Have you ever stalked an ingredient before?
This is what it must feel like to be the hunter: to crane your ear toward the direction of the prey and listen for a rustling- to look with eyes that see beyond the veneer of branches and blades of grass for what moves among that which doesn’t – to be poised and ready.
It’s been a little over two months since we visited Costa Rica. Over the course of our two weeks there, we became intoxicated by the tranquility of Nosara and elated at making new friends with Jose Maria and Francisco from an old connection, my Dad, in San Jose.
If a dish existed that personified that place it might be Gallo Pinto. Such affection bubbles up in the national conscience for this humble yet tasty combination of rice and beans that is thoroughly Tico. We noticed it on menus early on in our stay and had an opportunity to try Gallo Pinto on different occasions. I knew this one would be packed safely in my luggage to be enjoyed on many occasions by the mister and I as recipes are duty free and not given to customs searches.
Back to the elusive ingredient- as we waited in the San Jose airport, I wandered. I tend to do this when in airports unless deeply sunken into a book. One of the few stores I walked into had shelves upon shelves loaded with tchotchkes. I smiled and considered taking a photo of Gallo Pinto in a can. Somehow this didn’t seem like the penultimate way to enjoy this national dish. Close to it was a bottle of Salsa Lizano, which we’d seen don the tables at the restaurants we’d visited akin to a bottle of Heinz in the United States.
Now pay attention. I remember picking it up and thinking how novel it was to find this salsa in this airport tourist trap (more like Worcestshire sauce than the Mexican variety, as salsa means sauce). I set the bottle back down on the shelf, sampled one of the chocolate covered pineapple bits on the counter and walked back to our gate.
A few days in and with curiosity piqued, Jose Maria kindly shared his recipe for Gallo Pinto with me. He exclaimed the absolute importance of Salsa Lizano to this dish and the crucial Costa Rican flavor that makes this Gallo Pinto, hoping it would not be difficult for me to find now that I was back in San Francisco. Inside I scoffed thinking, this is San Francisco, a mecca for foodies, not at all concerned about locating this small Tabasco sized bottle of sauce.
The hunt was on!
Off I went on two buses to Fisherman’s Wharf one Saturday and the World Market. Sadly, I exited the automatic doors sans salsa and sorely wondering how the store could live up to its name. Next, I chided myself for not going to the granddaddy of search and hopped online onto google. Much to my growing dismay, I found a forum online dedicated to salsa lizano and trying to conceive of a recipe to make it frequented by people who could not find it stateside but had to special order it in bulk. Not for me. On a hunch and slim suggestion, I headed to El Chico in the Richmond, praying as I began perusing the aisles past produce. My eyes strained as they looked for that familiar label and swooped typeface of Lizano. After a double check and a confirmation check with one of the employees, I left empty-handed. This didn’t thwart my mission, to the contrary, it upped the ante. I put the escapade on hold for a week knowing my search would next take me to the Mission, which now had a whole new meaning for me as a neighborhood. Surely there, in the borough of Latin American fusion might be space and interest enough on the shelves for bottles of this Tico salsa.
Nathan and I drove out to the Mission the next Saturday and meandered one of my favorite streets: 24th Street. En route to the Mission district’s El Chico Produce Market, we strolled hand in hand taking our time and taking in the sights. We passed windows to a panaderia with homemade Conchas beaming from inside the glass case. Taquerias dotted both sides of the street in stoic invitation of messy burritos and tortas. A hipster coffee house with next to no lights on inside winked its wary welcome. Yet on we walked with a bounce in our steps- sometimes there is such joy in just being together and experiencing the world around.
As we entered El Chico, I had a good feeling this was where we would find this Salsa Lizano. A panoply of Mexican cheeses in the case to the right, both sides of the aisle piled high with produce, we walked ever closer to the salsa aisle. And what a salsa aisle it was! We were like two kids doubling over with anticipation. Beck grabbed a few bottles of our mainstay in Salsa Verde and Casera. I pulled down a can of chipotle peppers in adobo, but try though I might, not a single bottle of anything that even vaguely resembled Lizano. I politely asked the checker if they carried it, thinking maybe I hadn’t looked carefully enough (the four times I roamed the aisle) and he replied that they used to, but no longer. After purchasing the groceries, we exited. I was disappointed, but having such fun with Nathan that it was to a minimum. I started concocting the semblance of a Plan B.
And then kitty corner across the street, I saw Casa Lucas. Just for grins I told Nathan I would try there, maybe fourth time was a charm. Something felt very different inside this mercadito. A woman was bottling crema in the back of the store. Another, flipping corn tortillas with bags of freshly steamed tortillas perched on her table. If nothing else, I found myself immensely intrigued. I turned the corner from one aisle to the next until I’d made it to the aisle where they kept their salsa and found myself in eager excitement at finding canned flor de calabaza (squash blossoms). This new discovery almost eclipsed what sat only a few short products away on the shelf. A knock-off of Salsa Lizano!
I asked the teller if they had the actual Lizano salsa instead of the Salsa Alfaro, to which she confirmed my suspicions that this was basically the same thing. To be sure, I checked the provenance of the salsa on the back of the bottle. Sure enough, it read, “Made in Costa Rica.” This wild goose chase had landed us in a day that stood out as the embodiment of pura vida, where we drank in the moments slowly savoring them.
Nathan and I walked down 24th for coffee and a Guinness doughnut from Dynamo Doughnuts before heading home and out of the drizzle that had begun to dampen the sidewalks and edifices.
So lesson learned: if you see bottles of sauce that you think you might need when you get home, you might want to suck it up and buy one. You’re a tourist after all. Or leave yourself to the whims of adventure and the fancy of the elusive ingredient- the hunt makes the meal taste that much better…
Jose Maria’s Gallo Pinto
I’ve tried to stay as true to his recipe’s translation as I can. Eating this makes me feel a little bit closer to living Pura Vida.
YIELD: 3 cups
- ½ cup long grain white rice
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 medium Spanish or yellow onion, minced
- 1 red jalapeno, seeded and minced
- 1 ½ tablespoon safflower oil
- 1 can black beans, drained
- 2 tablespoons salsa Lizano or Alfaro
- Wash your rice three times as this does affect how the rice tastes once cooked. (If you’ve never washed rice before, pour water so it covers the rice. Then drain the water out without losing any of the grains of rice.)
- Add 1 cup of cold water and bring to boil.
- Cover and set to simmer for 20 minutes.
- When the rice is getting close to being finished, in a large pan, sauté the onion and jalapeno in the oil over high heat for five minutes.
- Add the black beans to the jalapenos and onion mixture along with 1 cup of your cooked rice and the Salsa Lizano (or Salsa Alfaro).
- Break up the rice and mix all the ingredients together. Simmer for 10 minutes and stir frequently.
Costa Rican Menu Idea: Serve with a side Ensalada de Palmito (side salad of hearts of palm, tomatoes and avocado, topped with Lagarta Lodge dressing.)
Variation: Let’s say you don’t have any fresh jalapenos handy. Shop the Latin American aisle at your local store and pick up a can of pickled carrots and jalapenos. Drain the pickled carrots and jalapenos and dice them. Then substitute 2 tablespoons of them into the onion saute as it is almost finished with the edges charring slightly. Saute like this for 1-2 minutes and then follow the rest of the recipe as cited above.