothing new there….

However, there is another type of rip off which really annoys me…

Foreign goods from non Spanish language countries being sold in Costa Rica require an additional label which describes the contents and, of course, its dubious nutritional value.

Fine.

Heaven forfend that the native population should buy a food item in ignorance of its nature. Despite the fact that to import any foodstuff into Costa Rica requires bureaucracy beyond belief, it is still a good idea that the housewife knows what she is buying.

Not fine, however….

At the application of labels institution…wherever that is…and by whom or by what machine it is done, why is it that the additional label inevitably covers the instructions for use?

Not only that…but the label is particularly adhesive…..

You can try softening it in water…no chance.

Then you try to scrape it off using a knife or your nails…..delicate work and likely to take away the underlying label, the one with the with the instructions, at the same time.

Eventually you either give up altogether or, if of a persistent temperament, try to decipher as much as you can,and then either abandon all hope or open the jar anyway and make the best fist of it that you can.

We do not buy much by way of jars and cans, but Leo had spotted a jar of Jamaican curry mix which he fancied trying, so into the basket it went and, in due course, was exhumed from same to enliven some chicken which I planned to use for lunch.

Then followed the ritual of softening and scraping until I could just about work out that you did not use the whole jar, though quite how much remained concealed….that you browned the chicken and then added the sauce….and by the fact that that was the last line visible indicated to me that you added no water.

Chicken browned, about a third of the jar’s contents added, stirred, covered and, after a bit of thought, cooked on low heat.

On the table, rice served and finally the chcken curry….the sauce thick about the meat.

I thought it would enliven the chicken…..it certainly enlivened us!

Ye Gods and little fishes! It all but lifted Leo out of his wheelchair!

After a mad rush for dry bread to subdue the blaze and a mango to calm things down Leo said

‘I think we’ll look for a jar where the sticker covers the front label next time….We might not know what it is, but at least we will know how to cook it.’

The Curse of the Chayote.

Summer in the French countryside would be bedevilled by the problem of what to do with the courgettes. You would put in a couple of plants and the next thing you knew there would be a forest of little green devils just waiting for you to turn your back before ballooning into marrows. They must have been eavesdropping when God told Noah and his sons to bring forth abundantly in the earth and thought that the injunction applied to them as well.

From the bible of Elizabeth David I thought that you picked them when young and crisp…my French neighbours thought otherwise. When the lady who delivered the bread agreed to take some of my surplus she eyed the crop and said she would come back in a couple of days ‘when they were a proper size’. Indeed she did and was pleased with her haul, which she intended to bottle. I’d been in the sous sol of her house… the shelves were full of produce she had bottled and she had picked the courgettes when they were the height of her bottles. I would not have thought of that – or of bottling the beasts at all.

Costa Ricans hold a similar view on the size of what they call zucchini which explains the heaps of green and white striped containers of spongy flesh which you find on the stalls of the feria. But at least they don’t bottle the things…

Mark you, as far as I can see they don’t bottle anything. You can mark the increase in the number of foreign settlers in an area by the availability of Kilner jars in the shops.

The curse of the garden here is the chayote. The things pictured above.

Should you wish to plant them Danilo swears that you can tell male from female fruits by the number of shoots protruding from their fundaments. I have no idea if they are male, female or transgender but it seems to me that if you hurl one out into the shrubbery it takes root with alacrity, while its ability to camouflage itself when young means that you do not see it until it leaps into action and invades the washing line. Peg out your smalls in the morning and they will have been entwined in its loving embrace by late afternoon.

Currently they have invaded the walls of the swimming pool and are advancing along the balustrades of the balcony, cunningly taking advantage of the fact that I can reach only so far down from the balustrade and only so far up from the pool giving a margin of several feet for their activity. Danilo flatly refuses to uproot the parent plant on the grounds that he can use the fruits. My suggestion that he get in the pool to pick them was addressed with scorn.

A. He is shorter than me.

and

B. The water would come over his wellies.

I can conquer A by handing him the long handled fruit picker we use for the oranges but B is insuperable.

Why don’t I use the fruitpicker? You need space to manoevre the thing and I am clumsy.

Higher Authority has decided that he will have to take matters in hand. He will propel his wheelchair out onto the small balcony which hangs over the pool, and use the fruitpicker. The chayotes will fall into the water whence I shall retrieve them with a bucket.

But which wheelchair?

