I had rivers of sweat running down my legs and beads of perspiration dancing on my skin. Growing up in 115 degree weather, I know what hot feels like, yet it sure didn’t prime me for the heat that rose off this cement. If I had taken a shower in my clothes no one would have known the difference. However, every morning I attempted to run along the promenade. And without fail, by 7:30am my run would turn into an unsteady trot and then into a sad limp.
After spending the morning recovering from near heat stroke, Brad and I would pop our heads out of the hotel in search of lunch. On one particular day, as we walked around a corner in the Getsemani neighborhood, we were drawn into a packed comedor buzzing with a multitude of oscillating fans. Not one table was left open; however we squeezed into a 2X2 table occupied by a lone female. A chalk board outside listed the options for the day. As with most Colombian midday meals, it was two courses, starting with a bowl of soup. As my internal temperature continued to overheat, I watched the locals happily eat their steaming bowls of
Next up was seco, literally the ‘dry’ non soup portion of the meal – rice, beans, patacones (mashed, fried plantain), a small salad, and meat. After dozens of standard rice and bean lunch platters, I quickly realized this was something special. The rice was stained brown in a caramelized mound, molasses in flavor and laced with plump raisins. I vowed to search high and low until I figured out what I put in my mouth. And yes, I did find it. Secret ingredient for arroz con pasas: coca cola! This one side alone brought us back to La Tertulia three more times, wanting more.
While we chowed down on food, Nacho claustrophobically waited on a ship inside a 20X40 container, waiting to transport him from Panama City, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. In no time he’d be cruising past the Panama Canal and infamous Darien Gap. Until then, we had to wait. Luckily, Cartagena was a gem of a city; a 16th century Spanish port on the Caribbean Coast.
Wandering the historic district within the 11 kilometers of city walls (Las Muralles) was an attraction in itself; beautifully cobblestoned streets, bougainvilleas draping from balconies, and plazas lined with food vendors. The walls of the city, once used to protect the city against enemies were now a place of congregation. Friends sat on top of the wall while business took place down below. Shaded by the sturdy wall, a barber purposefully cut hair while a lady sat slumped back in a plastic lawn chair nonchalantly gave pedicures, client’s toes tanning in the morning sun.
Every evening along the wall an amateur baseball game began, with half the field in the grass and the other half spilling out onto the busy street; 3rd base painted on the asphalt. Intense yelling battles occurred as opposing fans shouted accusations at one another. Earlier in the day the PE teacher blew her whistle while students took turns running up and down one of the many ramps of the wall. Across the street, the desire for more space forced the locals to pull their lawn chairs off the sidewalk and into the streets, cars whizzing by. Cartagena was very much a living city.
Things slowed down midday as the sun relentlessly beat down, forcing everyone inside, to a shady spot, or to the juice stands. Large fish tank like aquariums were easy to find on the streets, manned by a person with a large spoon, plastic cups, and a deliciously large amount of fresh juice. Every flavor under the sun existed; watermelon, mango, strawberry, tomate de arbol; but limonada seemed to be people’s choice. Other men pushed carts down the street filled with carafes of coffee. Small Dixie cups were offered, filled with either tinto (black coffee) or café con leche (coffee with milk); a quick pick-me-up. In addition to all of the drink options, there were plenty of vendors selling kebabs of meat or fried treats. One popular greasy item was the arepa con huevo (a thick corn tortilla cut down the middle, whole raw egg cracked inside and then fried).
In addition, we tried many sweets found in the famous arcaded walkway known as El Portal de los Dulces. In the adjoining Plaza de los Coches, which was formerly a slave market, you could watch traditional Carib dancing. As a native Colombian such as Shakira would say, hips don’t lie. These people knew how to dance.
In the adjoining Plaza de los Coches, which was formerly a slave market, you could watch traditional Carib dancing. As a native Colombian such as Shakira would say, hips don’t lie. These people knew how to dance.
Recipes from Cartagena (CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW)
Every year, ritual goes, that for our birthday, the birthday boy or girl requests whatever cake their heart desires. The only requirement is that it must be made from scratch. No pre-mixes or jars of frosting are permitted. No problem. I love making Brad cakes. There are numerous reasons why, but who am I kidding, the main reason is because I have an insanely strong addiction to eating batter. No, raw eggs don’t deter me. I will take my chances with salmonella any
It all stems from differences in how Brad and I were raised. When I was a young girl, after helping my mom make the batter for cookies or banana bread, she always made sure to leave an excessive amount of batter in the bowl, just for me. I was never too interested in the finished good. Sometimes we’d even save more and stick it in the fridge. And here is where the problem lies. Brad’s Mom always scraped out every last smudge. Only then was the bowl handed over to the three brothers, whom licked it clean like baby kittens. Brad insists this is how it should be. I on the other think differently. Which tradition will live on when we reproduce in the future? Well, let’s just say that Brad is the barbeque guy in our relationship and I, the goddess of the oven. Just try and stop me from bringing that kind of joy to our future offspring.
