Monday, September 6, 2010



Without exception, every cooked piece of fish at La Cusinga gets topped with a sauce/salsa made separately. l stay away from pan-made or butter based sauces as my feeling is that these are something one can get at a French style restaurant rather than one whose focus is upon presenting local coastal Costa Rican flavors. l will serve, upon occasion, depending on the fish and the way it is to be cooked, an egg and olive oil based or “aioli” style sauce.

My intention is to serve our fresh fish with salsas that are bright not only in color, but in flavor as well. l find that so many of the local fruits, particularly when combined with a bit of citrus, lend themselves very nicely to, if not a marriage, at least a lovely relationship with fresh fish. Mango, pineapple, papaya, even our local honey-sweet canteloupe; all these fruits make wonderful vibrant salsas for fresh and freshly cooked fish.

lt is important, of course, that you choose fresh fruit for these salsas, but equally important is that the ingredients be cut correctly. When l cut, and please notice l say “cut” and not “chop” the fruit and vegetables, l try to cut the pieces as uniformly as is possible. The flavors will blend more evenly and the salsa will have a greater eye appeal.

Additionally, it is vital to the integrity of these salsas that you use your sharpest knife when cutting the fruits and vegetables. A dull knife will crush the ingredients, particularly the onions and peppers, causing them to “bleed” or “weep” out their water, diluting the salsa.

Mango Salsa

This is a basic salsa recipe and can be applied to all of the above fruits. As simple as it is, however, if the mango is perfectly ripe, this salsa is sublime.

1 Fresh Ripe Mango, peeled and cut in ¼” dice;

1 Small Red Onion, diced small and evenly;

1 Small to Medum Red Bell Pepper, cored, seeded and diced small and evenly;

½ Jalapeno Chile, seeded and minced fine (or a few drops of your favorite “chilero”)

Juice of 1 Mandarina (or 2 small limes);

2 TBS Chopped Cilantro or Culantro Coyote;

Sea Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Toss the mango, onion, pepper and jalapeno together and let stand for at least an hour. Half an hour before serving add the citrus juice, the cilantro, a pinch of sea salt and a grind of fresh pepper. Retoss the salsa and allow to stand. Serve over grilled fish.

Pineapple-Ginger Salsa

½ Fresh Ripe Pineapple, peeled, cored and cut in ¼” dice;

1 Red Onion, cut evenly in ¼” dice;

1 Large Red Bell Pepper, cut evenly in ¼” dice;

1 Jalapeno Chile, seeded and minced fine;

Knob of Fresh Ginger, about the size of the first digit of your thumb, peeled and finely grated;

Juice of 1 Mandarina (or 2 small limes);

3 TBS Chopped Cilantro or Culantro Coyote;

Sea Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Toss the pineapple, onion, pepper, chile and ginger together and allow to stand for at least an hour. Add the citrus juice, cilantro, two pinches of sea salt and a grind or two of black pepper; remix and allow to stand for a half hour. This salsa will release more liquid when the salt hits the fruit, and he juice is wonderful drizzled over the fish after the salsa is spooned on top of it.

Papaya-Mandarina “Citrus-ette”

l love to serve this “citrus-ette”, so called, as it is an emulsion of fruit, citrus and olive oil, much like a salad dressing, over fresh grilled fish with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro or diced chives or green onions over the top.

½ Ripe Papaya, peeled and seeded, cut into chunks;

1 Small Red Onion, diced;

1 Small or Medium Red Bell Pepper, diced;

½ Jalapeno, seeded and minced (or a few shakes of your favorite chilero);

Juice of 2 Mandarinas (or 3 Limes);

½ Cup Good Olive Oil;

Sea Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Place all ingredients except the olive oil in a blender and puree until well blended but not completely smooth. Turn off the blender. Remove the plastic piece at the top of the blender and put the top back on. With the motor running, pour in the olive oil in a slow steady stream until it is fully incorporated. Check for salt and pepper.

Green Gazpacho Salsa

l adapted this salsa from yes, a Gazpacho soup recipe, and the result is an extremely refreshing and fresh tasting salsa. l remove this salsa from the refrigerator five to ten minutes before serving it over the fish so that it stays cool. The contrast of warm fish and cool salsa is perfect.

2 English Cucumbers, peeled, seeded and rough chopped;

4 Green Onions, rough chopped, both whites and greens;

1 Medium Red Bell Pepper (if you can find one that is in the process of changing color from green to red, use it), cored, seeded and rough chopped;

½ Jalapeno Chile, seeded and rough chopped;

½ Cup Chopped Cilantro;

Sea Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper;

¼-1/2 Cup Good Quality White Wine Vinegar;

¼ Cup Good Olive Oil (Extra Virgin works nicely in this recipe)

Place the cucumbers, onion, bell pepper, jalapeno and cilantro into a food processor and pulse for about 30 seconds until they are nicely blended but not smooth. With the motor running pour in the vinegar and then the olive oil. Add two good pinches of sea salt and four or five grinds of black pepper; pulse briefly and taste first, for acid and then for salt and pepper. lf you like your salsa to have a bit more bite add another dash or two of vinegar and do the same with the salt. This is a salsa that should be tasted again just before serving as the flavors of the vinegar and salt will be absorbed by the cucumbers.

