Rincon de la Vieja, Costa Rica

September 1, 2014

While It may not sound like much, I have spent 1% of my life in Costa Rica. This small Central American country is one of the most important places in my life, and I have not been back for 7 years. It is a place I never get tired of, and always find it wonderful to return. Even after 6 or 7 trips, I am still finding new and amazing places to visit. This trip I went to the jungle around the northern volcano of Rincon de la Vieja; northeast of the city of Liberia. Getting there meant a short but bone-jarring drive in an SUV (that was supposed to have 4WD, but didn’t).

Blue River gets its distinctive color from minerals

Blue River gets its distinctive color from minerals in the water

The area is filled with volcanic hot springs, and abundant wildlife. Thanks to its elevation it is mercifully mild, even though it is so geographically close to infernally hot Liberia. I saw monkeys and a flock of more than 20 toucans.

The area is filled with lots of activities. I rode horses to a nearby waterfall and went zip-lining 120 feet up in the canopy. While I am not generally afraid of heights, the craziness of the idea of zip lining definitely hit me full force. But after gaining a little bit of experience I felt like an expert after the 10th run.

I chose Rincon de la Vieja in part because I wanted to avoid the well beaten tourist path in Costa Rica, but it is also worth mentioning the Arenal volcano, which had been spewing lava daily for decades, has all but stopped. Also, I chose this more remote location because what was once a long trek through the cloud forest to get to the entrance to Monteverde, has now become built most of the way to the park. Rincon de la Vieja feels 10 times more remote.


Sauteed Corn with Black Beans and Red Bell Pepper

August 28, 2014

The current issue has a lot of latin-themed recipes, so I served this as a side-dish. The flavors was very well balanced and enjoyable. I followed the instructions that stressed not moving the corn, but didn’t hear any clear popping after 5 minutes. It’s possible that my skillet might not have been hot enough.  Overall, I was please with the outcome, but it was a little more of a mess than I would normally want for a salad. 3-1/2 stars.

Refreshing corn and bean salad

Refreshing corn and bean salad

Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
Cost: $4.75.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess? Medium.
Start time 4:00 PM. Dinner at 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared it today are given below:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 red onion
1/2 red bell pepper
1 jalapeño chile
1 garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
15-oz can black beans
3 ears corn
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2-3 tablespoons lime juice (from 2 limes)

  1. Cut the corn kernels for cobs and set aside. You should have 3 cups.
  2. Cut bell pepper into 1/4″ pieces. Finely chop your red onion. Remove the step and seeds from your jalapeno, then mince. Rinse your black beans.
  3. Put a 12″ non-stick skillet over medium burner, and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and allow to pre-heat for 2 minutes. Saute the onion, bell pepper and jalapeno for 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion has softened.
  4. Add mined garlic, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Continue to cook for 1 more minute.
  5. Add rinsed bean and warm for 1 minute and empty skillet into a large serving bowl. Wipe the skillet with a paper towel.
  6. Turn up the burner to medium-high and preheat 1 more tablespoon vegetable oil until it begins to shimmer. Add corn kernels and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for about 3 minutes without stirring until the corn begins to pop. Stir and until the corn becomes spotty brown; for about 3 minutes longer. Empty into serving bowl.
  7. Add cilantro and 2 tablespoons lime juice, stir until combined and season with salt and remaining lime juice to taste.

Grilled Fish Tacos with Pineapple/Pepper Salsa

August 9, 2014

I wanted to make these Grilled Fish Tacos as soon as I saw the new, Latin-themed issue (September/October 2014) of Cook’s Illustrated. While Chris Kimball’s Mexican recipes are usually quite tame, he nevertheless promised fresh and bold flavors. Because fish tacos are usually much more subtle than other types of tacos, I had high hopes that his Yankee-palate could still yield ideal fish tacos. Grilling the fish definitely added flavor, and I was surprised at how well the 1″ fish slices held together on the grill. Not using flaky-fish is very important to this recipe. The fish is served with a pineapple/pepper salsa.

