Notes from the Kitchen

Mending the broken bits

The surf and silt it washed up onto the shore beckoned me on a daily basis. This siren’s call became the mandate and mantra of what defined my days closing 2010 and beginning 2011. I would lazily roll over in bed to be greeted by the bright sunshine filtering through the wooden slats and the cheerful din of boughs full of birds outside.

Swimsuit on, breakfast tucked in, our small band of family members would work our way down to the beach, skin slick with sunscreen. Michael and I wormed our way out into the ocean that welcomed us like old friends. Even after my skin mottled and itched from sun sensitivity, I carelessly bade the call of the salty water and the need to bring myself into its rhythms- up, under, up. The world we had left behind felt like a blip cut into the surface of my heart. I came alive under the heft of the waves and the pull of the undercurrent. I began crafting a slowly made peace from hours spent with Michael talking as we looked out beyond the water’s edge, past the horizon line and into a place we couldn’t see but felt certain existed. Beck spent his days writing and walking- the two activities are so deeply worn into each other, are they not? Mama and Tia B. would join us at the beach and sometimes if we were lucky, in the water too.

A year ago looked so different.

Scavenging the beach, we found a stick and scratched 2011 into the warm Costa Rican sand. We waved for the camera as the sunset began shellacking the sky in peaches and golds. We scurried up beach from the tide that now crashed and licked the large outcroppings of rocks. New Year’s Eve 2010 cooked up a fine feast of noodles served alongside red wine. At midnight, we toasted and sat outside in rocking chairs or in my preferred spot, the porch hammock, talking. Under a Costa Rican sky, we felt untouchable and somehow the scabs of yester-year felt so very distant. With my love and close family nearby, I began to mend.

Death is not something easily cast aside. Grief doesn’t have a best by date. In this country where my Dad had lived for several years in high school, the sea, the sand, the conversations and time alone began the tricky work of separating my self from a year in which he was still alive. God used these elements to begin the grand work in me of healing, even as a part of me broke.

Miles and miles of beach walking did no favors for my ankle. Shortly after I came back from Costa Rica, I found myself doing something simple, something mundane in the act of walking to the copy machine. I found myself unable to move forward or back. I stood still, perhaps listening to my body for the first time in a long while. It told me to stop. It told me to be still. I hobbled back to my desk aware in that acute sense of communing with all your inner sensors for what was amiss. One week of oddity led into a month and then several months afterwards, the pain persisted as the healing continued.

Things that are quickly broken are not necessarily quickly mended.

In the time that my mobility slowed, my frustration and anger swelled like a great storm that later subsided as my caregivers in physical therapy addressed the physical situation through rote repetitions to relax the overworked area. Through the simple movements over the span of months, bodily healing had begun. It took a visit with my acupuncturist to help clarify what I innately understood. My body was holding onto an anger I couldn’t reasonably grasp. I sat on the table explaining the nature of the pain, the sensation of it and its matriculation.

Where 2010 was a year of stark contrasts, of unquenchable happiness and the resounding boom of loss, 2011 served as soft cushion underfoot. It became a year of listening and making notes, of taking heed to that foreign language of the body. Call it a lesson of the ocean: slow down. Speed up. Stay the course. It takes that vast expanse to right the rhythm once it’s thrown off. Some pains require time to mellow, though I’m loathe to believe they ever heal 100 percent, but I remember the ocean metronome. And sometimes, healing might require a bowl of White Bean Stew with Rosemary and Garlic. Sometimes, all it takes to reset are a new start and a bowl of steamy savory stew.

white bean stew with rosemary and garlic


Jose Maria’s Gallo Pinto


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!

salsa alfaro

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
  1. 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.)
  2. Add 1 cup of cold water and bring to boil.
  3. Cover and set to simmer for 20 minutes.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. Break up the rice and mix all the ingredients together. Simmer for 10 minutes and stir frequently.

chopped onion for gallo pinto recipered jalapeno for gallo pinto recipe

jalapeno and onion for gallo pinto recipe

Gallo Pinto Recipe

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.)

gallo pinto recipe variation

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.



