Safe haven from storm violence.

Tropical Storm Nate turned a long difficult drive across Costa Rica in to a scary six hour ordeal of white-knuckled battle with flooded roads, wind-tossed debris and torrential rain.    Undaunted, and probably foolishly, we carried on to reach the capital city, San Jose, so you can see this masterclass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD1cHjsQogs) of home-cooked Costa Rican dishes by professional chef Mario. Finding him was tricky in the dark and awful weather and, as is usual in Costa Rica, no address: you just have to phone your host and they come to find you!

His kitchen was a haven of peace after all the hours of storm noise – and it quickly filled with the gentler sounds and smells of cooking.   It was just blissful to relax with a glass of wine and excellent simple food expertly cooked after a difficult day.

And the following morning was just as tricky.  I’d been planning a farewell kitchen session with the Costa Rican association of blind people in the capital’s top cookery school.  But we found that the city had been closed down as the government warned everyone to stay inside due to the continuing storm.  We heard from contacts in the UK that flights to San Jose were cancelled and began to wonder if we would be able to fly out the following day.

The hotel only offered a breakfast buffet so videographer toby went on a scavenging hunt to secure enough food and water for the day, in case the situation got even more risky.

Thank goodness the weather was rather calmer next day and the flight out was possible.  But, after all the drama and fabulous food of costa rica, we would have preferred our last memories to have been better  than the rather dry sandwiches and warm water of our final meal there.  If you want Western comforts mixed with life on the wild side, Costa Rica is just perfect – but perhaps better outside the rainy season!

Penny

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Digging out dinner guests

Guests lost in the jungle and bogged down in mud was the drama of my second dinner service at Noam’s HiR restaurant in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.  Although late, dinner succeeded and you can see how I turned classic Victoria sponges in to more exotic desserts with chilli and coriander https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyAYELsPtgo

In the rainy season, the jungle roads are treacherous with pot holes, mud and torrents of water.  Our missing dinner guests were marooned only a few hundred yards away but their car was stuck in the mud.  Chef Noam dashed out with other guests in tow.    He was as handy with a pick-axe as with his chef’s knife and, within minutes, they soggily joined the party.  This was service with a difference!  As they say in Costa Rica, Pura vida – the answer to everything.

This whole week had been wonderful for discovering new foods growing wild in the jungle:

  • Okinawa spinach – green on one side and purple on the other.
  • Mayan tree spinach – which is toxic when uncooked.
  • Turmeric plants with large leaves – just dig out some roots to use.
  • Ginger plants with thin strap leaves for a light ginger taste and the roots/bulbs of ginger emerging from underground and to be cut.

And every home needs cleaner ants.  They rid houses of other insects and animals.  But they do bite humans too.  They don’t eat our food but will get rid of cockroaches and even something as large as a scorpion.  So you need to know which ant is which and keep the good ones.

Penny

Blind cook fails with simplest recipe!

Creating completely new dishes in Noam’s tiny original jungle kitchen was a challenge from the start: strange ingredients, unfamiliar equipment, the pressure of a seven course dinner menu for paying guests.  It was all made even trickier by the heat and deluges of rain plus the complete lack of water inside!  You can see the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CirMoelCNVg) of my struggles.

I took the easy course with citrus tartlets using lemon mandarinos in place of the classic lemons.  Driver/trainee doctor Victor squeezed all the juice while I got on with the pastry which, of course, was baked blind using balls of kitchen foil to keep the tartlets in shape.

That first night there was a party of nine Americans celebrating a birthday at Noam’s HiR restaurant. The jungle was filled by their music and laughter while the tin roof above their heads rang with the torrents of rain.

Noam and I juggled our way through each course’s complicated elements without any obvious mishaps or delays.  The result was a very happy group of diners, clean plates and tantalised palates – few had encountered anything similar before!

But my attempt at meringues to top the tartlets was a complete disaster: every time I added the sugar, the whisked egg whites collapsed – it was probably the pervading dampness.  I did manage to produce sweet egg white pancakes which, when topped with the lemon mandarino sorbet plus the mangostan sauce and segments, just about passed muster.  The trick was to sound confident and convincing that this had been the plan all along!

Penny

Not for the faint-hearted: blind cook in South American jungle.

Pure chance and readiness to take a risk took me to Tamarindo on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  When I’d been planning my Baking Blind tour, I’d simply asked everyone I knew for international contacts and, when one took the trouble to phone me, I just jumped at the chance to cook with him in South America.  You too can meet this truly original chef in his jungle restaurant in the latest video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH-m1Jh0BhQ).

Driving across the country from the capital, San Jose, was not great during the rainy season.  Deluges of rain, a treacherous new single lane highway awash with water and littered with pot holes and sleeping policemen   added a frisson of hazard to the six hour journey.

But the local Tamarindo market the following day was a cook’s dream: farmers generously cut up samples of their strange and exotic fruits for me amidst the hustle and bustle of their customers.    I tried the mangostan (a small black fruit with the sepals of the original flower at the base), Chinese mamanchino, Lemon mandarino, the small Malaquina orange and Dragon fruit.

