We are spending the afternoon at my husband's friend's house. The other night we stopped by on a rainy night, and from the car it looked to me like an industrial area. But I was completely wrong; it is a huge house that is built in two wings. One is an L-shaped area with guest accommodations, covered kennels for two watch dogs, and storage. The other building, of course, is the house with its living quarters and an outdoor dining area. I am sitting there right now, writing and listening to my husband cooking around the corner on another patio.
He is making his favorite dish from Brazil: shrimp in a coconut milk and tomato sauce, enlivened with onions, garlic and sweet peppers. It is a simple dish in concept, but like most ethnic cooking, it's all in the proportions and flavors. We shopped this morning on the way to our friend Roberto's house, and the food is as fresh as it can be. Roberto is a fishmonger, on the wholesale level, and we got the shrimp from him.
Roberto's wife, Lidia, and his children will be around, so there will be a lovely sit-down dinner a little later this afternoon. This is my husband's way of repaying the generosity of our friends who have spent a lot of time showing us some of the places we would like to see. We also bought all the ingredients, not to impose on the budget of everyday people who have their expenses; they have already given us time and gas money, for that matter.
By the way, gasoline is very expensive in Latin America, and it is sold by the liter, which can trick you into thinking it is cheaper than it really is. As I write it runs around three dollars per liter. Costa Rica is especially high-priced, because apparently they want people to buy less gas even though they don't have sufficient controls in place over emissions (in my opinion).
Yesterday it was another city in the cloud forest, which is called Laguna. Up there above the clouds is a restaurant that is known for roast chicken. I found the chicken delicious, cooked perfectly. I expected that, though, because the standards of Costa Rica for good food are considerably higher than what we Americans consent to spend our hard-earned money on, either in markets or at restaurants. The only thing was, I would have seasoned the chicken more, or served it with a collection of house sauces such as barbecue, butter-garlic, etc.
I had no food revelation in Laguna, then, other than my observation that you ought to get used to hearing people say, "pixa," and "Pexi," in place of our English words pizza and the soft drink Pepsi-Cola. In Tucson I have heard this Latino-ism from time to time as well.
To make this Brazilian shrimp, you begin with chopped onions, garlic and bell peppers in olive oil (the only oil my husband cooks with). I would use red or yellow peppers because sometimes I don't like the appearance of green peppers, as in spaghetti sauce or other tomato preparations. Pour the coconut milk, whatever quantity you have in relation to the amount of shrimp, and then bring it to the correct appearance with tomato paste. This involves calculating how you want it to taste, and I don't see why you would not taste it for salt and pepper, as well as tomato concentration.
When the sauce feels right--my husband is the judge of this--you add your uncooked shrimp, either peeled or unpeeled. This is the crucial point in making this dish, because you want to cook the shrimp but not overcook them into hard little contracted muscles.
This dish is served over rice. My husband will be cooking the rice as he does the rest of the shrimp dish; I am not needed, which is why I am writing at our hosts' dining table while he does all the work. Later I hope to make them a beautiful Famous Chocolate Cake, whenever I can get the ingredients (the unsweetened chocolate is, so far, a shopping challenge that I have not yet overcome). I sure wish I knew where stuff is in Puntarenas, like I do in Tucson. If I were there I would know to head straight to Sprouts for their fine-quality baking chocolate.
On the subject of olive oil, by now I have learned to keep different kinds of it in my kitchen. There is the green, fruity extra-virgin olive oil from various places like Spain, Greece or Italy--that is for anything that is not cooked. Regular olive oil (of a good quality) serves for everything my husband cooks. He does not use butter in cooking, as I do.
I don't use olive oil in salad dressing, though, because it congeals in the refrigerator. For that I use safflower oil, canola oil and walnut oil. I sometimes mix the proportions. And on the subject of salad dressing, my Bernice's French Dressing has been a great success here; I need to make up a third recipe to keep at the hotel where our manager and his family love it. His wife got the recipe and plans to have it available at her house.
Perhaps I have a marketing option here--make it up and bottle it!