HOW COSTA RICA HAS MADE ME A BETTER COOK

cover for blogEven before I came to Costa Rica, I loved to bake. But it was only on occasion, only when I had time, and really – only if we were going to a party or family gathering and I needed to bring something. The point is – I enjoyed baking when I had time to do it… but I just never seemed to have that much time.

Quitting my job gave me my first surprise gift towards cooking and baking: TIME.  I now had lots of it!

The second gift came to me while living in Costa Rica:  If I wanted certain things, I soon found out that I was going to have to cook or bake them myself.  Ah, I love a good challenge!

Things are different here (y’all know it’s a foreign country, right?) and they don’t have a lot of the conveniences where I live that I was used to in the States (think: ready-made pie crusts,  Pillsbury crescent rolls, or rolled up anything, washed/bagged/ready-to-eat lettuce, instant pudding, etc.). Of course some of these things could be found in specialty stores (far away from me, I don’t have a car), or sometimes even in my city, but at a huge price (remember I quit my job).

So, after moving here – I became a better cook without even thinking about it, there was no other option.  

Here’s a few ways in which Costa Rica has made me a better cook:

IMG_9919 (1)1. Costa Rica has forced me deal with adverse conditions. This was my first oven’s temperature control options ————–> warm, high, bake or grill.  That’s it!  No numbers or degrees of any kind.  Challenging, to say the least. Somehow, within our first month of being here, I got it into my head that I wanted to make my éclairs, but I had to do it in this oven. I usually bake the bite-sized pastries at 400° F. How was I going to do this in my no-degrees-oven? So, I did a combo of “high” and “bake”, and basically stood there and watched them… but hey – I had time now, right?  

Here is my first batch from the no-degrees-oven, and I was so excited that they turned out (ok, so they were slightly burned on top, but you can’t tell because of the chocolate frosting!):

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Of course, me being me – I had to start out with the most difficult thing to make here in Costa Rica.   The oven was the first complication for my éclairs.  Other hurdles, which soon came to my attention, included:

  • The recipe calls for Cool Whip (there is NO ready-made whipped cream to be found here.  Also there is no heavy cream – you know, the kinda you can easily whip into whipped cream – in the refrigerated dairy sections of the grocery stores).
  • The recipe calls for a package of French Vanilla Instant Pudding (nope – definitely not going to find any of that here).

This pushed me to find out how to make whipped cream and my own homemade custard.  See my homemade recipe for Costa Rican Éclairs (with homemade custard!) at the bottom of this post, which is also found in my Costa Rica Chica book.  

2. Costa Rica has taught me how to make things from scratch.  At first, upon moving here – I was dismayed to find that I just couldn’t find certain things that I was used to.  But then, with the trusty help of my friend Google, I become proficient at making things from scratch.  Like… cream of chicken soup, enchilada sauce, taco seasoning, ranch seasoning, salsa & pesto (just to name a few!).  See bottom of this post for my ranch seasoning recipe.  

3.  Costa Rica has taught me how to bake my own bread.  Why is this important?  Because there is no bakery-style crusty bread here like you can get in the States!  So, I just make my own.  It’s so easy and no elbow grease is kneaded (get it?).  Check out my recipe in my Costa Rica Chica Cookbook, and I’ve also included the recipe at the bottom of this post.
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Note, I bake this bread in my AWESOME burnt-orange Lodge 6 qt. dutch oven, I soooo love my Lodge, which is also great for making soups!

FullSizeRender-2 copyAnother note, tons of famous cooks swear by the Le Creuset dutch oven, but it is FOUR TIMES as expensive as the Lodge(!), and really – I swear my Lodge can do anything the Le Creuset claims to do.  Feel free to challenge me.

4. Costa Rica has taught me how to substitute some ingredients.  There is no sour cream here, but there is natilla which substitutes just fine.  Natilla is more like the French crème fraîche, and comes with salt or without.  It’s not really “sour” tasting (therefore – NOT sour cream), but it can work in a pinch for a sour cream replacement.  I have used in cheesecakes with no problems.  Also – buttermilk (lecha agria) can sometimes or sometimes not be found in my grocery store.  But it’s easy to make by mixing 1 cup of milk with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice (or vinegar or even the Costa Rican limón), and let it stand for 5-10 minutes.  It won’t be as thick as buttermilk, but will get the job done.