While the growers were local people, there were many others from all over the world.  Some explained that they wanted the relative freedom and anonymity of this new country, where they could follow their individual and alternative off-grid lifestyles and ambitions.  Several were selling an intriguing cross section of their artisan hand-crafted food in the market: French croissants and eclairs; bagels; fermented kimchi and more.  The sample of 95% cocoa-solids chocolate was a revelation of subtle, complex and sometimes bitter flavours that lasted on the tongue.  Afterwards, the coconut milk and lime ice-cream, spiked with lime zest and a little white sugar, was refreshing but I missed out on the peanut butter ice-cream that had sold out.  With the blare of the market music and the loud chatter of the people in the background, I was swapping charcuterie recipes with the producer of the German sausages and other preserved, smoked meats – I hadn’t imagined such a cosmopolitan mix of people and cuisines.

Then we were off-road along bumpy jungle tracks to Noam’s HIR restaurant.  First, we explored his new facilities which were in the final stage of construction before walking down to the original kitchen.  It was a simple small structure to serve his dinner guests under the corrugated iron shelter, open to the jungle on all sides.  The whole area was teeming with wildlife from the ants and insects, the birds and his own pet cat and dog.  And everything, including me having stepped in to a deep muddy puddle, was rather damp and soggy in the rain.  My spirits were low after the days of long travel, not much sleep and now this challenging environment in which to invent completely new dishes – I confess that my enthusiasm was equally damp.  You can see whether I managed to get through it all over the next few weeks.

Finally, watch out for the crocodiles near those long inviting sandy beaches on the Tamarindo Pacific coast: the locals know all about them so assume that visitors will too!

Penny

Blind people everywhere want their chance of success.

This week’s video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nE8OiKvVV6E) takes us to San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, in South America and different people, new food, risky places and even dangers!

Even the flight team contributed to our international recipe collection en route Costa Rica via Los Angeles.  Kate, one of the Delta flight stewards, shared her salad dressing ingredients of avocado, tomatoes, green chilli and mango – all whizzed together.

In the Costa Rica capital, San Jose, the tourist information desk saved our bacon by helping us get a taxi to the location of the National Association for Blind People.  One of the complicating factors of this developing nation is that there are no real addresses anywhere!  We had the same problem later when searching for chef Mario’s home.  The solution is to ring your destination and someone comes out to watch for your arrival.

Again, as this is a developing country, some of the everyday conveniences we take for granted were missing.  For example, it would be very unusual to have a dishwasher.  Most kitchens only have a cold water supply which makes cleaning greasy pots and pans more laborious.  And, as you’ll hear over the coming weeks, sometimes even the cold water fails at the most inconvenient moments!

It was very humbling to start my visit by addressing the association of blind people.  They wanted to hear about the Holman prize adventure and my own experience of blindness.  Their response was hugely positive: they asked lots of questions, invited me to stay with them and visit El Salvador.  The cooking theme clearly touched their enthusiasm: many were asking for their own course while others had skills and recipes to share.  The upshot was that, on the spot, we organised another group session when I would cook at the capital’s top cookery school with them in a week’s time.  Many were very keen to get back to work and wanted help to start their own businesses and become self-employed.  Our collective cheer was to encourage other people to “Give us a chance”,   whether in work or other activities, rather than just considering us as needy blind people.

As this country continues to progress, there is also a pressing need to increase support for blind and other disabled people – I’d have loved the chance to do more, share more of my experience and help others become more independent.

Next week, I start my jungle cooking adventure – really challenging!

Penny

Blind baker pounds dough with the Cheeseboard Collective

Strong community ties are a key feature of this landmark establishment in Berkeley, California (http://cheeseboardcollective.coop/).  Not only are all their sourdough breads, pizzas and cheeses in huge demand, but they take special care to foster community spirit.  They were wonderfully welcoming to this blind cook and you can see how they shared some of their favourite bakes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_29MPwF6vE) .

Their Collective ethos has been established for decades and creates real workplace equality and shared responsibility.  Talking to Cathy, Erin and other members of the crew, it was obvious how much they enjoyed their baking, were proud of their products and felt strongly that they were a great team.  It’s difficult to imagine a better basis for a successful business – and it clearly is with their delicious food just flying off the shelves.

I had to be quick to keep up with their production rate and managed just some of their breads: focaccia, zampanos and bialys – all made to their exacting standards.  I’ve captured key elements of the recipes but recommend the Cheeseboard Collective cookbook for the real bread enthusiasts.

And this was my last cooking day in California before flying off to Costa Rica to cook in the jungle – all thanks to the Holman prize from San Francisco’s LightHouse for blind and visually impaired people.

Show that you support disabled people like me: Like and Share on Facebook and Twitter; Subscribe and Comment on the YouTube video.

Penny

Meet the sourdough professionals

California’s Cheeseboard Collective is an inspiration to anyone who wants to make, smell and greedily devour absolutely fantastic sourdough bread (http://cheeseboardcollective.coop/).  Watch my day with them (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv817PSnH6s) and learn some true tricks of the trade.

The recipe is giant sized:   it takes a massive mixer to handle over 245 pounds or 112 kilos of this wonderful bread dough.  But, with a hoist and chains, you can see it is a one-woman job!  Perhaps not your idea of an easy morning in the kitchen – but there are some key principles to apply to your own bread making.

The Cheeseboard Collective is famous for creating one pizza each day and so popular that customers queue up in the street.  They also have an amazing selection of cheeses (hence the name!) and racks upon racks of different breads made with the sourdough (I’ll show you those next time).

This is a video to give you a real idea of how proper bread (not that woolly sliced stuff) is made and, with the help of their recipe book, you can make your own starter and sourdough too.  My thanks to them and the LightHouse organisation in San Francisco for helping me arrange this remarkable day.

Penny