red hooked on food trucks

Contrary to what I had always been led to believe, Brooklyn’s celebrated Red Hook food trucks are not Mexican but a veritable Pan-American exposition of south-of-the-border flavors – with particular attention heaped upon the cuisines of Central America. I trekked out to the soccer fields where the trucks set up shop each weekend – just south of a huge tract of public housing and west of the bend in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as it meets the Gowanus Canal – in search of the authentic huaraches, sopes, and tamales that occasionally haunt my daydreams only to discover ceviche, a crazy-delicious take on traditional horchata, and something called pupusa. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. At the easternmost stall on Bay Street, the mixto ceviche comes Ecuadoran-style, in a sweet and sour stew brimming with lime, red onion, cilantro and a substantial quantity of shrimp, squid, octopus, and fish that belie the thrifty $9 price tag. Add a few spoonfuls of the fiery green hot sauce and you’ll want to finish by drinking down every lick of the remaining broth. An icy horchata is the perfect complement to all that sweet and sour fire. However, unlike the traditional rice and water variety I’ve encountered, the Honduran version offered here incorporates milk, cinnamon, and peanuts to bring a whole other dimension of savory and salt flavors to the forefront. Round one over, I head to the line forming for pupusa, a traditional grilled corn cake from El Salvador that traces its roots back to the Maya. Resembling a tortilla, it can be stuffed with a variety of meats, cheese, or vegetables. I opted for cheese and loroco – a traditional flower bud heretofore alien to me – and watched as the pupusera shaped the dough and stuffed it to order. Accompanied by pickled coleslaw, tomato salsa, and onions, the loroco had a complex taste similar to the flavor of sea beans. I could have easily gobbled another. One thing was certain: this was no street fair arepa, thank you very much. Sated, stuffed, I nevertheless pined to continue eating my way across the continent. Yet for once I practiced a smidgen of self-control, opting for a fresh mango dusted with lime and chili, those twin ingredients which so often elevate Latin food to a sublime place worthy of the occasional gustatory daydream.

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holiday ho-ho-hotel deals

Since I just had two pretty fantastic – and unexpected – hotel experiences in both Rome and Costa Rica, I thought I would share some details on a few money-saving deals they have going on.  Just in case anyone’s got a spare bit of  dosh over the holidays and needs a splurge!

Rome Cavalieri Planetarium suite terrace

Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts has a winter escape offer valid now through March 31st which includes daily breakfast, and a $50 activity credit per consecutive two-night stay. For example, stay for two nights and get a $50 credit, stay four nights and receive a $100 credit, and so on. The credit can be used towards resort activities, spa treatments, and select dining venues within the hotel. Rates at Rome’s Cavalieri begin at 350 Euro, per room, per night, based on availability.  Or pony up for one of the Imperial floor rooms which start at 420 a night – it comes with access to the Imperial lounge, which has free computer access, a dedicated concierge, and a copious all-day spread of complimentary food and beverage that can more than make up for the  price increase. Plus, you can use that $50 credit towards any of the one-off experiences the hotel can arrange, like tooling around the city in your own Ferrari, a private visit to the Sistine Chapel, or even gladiator training. To book at the Rome Cavalieri, visit http://www.hiltonluxury.com/worldwide.

conchal-white-sand

Starting January 3rd and valid through April 30th, 2010, Paradisus Playa Conchal is offering a 4 night/5 day Spa Getaway Package which includes an in-room welcome gift, a 30-minute facial treatment per person, a private yoga class for two, and an 80-minute signature Shell Massage for each, plus free use of the wet areas and 15% any additional therapies at Ahuia Spa. I can’t recommend the Shell Massage enough:  Tiger Clams are filled with local beach sand, then warmed and used in the same way as hot stones.  The texture of the clamshell is slick however, so there’s no drag against your skin – making the massage that much more relaxing.  Prices per person, per night include all food and beverage as well as most activities, starting at $318 for a Junior Suite.  Opt for a Royal Service Suite – from $398 – and you get a butler, concierge, private pool, and a lounge with computer access and drinks & nibbles throughout the day.  Royal Service also gets you preferential seatings at the hotel’s restaurants, which always comes in handy.  Book the Getaway by calling the hotel directly at (506) 2654 4123 or by emailing [email protected]

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bucket list: 2009 edition – November

NOVEMBER

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GUANACASTE:  Since I have already posted a number of entries on Costa Rica, I thought I would try something different and find a photo that encapsulated some of the spirit of my recent trip.  The country is so “green” – so conscious of how important its natural resources are to the people and the economy – that nearly a quarter of the country is protected by either the government or private concessions.  One of the upshots of such studied conservation is that wildlife is not only abundant but also part of the experience of daily life.  To wit:  a random walk one afternoon brought me face to face with this giant iguana, soaking up the sun in the crook of a low-lying palm on the side of the road.

Gladiator training

ROME:  I’ve already live-blogged extensively about my return to Rome a few weeks ago, so indulge me as I post this photo once again and relive the fantasy of being a well-muscled warrior in the service of Caesar Augustus.  This is, after all, a bucket list!

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live blog: caffeinated perfection

Cafe BrittSaving the best for last:  oh, how I will miss the coffee down here.  I think I’ve been downing eight to ten double espressos a day.

Costa Rica takes its coffee very seriously.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.  Like many people not in on the not-so-secret secret, I lumped the area from Mexico down to South America into the selfsame second-string Arabica percolator.  It turns out that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Perhaps it’s the conquering Spanish influence? (Or am I just grabbing at straws?)  One thing is certain:  Costa Rica has a perfect climate and terroir for growing coffee cherries, from volcanic soil that lends itself to a robustly roasted espresso, to the Tarrazu highlands, which produce an earthy, chocolate-inflected bean across shade-covered hills.  Tres Rios could very well be called the country’s “coffee basket” since so many of the beans grown in the region are exported by companies like Starbucks, who depend on a consistently smooth, mild blend. (CR ranks 13th among the coffee producing countries across the globe for gross production; again, who knew?)

