Monday, February 28, 2011

Mercado Borbón

A while ago, I decided to try some different options for my veggie shopping - I had been going to the feria (Farmer's Market) in Guadalupe, but since our move further into San José, and spending more time in class, it was less and less worth the trouble.  Getting vegetables at the grocery stores is iffy - there just isn't the selection that there is at a feria, and the prices are slightly higher.  My latest method is to take the bus into downtown to the Mercado Borbón.  The drawback to this is that I can't take my cart - I almost always end up with about 30 pounds of food, and that's a lot to carry around.

Food from a recent visit (about c500 = $1):
  • carrots = 2 kilos / c400
  • palmito (*fresh* hearts of palm) = 2 bags (over 1 kilo) / c1200
  • avocado = 2 / c500
  • culantro = 1 bunch / c50
  • tomatoes = 1/2 kilo / c200
  • spinach = 1 bunch / c300
  • strawberries = 3 boxes / c1000
  • mango = 1 kilo / c800
  • mora = 1/2 kilo / c800
  • onions = 1 kilo / c1000
  • broccoli = 2 big heads / c1000
  • cucumber = 2 for c275
  • zucchini = 2 for c800
  • green beans = 1 kilo / c1000
  • platano maduro = 8 / c500
  • chili dulce = 10 / c1000

One time I went, many prices were *high* - green beans were between c1600 and c2000 per kilo.  I was looking for zucchini, asking all over, and one vendor said that they were just too expensive!  I thought that was an interesting concept in sales - resellers at the market won't buy something if it is too expensive for their customers to want to buy.  The next week, prices had started to come down, and yes, the zucchini was back :-).

Monday, February 21, 2011

These Booties Were Made for Walkin'

Summer is here, and I have some good walking shoes!
School has started, and I've determined that it takes just about the same amount of time to walk to school as it does to take the bus (*if* you just miss the bus, which *always* seems to happen).  I walked to downtown for class - half an hour of "normal" non-power walking.  From there, it's only a bit further to the market, where I load up on fresh fruits and vegetables - and cheese :-)  On the way, it's easy to stop at the post office or pop into the supermarket.  I take the bus home, with a full (really full!) bag of goodies!

I've been trying to find ways to wean myself off of getting things from the states, and shoes seemed to be an easy way to start.  In California, I finally found the right shoe for my odd feet - wide, high, snug, and room for orthotics.  They are specialty shoes, at a specialty price!  I've gone through 4 pairs of these shoes, each time having to find a way to get them here. 

So, a while ago, I started the dreaded comparison shopping routine here in Costa Rica.  This is enormously time consuming.  It is also worth it for many, many products.  I took my old pair around, first asking about getting the soles replaced.  One place couldn't do it.  Another wanted c8000 - I kept that one in mind, but confirmed with neighbors that it was too much.  One of the hardest things to find out is what is a reasonable price for something here (as opposed to what's reasonable in California).  No one likes to feel like they've been fleeced, especially after the fact.  I went to a place in Alajuela that we went to for Rick's shoes, but it had been several years, and the shoe store was now a sushi restaurant :-(.  Conjures pictures of leathery raw fish, or shoe-shaped rolls...  I had given up for the day, when I noticed that we were walking right past *another* custom shoe store!  We walked in, showed him my shoes, got a quote, and left (leaving behind one of my old shoes for him to use as a pattern).  Two weeks later, we bused back to Alajuela, and I have new shoes - at less than half the cost, and none of the shipping (unless you count the bus)!

This year's expert craftsman (and super friendly fellow):
Calzado Lazo
Santiago Lazo, proprietor
275 m North of Llobet department store

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cream of Sweet Red Chili Soup

Cream of Sweet Red Chili Soup

Fire and Peel 6 Chili Dulces*

Chop and saute one onion in 2 Tbs butter

Combine above with:
- 2 cups water
- 1 bouillon cube (chicken)
- basil, cayenne, cloves, cumin to taste

Bring to boil, then cool slightly.
Pour all into a blender, and blend until smooth.

In a jar, mix 1/2 cup milk with 3 Tbs powdered milk, then add to blender.

Serve hot, with bread or crackers.

* Firing chili dulces is easy if you have a gas stove and tongs!  Hold each whole chili over the open flame until the skin is blackened and hardened.  Place fired chilis in a covered bowl and let rest for 15 minutes or more.  Pull off the skin, and rinse if needed.  Remove seeds and ribs.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pesky Problems in Paradise - Sugar and Salt

There is just no other way to say it - Costa Ricans love their sugar and their salt!  If you have sugar or salt issues, or if you just prefer to reduce your intake of these, you will really have to work at it while living (and therefore eating!) in Costa Rica.