Journeys When in

Nosara, Costa Rica: Lagarta Lodge

I come from a long line of people who enjoy experiencing life through the olfactory and taste senses (aka “foodies”). Before me, there was Tia Berta. Before her, came my mom. At any given meal out, you can find any of us commenting to the other:

“What’s that- coriander?”
*Taste sauce again* “No, that’s definitely cumin.”

We like to figure out the complexities and deconstruct the flavors as we go: call it eating as code-breaking.

When visiting a new place we like to inquire from the locals and also from other visitors, where is the best place to have a great meal. I watched Tia Berta in action, rattling off in Spanish her question to people we encountered from Argentine Lucretia at the beach to our VRBO coordinator Eduardo. She is fearless (and I love it).

Without a doubt, every time we asked this question in Nosara, Costa Rica, the answer was, “Lagarta Lodge.”

On the day of our arrival into Nosara, Eduardo drove us to this famed lodge. He had told us, if you go anywhere, you must go to Lagarta Lodge.

The walls of the restaurant are open air and look onto a jungle and riverbed from one angle and then onto the ocean and beach from another. It might not surprise you that the answer we received when we asked to book a reservation was a coy smile from the hostess and “everyone would.”

We squeezed in an early reservation for our party of four on January 1st. Since we were without car, we walked the easy but slightly uphill climb to the lodge from our house. (If I never say this again, when planning a trip to Nosara, the need-to-have item is a flashlight. Trust me, it will make all those evening trysts and trips materialize.)

For fine dining in Nosara, this is it.

When we arrived at Lagarta Lodge, the hostess made a point to confirm our arrival and invited us to enjoy cocktails at the neighboring Sunset Bar. Now, this bar is a must-visit. It lives up to its name- watching the sun set over the casual waves of the Pacific below was spectacular.

Sunset bar lives up to its name
Going, going…

We lingered over blended drinks. A fantastic detail about Lagarta Lodge is they only have one seating per night. You could linger at the bar as long as you like- your table and seats are held in your name.

Frosty drink in hand…
we lingered…

and lingered…
And we lingered some more…

I kept looking for lagartas, crocodiles, below in the riverbed but none were to be found. There was a black vulture peering down at the bar from a nearby tree bough. I have a feeling he wishes he too could suck down a blended bevvie.

No lagartas to be seen

Once the sun had officially sunken deep into the horizon, we ambled our way up to the restaurant. Our server was friendly and informative. As she ran through the evening’s specials, we all came to our conclusions and ordered a few minutes later.

The waitress brought out rolls, which are not seen often in these parts. We later learned that they purchase them from a bakery in Liberia. Not a hop, skip and a jump away. I treasured that roll because of the journey it had taken to get to my mouth.

Sopa de pescado

Nathan and I split an Ensalada con Palmito, Salad with Hearts of Palm, while the mamas halved their Ensalada con Aguacate, Salad with Avocado. Michael ordered la sopa de pescado, fish soup and it was made from scratch.

He pulled off the tiny crab that scented the broth, pulling the sweet meat from inside the claws. Our salads were good, especially since we had underestimated the amount of greens we would be taking in over the course of our stay.

For mains, Tia Berta and I ordered the Filete de Corvino preparada a la plancha con ajo, Grilled Sea Bass with Garlic and a side of their croquettes. The croquettes were an interesting treatment of mashed potatoes formed into the shape of a pear, rolled in breading and fried. They made such a pretty addition to the plate and the accompanying “pear stem” that was really a shoestring potato was a nice touch. Michael ordered the bacon wrapped shrimp brochettes along with my mama. Nathan ordered swordfish in a white sauce with a side of rice.

