Archive for the ‘Food’ Category


My mother-in-law’s family, Quirós Sánchez, makes the best tamales and I should know, I have eaten many but none compare to her’s or her sisters’ tamales.   Traditionally before La Navidad women in Costa Rica will be busy making them for the holiday.  In the stores and markets the ingredients go up and up in price and bags of dried corn kernels (that the women cook and have ground) are seen everywhere.  My mother-in-law, Doña Irene, would be busy in her kitchen or mine (since I had a nice long counter) making them.  That is how I learned to make them.

First you cook the pork loin with herbs (I used an herb mix that I buy at a local spice shop), fresh garlic, salt and white pepper—add water to cover.  I use a crockpot and cook for 8 hours.  I then steam cook the rice in some of the meat broth (traditionally it’s white rice that is first sautéed in lard and then steamed—I used a rice mix that I buy at a local Japanese market and added wild rice).  At the same time that I cook the rice I also boil potatoes, cut up the bell peppers in strips, lightly cook the peas (I used frozen small sweet peas), place a couple of cups of corn masa in a large mixing bowl and add salt, white pepper, and Spanish paprika to the masa.  Once the rice and potatoes are done I use the meat broth to mix up the masa and add the mashed potatoes to it and mix well.  The first time that I made tamales on my own they were REALLY bland.  I added salt to taste; the trick is to add A LOT of salt.  The tamales will be boiled right after constructing them and then they will be boiled again before eating them so add more salt than usual.  For these tamales I used a smoked sea salt.

Traditionally the women exchange their tamales (like a cookie exchange) so the ones that Doña Irene made would be traded with the neighbors’.  This is where I ended up tasting different tamales and never liked any except the ones made by Doña Irene or her sisters (oh and also a friend, Doña Clemen).  I did learn a lot about what NOT to do especially never, I mean NEVER, add canned green olives to them.  I love olives but with this combination it really destroys the taste.

Growing up in San Diego, I never really liked tamales.  They were so spicy hot that I couldn’t eat them and even when someone made some that were not so spicy, the taste really never appealed to me.  Costa Rican tamales are wrapped in banana leaves instead of cornhusk.  What a difference in taste!  I buy banana leaves in a local super market and I get them when I see them then keep them in the freezer till I am ready for them.  I have also found them in local markets that cater to the Latino community.  I use two packs and can make about 30.  They will need to be cleaned with a towel.  I do a quick wipe to get rid of excess water and then I wipe each leaf down before I begin to place the masa on it.


Sometimes the leaves split so I will use a small piece as a “Band-Aid” with the leaf grains crossed.


I might have the sequence off but this is the order of the filling that I used:

Large serving spoon of masa/potato mix, tablespoon of rice, a few peas, a couple of strips of bell pepper (I was using the small ones, traditionally there is only one strip of bell pepper), and some of the meat.  Wrap it up and make another one, wrap it up and place the two tamales “sides that open” together and tie (I used kitchen twine).  I then place them in the basket of a large pot (I used a spaghetti pot).  Once the basket is full I place it in the pot that has some water in it that has already boiled.  I add more hot water to cover the tamales and I boil them for about 15 minutes (this is the part I was never really sure about—how long to boil them the first time—Doña Irene boiled them on an open fire in the backyard and seemed to know when to remove them.)  Once they are cooled, I place them in a large plastic bag and put this in the refrigerator.  I keep them there for a day or two and then place the bag of tamales in the freezer.  It takes about 5 days for the flavors to meld together.  The banana leaves give it a wonderful kind of smoky flavor.


           Costa Rican Tamales a la Gringa.

  (Just click the link above to see a video of the process of making the tamales)

After 5 days or for us, New Year’s Day, I will boil the frozen or defrosted tamales again until they are hot (about 10 minutes for defrosted).  Remove from the water and let them drain a bit.  Remove the twine and place one on a plate and unwrap.  In Costa Rica we would add a little Salsa Lizano to it but it is difficult to find here in the U.S. and VERY expensive to import so we use Worchester Sauce instead.

Now—with fresh made coffee, chayotes picadas, and a tomato and cheese salad, the Costa Rican Tamale—a la Gringa is ready to enjoy!



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Cadaqués, Spain

In the Pedro Almodóvar movie Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), Pepa, played by Carmen Maura, is pregnant, has just been dumped by her married boyfriend and not really feeling so well about her life in general…so what does she do?  She makes gazpacho soup in her blender.

Though…she does add an extra ingredient:  a bottle of Valium to end it all.

As the movie continues with various characters moving in and out of her apartment and getting in the way of her original plans the gazpacho soup becomes a center point in the plot (or plots) of the story.  I love this movie and I love gazpacho soup (minus the Valium).