Cafe Britt has been responsible for turning the native appreciation for coffee into a more modern love of contemporary coffee culture, with a chain of cafes that feature local art, chocolate covered everything, and enough frozen faux coffee-cino-type drinks to make an espresso fan blanch.  For the most part, they have been successful – and I have to admit that despite all the unnecessary tchochkes, their beans are admirable and stashed in my bag for the flight home.

traditional CR method for coffee brewingSo, too, is this curious contraption:  a traditional Costa Rican device for making filter coffee.  Before the advent of the percolator, you would have found one of these in every home.  Place ground coffee goes into the filter pouch, add not-quite-boiling water and let it drip through and into the cup below:  tada.  Easy peasy, plus the cotton is not as absorbent as a paper filter cone, so you get more of the natural oil that gives a good cup of joe its balanced flavor.  I can’t wait to try it out for myself.

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live blog: into the not so wild

pizote group 1

One of the fun things about traveling in another climate is the variety of common yet quirky animals that enhance your visit on a daily basis. (Just think of all those tourists to New York taking pictures of the squirrels in Central Park)  Possibly my favorite of the semi-domesticated creatures found roaming around my hotel in Costa Rica is the pizote.

pizote solo 1A relative of the raccoon – and a heck of a lot cuter – the pizote is an omnivore and a scavenger; which means an ill-placed room service tray sends them scurrying down from the trees and out of the bushes in search of food.  This guy stayed behind after his buddies picked apart a handful of orange marmalade containers.

iguana treeOf course iguanas are familiar to anyone who’s visited the Caribbean, Central and South America, or the local pet store for that matter.  But that doesn’t stop me from being transfixed by them.  I mean, how many relics from the Pleistocene do you get to see hanging out in a tree on a daily basis?

furry spider with distinctive white pouchDoes anything top a juicy looking spider for raising the hair on your arms?  OK, maybe a snake – but then I’d never try and take a close-up of a snake.  This arachnid was the size of an tangerine and it’s banded legs were covered in fur.  The surprise however was its white back, which looked partially deflated, as though it was a recently emptied egg sac.

Blue legged grasshopperI really wish this photo better:  a common grasshopper elevated to a bejeweled work of art by the addition of an iridescent green body and shimmering electric blue legs.

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live blog: breakfast of champions

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When I find really good fruit it’s pretty much all I want to eat.  In Costa Rica I’ve been eating buckets of it like it’s going out of style:  pineapple, mango, papaya and best of all, passion fruit.  Don’t worry, that’s not ketchup drizzled on top; it’s tabasco.  My waiter clued me in to a little local secret:  a few drops of hot sauce on a ripe piece of tropical fruit makes for a savory/sweet explosion on your taste buds.

PassionfruitSince I’m talking about fruit, let’s just take a moment to wax rhapsodic about the local passion fruit.  Here is a perfect specimen:  roughly the size and weight of a wiffleball, it’s the oyster of the fruit world.  Well, to me anyway.  Heady with perfume, combining the crunch of small seeds with the slick flesh that surrounds them, in the tropics you understand how it got its name:  cracking the delicate shell and slurping the flesh into your mouth and across your tongue is a sensual experience you just don’t get from an orange!  We don’t get these in the Northeast – not this size anyway; and certainly not fresh-off-the-tree ripe.  So add the passion fruit to the growing list of ephemeral delights that make travel worth the trip.

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live blog: rincon de la vieja

Rincon de la Vieja is an active volcano in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, with a large number of fumaroles and hot springs on its slopes.  The name means “old woman’s corner,” and  according to locals it was named for an old witch on top of the mountain who sent columns of smoke into the air when she was angry.  Other versions of the story clam it was named after an old woman who used to cook for weary travelers and that the smoke came from her cooking fire.

Covering 400 square kilometers, it is massive geothermal system – and quite unlike the volcanic peaks more common in the rest of the world.  It is more like a mountainous volcanic plateau that stretches on for miles.  As part of an even larger national park – almost 25% of Costa Rica is parkland protected by the state – it encompasses rain forest, cloud forest, and an astonishing collection of flora and fauna.  Hiking Rincon is rigorous  – and wet – yet the rewards are spectacular.

Here are a few highlights from today’s journey.
Boa Constrictor asleep in a treeThe first thing I saw at the start of my hike was this boa constrictor curled up in a tree about eight feet off the ground. Doubling back four hours later it was still there, soaking up some sun.
Fumarole - toucan nearbyBubbling fumaroles or vents dot the landscape, letting off steam, sulphur, and a thick white mud said to be good for the skin.  Nearby in the trees sat an amazingly colorful rainbow-billed toucan.

Green iguana enflamed to attract a mateThe male green iguana turns a flaming orange color as the mating season begins.

tiny orchids grow on the bark of a fallen treeTiny orchids grow on the bark of a fallen tree.  The park is home to over a hundred varieties of protected orchid, including the national flower of Costa Rica, the purple orchid.

Javillo or Sandbox tree with spiny barkThe Javillo or Sandbox tree – which I cant seem to orient vertically – has a spiny bark to keep monkeys and other predators from stripping it in search of insects.

Salad plate sized fungusThis salad plate-sized fungus is a striking brick-red color, flecked with white and yellow.  I’m fascinated by the perfect geometry of its concentric rings, which reminded me of the rings of Saturn.

Strangling FicusThe Strangling Ficus – again, orientation issues – may be related to the common household plant, but the similarities end there.  It is a parasite, which roots itself around a healthy tree, ultimately surrounding and killing it.

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