The ordinary one? No, the brakes aren’t too good and he might be catapulted over the rails into the pool while lunging with the fruitpicker.

The mobility scooter? No. That lives in the car ready for action on shopping trips.

So the heavy artillery it is…the big electric wheelchair in which he rumbles around house and garden like the Mekon in search of Dan Dare.

I can take or leave chayote….usually the latter…but when they appear in the kitchen – thank you Danilo for finding yet another plant – I feel obliged to use them. When young they have a crisp texture…rather like a half frozen apple but without the flavour….and that’s about it.

I stew them in a pan with chicken, onions, garlic, potatoes, chinese cabbage and coriander – but all they add to it is bulk.

Likewise a stew with chicken, carrots and achiote – which you probably know as annatto, used for colouring cheese, but it has a distinct flavour. Again, the chayote was bulk, but took on an ominous neon colouring.

I did once try stuffing them….but for all the good that did I would have been better off stuffing them where the sun doesn’t shine. At least you can stuff a marrow.

Locals use them as part of a picadillo..a mishmash of veg served with the midday casado – the regulation plate of rice, beans, salad, picadillo and tortilla served with options from steak, pork chop, fish or beef stew as basics or ox tongue, tripe or chicken stew if the cook has ambitions. The chayote is boiled, then skinned and diced and mixed with sweet pepper and sweetcorn. Being boiled it loses its crisp texture, but the mix is pleasant.

I have mentioned the mobility scooter….

It has enabled Higher Authority to enjoy shopping again without the limitations of being pushed by someone…it gives him independence. He can belt round the alleys of the Mercado Central and navigate the Mercado Borbon, whacking his shopping in the basket or, as in the case of the fortnightly visit for dog food, making his orders then zooming on while Danilo takes the sacks back to the car.

He can also navigate my least favourite shop….the Chinese Hell.

It is a large chaotic Chinese owned supermarket between the Central and the Borbon, where stuff is certainly piled high but is not always cheap. Previous to the purchase of the scooter Danilo would push him to the entrance and leave him to it while coming with me to pick up the dog food. As the floors are cracked and uneven he would become stuck at which point staff and customers would extricate him. Friendships were formed. When the dog food had been put in the car Danilo would go in search of him while I would wait in the packing area, looking for them on the security camera screen by the tills. It is the sort of place where you are supposed to leave your bags at the entrance, but as my bag contains my money I am reluctant to do that.

If Danilo returned in search of a trolley, then Higher Authority had found a bargain…whether it was top grade rice at rock bottom prices, top grade coffee likewise, or less welcome items like sliced bread – ‘it will be fine for toast’ – one kilo of sour cream in a plastic bag – ‘we use a lot’ – or six pineapples – ‘come in handy for stir fries’.

But all this has changed. Once mounted on his scooter he leaves us for dead. On his first appearance at the Hell, the security guard slapped him on the back, allowing him to go through with his bag in the front basket, and he went round in a welter of handshakes and smiles, even when demolishing a display of sweets. When his basket was overflowing a member of staff attached the contents with sticky tape…a regular triumphal progress.

Unfortunately the Hell has taken thought as to its image…..

On his last visit I was presented with a clutch of cards featuring recipe suggestions which looked as if they were stock from an upmarket shop from the quality. He had seen them by the till. Free. They would ‘give me ideas’.

The vegetarian hamburger suggestion was promptly turned down.

‘There must be better than that…give them to me..’

Harumphs from the front seat of the car indicated that other suggestions were not meeting with approval and then

‘Look! This looks O.K. and we’ve got everything on the list…’

A card was handed back to me.

Chayote soup.

On return, into the Mekonmobile and onto the little balcony armed with the fruitpicker. Despite lunges worthy of a duellist the thing did not reach.

What was to be done?

‘Fetch a ladder. You can put it in the pool and reach from there.’

‘It will float away.’

Call Danilo to stand on the foot of it’

‘He can’t. The water will be over his wellies’.

Ever alert, Danilo arrived bearing chayote from the other plant. I must follow him and find where it is in order to destroy it.

I consulted the recipe. Peel and boil the chayote. Drain and put chayote in a blender with a bug bunch of coriander. Blend. Pour into saucepan, add salt and pepper, greek yogurt and some of the cooking liquor to let it down. Heat and serve.