Delicious by lacking heat

Delicious by lacking heat

The tacos are very good. The marinade imparted good flavor to the otherwise subtle fish flavor, but without over powering the fish. Ultimately, however, I think that these tacos are not worth the effort or expense. $41 makes this the most expensive recipe I’ve every made (this was previous most expensive). The recipe was also a little fussy; using two types of chile powder (neither of which I could find). While I liked the Pineapple/Pepper salsa, I also felt that a little more raw heat would have made the tacos more successful. While I wanted to love them, I can only give them a luke-warm 3-1/2 starts.


  1. The recipe requires you to avoid common super-market fish, as they are too flaky and will fall apart as you cook them on the grill. Chris Kimball recommends using swordfish, mahi-mahi, tuna, or halibut fillets.  My supermarket only had the requisite 1″-thick fish as swordfish; at $15/lb.
  2. The recipe calls for ancho chile powder and chipotle chile powder. Unfortunately, I didn’t find either variety in my supermarket, nor where the whole, dried peppers in stock. I would have gladly made my own. In the end I used half regular chile powder, which contains ingredients other than just dried chiles.  Cook’s Illustrated did a taste test on Chili Powders here.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
Cost: $41.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess? Medium.
Start time 4:00 PM. Dinner at 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared it today are given below:

Marinade Ingredients:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
2 teaspoons chipotle chile powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons lime juice (from 1 lime)

Tacos and Salsa Ingredients:
4 tablespoons lime juice (2 limes)
2 pounds skinless swordfish steaks
1 pineapple
1 jalapeño chile
18 corn tortillas (6-inch)
1 red bell pepper
Lime wedges
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro, plus extra for serving
1/2 head iceberg lettuce
1 avocado, halved, pitted, and sliced thin

  1. Peel and mince 2 garlic cloves. Squeeze juice from 1 lime into a small cup.
  2. Place an 8″ skillet over medium burner and pre-heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the 3 tablespoons chili powder (ideally 1 tablespoon ancho chile powder and 1 tablespoon chipotle chile powder); cooking and stirring for 2 to 3 minutes until bubbling. Add 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, 2 minced garlic cloves, and 1 teaspoon salt. Continue cooking for 30 seconds.
  3. Mash 2 tablespoons tomato paste into mixture in the skillet and cook for 2 seconds, then mix in 1/2 cup orange juice and 2 tablespoons of lime juice. Allow to reduce slightly while constantly stirring for 2 minutes. Empty mixture into a medium bowl and allow to cool for 15 minutes.
  4. When cooled, cut fish lengthwise into 1″-wide strips and add to bowl with chile mixture. Use a rubber spatula the carefully coat fish. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for between 30 minutes and 2 hours.
  5. Prepare your charcoal grill by opening all bottom and top vents completely. Fill and ignite a chimney starter mounding with briquettes (7-quarts). After 20 minutes or so when the top coals become partially covered with white ash, empty lit coats evenly over entire grill. Set grill grate in place, cover and allow to pre-heat for 5 minutes.
  6. While the charcoal ignites, prepare the salsa ingredients. Peel the pineapple and cut lengthwise into quarters. Cut away the core and the cut each quarter in half lengthwise (resulting in 8 pieces the full length of the pineapple).  Remove the stem and seeds from your bell pepper, cut into 1/4″-wide strips then cut cross-wise into 1/4″ pieces.
  7. Also prepare a plate with lime wedges, extra cilantro, thinly sliced iceberg lettuce,
  8. Clean the pre-heated grill grate by brushing with well-oiled paper towels. Repeat the process 5 to 10 times until the grate becomes glossy and black.
  9. Put the fish on half of the grill. Brush both side of the pineapple with a total of 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Put pineapple and whole jalapeno on the other half the grill.
  10. Cover grill and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the first side begins to brown. Use a thin spatula to carefully flip fish, pineapple and jalapeno.  Re-cover and continue cooking for 3 to 5 more minutes until the internal temperature of the fish reaches 140-degrees. Put fish on a large plate, flake it breaking into pieces, then tent with foil. Put pineapple on cutting board.
  11. Briefly clean the grill grate, and warm the tortillas in batches for 30 to 45 seconds per side, until they are speckled with brown spots. Wrap tortillas in a dish towel or aluminum foil to keep warm. Repeat with remaining tortillas.
  12. Finely chop pineapple and jalapeno, and add to bowl you your peppers and cilantro. Stir in 4 tablespoons lime juice and adjust salt according to your taste.
  13. To assemble tacos, top the tortillas with fish, salsa, lettuce and avocado, serving with wedges of lime extra chopped cilantro.
Shown here before the toppongs

Shown here before the toppongs

Fried Rice with Peas and Bean Sprouts

July 29, 2014

While the fried rice is relatively straight-foward side dish to almost any Asian-inspired meal, such as these potstickers, it is not sufficiently balanced to eat without some kind of sauce. Fortunately, I had a scallion dipping sauce which added some flavor. The recipe comes together in about 10 to 12 minutes  Just 3 stars, lacking enough flavor to stand on its own two feet.