I first came across gazpacho soup in a small cookbook on Mexican Cookery by Rita Davenport and illustrated by De Grazía, one of my favorite Southwestern artists.  It calls for tomato juice; I used V-8, never considering using fresh tomatoes until I saw Pepa make hers.  The rest of the ingredients: cucumber, onion, bell pepper, one large tomato, garlic and parsley are all finely chopped and added to the tomato juice along with olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce.  Instead of parsley I will use cilantro and I found that a small can of finely minced clams added a really good flavor and texture to it.  I will also garnish it with chopped avocado when I was ready to eat it.  Letting it sit over night in the frig helped bring out all the flavors.

My husband just couldn’t get into eating a soup cold and I couldn’t get into heating this one up so making Gazpacho soup has been a special treat for me and sometimes to share with friends.

When I lived in Costa Rica I had to buy 10 small V-8 cans since they didn’t sell it in the larger ones.  It’s been years though since I have made gazpacho soup.  I really don’t know why especially since I now grow tomatoes every season in my garden here in Illinois and this year with the drought they have been really producing.

Then I went to Costa Brava, Spain.  Whenever the menu had gaspatxo on it I would order it.  I was curious to see how it was made and tasted.  All were blended to a smooth texture making it difficult to know what, other than tomato, was in it.  One had a more vinegary taste to it and another something like Greek olives while others were blander.

     Gazpacho Soup in Cadaqués, Spain

So when I returned home I made my own using the last of the bumper crop of roma tomatoes.  Going by memory I added to the blender a peeled and seeded cucumber, a seeded bell pepper, 2 garlic cloves, a bit of cayenne pepper and salt.  From the garden I also added some fresh basil and rosemary.  Then I added chopped tomatoes to fill up the blender.  I didn’t remove any seeds or the peels from the tomatoes. I also didn’t blend it smooth.  I like it a bit “rustica.”  I garnished it with chopped chives from the garden and eat it with Greek olives and toasted baguette.  It was great but even better the next day when the fresh garlic and cayenne pepper kicked in.

      Homemade Gazpacho Soup

Going through my many cookbooks I found several versions, one even called for adding water to it and cooking it before chilling.  I also found a version that used almonds instead of tomatoes for its base.  (Interesting)

Personally, I believe gazpacho soup is what the maker wants it to be as long as it is served chilled and with a tomato base.  That’s what I encountered in Costa Brava and that’s what I do in my own kitchen…


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It was a hot, sticky day and I had been walking through the narrow medieval streets of Girona, Spain taking pictures.  I was alone–no guide, no group of friends–alone.  It was a wonderful feeling.  I could take as much time as I wanted photographing the beautiful streets, buildings, windows, doors, statues and whatever else I discovered as I turned down each street and side road.  I didn’t know where I was on the map and didn’t care.  I felt free.  Then I turned down a narrow dark street that began and ended with an arch and found myself in an open plaza with small cafés and shops.

Fifteen minutes before four in the afternoon and only the cafés were open.  This was the hour of Spain’s siesta where stores close and people enjoy a time of comfort with friends and family over coffee, tea, soda, wine, or beer.  I walked along the closed shops looking in the windows and found a bookstore that looked promising.  I was not only here in Spain to take photographs but also hoped to find books on Spanish and Catalonian folktales.  Fifteen minutes to wait till the store opened, what to do…

Across the plaza was a café with the word Xocolatería over its door.  Chocolate–YES!  It was a hot and sticky day with little air flowing through the streets but Spanish hot xocolate sounded soooooooooo good.  I sat down and ordered some.

I had first tasted this wonderfully thick hot coco drink last year when in Barcelona with my family.  So thick you needed a spoon and a churro to help you drink it.  The Xocolatería didn’t have churros but they did have almendras—almond shaped cookies—that where just as good for dipping in the dark chocolate that had the consistency of Greek yogurt.

 Xocolate with Churro in Barcelona & with Almendra cookies in Girona
So…how do they get this drink so thick?        Cornstarch…or if you prefer arrowroot.  (I prefer arrowroot to cornstarch)

I went on line and there are lots and lots and lots of recipes.  The trick is to heat it slowly on a low heat source and stir and stir and stir.  I like using a large wire whisk to stir.  You also need patience.  It takes awhile to heat up and to thicken (20 minutes when I did it). Then it’s HOT so after it was poured in the cup I stirred it again to cool it down before I could drink it.  I didn’t have any almendras or churros and the only cookies in the kitchen were my daughter’s Oreo cookies.


So I enjoyed the hot xocolate by itself and thought about how I would change it a little for the next time.   With time and many more “tassas” I will have it perfected.

Xocolate boiling and thickening on low heat.

The recipe that I used is called Nana’s Spanish Style Hot Chocolate at:


What I like about this one is that it uses unsweetened coco powder and gives a choice between cornstarch or arrowroot (I buy Red Mill at a local health food store).



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