Corvino cocido de la plancha con molido de ajo
Shrimp brochettes wrapped in bacon with croquettes

Each of our entrees was cooked perfectly. The garlic sauce didn’t overpower the fish and the slight crunch of croquette complemented. We had saved no room for dessert and frankly the night had become so thoroughly darkened, it was time to start the journey home.

A memorable meal awaits you at Lagarta Lodge. And if you happen to walk from home, make sure to take your time meandering back- the stars will put on an after-dinner show of Milky Way proportions.






It’s what someone might say of a couple replete with smooches and rings on the left hand. They’re casado. Married. Nathan and I said our vows in a rustic church filled to the hilt with family and friends from all over the globe. When planning the wedding, it was important that it feel like us. I jokingly said multiple times, if the wedding had a theme, it was “it takes a village.” We wanted it imbued with as many of our closest people doing what they do best: singing, playing piano, baking cake, hand-making caramels… the list could go on.

We wanted it to feel like us. Nothing too gussied up, but full of texture, language, color and flavor. Yes!

The morning started quietly. In the silence of a new apartment, I padded around barefoot, drinking it in, contemplating the weight of the day ahead, excited with a pep in my step. And then breakfast, photos and ceremony threaded together to find me at the pivotal moment.

Will I promise to love Nathan in sickness and in health? I will.
Will I promise to love him until death do us part? I will.

So much leading up to this moment of transition: casados.

We had the happy occasion to travel on a family holiday trip to Costa Rica right after Christmas. We rang out New Year’s Eve and walked into the New Year trolling our local beach with sand dusting our toes.

A few people at work asked upon my return, “How was your honeymoon?” This tickles me as I try to imagine inviting anyone other than Nathan to a honeymoon, but I’m polite, and say, “Fantastic!” Come to think of it, the woman seated next to us on the HOU – SJO leg of our trip asked if we were newlyweds. It must be something impermeable. Perhaps it’s the starry eyed look or our need to tuck our heads into each other’s neck nooks like ostriches. We are that couple.

See, we’ve decided to stay on honeymoon permanently. One of the best pieces of marital advice we’ve gotten is from his parents to “plan adventures with each other!”

Trust me, if they’d seen:

  • the commuter airplane that hoisted us cross-country to the coastal town of Nosara chug noseward up-
  • the canopy tour with its pully system and the directive to “Jump!” off the mountains-
  • us staring into and separating darkness from darkness, craning our ears and eyes for Olive Ridley Turtles come to shore to lay their eggs and then set off again-
  • the two hour pitch black trek from one beach to a mini mart “cross beaches” rather than “cross-town” in search of lotion, shampoo and a green vegetable-
  • hand-to-hand combat with the warrior locust to usher it back outside

We are living up to that bit of advice.

Food is always a bit of an adventure. (At least in my kitchen it is). If another culture doesn’t first enter through my ear, then it sure does through my stomach. The food section on my last blog was even called puerta de la panza (doorway to the stomach). Much to my delight, the Costa Rican’ national dish* happens to bear the name of my newly cemented status, casado. When in Costa Rica, you will see this as a menu item in most soda ticas, bars and restaurants.

I spoke with new friend Isabel to get a better idea of what a casado actually is.

casado consists of rice, black beans, salad and a choice of protein including chicken, fish or bistek en salsa, meat in sauce. Some casados include plantains and some don’t. Further inquiry (on wikipedia) revealed a possible reason for the name: businessmen said they wanted to be served like those who are married because the implication is married men eat this kind of meal in the home for lunch or dinner. I’m taking it with a grain of salt, though maybe that is its origin.

Casado- Rosi’s Soda Tica

While we were in Costa Rica, each of us had casados at different restaurants and each gives it their own flare. One evening in San Jose, my mom ordered the Casado and it came not only with plantains and the usual fare, but also included Fajita chicken and a picadillo of squash and carrots. Yummy. When we were in coastal Nosara, the casado at a local popular soda tica did not include plantains.