Basic fried rice, but a little bland

Basic fried rice, but a little bland


  1. While the recipe calls for 4-ounces of Chinese sausages (lop cheong), I used 8-ounces of smoked ham.

Rating: 3-stars.
Cost: $7.
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess? Low/Medium.
Start time 6:30 PM. Last Batch at 7:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared it today are given below:

1/4 cup oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
1 cup frozen peas (preferably baby peas), thawed
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
6 cups cooked white rice (cold), large clumps broken up with fingers
1 cup bean sprouts (about 2 1/2 ounces)
5 medium scallions, sliced thin (about 1/2 cup)
4 ounces Chinese sausages (lop cheong) or 8 ounces smoked ham

  1. Make sure you have 6-cups of cold, white rice. This is best if you cook the night before.
  2. Set frozen peas out to thaw for 30 minutes. In a small bowl, combine oyster sauce and soy sauce and set aside. If you are using Chinese sausage, cut them in half lengthwise, and then cut them crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces. If using ham, cut into 1/2″ cubes. Also peel and mince your garlic. Thinly slice you scallions.
  3. Pre-heat 1-1/2 teaspoons oil in a 12″ non-stick skillet over medium burner.  Add eggs to skillet and cook for 20 seconds without stirring, then scramble for 2 more minute, ensuring that the eggs are in small pieces. The eggs should be just cooked through, but not browned. Empty egg into a small bowl.
  4. Put empty skillet over high-burner and pre-heat 2-1/2 tablespoons oil for 2 minutes. Add peas and saute for 30 seconds (add sausage or ham with peas but increase to 1 minute), add garlic and cook for another 30 seconds. Add rice and oyster sauce mixture, and cook for 3 minutes until heated through, breaking apart any clumps.
  5. Add eggs, bean sprouts and scallions to skillet and cook for 1 minute until just heated. Serve immediately.

Pot Stickers with Scallion Dipping Sauce

July 22, 2014

While comparing different recipes is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, this may be my favorite ATK recipe of all time. These dumplings are filled with flavor, are tender on the inside with have nice carmelization on their bottoms. The soy based sauce is a little predicable, but the saltiness is so traditional that I haven’t yet strayed from the original recipe. The base recipe is very straight-forward, only requiring a little bit of patience during the filling/sealing process. Be careful not to overfill them or they will close properly, but you can squeeze some of the excess out if necessary. The only logistical problem is that the batches take 20 minutes and yield between 12 to 14 dumplings, so unless you have two non-stick skillets they are difficult to make for a regular sit-down dinner for 4 people; coming and going from the table every 20 minutes to eat 3 dumplings. But worth the inconveniences, I absolute love them and give them a full 5-stars.

Perhaps my favorite ATK recipe

Perhaps my favorite ATK recipe

Comments / Issues:

  1. My 12.5″ non-stick skillets (the Chris Kimball recommended T-Fal), makes 14 dumplings at a time, and based upon my wrappers I needed 3 batches. I froze on the batches for cooking next week; they cook the same way with no need to thaw.
  2. I used to be able to buy round gyoza wrappers from my local supermarket. While I guess I may be able to find a local Asian market, in the meantime I am using frozen .
  3. Be careful that the dumplings don’t stick to the sheet pan is step 3. Some of mine did, and I suggest a very light spray with non-stick cooking spray.
  4. Sometimes I just use regular cabbage (rather than napa cabbage), especially around St. Patricks day because it tastes the same and is much cheaper.