IMG_74215. Costa Rica has taught me how to make homemade ice cream.  Well, actually my chef-pal Mike taught me this, but he lives in Costa Rica too, so it’s pretty much the same thing.  Sure, you can buy ice cream here, but it takes a 1/2 hour or longer for me to get home on the bus in the heat of mid-day; the ice cream would never make it.  And… my homemade ice cream is SOOOO much better than store-bought!  All I needed was this handy dandy ice cream attachment to my Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer, and voilá.  Homemade ice cream is just the BEST, you guys, you gotta try it!  And really, it’s so easy – you just need time to make the base, then refrigerate, then put in the ice cream maker (can eat as “soft-serve” at this point), then freeze (for more solid-form ice cream).  Recipe at the bottom of this post. Now, I’m wondering if I could get my ice cream attachment painted by someone to match my stand mixer…  

Here’s my Very Chocolate Ice Cream (<— click for recipe):

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I’m currently thinking about attempting a Mora Berry (Costa Rican Blackberry) Frozen Yogurt, what do you guys think?

6. Costa Rica has taught me how to use some basic appliances I’ve had forever, instead of them gathering dust in my pantry.  First of all – my crockpot, I’ve always had one (who doesn’t when they first get married?), but honestly never used it in Dallas, except when we needed queso-dip for a house party.  Now, I use it all the time for soups and chicken tacos (chicken breast, green salsa, red salsa, chopped red pepper and corn). 

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Click here to check out this crock pot.

I also use my immersion blender all the time for blending soups, salsa or pesto.  Super easy, and quick clean up too (much easier than a blender, especially when you’re hand washing).

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Click here to check out the Cuisinart Immersion Blender.

7. Costa Rica has taught me how to make my own pizza dough.  So, wow, I never thought I’d really make my own pizza dough – but here I am, doing it all the time!  It’s old hat by now, and really quite easy.  I have different variations I make:  thick crust, gluten-free and thin crust (thin crust recipe is in my Costa Rica Chica Cookbook).  I also must mention my most trusted pizza-making-friend:  the Silpat Roul’Pat Non-stick Silicone Countertop Work Station.   I just lay it out on the counter or table, and roll out my dough on it.  I DO put a little flour down first, but the dough doesn’t stick to the mat at all – I just love how it works.  So easy.  Here’s my thin-crust pizza:

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8. Costa Rica has taught me to think outside the box. I came to Costa Rica with an old white Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved my mixer, even when it was old and white.  It was from a dear friend’s dad, before he went into a nursing home, a gift I will always treasure. So – fast forward to when I moved here to Costa Rica, and one of my friend’s here just happens to be an amazing artist.  I put the two together, and BAM – look at this amazing paint job she did on my mixer! This turned out so much better than I ever imagined:

Miss Mix-a-lot!

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In summary, Costa Rica has taught me a TON.  Basically, it has helped change me from an occasional-baker into a totally-cooking-from-scratch and makes-everything-homemade “chef” – which I had no idea I could even be!  I have so much fun cooking and baking now, which led me to write my cookbook, among other things.  

Of course I don’t hear Greg complaining, either.  Here he is multi-tasking:  eating an éclair while reading my éclair post on Facebook (isn’t he the cutest?):IMG_9936

¡Provecho! — Jen

PS – Tune in tomorrow when I feature my friend Lynette, who makes her own doggie treats here in Costa Rica!

PPS – Here’s the recipes I promised:

Costa Rican Éclairs
Perfect custard and chocolate pastries, just like you get at the bakery!
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Pastries
  1. 1/4 C butter (1/2 of a stick), cut in pieces
  2. 1/2 C water
  3. 1/8 tsp salt
  4. 1/2 C flour
  5. 2 large eggs (whisked together ahead of time)
Custard
  1. 1 1/4 C milk
  2. 3 large egg yolks
  3. 1/4 C sugar
  4. 2 TB flour
  5. 1 TB Maizena (fécula de maiz) (US: corn starch)
  6. 1 tsp coffee liqueur (optional)
  7. 1 tsp vanilla extract
  8. 1/2 C whipped crema dulce (US: whipped cream)
Chocolate topping
  1. A good semi-sweet chocolate (or in a pinch, a can of dark chocolate frosting!)
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C).
  2. In a small saucepan over high heat, combine butter, salt and water. Once the butter melts – bring to a boil and turn off heat immediately (as the water will evaporate). Remove from heat and stir in flour until it forms a ball. Place in different bowl and add beaten eggs a bit at a time, mix until SMOOTH each time (you may not need ALL the egg!). You want a thickness so if you hold up spatula (facing down), the pastry sticks to spatula for a second, before falling down in a thick ribbon.
  3. Place by small spoonfuls on greased baking sheet (or silpat mat) and bake for 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees, until just slightly brown on top (watch your oven, as everyone's is different!).
  4. While the pastries are baking, in a saucepan bring the milk just to boiling (just until milk starts to foam up).
  5. While milk is heating, in a medium-sized heatproof bowl, mix the sugar and egg yolks together. Sift the flour and corn starch into the egg mixture, mixing until you get a smooth paste.
  6. Once milk is ready, remove milk from heat and add slowly to egg mixture bowl, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. If you get a few pieces of curdled egg, you can pour through a strainer.
  7. Then pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan (which you heated the milk in) and cook over medium heat until boiling, whisking constantly. When it boils, whisk mixture constantly for another 30 – 60 seconds until it becomes thick. Remove from heat and immediately whisk in the liqueur and vanilla extract. Cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a crust from forming. Cool to room temperature.
  8. After custard has cooled, whip your crema dulce and fold into the custard with spatula, very slowly (you do not want to lose the whipped cream volume).
  9. Melt chocolate in a double boiler (or if you're using canned frosting, heat slightly in microwave so it spreads better).
  10. To assemble your éclairs, use a serrated knife to slice the pastries in half. Spoon a large spoonful of the custard on the bottom half of the pastry. Take the top half of the pastry and dip just the top part in the melted chocolate, then flip over and place on top of the custard filling.
  11. Store in refrigerator until ready to eat. ENJOY!
Costa Rica Chica http://costaricachica.com/
Easy No-Knead Rustic White Bread
Perfect rustic bread - crusty on the outside, moist and hole-y on the inside!
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Ingredients
  1. 6 ¼ C flour
  2. 1 ½ TB salt
  3. 1 ½ TB yeast
  4. 3 C warm water
Instructions
  1. In a large resealable (Tupperware) container add flour, then salt & yeast sprinkled on top. Add 3 cups warm water and stir until a loose, very sticky dough forms (use your hands if needed, you don't want any flour pockets on the bottom). Put towel over top of the container, and let the dough sit at room temperature until it rises (I let mine rise 6 hours, I’m at an elevation of 4700 ft), it should more than double in size.
  2. When the dough has risen, fit the lid onto the container, seal it, and place in the fridge for a few hours, or overnight. This dough will keep in the fridge for 3 weeks (I’ve also taken some dough at this point and baked it right away, but it's easier to work with if refrigerated first).
  3. Preheat your oven to 450 Fahrenheit (230 Celsius) with the covered dutch oven in the oven – preheat for 30 minutes. Pick off a hunk of the dough (grapefruit size). Turn dough in hands, gently stretching surface of dough, rotating ball a quarter-turn as you go, creating a rounded top and pinch bottom together. Set out on floured surface, sprinkle a bit of flour on top, and cover with towel for 30 minutes (while oven preheats).
  4. After 30 minutes, using a serrated knife, slash top of dough in three parallel, 1/4-inch deep cuts, and place in hot dutch oven. Cover, and bake for 30 min’s. Uncover and bake for 10-30 min’s more (depends on your oven – you want it a nice brown and crusty on top when done).
  5. Let cool slightly before slicing.
Adapted from somewhere on the vast world wide web...
Adapted from somewhere on the vast world wide web...
Costa Rica Chica http://costaricachica.com/
Ranch Seasoning
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Ingredients
  1. 2 Tbsp dried parsley
  2. 2 tsp dried dill
  3. 1 tsp garlic powder
  4. 1 tsp onion powder
  5. 1/2 tsp black pepper
  6. 1/2 tsp dried chives
  7. pinch of salt
Instructions
  1. Mix all spices together (I like to process in my food processor).
  2. FOR DRESSING: 1 cup milk, 3/4 cup mayo + 3-4 TB of Ranch seasoning. If you want it thicker use 1 cup of mayo.
Costa Rica Chica http://costaricachica.com/

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Jen

I quit my job in my early 40’s, sold everything and retired early to live a simple life in Costa Rica!