For my birthday one year I requested from Brad nothing other than a Tres Leches cake. What I got was a 8″X12″ rectangular mass of sponge that, instead of absorbing the “three milks”, floated and bobbed about in a pool of liquid. We tried to save it, and in the end pierced so many forks holes in the top that it ended up looking like a wall caught in between a shoot-out. We drained the liquid and ate what remained. I vowed to one day take the reins and make it myself. This day did come, and what should have been a cake that leaked a creamy concoction from every pore, once again floated instead of absorbed. I guess you can’t always get what you want…at least North of the Mexican border.
This year the idea of baking cakes was scratched. No oven, no cake. Instead, back in February, Brad bought me a Tres Leches cake. It was a proper Tres Leches cake, except for the fact that while hiding it from me, over the course of a winding mountain road, a shoe bin fell on top of the flimsy cardboard box, denting the cake inward. No biggy.
A few days before Brad’s birthday, we were wandering the grocery aisles in Playa Coco, Costa Rica. It was like no other store we had seen in four months. The selection was outrageously good and we left with a massive quantity of food, including all of the ingredients to make tiramisu for the birthday boy.
From the store, we headed South down the Nicoya peninsula to the neighboring beaches of Playa Avellanas and Playa Negra. After snaking through a field of mangroves and popping out at the intersection of the ocean and a river mouth, Brad hopped on the surf board. Soon the waves were dominating. As a present to himself before leaving the waters, he got a surfboard fin to the shoulder, producing a long cut across the front of the chest. It sucks getting older. Luckily, that is what birthday cakes are for.
Included below is the best tiramisu recipe in the world. We’ve made it over a dozen times and it has never failed to impress. Also, in honor of one of my favorite desserts (yes, I am heavily promoting), here is the Tres Leches recipe that was made for Brad and me by Chacho and Ulysesses’ aunt in Mazatlan, Mexico. It still stands strong as the best Tres Leches I’ve had on the trip. Chacho was kind enough to get his aunts tried and true recipe for me. Since then, I’ve translated it to English. I’d love to know if making this particular dessert North of the Mexican border is truly possible, so please give it a go.
Several years ago my dad opened a Mexican restaurant. The main goal for any enterprise is to make money, and so it might seem strange that there was one item on our menu on which we consciously lost money. Every time someone ordered guacamole, we lost $1.00. Why? Because our guacamole was like crack and it drove business through the doors, but it would have been too expensive if we actually charged people what it cost to make it. We bought fresh ingredients from the farmer’s market in Flagstaff and made it by hand. It was with this proud guacamole heritage that Sheena and I prepared for the impromptu Guac-Off at Sole and Diego’s house in Playa Coco, Costa Rica.
As with most of the positive aspects of our life these days, we fell into this situation by way of not having a plan. We had arrived on the Nicoya Peninsula that morning, and decided to head to Playa Tamarindo. It wasn’t because of anything specific we’d heard about Tamarindo, it was merely the only place on the peninsula we’d ever heard of.
As we approached Tamarindo, we passed a break in the trees where we could see a beach. People basked in the sun on the white sand and surfers were lined up in the water. It had all of the ingredients of a good day, so we rolled Nacho to the roadside and pulled out the surfboards.
It might be of interest to know that neither Sheena nor I really knows how to surf. We’ve been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to catch waves ever since we put down tracks in Baja California. Nevertheless, I sat out there on the longboard while Sheena paddled around on the stand-up paddleboard (SUP), and we took turns getting pulverized by waves. In between watery punishments, we noticed a guy and a girl successfully surfing on their SUPs. After we’d had enough, Sheena decided to ask them for advice.
It turned out that the SUPing couple were Diego and Sole (pronounced ‘so-lay’), owners of a paddleboard
“We’re having a guac-off tonight”, they said. “You guys should come. You can sleep in our guest room.”
