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Don't miss the mercado

If there is one place that you want to visit in any village or town you go, it is the public market. You may think there isn't one in Tucson, but in fact there are several. One of them is open on any given day of the week, and if you look up farmers' markets in Tucson on the internet, you will find them listed. One of them is sure to be near you.

Here in Esparza, Costa Rica, the mercado occupies a city block across from the church facing the city's plaza, a park made up of its own city block. You walk one block back from the street that faces the park and the church, and you will find the mercado buzzing with activity from dawn until dusk.

I see two types of people there: one type is jolly and sociable, exchanging friendly chatter with customers and passers-by. The other type is silent and businesslike, delivering or picking up goods and going about their daily routines. What I do not see are grouchy or rude people. It cannot be that everyone in Costa Rica is nice, but there are manners in Latin America that tell you not to be abrupt or irate in public or with strangers.

When I worked at America Online in the Spanish Queue, I learned this, slowly. For awhile it took me a few minutes after a call to realize that I had been speaking to someone who was angry. The other day I got tangled up in my dog's leash and blocked the way of a passing man, who simply said, "Toma nota," and went on his way. He was saying, "Take notice," or what we might say in English, "Look where you are going." But he did not raise his voice or sound irritated; that is what I notice here.

When you are in the mercado you go from one stall to another and compare the goods before you buy. You must do this, or you will end up buying something and then seeing the same thing farther on that you should have waited for. If you want the most beautiful papayas in the world you can find them, but don't buy the first ones you see, that's all I'm sayin'.

I see more platanos than I ever saw in my life before, more citrus fruit, more bananas and watermelon and more tomatoes, onions and garlic than you can imagine. They string onions and garlic into garlands long enough to wear around your neck. What you see less of is potatoes--I haven't seen red or new potatoes since I got here--and salad greens. You go to the supermarket, or supermercado, for that.

On the street fronts of the mercado you will find little restaurants. They all serve breakfast and lunch--that's where my husband tucks into a casado every day--and you simply ask what they have, or ask if they have what you want. I usually order coffee, fried eggs and toast. Their toast is baguettes browned on the grill, while I also ask them to turn the eggs once to cook the yemas, or yolks, a little. And the coffee? Yes--the very best.

I also tried a chocolate bar that is made here. Coffee and chocolate are both grown in Costa Rica, and the chocolate bar was cocoa-based, which gave it a different, drier texture than the cocoa-butter based bars that come from Europe. I need to try to bake with it; I know it would make excellent frosting.

When I do see cakes offered for dessert in restaurants (although I don't order them), they are always one-layer affairs with a thin frosting. Typically you will see a white layer with what looks like a chocolate ganache frosting; however, since neither the cake nor the frosting proved to have any discernible flavor when I ordered it once, I don't ask for it. Somebody could make a killing in Costa Rica by offering tasty cakes to the restaurant trade, at least outside of San Jose.

Now, a white cake drizzled with ganache would be heavenly, and if you want to make one, follow this simple recipe and you will be ahead of the game any way you look at it.


From Cafe Margot

Ingredients: Cake

2-1/4 cups organic Spelt or all-purpose flour
1-1/3 cups granulated organic white or blonde sugar
1 Tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 large organic eggs, at room temperature
1 stick organic butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup organic milk

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Place the dry ingredients in an electric mixer's bowl and whisk them briefly together.

Turn on the mixer to low speed and beat in the eggs, one at a time, until you can no longer see streaks in the batter. Repeat this with the butter, the vanlla, and finally the milk.

Transfer the batter to a round or square baking sheet and bake it for 40 minutes before you check it for doneness. The top should be dry and spring back when it is lightly touched.

Let the cake cool in the pan to keep it moist. When it is cool, turn it to a serving platter and pour the ganache over the top.



2 ounces unsweetened organic chocolate
2 Tablespoons organic butter
1 cup powdered sugar
2 Tablespoons (or more) hot water

Place the chocolate and butter in a saucepan with the water. Heat and stir until the chocolate is completely melted.

Take the saucepan off the heat and beat the powdedered sugar in until it is incorporated. At that point you can spread it on the cake or thin it with more hot water and pour it over the cake for a more delicate topping.

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