Check out my book: "Costa Rica Chica" - the book.

Check out my Arm Candy: Costa Rica Chica Arm Candy.

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21 Responses to HOW COSTA RICA HAS MADE ME A BETTER COOK

  1. As to the frozen Mora Yogurt … I make apple/blackberry sorbet and it’s wonderful! Of course you have to strain it a LOT due to the seediness of the mora, but the flavor is divine.

    • Darn… you don’t think I could just process in food processor? I don’t like straining… Your sorbet sounds delicious! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Hi, Jen,

    Great post! Yes, I followed a similar path where I first missed some of those convenience foods I was used to using, then turned to making it from scratch (while becoming more interested in “real food” anyway!). I have to say I’m with Kathleen, though — I think you’d have to strain the moras. We loved their flavor but the seeds, OMG. I’d be interested to hear from someone differently, but I don’t think they’d just “process” away.

    –arden–

    • Well, shoot, on the moras! Maybe I’ll use strawberries and bananas instead. Thanks for your input Arden, and as always, for reading my blog! 🙂

  3. Hi Jen, what if you don’t have a dutch oven, Would love to make this bread. Can I just put it on a pizza pan and bake it without a top, though I am sure the steam helps to cook it, right? Looks delicious and really want to try it but limited on cook ware in my furnished apt.

    • Hi Teri! I would try like a round cake pan and do a tented faux-cover with tin foil (for first 30 minutes, then take tin foil off). You are correct – it is all about the moisture!

  4. Totally enjoyed reading your post and your adjustments to cooking here. So clever you are and LOVE LOVE your painted mixer. You make cooking look so fun! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Really enjoyed reading this and recalling how much satisfaction I felt when making things truly from scratch. (As opposed to making, say, brownies out of a box and saying they’re from scratch because you didn’t buy them ready made!!!). Now that I’m back to the “I have no time” lifestyle, I yearn for the next stage in my life where I have time once again and can make stuff like bread and my own taco seasoning mix! Thanks, Jen.

  6. Pingback: Homemade Peanut Butter & Pumpkin Dog Treats - Costa Rica ChicaCosta Rica Chica

  7. You really are so incredibly creative in many ways Jen and what’s best of all, is that you SHARE! I just need to get motivated enough to make more of your easy and delicious recipes!

  8. Hi Jen,
    Great post. I used to think I wanted to retire somewhere where we could have our choice of a dozen different international eateries within a short walk. But, cooking is starting to sound fun again – and gardening! I want good, real, organic food.

    Looks like we’re coming to (San Antonio de Escazú) CR for a house sit this summer. Whoo hoo! I need advice on all the areas I need to check out for possible future retirement living. I love your no car lifestyle. I hope we can meet up.

  9. Hi Jen: I accidentally came across your blog and have read every word. Love, love, love it. I too like to cook food from scratch as I then know what is in my food and I like to garden as well. My latest dish is pasta with the noodles being made of zucchini that I made with a $20 veggie spiralizer. Butter/olive oil, garlic and pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, quick easy and delicious. Can you get zucchini in C.R.?

    My husband and I would like to spend a couple of months (or maybe longer) in Grecia as we have researched the area. Are there places that can be rented for two to four months in the winter. We live in beautiful Victoria BC Canada with mild winters, but we would like a change. I am really looking forward to heating from you if you have the time. We are extremely healthy seniors.

    • Hi Pat! Glad you stumbled upon me. 🙂 Yes, we can get zucchini here, and I have a veggie spiralizer! Yep, there are places here for rent for 2-4 months, no problem. Let me know if you need further info. Cheers!

  10. Thanx Jen. If we decide to visit CR this winter I will be in touch. I have been spending hours today reading your blogs. Happy reading for me. Pat

    • That’s so great to hear! Just hearing that someone out there is reading my blogs. Please do contact me if you visit. Thanks, Pat!

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