Bites & Pieces: A Postcard from Costa Rica

I arrived in Costa Rica on Monday night after far too long an absence from my favorite home away from home. We started taking our sons their for a month in the summertime a few years ago. I was going to be away at a conference and my better half (Keen) was offered work out of town that overlapped my conference. Rather than give up on work at a slow time and lacking a kennel in which to put the boys, we worked out something else. I flew down to Costa Rica with them, dropped them off with their grandmother, and flew back to DC before going on to my conference. Keen flew down after finishing her assignment and spent the rest of August. It worked out so well, that they’ve spent 4 – 6 weeks in Costa Rica every summer since then. In honor of our annual trip, I thought I’d post a few of my favorites that I associate with Costa Rica, one way or another.

Breakfast – Gallo Pinto

Every country in Central America claims to have invented Gallo Pinto, but the Ticos do it best. I say this with absolute confidence, never having visited Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Panama (and let’s not forget Belize). My confidence in Costa Rican Gallo Pinto is that I can’t imagine having it without Salsa Lizano. It’s the same general class of condiment as steak sauce in the US and relish in the UK (Worcestershire sauce is one of many). It’s rice and beans with a twist.


1/4 cup of vegetable oil
2 cups of white rice, cooked
2 cups, black beans, cooked (or 1 can, drained)
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, (you guessed it) minced
1 bell pepper, (and wait for it) minced
Salsa Lizano or other seasoning, to taste

optional: cilantro leaves or diced tomato for garnish


Heat oil in a heavy frying pan and add the minced veggies. Cook until soft and then add the rice. Stir for a bit until warmed and mixed with the veggies, then add the black beans. Season well with Salsa Lizano. I like to let it cooked unstirred for a bit to build up a crust on the bottom or just cook and stir until hot. This is a staple of Costa Rican kitchens, usually served at breakfast with tortillas, queso duro (hard cheese) and scrambled eggs. Garnish with cilantro leaves or some diced tomato if you like. It’s great with some mango or papaya on the side.

Lunch – Ceviche

Peruvians hold claim to this sushi from the south and you can usually get the best ceviche at a restaurant run by Peruvians. I had my first taste of ceviche at a little joint near Manuel Antonio, a national park on the Pacific coast. The basic concept is simplicity itself. Cut up fresh fish into rough dice–dorado (mahi-mahi) and corvina (sea bass) and cover with lime juice. The juice “cooks” the fish, firming it up as if it had been cooked with heat. The acid should also kill off various beasties, but this is not the same as cooking, so you need to use high quality fish. Make sure it’s sushi grade for salmon unless you want to risk a tapeworm. After a period varying from a few minutes to hours (depending upon the fish and how you like it), drain and toss with minced onion, tomato, possibly some chiles, and cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips and, if you’re Costa Rican, salsa rosada. This “rose sauce” is a mixture of ketchup and mayo, but we like to use plain yogurt instead. Tangy and tasty.

I’ll add a pair of recipes from a book on ceviche that was given to me by a friend. Guillermo Pernot, the author, was the chef-owner of ¡Pasion! in Philadelphia (since closed) and now is the concept chef of the Cuba Libre restaurants. The first of these combines whole bay scallops with a blackened tomatillo salsa and truffel oil. Indulgent and a favorite of mine for parties. The second recipe combines sea scallops with grapefruit for a colorful presentation. Make sure to use high quality scallops; wet pack won’t do.

Bay Scallop Ceviche with Truffle Tomatillo Salsa

1 pound fresh, untreated bay scallops or sea scallops, trimmed and quartered
1 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
3 tablespoons finely diced red
2 tablespoons finely diced serrano chilies (specialty Latin
1 tablespoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound fresh tomatillos, husks removed, rinsed
1/2 pound ripe plum tomatoes
1 red onion, quartered and unpeeled
1 jalapeno chili
4 cachucha chilies
1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons truffle oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons crushed platano chips (recipe follows)
12 whole platano chips

1. Combine the lime juice, orange juice, onion, serrano chilies and salt. Add the bay scallops and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

2. In a large saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over moderately high heat. Add the tomatillos, tomatoes, onion, and chiles. Cachucha chiles look like habañeros, but without so much heat. You can use a couple more jalapeños instead. I often toss all the ingredients with oil and broil them in the toaster oven. Works about the same. Let the blackened veggies cool and stir in the cilantro. Pulse in a food processor until chopped, but chunky. Pernot likes to use a meat grinder for a different texture. Combine the vegetable mixture with the lime juice, truffle oil, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.

3. Put it all together. Drain and discard the liquid marinade. In a medium bowl, combine the marinated scallops with most of the blackened tomatillo-truffle sauce. Cover and refrigerate 20 minutes to marinate. When ready to serve, drain the scallops of excess liquid, and toss with the remaining blackened tomatillo-truffle sauce. Adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary. Divide the ceviche among soup spoons laid on a platter. Sprinkle with crushed plantain chips just before serving, accompanied by bowls of plantain chips.

You can make plantain chips on your own by frying planks of green plantains in oil and draining on paper towels. Or just buy a bag of them.

