Thursday, April 15, 2010

10 degrees north

Well, I'm back in the States after a rather adventurous stay on an organic farm in rural Costa Rica.  I apologize for my absence, it has been a hectic couple of weeks with shaky internet and overbooked planes--but the good news is I'm ready to get back in the groove and back in the kitchen.  Before I get back to the cookery, I thought I'd take some time to share the highlights of my trip--before the visions of hoeing and tilling under the Costa Rican sun become nothing but a distant memory.
My good friend, Laura, and I arrived at the farm by way of an old American school bus that took us on a very bumpy ride up and over the green mountains of the San Jose province to the small pueblo of Mastatal.  A full ten minutes before we arrived at our "stop" (the one and only grocery store in town run out of a woman's house), it started to downpour and I was happy about my last minute decision to pack a raincoat. We were greeted by two volunteers and put onto yet another old American school bus for a short 5 minute ride up the dirt road to the entrance of the farm.  Stepping off the bus and into a giant puddle of mud, I hear a voice yell, "Welcome to the rainy season in Costa Rica!"

The voice was that of Marcos, the owner and talented farmer of Cabañas Siempre Verde, where the goal is to create and maintain a completely self-sustaining organic farm using compost and other natural fertilizers rather than traditional herbicides and pesticides.  We had dinner by candlelight (the thunderstorm left us without power for the night), where we met the other volunteers and Marcos' wife, Sara, who cooked three meals a day for the volunteers.

Bedtime called for a ten minute jungle hike down to our cabaña, which was basically a glorified treehouse with no walls and a tin roof.  Mosquito netting hung from the ceiling around each bed to protect us from the critters of the night.  I was also very happy that I packed a headlight, which allowed me to use both hands to inspect my bed for any bugs that might have found there way in during the day.  After giving my bed a thorough search,  I laid my head on the pillow, which was damp from the thick moisture of the jungle air, and I was so tired from the day of traveling that not even the sound of what could have only been monkeys mating kept me from getting a night's sleep.

At 5:30 AM, awakened by the sounds of wild birds dancing on the tin roof, we climbed down from  our beds and made our way back up to the house.  Nothing like hiking uphill before having your morning coffee.

Breakfast as a group and then it was off to the farm--another 30 minute hike from the house.  I learned very quickly that everyone is sweaty all the time and there's just no way around it.  On the hike to the farm, I ate starfruit off of the tree (which tasted like nature's sourpatch kids) and sucked on guava seeds.  Having already signed up to chop (chop what I had no idea), Marcos turns to me as he is sharpening a machete and asks, "Have you ever used a machete before?"  Yes, of course, Marcos, I use machetes all the time back in New Jersey.  After letting out a little chuckle, he handed me the machete and directed me to the four-foot-tall grass I would be chopping to make more space to farm.  As I hacked away at the stubborn weeds, dripping more sweat than I had ever dripped before, I wondered how I could have possibly let my "good" friend Laura talk me into this.

But lunchtime came around to remind me why I was excited to work on a farm in the first place.  Freshly made cheese, delicious lemonade squeezed from lemons we picked that day, yuca and peppers from the garden, mangoes from a neighboring farm, and, as always, rice and beans.
The most exciting food experience I had while I was there, though, was roasting cashews.  Cashew apples--something I had never seen-- are the fruit of a cashew trees, which were everywhere around the property.
We gathered the cashews and then, on a sheet of metal over a fire, we roasted the cashew shells until they were charred black. 
The oil from the interior of the shells contains a caustic resin that is actually poisonous--it has a toxin similar to the one found in poison ivy.  But roasting the cashew shells before shelling them gets rid of the chemical.
After they were good and burnt, we threw them from the metal sheet onto the ground to let them cool slightly before we picked them up to crack the shells and peel the skins.
And, after picking, gathering, roasting, cracking, and peeling, you find yourself face to face with a cashew ready to be eaten.   Still warm from the fire, the cashews were soft and buttery and absolutely scrumptious--making the long process worth it.
So, when I got back on home soil, one of the first things I wanted to do was get my hands on some cashews.  Cashews are always sold shelled (something I have a new appreciation for) and sans toxic resin so you're all good.  I bought cashews that had been roasted and lightly salted, but plain cashews are great too if your grocery store has them.  This simple but delicious oatmeal is inspired by my experiences from the farm.  Cashews will always take me back to memories of farming, sweaty clothes, mosquito nets, great people and even better food.  If you'd like, you can add other dried fruits like cherries, raisins, or apricots and you can use honey instead of maple syrup. The possibilities are endless when it comes to oatmeal.
I buy organic rolled oats from the health food store, but wherever you get your oats just be sure to buy old-fashioned rolled oats and not the instant kind (unless for some reason you need your oatmeal to be done four minutes sooner), you'll pay for it in flavor.
Oatmeal with Roasted Cashews and Dried Cranberries
Yields 2 servings

1 3/4 c. water or milk (I used soy milk)
1 c. old-fashioned oats
1/4 c. dried cranberries
1/4 c. cashews
pinch of salt
1 1/2 tsp maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Arrange cashews on a even layer on baking sheet. Bake for 5-7 minutes, giving them a good shake every few minutes to ensure even cooking.* Remove from oven and allow to cool before giving them a rough chop.

In a 3 quart saucepan, bring water to a boil (or milk to just before a simmer, be careful not to let the milk boil) and stir in oats and salt.  Cover, reduce heat to low, and allow to cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until desired consistency. 

Turn flame off but leave saucepan on stove and add in chopped cashews, dried cranberries, and maple syrup.  Stir until all of the ingredients are combined and serve immediately.  I like to add some cold milk to my bowl, I like the extra liquid and

*In this recipe, I roast the cashews for a couple of minutes in the oven just to give them a nice crispness and allow their flavors to really come out, but this step is optional if you'd rather just skip it.

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