- Most "sodas" (those little cafeteria-style restaurants found almost everywhere, and one of the best deals for a quick meal) include a "refresco" (a blended drink, usually fruit) with their "casado" or lunch special.  This sounds like both a good deal and a healthy alternative to say, a coke.  However!  These refrescos are *loaded* with sugar!  What to do?  Your first line could be to ask them to make it without sugar (you can always stir in a substitute if needed).  This works for restaurants that make them per order, but most sodas have a series of dispensers with pre-made drinks.  If you get past this, then the next problem is that even when made to order, many restaurants use a "pulp" instead of the fresh fruit.  And, guess what!  Yep, the sugar is already added to the pulp!  You can still cut your sugar consumption if you ask for no *added* sugar, since more sugar is often added to the sugary pulp. When all else fails, we either get plain tap water or spring for the added diet coke or, if we're really lucky, a diet ginger ale (pretty much the only diet sodas you will find).  Well, of course, beer is also a nice option!
- Iced Tea, or "Te Frio" is popular, and proudly announced as "natural."  It is naturally sweetened with sugar...
- Some of the ground coffee you buy in the grocery stores is pre-sweetened.  This seems a bit strange to some of us, but can be seen as a convenience to those who always add sugar to their coffee.  The thing to do to avoid this circumstance is to (naturally) read the packaging, and avoid the ones that include "azúcar."  If you go out for coffee, you can ask for it "sin azúcar," but you may still end up with sugar in your coffee (they just won't add sugar to your cup).
- There are quite a few options for sugar substitutes available.  Splenda is in AutoMercado and some other grocery stores, and also in many farmacias (but considerably more expensive there).  Stevia comes as either as a plant, or in liquid or powdered form.  Grocery stores carry Sweet-n-Low, and several Costa Rican brands of sweetener.  I have yet to see the coffee creamers without sugar, so it's best to stick with milk.  (speaking of milk, you *can* get powdered WHOLE milk here - it's wonderful in coffee, especially if you like very strong coffee with milk)
- On the topic of sugars in general, High Fructose Corn Syrup is making headway in Costa Rica.  Reading ingredients lists is crucial here if you want to avoid this as well.  It is especially prevalent in low-fat salad dressings.  Unfortunately, I didn't write down the exact wording for the ingredient (fortunately, I did not buy the product, but that means I can't just go look for the words) - but look for words like "jarabe or sirope de maiz, alto en fructosa"
- Most desserts here are very sweet.  It's almost as though the flavor of the dessert is "sugar" with a tinge of something else.  Even the brownies are generally not very chocolate-y.  If you like strongly-flavored desserts, you will likely first be frustrated, then find that you just don't eat very much dessert.  The one flavor that is fairly strong is dulce de leche - caramelized milk, with a *lot* of sugar.  (nothing to do with sugar, but an important note - most pastries and cakes here are *very* dry).

- Of course, the best way to avoid salt is to cook for yourself.  But, if you're like me, once in a while you get a little tired of constantly experimenting with the exotic food combinations that are possible here :-).  So, *the* key phrase to know when ordering at a restaurant is "sin sal" (without salt).  This won't work in a soda, where the food is pre-cooked, but is nearly essential when ordering eggs.  I will say that I usually cook with no added salt at all, and the soda food is usually not noticeably salty.  But if you must avoid salt, then visit these places sparingly.
- While you can find all sorts of cheeses in the up-scale grocery stores, we get most of our "daily" cheese from ferias, sidewalk stalls, or central markets.  These generally come in 4 or 5 types, and all but one are salty.  The "Turrialba" (or sometimes just "tierno") is a fresh cheese that is low salt and low fat (but always confirm this, even with your usual guy). (update)
- Amazingly, french fries are one of the few foods here that are not salted nearly enough!  Fortunately, you can always add this :-).

Pesky Problems in Paradise?

Can Paradise really have pesky problems?

Yes, well, you need something like a pinch every now and then to remind you that you're not really dreaming, right?  This is the start of a series of posts on Pesky Problems, and what we have done or will try to do to deal with them.  Just off the top of my head, here are some of them:
  • Humidity
  • Ants
  • Mosquitoes
  • Sugar and Salt
  • Allergens

Friday, February 4, 2011

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Summer Time, and the Livin' is Easy

The livin' might be easy, but the time is *flying* by!  It seems like just a few days ago, it was rainy season.  We've just been poking along, making plans in the distance, but sticking pretty close to home. 

Now, all of a sudden, with summer in full bloom, school is right around the corner!  In two weeks, my French classes start again (hah! less than 2 weeks now, since it took me a while to actually write that down!).  Then, a short week later, VISITOR season starts!  (that's a big "YAY," by the way)

This just can't be - I have too many emails piled up that need some kind of answer, a French book to finish reading, a few essays I was supposed to write (we'll just rip out that little piece of my to-do list), and "just a few" visits to friends that haven't even gotten planned.  Time to get crackin'...