A Costa Rican Style Cooking Class

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On our recent trip to Costa Rica our group of four had the immense pleasure of participating in a Costa Rican style cooking class with a local family during our three night stay at La Anita Rainforest Ranch.

On the day that we arrived at the ranch our delightful hosts Ana and Pablo asked us what activities were of interest and whether a cooking class with a local family would be something we’d enjoy.

Our enthusiastic response was SIGN US UP!!

Not only did we have a blast, we learned a few cooking tricks and ate extremely well.

Getting to the cooking class required a 15 minute walk to the local village. Our host Pablo accompanied us – so that we’d find our way. For the return we brought flashlights as we planned to walk back on our own (We did and in fact lucked out with an armadillo sighting.) We got dropped off at the very simple but spotlessly clean home of Araceli and her two daughters who helped out – Rosita and Alejandra.

"Walking up to the home of our cooking class instructor"

Walking up to the home of our cooking class instructor

"It's amazing what food came out of a low tech kitchen like this"

It’s amazing what food came out of a low tech kitchen like this

The cooking lesson was in Spanish. Body language, basic Spanish and some help from John who speaks decent Spanish insured we were on the right track.

Here’s what the menu looked like.

  • Cabbage and carrot salad garnished with begonia flowers from the garden and tomato peel rosettes
  • Fresh made cheese – a cross between fresh mozzarella and ricotta
  • Black beans pureed with fresh basil, cilantro and hot peppers
  • Rice cooked in coconut milk with cilantro
  • Caramelized chicken cooked in fresh coconut milk with hot peppers, basil and a few other ingredients I missed
  • Fried plantains
  • Freshly cooked tortillas
  • Matrimonial cake

When we stepped into the kitchen we were immediately instructed to wash our hands. Around the sink – and in fact the kitchen were all sorts of motivational sayings – in Spanish and in English – not what I would have expected walking into such a home.

Before we got started cooking Jo and I had a look in the garden as we’d spied these begonia flowers out on the kitchen table.

"Begonia flowers are used as a salad garnish"

Begonia flowers are used as a salad garnish

"Queen of the Night flower"

Jo checks out the flower called Queen of the Night

Back inside we went to work. Jo and Ted were put on salad detail – basic enough but the presentation ended up being quite lovely. Pile shredded cabbage on the center of a plate. Surround with grated carrot. Add freshly picked begonia flowers and garnish with tomato peel rosettes – which I now know in theory how to make.

"Ted is on cabbage chopping duty"

Ted is on cabbage chopping duty

"Garnishing the salad with tomato skin roses and then begonia flowers"

Garnishing the salad with tomato skin roses and then begonia flowers

John was given the task of stirring a big brown cube made up of sugar and molasses, the basis for matrimonial cake. I think he was admonished a few times to stay on task as the mixture burns easily. Once it’s melted, previously grated fresh carrot and coconut are added along with a bit of ginger. It’s a deadly sweet mixture and you only need a small square to satisfy any sugar cravings.

"Matrimonial cake cooking away - a mix of a hard molasses rich sugar cube, fresh grated coconut & carrot"

Matrimonial cake cooking away – a mix of a hard molasses rich sugar cube, fresh grated coconut & carrot

"matrimonial cake - Costa Rica style"

The final product which then gets cut into squares

I helped out with the cheese. A runny mixture had been made up before we arrived so I have no idea what went into it. My job was to squeeze out as much water as possible from the cheese mixture and then add salt and mix vigorously before forming it into balls. It was much like trying to wring water out of cooked spinach.

"Home made soft cheese"

Home-made soft cheese

The chicken dish was unusual, very flavourful and one I want to try and make now that I’m home. You basically caramelize brown sugar and add some water – just enough so that when you add the chicken it gets deeply browned. Then several cups of freshly made coconut milk are poured into the pot along with fresh basil and hot peppers. It’s left to simmer for about 45 minutes – covered with a mixing bowl serving dual duty as a pot topper.

"Caramelized chicken in fresh coconut milk with fresh basil & hot peppers"

Caramelized chicken in fresh coconut milk with fresh basil & hot peppers

"Tortillas and chicken cooking"

Tortillas and chicken cooking

While the chicken was cooking we moved on to tortillas. Araceli whipped up the corn flour/water mixture plus some salt in seconds and motioned for us to form it into balls. Then she showed us how to pat them out. Every movement she made was a speedy one. This lady knew what she was doing!!

Once we had tortillas flattened we threw them on the hot griddle – a few minutes per side. With a mysterious and much practiced pat with the back of a spoon they puffed up and were done. I’m not sure if I’ll have the same success at home.

"Whipping up the tortilla dough"

Whipping up the tortilla dough

"Form the tortilla dough into balls"

Form the tortilla dough into balls

"patting tortilla dough into flat tortillas'

If you know what you’re doing your hands fly

"tortilla shaping"

And then there is us. John was the best at tortilla shaping

At some point Araceli pureed black beans in a blender. She cut plantains with more speed than I’ve ever summoned in the kitchen. Have a look at all the photos with Araceli and they are blurred because of her speed.

Fresh plantains were fried in minutes and then all the food was assembled outside at a big picnic table. It had taken just over two hours to prepare everything.

"Araceli -our local cooking instructor is also the life of the party"

I wish I spoke great Spanish because Araceli is one delightful human being & the life of the party

"Plantains are the last thing that gets cooked"

Plantains are the last thing that gets cooked

To say we enjoyed our dinner and evening would be a gross understatement. Araceli and her daughters are full of warmth and laughter. After we finished eating it was on to brain teasers. She pulled out some match sticks and had us trying to solve puzzles. That may be why her son is at the head of his class and according to Pablo destined for great things.

"Our cooking group"

Our cooking group

"A cow puzzle - move only 2 matchsticks & make the head face the tail"

A cow is facing north; move only 2 match sticks so it is facing south ( see answer below my name)

Our cooking lesson wouldn’t have been possible if our hosts at La Anita Rainforest Ranch weren’t so dedicated to helping and involving locals in ways that are mutually beneficial. Should you be lucky enough to stay at the ranch I HIGHLY recommend taking the cooking class. You will learn a lot.

Do you ever take cooking classes when you travel? Are there any memorable ones you’d recommend?

Leigh McAdam

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"The answer to the matchstick puzzle"

The answer to the puzzle

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