Archive for February, 2010

The Farmers Market in Cartago, Costa Rica

My sister-in-law at the market in Cartago.

Back in January, my daughter and I visited my brother’s home in Costa Rica for a family reunion.  No better place for a family reunion in January!  They live in the mountains near Cartago, and have a 15 acre coffee farm.  They moved down there 10 years ago after retiring from teaching school.  They have banana trees that shade the coffee, so there are fresh bananas all the time for the picking.  The workers hang a stalk near their porch and you can just get one whenever you want.  The porch is where most of the living is done.  Where they are, the temperatures run in the mid to high 50’s  at night and up to 80 degrees during the day.  It is like perpetual spring.  It was coffee picking time while we were there and so we got to see how that was done and how it is processed at the co-op that buys their coffee.  Local food is mostly the way of life there.  Unfortunately, Wal-Mart has infiltrated and is bringing more industrial food into the area, but the old ways are dying hard, such as the local farmer’s market.

On Saturdays in Cartago you can go to the local farmers market and apparently, everyone does.  I went with Becky, my sister-in-law, who goes every week and takes several folks from her housekeeper’s family who do not have a vehicle.  (Many people there ride bicycles and walk what would seem to us enormous distances up and down mountains, every day.)  I would estimate that there are at least a hundred booths in each of two streets on either side of a park.  the booths run down each side of the street with a double row in the middle. 

View of the Farmers Market.

There is an enormous variety of food available.  The climate varies as you go up and down in the mountains, so that vegetables with warmer needs grow in the valleys and cooler season vegetables grow up in the mountains.  All kinds of cruciferous vegetables were there, cauliflower, cabbage, greens, chard and lettuce, as well as tropical fruits and vegetables.  I saw green beans, tomatoes, celery, pineapples, gourds, and berries of all kinds.  There were roots and stems of plants I did not recognize, and we could not understand the description of how they were cooked.  There were melons, watermelons, cantaloupe, honeydews and some I did not recognize, but they offered tastes and they were delicious.  Many fruits can  also be purchased along the side of the road.  There were also fresh eggs from non-industrial chickens.  Those are just as tasty as the ones we get from our chickens.

Mixing with crumbled local cheese.

The best part of all was the lovely cheese tortillas made by Maria.  Apparently, this is a regular treat in Becky’s week; Maria knew her well.  She makes these huge thick tortillas on a propane fired grill set up in the market.  She brings prepared masa with her which she brings out in batches.  She mixes it with whole kernel fresh corn and a local fresh cheese, that looks something like homemade cottage cheese or quesa fresca.  After they are completely mixed, she forms it into large balls which are put on the griddle and pressed out with a big spatula.  They cook for a few minutes on each side and are turned a couple more times to complete the cooking.  Then she takes one up, cuts it into about 8 pieces and puts in a styrofoam box for you.  Styrofoam is everywhere.  I wish it would go away.

Cheese Tortillas cooking on the grill.

We took the tasty creation and found a place to sit and enjoy it and watch the busy market.  Becky says that by late afternoon, almost everything is sold.  People from the city of 156,000 and the surrounding area buy up all the food available.  Cartago, which was founded in 1563, is located at the base of Vocano Irazu, which over many millenia has covered the area with volcanic ash which contributes to the high fertility of the agricultural area surrounding the city.  The main agricultural products of the surrounding region are potatoes, milk, onions, coffee and orchids, but as you can see lots of other foods grow in the area. 

And, Maria, the lady who makes them.

I enjoyed my time there, but it started me on a fruit binge that I have just now gotten back under control.  The tropical fruits there were so good and when I got back here, I found that the local Kroger had Costa Rican bananas and pineapples.  They were not quite as good as the ones down there, but they were pretty good.  And then those ruby red grapefruits had come in from Texas.  Ok, I know none of that is local, but it is traditional, at least in my family from way back, to purchase tropical fruits in the winter.  You get those lovely oranges and such from Florida, and that is not so far from me.  But Texas has the best grapefruit, I think.  Anyway, I have been eating a lot of fruit and it has slowed down my weight loss somewhat, although, I have gotten no colds or anything like that, even though people around me at work have been dropping like flies.  I guess it could be worse.  I did allow myself some absolutely wonderful coconut flan at a restaurant we went to.  I haven’t made any flan since I came back.  A fruit binge is much better than a flan binge.