Sea Scallop Ceviche with Grapefruit and Radishes

1/2 pound of sea scallops, cut into two rounds each
3/4 cup of ceviche marinade
2 ruby grapefruit
6 red radishes
1 lime, juiced (about 2 tablespoons(
pinch hot pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tablespoon chiffonade of basil (regular or Thai)
1 tablespoon chiffonade of mint

Combine the scallops with the marinade and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Slice away the skin and membranes from the grapefruit and set aside. Combine the lime juice, pepper flakes (if using), salt, and herbs. Thinly slice the radishes and add half the juice/herb mixture. Drain the scallops of the marinade and add the remaining juice & herbs. Divide the scallop rounds into four plates. Place the grapefruit segments around the outside and a pile of radish juliennes in the center.

Marinade for Ceviche

1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tsp. kosher salt

Afternoon – Bebidas

I’m sure you’re a bit thirsty from that walk along the beach and could use something refreshing. I would suggest jugo en leche (mango or papaya, blended with milk) or pipa for non-alcoholic drinks. For the latter, grab a green coconut, whack off the top with a machete, and stick a straw in it. Lacking a green coconut or a machete, you can always pick up some coconut water at the market. It also makes a great piña colada. Use the coconut water instead of that stuff in a can, blend with fresh pineapple and rum and enjoy. As long as we’re discussing alcoholic beverages, I might suggest a nice, cold Imperial (which you can sometimes find in the US) or a Cuba Libre (rum and coke with lime juice).

Dinner – Black Bean Risotto

Let’s head over to the other side of Costa Rica, also known as the Mosquito Coast. Many Caribbean workers came to Costa Rica to build the railway between San José and Limón, on the Caribbean coast. Many stayed, giving that coast a distinct cultural and culinary flavor. We spent our honeymoon in Punta Cocles, about two hours south of Limón and just north of the Panamanian border. It was the worst road I’d ever driven. At times, it seemed there were more potholes than highway. Once you get there, it’s worth the drive. We hung out and had a lot of good food. One dish that stood out for me was the Caribbean style rice and beans. It’s made with coconut milk and served with chilero, a spicy vegetable mix of bell pepper, carrot rounds, and hot peppers (habañeros), all steeped in vinegar. Some time later, I had the idea of making a risotto with black beans and used this dish as my inspiration.


4 cups chicken stock
1 cup coconut milk (2/3 of a can)
½ cup dry white wine (or more broth)

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup finely minced onion

1 ½ cups short grain rice (Arborio or Carnoli, though sushi rice works well)
1 ½ cups cooked black beans or 1 can, drained and rinsed

½ cup coconut milk (1/3 can)
½ bunch cilantro, washed, thick stems removed, chopped to make about ¼ cup
Queso duro or fresco, crumbled for garnish


1. Bring broth to a steady simmer in a saucepan on the stove. Add coconut milk and return to simmer.
2. Heat the butter and oil in a heavy casserole or dutch oven over med. heat. Add the onion and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes until it softens.
3. Add the rice to the soffrito, stir using a wooden spoon until the grains are thoroughly coated. Add the wine and stir until it is completely absorbed. Add the simmering broth, ½ cup at a time. Stir frequently until almost completely absorbed and add the next ½ cup.
4. Add coconut milk and cilantro and remove from heat. Stir completely to combine with the rice. Add the black beans near the end of cooking.
5. Put the risotto on serving dishes. Sprinkle with crumbled queso. Top with chilero or serve on the side. This dish is also good when topped with grilled shrimp or fresh mango.

Serves 4.


8 chiles, preferably Scotch bonnet or Habañero
1 large onion, yellow or sweet (Vidalia)
1 large or several small carrots
1 red bell pepper
Cider or white vinegar

Cut the onion and bell pepper into 1/2″ chunks. Peel the carrot(s) and slice into rounds. Wearing gloves, cut the chiles in half and remove the seeds. Toss all vegetables and put in a large mason jar. Fill to the top with vinegar. I like cider vinegar for this recipe, but white vinegar should do as well. White wine vinegar might work, but isn’t really needed. Let sit for at least a week.

Dessert – Alfajores

These cookies are a favorite indulgence of mine. It’s two small sugar cookies with dulce de leche in the center and topped with powdered sugar. The cookies are made with cornstarch instead of flour and so are quite soft. They’re great with coffee, preferably Costa Rican of course.


1 1/2 sticks butter (3/4 cup)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 egg yolks
2 1/2 cups cornstarch
1 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. baking powder
Zest of 1/2 lemon
Dulce de Leche


Cream the butter and sugar together. Add the remaining ingredients except the dulce de leche and coconut and mix well. Turn onto a floured work surface and knead until the dough is smooth. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of about 1/4 inch and cut into 2-inch rounds. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 300°F oven for 20 minutes. When cool, spread some dulce de leche on the bottom of half the cookies and make a sandwich with the remaining cookies. Squeeze the sandwiches so that some of the dulce de leche is squeezed out the sides, and roll the sides in the grated coconut. Makes about 12 cookie sandwiches. Dust with powdered sugar.

Gallo Pinto2


One Response

  1. A client of mine introduced me to salsa lizano which he serves in his restaurants – all of which are BBQ joints.

    It is a different twist on meat sauce, and although I liked it, I thought a little bit went a l o n g way. My client is so in love with it he pours freely.


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