Higher Authority decided we would have it for breakfast the next day…so in the early hours of the morning I made it. It had a texture that reminded me of okra…viscous…while all I could taste was coriander. Perhaps 6.00 am was not the ideal time to sample soup…still, we ate it.

By 8.00 am we wereboth rushing for the loo…damned good thing we have two of them otherwise things might have become desperate.

Finally, I have found a use for the chayote…..

Cooking with Soap

caravaggio-a-bacchanal-with-a-company-feasting-and-making-music

We did not go over the top for Christmas…moules mariniere for lunch was about the high spot, though haggis and black bun made their appearance for New Year.

Nor did we go to friends for New Year’s Eve..so missed out on the cauldron of boiling lard and the deep fried potatoes, plantains and crisp cubes of belly pork  which are dredged from its bubbling depths to be accompanied by salads and ice cold beer.

It was a real miss. I  love the huge gathering of family and waifs and strays like ourselves perched on chairs, benches, logs and upturned crates watching football on two huge screens while the radio blares from the house and kids and dogs run around until midnight when everyone sings the national anthem and the fireworks start up.

But there comes a time when we just can’t sit up any more, so we stayed at home with the dogs who have now decided that they don’t like fireworks since the new neighbours moved in and set them off under our noses.

Yet although food did not figure greatly over the holiday period it is always there…the running sore of the household.

And why the running sore?

Because Higher Authority, now in a wheelchair and thus less able to get out and crack the whip over the whole finca, has taken over responsibility for the menus….

And when I say taken over, yes, it is a real coup d’etat.

My idea of cooking is to see what’s in the fridge and make something with it. When the fridge is empty I go shopping and buy what looks good on the day.

No more.

Shopping is now an entirely different exercise.

Organised. Disciplined. Controlled.

There is a list.

And that list is based on whatever food is being consumed in the foreign soap operas he watches on the computer when he can’t sleep.

We have gone through several phases…..

The Latin American one, while extremely trying on the nerves from the point of view of the soaps themselves which featured women screaming fit to bust, was fine on the food front. I enjoyed that phase.

Then came the Korean phase….a fridge full of kimchi and the dogs looking nervous…..

The Caribbean soap was cut short when he discovered that unripe ackee could poison you, which was a shame as our ackee bush was by then in full production.

ackee

The Scandinavian series gave rise to a vast purchase of varying fish to be pickled and smoked, all to be found to be unsatisfactory as not matching the dream. All I can say is that Costa Rica does not have herring or salmon of its own and its version of mackerel leaves a lot to be desired on the preserving front.

‘Marseilles’, featuring Depardieu, was all right on the cooking front…..

depardieu

As was a similar series about corruption in Rome….I have recipes from an Italian friend which it was a pleasure to try again. I could buy trout to make her recipe whereby it is floured, fried in olive oil and then marinaded in orange juice and vermouth. I even found vermouth. At a price.

Currently it is Israeli…..luckily yesterday’s special gave him indigestion all night so with a bit of luck he will look for something else. If not he is in grave danger of circumcision by  secateur.

Success! We now have a soap about life in an Argentinian prison. We still have screaming women (what are they doing there?), but here comes the locro and the chimichurri! I might even be able to smuggle in a salsa verde with the tomatillos I found when briefly let off the leash…I know it is Mexican, but it’s green and I might get away with it!

There is collateral damage too. When looking for recipes for the on screen food he is led into byways….which is how I ended up making a cake with a tin of fruit salad, flour and vast amounts of sugar.

It was so sweet your teeth would fall out just looking at it, its bottom was soggy, and it burnt itself onto my good cake tin. It is said to be Australian. If so, it accounts for the current state of Australian Test cricket….they must be force feeding it to the players.

Then we have flan.

oven-baked-leche-flan

I have various recipes…one for a flan in a pastry crust made light with whipped white of egg, the traditional ones…and now another has joined the repertoire.

It involves sweetened condensed milk, and vast amounts of cream. The recipe given cooks it at too high a heat, resulting in a lightly scrambled egg with caramel, and unfortunately it was greeted with delight, which has involved making another of the buggers, this time using yet another internet recipe for making your own condensed milk….

I cooked it on a lower heat and it is now in the fridge, awaiting the verdict of Higher Authority.

I was tempted to let today’s stew…a bastard version of moroccan cuisine trawled from the internet – fall into it, but I would only be faced with making my own condensed milk all over again…

Thank goodness  that the Belgians are visiting shortly! Back to proper food and no more cooking from soaps!