Making Cheese

I tasted the carrot pickles and I like them.  The rosemary adds an interesting flavor that was not exactly what I was expecting.  The other ones I had made that were just refrigerator pickles had regular pickling spices and red pepper flakes in them.  It was actually hotter than this one with the whole pepper in it.  I guess that would depend on what kind of pepper you use.  There is not a lot of choice on peppers in the middle of February, so I used what I could get. 

Gabrielle and Brenda waiting for the milk to heat up.

But, that is not what I came to talk to you about.  I’m here to talk about cheese.  You can make your own, you know; from local milk that is taken from cows who can walk around in a pasture all day and who are not given regimens of drugs to keep them somewhat healthy.  The milk I get comes from Johnston Family Farm near Newborn, GA.  It is only about 20 minutes away from where I live.  They sell their milk at Whole Foods in Atlanta, and also through the Locally Grown market based in Conyers.  But the funnest way to get it is to go to the farm and pick out what you want from the refrigerator on the porch of the barn.  Then you drop your money in a box nailed to the wall.  All the cats come to meet you and watch as you choose what you want.  Someone must give them milk, but I don’t want to share any of mine with them.  You can check out their website, http://www.johnstonfamilyfarm.com/.   The milk is delicious, low-heat pasteurized and not homogenized.  They have all varieties, whole, skim, 2%; they even have chocolate milk and cream.  A few weeks ago, I invited a couple of friends from work to come and make cheese with me.  We made basic fresh mozzarella, which is quite easy and only takes about 45 minutes to an hour. 

The milk has separated into curds and whey.

Brenda and Gabrielle were amazed at how easy it was to do, and wondered, like I did, at why people ever stopped doing this at home.  It is so much better than what you get from the store.  But I guess it is like everything else, it just seemed more convenient.  I remember all those  supposed time-saving commercials when I was a kid.  After being brainwashed about that for so long, you just give in.  But by doing that, you lose a lot of the satisfaction of creating your own life, not depending on someone else to do it for you at a cost.  But I digress again; we really should get on to the making of the cheese.

Pouring off the whey.

In order to make cheese, you must have milk, any kind will work, whole, 2% or skim.  The milk you use cannot be ultra-pasteurized; so that rules out most grocery store organic milks.  To make it turn into cheese you need citric acid, lipase, rennet and salt.  The recipe I use comes from the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website, http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/Mozzarella.pdf.   You can get all your cheesemaking supplies from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.  Their web address is www.cheesemaking.com

But I don’t exactly make it like the recipe.  The method is the same but I add lipase to the mix, just before putting in the rennet.  Lipase is an enzyme and I think it gives the cheese a better flavor.  You can get it from the cheesemaking folks along with everything else that you need.  You must keep it and the rennet tablets in the freezer to keep them fresh.  You only have to heat the milk up to 100 degrees to make this cheese.  That is one reason it does not take so long.  At 50 degrees you add the citric acid; at 90 degrees you add the lipase and then the rennet and stir gently.  Stop stirring as soon as the milk begins to separate.  Increase the temperature to 100 and then turn off the heat.  Let it stand for 5 to 10 minutes to separate completely; then dip out the curds into a large microwaveable bowl.  They will be full of whey, so you must begin kneading them.  As you do the liquid will come out and you pour it back into the pot.  This is harder than it sounds.  You have to hold onto the curd and pour around it.  Once you have gotten as much out as possible, heat the cheese in the microwave for about 45 seconds and knead some more.  The whey will be more creamy looking.

Brenda kneading the cheese.

Brenda kneading the cheese.

Now heat it again and knead some more.  Heat it at least one more time and knead and stretch.  After the third time that you heat it, knead the salt in.  The recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons, but I only use 1 teaspoon.  You may have to heat it more.  It should be pretty hot now, and pretty stretchy.  The strands should not break, but stretch out.  That is how you know it is ready.  Once it stretches without breaking, you can break it off into small balls and drop them in ice water or form it into one large ball.  I have a bowl that is just the right size and I just put it in there with plastic wrap over the top.  I know, I know, I hate plastic wrap, but the surface gets a really funky texture if it stays exposed to the air.  I guess you could put the one large ball in a deep bowl of ice water.  Keep the cheese covered with water or plastic wrap in the refrigerator and eat it within a couple of days.