Rating: 5-stars.
Cost: $9. For about 40 dumplings.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time 4:00 PM. Last Batch at 7:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here and the dipping sauce recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared everything today are given below:

3 cups minced napa cabbage leaves (from 1/2 medium head)
3/4 teaspoon table salt
3/4 pound ground pork
4 minced scallions
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
4 teaspoons soy sauce
1-1/2 teaspoons minced or grated fresh ginger
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed (about 1 teaspoon)
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

24 round gyoza wrappers (see note)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup water, plus extra for brushing

Scallion Dipping Sauce:
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon chili oil
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 medium scallion, white and green parts, minced

  1. Minced 1/2 head of napa cabbage leaves, add to a colander and toss with 3/4 teaspoon salt. Set over a bowl and allow to wilt for 20 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to press down to extract any excess moisture. Empty into a medium bowl, combine the remaining filling ingredients and mix until combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes (up to 24 hours).
  2. When ready to assemble, work with 4 dumplings at a time to prevent the wrappers from drying out. Keep the remaining wrappers covered with plastic wrap. fill, seal, and shape the dumplings using a generous 1 teaspoon of the chilled filling per dumpling
  3. As you complete the dumplings, set the on a baking sheet and repeat step 2 until you have made all your dumplings. Once assembled you can refrigerate for up to 1 day, or freeze them for up to 1 month. (If frozen, do not thaw before cooking.)
  4. Line a large plate with two layers of paper towels, which you will use after cooking. Make dipping sauce by combining all ingredients in small bowl, which will make about 3/4 cup.
  5. Brush 1 tablespoon of oil in a 12″ cold non-stick skillet. Arrange 12 dumplings in the skillet with the flat side down, overlapping the tip as necessary. Put over medium-high burner and lightly brown dumplings for 5 minutes without moving.
  6. Turn down burner to low, and add 1/2 cup of water and immediately cover. Cook for 10 minutes until the water becomes absorbed and the wrappers are slightly translucent. Uncover and turn up the burner to medium-high and cook (again without moving) for 3 to 4 minutes until the bottoms are well browned. Put dumplings onto paper-towel lined plate (browned-side down) and allow to briefly drain, before setting onto a serving platter.
  7. Allow the skillet to cool until just warm and wipe out using paper towels. Repeat from step 5 with the next batch of 12 dumplings.
  8. Serve alongside the scallion dipping sauce.

Cookie Dough Ice Cream

July 9, 2014

I poured my heart into making my son a wonderful chocolate/coffee cookie-dough ice cream cake for his 15th birthday, but the regular cookie dough recipe turned much too hard when frozen. I have since experimented with a lot of different tricks and techniques, and am pleased to be able to offer some insight. I cut the flour down to 1 cup, and also tried to substitute liquids that remain softer when frozen; I omitted the egg whites, and used heavy cream which has less water. Also, I substituted vegetable oil in lieu of some butter to keep things soft. The butter that I did use, I browned to compensate for the substitution. The mini-chocolate chips also made the dough seem softer. The result is very good both in terms of texture and flavor. 4-stars, still a little room for refinements of the cookie dough.

Vanilla-bean, Cookie-Dough Ice cream cake

Vanilla-bean, Cookie-Dough Ice cream cake

The problem with using regular cookie dough is that it is meant to withstand the high-heat of an oven and then served either warm or at room temperature. When frozen, it becomes rock hard.


  1. Be sure to use unsalted butter or the recipe will be too salty. If you must use salted butter, cut the salt down to 1/4 teaspoon.
  2. I used many of Chris Kimball’s techniques found here, but adapted them for the freezer.

Rating: 4 stars.
Cost: $10
How much work? Low/Medium.
How big of a mess?  Low/Medium.
Start time: 12:00. Dinner time: 5:00

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared it today are given below:

8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup packed dark brown sugar (6-1/2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy cream or milk
2 large egg yolk
1 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (5 ounces)
1 cups semisweet mini- chocolate chips (6 ounces)

  1. Melt the stick of butter in 10” skillet over medium-high burner for 2 minutes, and continue cooking butter for about 4 more minutes, swirling pan constantly, until the butter becomes dark golden brown and has nutty aroma. Empty browned butter to large heatproof bowl using a heatproof spatula. Stir 1/4 cup vegetable oil into hot butter.
  2. Add brown sugar, salt, and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated.
  3. Add egg yolk and heavy cream. Whisk for 30 seconds until the mixture becomes smooth with no sugar lumps remaining. Let mixture stand 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth, and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream:
1-1/4 cups of 2% milk.
1-3/4 cup heavy cream.
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar.
1/3 cup light corn syrup.
1/4 teaspoon salt.
6 egg yolks.
1 vanilla bean.
2 teaspoon vanilla extract.