Casado- Soda Vanessa

I think the casado is aptly named. It brings a smattering of individual parts onto a plate and from the many ingredients comes a hearty dish with variety that can be personalized by venue or person. And it appeals to my personal sense of order: each ingredient has its own quadrant of plate. Beans over here. Rice to the right of the beans. Plantains nestled up against the rice. Chicken nudging the plantains. Salad in its own corner. Unlike, Nathan who prefers all things mixed together, I like to build the perfect bite. See, casado: something for everyone!

We returned from Costa Rica in early January and find ourselves hankering a bit for the simplicity and beauty of those environs, not to mention the warm temperatures and sun in place of the living room heater cranking for a short burst to cut through the old building cold. Then again, we are casado…

Heater turned off, oven turned on, we get started.




  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon ground roasted coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground sea salt
  • Cracked black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 Mexican lime, quartered

Place chicken breasts in milk bath and refrigerate for an hour. Blend spices together in a small side bowl. Set aside. Once ready to cook chicken, place olive oil in pan over medium high heat. Remove one chicken breast and sprinkle both sides with spice blend. Cook on each side for 4 minutes or until cooked through.


  • 1 cup long grain white rice
  • 1 1/2 cup water

Rinse rice two times. Then add 1 1/2 cup water and bring to slow boil. Once boiling, set to simmer and cover for 20 minutes or until cooked.


  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium parsnip, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup peeled and diced celery root
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon chicken stock
  • 1 teaspoon Oregano
  • Salt to taste

Steam the diced veggies for 5 minutes. Remove from water. Combine oregano, salt, chicken stock and oil. Add to pan and turn heat onto medium high. Sauté veggies for 2 minutes.


  • 1 can black beans, drained

Heat up black beans on stovetop until warm.


  • 2 plantains
  • 1 cup canola oil

Peel plantain and discard peel. Cut plantain into 1/4 inch chunks. Coat bottom of pan about 1 inch deep with oil. Heat oil over high heat but take care to not let it begin bubbling. Place plantain sections in oil and turn every 2-3 minutes or until golden brown.


  • ½ head of iceberg lettuce, shredded
  • ½ cup grape tomatoes, diced

This can be the final step for your casado to keep salad cool and ingredients in fridge until everything else has cooked.

Think of your plate by quadrant, when plating a casado: every ingredient gets its own home. Our casado will have a part of the plate dedicated to the beans, another to the rice, the plantains immediately next to the rice, then chicken and lastly salad.


Journeys Notes from the Road

Pura Vida: an introduction to Nosara, Costa Rica

Pura Vida:  It’s a way of life. In Costa Rica, it kind of sums everything up. This catch-all phrase elicits smiles, nods, general agreement that in the end, it’s pure life. Costa Ricans get that distinction between living life and letting it pass by.

We’re smitten. The Costa Rican (Tico) way of honoring life resonates. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself!

As Lalo says, “pura vida is something a person says when everything’s good. ”

Pura vida indeed. The country has not had an army since the 1940’s, a fact proudly emblazoned on t-shirts in the San Jose airport. There is an open-armed welcome to tourists and travelers from all over the world with many restaurants, cabs and hotels taking American dollars as well as colones. Trash is separated into five categories. Only one is landfill. Their land is vivid, alive and thus they don’t want to spend more of it on landfill than possible. Their appreciation for the natural beauty makes toilets in the jungle part of a fragile septic system and they go to interesting lengths to not disturb the flow. Additionally, they have earmarked land near the beach that is off limits in Nosara from development. I spoke with our canopy guide and we agreed that environs like these can’t be bought. They’re precious as are all of the indigenous wildlife and birds.

Our merry travelers talk about their favorite moments in Costa Rica. Perhaps the zip line Beck describes or the Olive Ridley turtle tour at dusk might tip the scales for you. Costa Rica is calling…

Over the next few weeks, I will share recipes and restaurant reviews from our time in Nosara, so stay tuned.

Pura vida: How do you define the good life?