Gone are the days when Thanksgiving-lovers in Costa Rica could only dream of pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce. So many imported foods are available at supermarket chains such as Automercado that you can have a classic feast without too much trouble. However, many cooks might want to blend local flavors with their holiday favorites rather than getting their pumpkin from a can and stuffing from a Stovetop box.
I picked the brain of my husband, chef Adrián Obando, a veteran of the Mirador Restaurant at the downtown Aurola Holiday Inn and Otoya 1155 in Barrio Otoya, for ideas. During our extensive discussion, which made me very hungry, he recommended four ways to add Costa Rican ingredients to a traditional Thanksgiving menu:
- Find some new roots — root vegetables, that is. The tropics offer some delicious roots that are quite at home on a holiday table. Sweet potato in Costa Rica is camote, but Adrián points out that the most common variety here is not the deep orange, super-sweet variety of marshmallow-topped fame. It’s purple-skinned and yellow inside, with a much subtler sweetness, and makes a yummy mash. He recommends adding heavy cream (or milk), butter, and salt and pepper to taste; if you miss sweetness, you could add a bit of sugar, although he doesn’t. Another option, if you like to roast veggies under your turkey or chicken, is to throw some camote and boiled yuca, or cassava, into the pan alongside your potatoes, carrots, celery, onion and garlic. (Remember to boil the yuca first –- it would need an eternity in the oven to get soft, so peel it, cut into 1-inch slices or cubes, and boil until almost tender.)
- Use picadillo de arracache as your stuffing. The texture and flavor of this delicious traditional Costa Rican dish reminds me of Thanksgiving stuffing. It’s usually served with tortillas, but I think it’d be great next to a bird. Arracache is a knobby, tough-to-peel root vegetable that, thankfully, is available in ground or grated form at San José’s Mercado Central and many farmers’ markets or ferias, saving you LOTS of work. Here’s how Adrián prepares it: Cover ½ kilogram of grated arracache with water in a large pot; bring to a boil until the arracache is soft, about 20 minutes. Drain. Add 4 slices of bacon, chopped, to a large frying pan; when they start to release their fat, add 1 minced green pepper, 1 small minced onion, and 3 links of chorizo criollo that you have removed from their casings. Break up the chorizo with a wooden spoon. When the vegetables are soft and the chorizo has browned, add achiote and stir well. Finally, add the cooked arracache and combine, adding salt and pepper to taste.
- Switch your pumpkin to your soup. Pumpkins at these latitudes are very different from those used for pies up north. When you ask for calabaza here, you’ll generally get ayote. As mentioned, you can find canned pumpkin puree at some major stores, but you can also go local by getting your squash fix in the soup course. Try a rich, comforting and easy-to-make crema de ayote using 1 kilogram of ayote, 1 whole onion, 1 cup of heavy cream (crema dulce), 1 stick of butter, 2 tablespoons of cream cheese (optional, but adds a velvety touch), a half-liter of chicken stock, salt and pepper to taste, and a pinch of nutmeg. Peel the ayote and remove seeds. Chop into chunks along with the onion. Add both to a heavy pot with the chicken stock; bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. When the ayote is tender (about 20 minutes), puree -– in batches, if necessary -– and return to the pot. Add the cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and optional cream cheese. Heat through, stirring well.
- Try a passionfruit pie. Honestly, all I want on Thanksgiving is pumpkin or pecan pie, and you can find the ingredients for either in San José without too much trouble. However, if I found myself further afield or had international guests visiting, I’d want to serve something befitting our location, and it would probably be this passion fruit pie. Buy a crust, or make the scrumptious pasta brisa or pâte brisée Adrián makes using 1.25 sticks of butter (room temperature), 1.25 cups flour, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons water and 1 egg. In a large bowl, mix the butter, flour, salt and sugar together with your hands until a paste forms. Add the egg and the water and continue to mix until the mixture stops sticking to your hands. Refrigerate for half an hour, then roll out on a floured surface, and mold it into your desired pie pan. Bake at 175 C; after 15 minutes, check, and if it’s not yet turning golden brown, leave for another 10 minutes. For the filling, you’ll need 2 passion fruits (maracuyá), 8 egg yolks, 1.5 cups sugar, 2 cups heavy cream (crema dulce), ½ teaspoon vanilla, and 6 teaspoons of corn starch (maicena). In a large bowl, combine egg yolks and 1 cup of the sugar. Whip until white bubbles form. Put heavy cream and vanilla into a pot, add the egg mixture, and stir over very low heat until it begins to thicken and bubble. Stir the corn starch into 2 tablespoons of water and add to the mixture to further thicken it. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. Cut each passion fruit in half and scoop out the pulp and seeds inside. Put this in a pot with the remaining ½ cup of sugar; stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved, making a passion fruit jelly. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. Once both mixtures have cooled, add the passion fruit jelly to the cream mixture, to taste (some people want less fruit in the custard for a more subtle taste, while others, like me, prefer a tangier, stronger passion fruit flavor). Pour into your baked pie crust and refrigerate until firm.
What are your favorite Costa Rican-influenced recipes on your Thanksgiving table? We’d love to hear them. (I’m still hungry!)