  1. Prepare a large bowl of ice water; to be used as an ice bath after removing milk from stove-top. Place metal sheet pan in freezer.
  2. Add milk, heavy cream, about half the sugar (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons), 1/3 cup corn syrup and 1/4 teaspoon salt to a medium saucepan. Use a paring knife to cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, then use the back of the knife to scrape out vanilla seeds (caviar). Add both the caviar and the empty stalks to the saucepan.
  3. Warm over medium burner for 5 minutes until the mixture reaches 160°; stir occasionally to ensure that the sugar completely dissolves. Temporarily remove pan from heat to prevent the milk from boiling.
  4. Meanwhile in a small bowl, beat the yolks together with 1/4 cup sugar.  Never let your yolks/sugar sit for more than a few minutes. Temper the yolks by whisking in 1/2 cup of the 160° milk/cream. Then whisk in a second 1/2 cup to further temper.
  5. Add the milk/yolk mixture back in with the milk in the saucepan. Cook over medium burner until the mixture reaches 180°; stir constantly with heat-proof spatula. Cooking too long will scramble your eggs.
  6. While the mixture heats up, wash your medium bowl and place it in ice batch.
  7. When the mixture reaches 180°, immediately strain your mixture through a fine-meshed strainer into the medium bowl (discarding empty vanilla pods). The ice batch will allow the mixture to cool in about 30 minutes; stirring occasionally will help. Then place the bowl in freezer for about 1/2 hour to 1 hour to further reduce the temperature. The mixture will begin to freeze along the sides of the bowl, which you should scrape down to further reduce the temperature.
  8. Add mix into the ice cream machine’s canister. Churn for 30 minutes, or per manufacturer’s instruction.
  9. If making a cake, line your sheet pan with plastic wrap and lay ice cream in a roughly even layer. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze for 1 hour. After an hour, use a rolling pin to work into an even layer. Freeze for at least 2 more hours before serving.
Cookie-Dough as a middle layer

Cookie-Dough as a middle layer

Braised Red Potatoes with Lemon and Chives

July 6, 2014

This simple braised potato recipe yields soft and tender potatoes. The nice caramelization made me think that there would be a slight crunch, but after my first bite I remembered that they were braised. They were therefore just tender. But the flavor was nice, not just plain potatoes. The recipe calls for using small red potatoes measuring 1-1/2″ in diameter. But my supermarket was selling appropriately sized purple potatoes at half the price as red potatoes, so I went with purple. I haven’t had purple potatoes since my trip to Bolivia, which has the world’s most bountiful variety of tubers. 3-1/2 stars.

Made entirely in one pan

Made entirely in one pan


Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
Cost: $4
How much work? Low
How big of a mess?  Low.
Start time: 5:00. Dinner time: 6:00

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared it today are given below:

1-1/2 pounds small red potatoes (unpeeled)
2 cups water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

  1. Cut the potatoes in half. Peel 3 cloves of garlic.
  2. Put potatoes with their cut-side down into a single layer within a 12″ non-stick skillet. Add 2 cups water, 3 tablespoons butter, 3 whole, peeled garlic cloves, 3 sprigs of thyme, and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Once it has reaches a simmer over medium-high burner, turn down to medium heat and simmer (covered) for 15 to 20 minutes until the potatoes just become tender.
  3. Uncover and move garlic cloves to a cutting board using a slotted spoon, Throw away the thyme sprigs. Turn up burner to medium-high and vigorously simmer (occasionally swirling the pan) for another 15 to 20 minutes until the water evaporates (the butter will start to sizzle)
  4. Meanwhile, once the garlic becomes cook enough to handle, mince it into a paste. Add to serving bowl, stirring in lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Mince chives and set aside until the last step.
  5. Continue to cook for 4 to 6 minutes more, swirling pan, until the butter browns and the cut side of the potatoes becomes spotty brown. Remove to serving bowl.  Stir in chives and toss until combined. Serve.



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