A little trick l use occasionally for this salsa is to substitute the vinegar from a jar of capers or even pepperoncini for part or all of the white wine vinegar. The flavor change is substantial and adds a bit of mystery.

Roasted Tomato/Caper Sauce

This is one of the few fish sauces l serve warm. l heat the tomatoes, but l do not cook them. This calls for tomatoes roasted as for the Roasted Tomato Soup from a previous recipe.

1 Cup Roasted Tomato/Onion/Garlic Mix;

1 TBS Capers, with juice;

Zest of 1 Mandarina (or lemon or lime);

Juice of ½ Mandarina or of 1 Lemon or Lime;

1TBS Water

Sea Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper;

10 Basil Leaves, cut into chiffonade (ribbons)

Rough chop the roasted tomato mixture (making sure to use the oil and juices from the cutting board) and the capers. Put them into a stainless or non-reactive pan along with the citrus zest and juice. Bring the sauce to heat very slowly and do not allow to boil. Check for salt and pepper and add the Tablespoon of water if the sauce seems too thick.

Add the basil to the sauce just before serving, or, if you wish, sprinkle it instead, over the sauced fish. l like to serve this fish dish over achiote rice or risotto.

Green Herb Aioli

Aioli is a tradition in the Province region of France and it is essentially a whole lot of garlic and egg yolks pounded together with a mortar and pestle with just enough olive oil slowly drizzled in to make a thick and quite garlicky mayonnaise. The French then gather around the bowl and dip young fresh garden vegetables into it and drink a whole lot of young red wine.

Much in the same way that pesto has been freely adapted by cooks of another generation, aioli has come to mean any kind of flavored mayonnaise, because frankly, when you put the word mayonnaise on a menu, it just doesn’t read as romantically and smacks of something you can get at the grocery store. Modern cooks, myself included, also spurn the mortar and pestle in favor of the food processor. The food processor is a whole lot faster and makes the mayonnaise making process a breeze.

Mayonnaise is an emulsion and an emulsion is basically a way of putting together two unlike ingredients, in this case, eggs and oil, so that they hold together as a sauce. Generally a third ingredient is necessary to act as a catalyst so that the two unlike ingredients will bond. Often, acids, such as vinegars or citrus are used, or in many cases, one or both of those things along with a good mustard for the emulsion. This recipe uses a whole handful of fresh herbs, along with the juice from some local mandarinas as the base for the emulsion.

1 Whole Egg and 1 Egg Yolk;

Juice of 2 Mandarinas or 2 Large Lemons;

6 Garlic Cloves, peeled and crushed;

1 Cup Mixed Chopped Green Herbs such as green onions, parsley, basil, tarragon, chives or cilantro;

¼ Cup Good White Wine Vinegar;

2-3 Dashes of Tabasco or Chilero;

1 Cup Good Olive Oil (not extra virgin);

1 Cup Light Cooking Oil

Sea Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Combine the egg, the yolk, citrus juice, garlic, green herbs, vinegar, hot sauce, a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper in a food processor. Turn on the motor and process the mixture for 30 seconds. With the motor running, slowly add first the cooking oil and then the olive oil, pouring in a slow but steady stream. You should hear the motor of the processor make a slightly different sound when about ¾ of the oil has been added. This means the emulsion has been made. When the oil is all added, stop the processor and taste for acid and salt. You may wish to add a bit more citrus and a bit more salt. lf the sauce seems too thick, turn the machine back on and add ¼ cup room temperature water to thin. This sauce can be used immediately, but is best the next day. l like to serve crispy roasted potatoes as a side dish for the fish; this sauce is great on them.

Salsa De La Jungla

l had been toying with the notion of creating an all purpose sauce; one that would reflect what l saw as the basic flavors of our part of Costa Rica. l wanted it to be spicy, sweet, mysterious and even addictive. lt was important to me that it contain only ingredients l could get by walking out the door of my kitchen. l include this in the “fish sauce” section here because l frequently brush it over fish filets in their last few minutes of cooking, but it is equally good brushed over grilled chicken and is particularly good on fire tinged pork chops or pork loin.

After a bit of experimentation l decided that mango was the perfect fruit for this sauce, but have made versions of it with pineapple and banana as well. Use it as you would BBQ sauce, brushing it on food from the grill right at the end, add a spoon or two of it to a pan sauce for chicken, or add a spoon of it to fresh salsas for a mysterious “picker-upper”. This sauce is the essence of the flavors l am trying to capture at La Cusinga.

3 Ripe Fleshy Mangos;

Juice of 10 Mandarinas, the juiced bodies of 2;

1 Long Finger of Fresh Ginger, grated;

1 Habanero (or Panamanian) Chile, seeded and chopped fine;

1 Cup Tapa Dulce, grated from a whole piece

Combine all five ingredients in a heavy bottomed non-reactive sauce pot and gradually bring up to a low boil. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer, stirring often, for about 45 minutes or until the sauce has thickened substantially. Remove from heat and push the sauce through a heavy strainer, making sure to push as many of the solids through as is possible. The sauce will keep, refrigerated and covered, for several weeks (it’s good to stir it from time to time) and freezes quite nicely.

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