And with that we abandoned the idea of Tamarindo and headed back the way we’d come. There are rules to this game, and rule number 6 says if you get invited to a guacamole making party, you drop whatever you’re doing and go. Especially when you have guacamole heritage in the family. The thought of a real bed was also appealing.
And so it was that 45 minutes later we were stepping through the doors of Sole and Diego’s extra nice, super comfortable condo in Playa Coco. It was the first time in three months that we’d set foot inside of a modern home; uniform walls, granite countertops, plush couches, decorations, curtains, and nice beds, not to mention a nice patio overlooking the town.
We weren’t there long before we were whisked out the door by the Americans Heather and Jeff, and their Costa Rican friend Sandy. There was to be a guac-off, so we had to loosen up. We drove Diego’s truck through the mountains and down a 4×4 track to a hidden beach in a cove. Diego had told us that a red tide had come a few days before, but that it should have been gone by now.
I brought along my speargun and snorkeling gear, as I was told that this cove had crystal clear water, and was basically an underwater seafood buffet. In the Pacific Ocean of all places, where my research has shown a distinct lack of fish. Jackpot. As I entered the water, however, something didn’t seem right. Funky smell. The water was rather opaque. “It’ll get better”, I thought. I spent a few minutes fumbling with my flippers and snorkel, then loaded my speargun and put my face into the water. I’m color-retarded, so it took me this long to realize that the water was dark red. I swam away from the shore, thinking that perhaps deeper water would mean more currents and clarity.
After a few minutes I had a boogie man moment. I decided to see how bad the visibility really was, so I placed my hand in front of my face. I couldn’t see it. Being that I was born and raised in a forest, and had spent considerable time in deserts (all far from the ocean), this instantly sent my mind into all kinds of worst case scenarios. Red tide! Still here! Can’t see anything! Could be rocks! Could be sharks! I’m a sitting duck! I’ve wet my pants! Am I drowning? I might be drowning!
I put my little blue flippers in high gear and quickly brought myself ashore. Once I was safely out of shark territory I slowed down and adopted more of a David Hasselhof saunter towards the others. Did you see me almost bag that roosterfish?
Once back at Sole and Diego’s house, it was game time. There were three guacamole entrants; Sandy (using her husband’s secret recipe), Heather and Jeff, and Sheena and me. Diego and Sole made homemade garlic aioli, salsa, grilled chicken, carne asada, and taco fixings. While we made guacamole, Sole kept the margaritas flowing. She may have been trying to throw us off our game, but Sheena and I took our margaritas in stride and perfectly executed our guacamole.
In the end, each of us put our own spin on the traditional preparation. Heather and Jeff infused theirs with finely chopped bacon and ample bacon grease. Sandy added a dash of sugar, extra lime, and some cream cheese. Sheena and I blackened some garlic cloves, turned them into a paste in a mortar, and then stirred them into the guacamole. The stage was set. Judge Diego positioned himself in front of the bowls.
We looked on eagerly as he cycled through the bowls. Chip…dip…taste…(shifty eyes)…chew…(eyebrows tilt)…nod of the head…swallow. So much was riding on the verdict. If we lose, I thought, I will never be able to look my dad in the eyes again. Black sheep.
Finally he finished his rounds and we waited in anticipation. He grabbed a bowl and held it up. “This one is the winner!”
It was our bowl! It had been a while since we’d won at anything, so this was thrilling. Oh, the sweet taste of victory! I strutted around with my chest puffed out while Sheena squealed with excitement.
In the end we had a really nice dinner with our new friends. We rested in a clean and comfortable bed, ate great food, and laughed our brains out, thanks entirely to the kindness of strangers.
We didn’t follow a recipe for our guac, but if you want to make it on your own, here’s approximately what we did:
Nacho’s Guac-Off Championship Winning Guacamole
Cut up the following and put in a bowl:
– One large tomato
– One small white onion
– A handful of fresh cilantro
– Five avocadoes (cut them in half and spoon the insides into the bowl, save the pits for later)
– A teaspoon of salt, and one of pepper
– The juice from one lime
Now do this:
– Throw five or six garlic cloves in a skillet with a splash of oil and fry them until the skin turns black
– Mash up the garlic in a mortar or in a bowl with a spoon. Now add it to the guac bowl.
– Stir up all of the ingredients with a fork, mashing the avocadoes as you mix. Once everything is a nice chunky consistency, stop mixing. Don’t get it too creamy, you want it chunky.
– Throw the avocado pits back into the bowl and stir them in.
– Taste with a spoon, add some salt, taste, add salt, etc. until it blows your mind.