Chop it up in salads; make pizza or lasagna; cheese toast is good.  Whatever you do with your mozzarella, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing exactly what went into it and who made it.  Enjoy!

Can Jam February

The Hot Water Bath steaming away

Pickles…it had to be pickles.  What else can you do with carrots in a hot water bath.  Well, I had found some recipes for carrot chutney, and even marmalade, but I’ve already done marmalade, and besides, there is only so much sweet stuff that is reasonable for a person who is eating to stave off type 2 diabetes to have around the house.  So, something that would be good snacky food, with not too many calories, was what I needed and I found the recipe in the newest edition of Well Preserved:  small batch preserving for the new cook, by Mary Ann Dragan.  Pickled Rosemary Carrots.  That sounded perfect.  Only the tiniest amount of sugar.  I had made something very similar that was not jarred up and sealed.  It just stayed in the fridge until you ate it up, which did not take long.  I liked them and felt sure I would like these.  The recipe was not challenging at all, at least compared to the marmalade from last month.  This one was pretty much old hat.  Cold pack, pour in the vinegar, put on the lids and hot water bath.  It was almost too easy. or so I thought.

Finding the carrots turned out to be the hard part.  I really wanted local, organic carrots for this round.  I thought it would be easy.  I know lots of local farmers.  I have access to some markets that are still open, even in the dead of winter.  Surely I could pull this off.  I called all my farmer friends.  No one had carrots.  The extremely cold weather we have had this winter had slowed them down to a crawl.  Some had carrots, but they were no bigger than a very slender pencil.  I was forced back to the grocery store, but I did get organic carrots.  So I have gotten something right.  And the rosemary did come from my own herb garden.   I did not have pickling salt, so I substituted sea salt.  The recipe also called for mixed peppercorns.  I could not find those but I did find some special Tellicherry black peppercorns and some green peppercorns, so I used them.

Chopping the carrots.

So I peeled and cut and packed them into the jars.  It didn’t take as long as I had thought it would, even doing 4 pounds of carrots.  And, they fit exactly into 6 wide mouth pint jars.  I put in the garlic, chili pepper and sprig of rosemary and they were ready for the vinegar.  My dear husband helped with getting the hot vinegar solution poured in and I put on the lids and set them in the steaming hot water bath.  They stayed in there for 15 minutes and were done.   The lids started popping almost immediately after I got them out.  I was very surprised at how quickly they were all sealed.

So here is the recipe.  Directly from the book except with a few minor changes:

Pickled Rosemary Carrots

  • 3 cups water
  • 3 cups vinegar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup sea salt
  • 1 Tablespoon each Tellicherry black and green peppercorns
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 6 hot chili peppers
  • 4 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into sticks
  • 6 – 3 inch sprigs of fresh cut rosemary

Prepare the preserving jars.  Combine vinegar, water, sugar, salt and peppercorns and bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer 5 minutes.  Place one clove garlic and one chili pepper in each jar.  Pack carrot sticks tightly in the jars standing them upright.  Slide one sprig of rosemary into each jar.  Carefully pour the boiling vinegar solution into the jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space.  Wipe the rims clean and place lids and rings on the jars.  Place the jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

packed jars awaiting the vinegar solution

It was very satisfying to see how easily it all went together.  Kind of zen-like in its simplicity.  I’m looking forward to tasting them.  I will let them sit for about a week before I take a taste and give them time for all the flavors to “swap around” as Huckleberry Finn would say.  I think they turned out quite lovely.  The green and orange complement each other in a satisfying kind of way.  I hope that they will be as delicious as they look. 

Now, I eagerly look forward to the challenge for March.  I hope that I can get the ingredients for it locally and organically.  I had thought that I was really good at that.  After all, the pick up for our local CSA is on my front porch.  I did not count on the weather knocking me for a loop.  But I guess that is what we all have to live with in reality. 

The finished product.