On his way to Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast, DonQui Oaty decides to break his journey in the Costa Rican capital. It seems more restful after a long international flight to spend the night in San José before hopping on a domestic flight to the coast
At first glance San José doesn’t seem to have much to offer. DonQui notes the urban sprawl, dusty streets and dull architecture. He is fairly certain that those that know the city will tell him that there is much to see and do. But it is a Sunday afternoon, not much is happening and the restful atmosphere of the low-rise Hotel Colonial invites DonQui to take a siesta rather than go out to explore Costa Rica’s capital.
With its pleasant neo-colonial architecture, large spacious room and friendly staff, the Hotel Colonial is a great place to stay. It is right in the centre of town close to the Jade museum which would have been handy had DonQui decided to explore.
Instead, after his siesta, he has a coffee and plays a game of cards with Duchess in the pleasant courtyard by the small pool.
The Esquina de Buenos Aires restaurant is right across the street from the Hotel Colonial. DonQui has learned that it has an excellent reputation and is hugely popular. He is, therefore, thankful he had the foresight to make a reservation as the place is hopping when he gets there for dinner and he would not have had a chance of a table without it.
DonQui immediately sees why the restaurant is so popular. It oozes with atmosphere. The wood panelling, ceiling fans, posters from classic Argentinian films and old photos of Argentinian celebrities, make DonQui feel at though he has been transported into classic black and white film set in old Buenos Aires. All that is missing are two gentlemen in fedoras smoking cigars in a corner as they plan some dangerous adventure.
The food, drink and service are as good as the atmosphere. It being an Argentinian restaurant, beef steak is the thing to have. DonQui’s Bife de Chorizo (striploin) is superb and he is glad he ordered the ‘mini’ portion as at 250g of beef it is more than enough. The full portion is a whopping 400g!
There is more than steak on the menu. Duchess’ sopa de zapallo y choclo (pumpkin and sweetcorn soup) is delicious as are the rum flambéed bannana crepes that DonQui has for desert. The house red wine, a Pequeña Vasija is excellent. Prices are a little on the steep side for Costa Rica but quite reasonable by European/North American standards. Reservations are essential.
Certainly, DonQui could have been more energetic to make more of his short overnight stay in San José. Nonetheless he thoroughly enjoys himself. He feels perfectly relaxed as he eats his breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) with egg and sweet fried plantain the next morning. He is now ready for a proper adventure.
Cumberland Sauce is a traditional English accompaniment for a Christmas goose or ham. It also goes well with game. These days it has largely been supplanted by cranberry sauce which, like turkey, is an American import.
DonQui likes cranberry sauce with turkey. A couple of years back he described his recipe for a simple homemade cranberry sauce.
This year DonQui will be having ham (gammon joint) on Christmas eve and he wants to try his hand at making Cumberland sauce to go with it.
This is his recipe:
½ lemon, zest and juice
½ orange, zest and juice
4 tablespoons, redcurrant jelly
a good splash of port wine
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cornflour
Note: Traditionally Cumberland sauce is made with mustard. DonQui has a mild allergy to mustard so he leaves it out, using instead the cornflour to bind and thicken the sauce. If you like mustard then leave out the cornflour and use a good teaspoon of mustard instead.
Warm up the orange and lemon zest in the port, letting it reduce slightly
Add the redcurrant jelly and whisk it in over a low heat until the jelly had completely melted and it is blended with the port.
Put the ginger and cornflour (or mustard) in a small glass or bowl. Gradually add the orange and lemon juice. blend it together until well mixed.
Add the juice mixture to the pot and bring it slowly to the boil, whisking it as you do so that it is nicely blended.
Remove from the heat and pour into a serving jug.
There you have it.
Essentially Cumberland sauce is jazzed up redcurrant jelly. The ginger and citrus zest/juice gives it a real Christmassy flavour. DonQui tries it out with venison and it goes perfectly. He is looking forward to trying it again with his Christmas eve ham.
Christmas is still a few days away but DonQui Oaty is working on perfecting his stuffing recipe which he previously described for his Canadian Thanksgiving feast.
He thinks he has really perfected it now so here is is recipe for stuffing a Christmas bird, be it a turkey or (his favourite) a goose.
Two chicken livers, or one turkey or goose liver, chopped
Two teaspoons of sausage meat (If you cannot get sausage meat from your butcher then simply cut the skin off a sausage and use the inside filling)
Half an onion finely chopped
A good bunch of chopped parsley (about ½ a cup)
½ teaspoon of dried rosemary
½ teaspoon of dried thyme
A bit of grated nutmeg
zest of ½ a lemon
3 slices of stale white bread cut into squares leaving crusts on
a handful of chopped dried cranberries (optional)
a handful of chopped chestnuts (optional)
a splash of milk
a splash of chicken stock (or water)
salt and pepper to taste
butter for cooking (mix with a little vegetable oil if desired)
Gently pan fry the onion in butter until it softens and begins to colour
Add the chopped livers and sausage meat. Stir fry over a low heat until the pinkness is gone.
Add the herbs, nutmeg, lemon zest, cranberries, chestnuts, salt and pepper and continue cooking over a low heat until well mixed.
Add a splash of chicken stock or water to moisten. Then set aside to cool.
Break the bread up into chunks. If you prefer a smoother stuffing you can use soft breadcrumbs instead, or whizz the bread chunks in a food processor to make the same.
Moisten the bread with a little milk and mash it up with a fork until it becomes dough-like but not too soggy, If it seems a little too liquid you can squeeze out any excess milk with your hands.
Mix in the meat/onion/herb mixture along with the cranberries and chestnuts if you are using them.
DonQui finds that cranberries and chestnuts give a real Christmassy feel. They add a delightful taste burst and a bit of crunch to the finished stuffing. .
When it is throughly mixed it should have the look and constituency of a course paté. Cover and put in the fridge overnight.
The following day stuff the neck end (the ‘back’ ) of the bird.
Draw the flap of skin over the stuffed end and secure with a couple of cocktail sticks.
Today, DonQui is stuffing a small chicken which gives him lots of left-over stuffing (there will be less left over with a larger Christmas turkey or goose). He forms the left over mixture into 2 inch balls with his hooves well coated in olive oil. The balls will only need 20-25 minutes baking in a hot oven and will be dryer and crispier than the moist stuffing inside the bird.
DonQui prefers the moister internal stuffing but some prefer the stuffing balls.
DonQui is pleased that he has just about mastered the art of making a good pizza base but what about the toppings? DonQui’s current favourites are tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, basil, olives, capers and anchovies.
While he will vary these from time to time, the key is the tomato sauce.
This is how he makes it:
Ingredients for 2 individual pizzas
1 400 g tin of San Marzano tomatoes
a pinch of salt
1 crushed garlic clove (optional)
a bunch of herbs — basil or oregano (optional)
San Marzano tomatoes are a unique southern Italian variety grown on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius near Naples. They are meatier than most other varieties with less seeds and less acidity. They, therefore, make perfect pasta and pizza sauces. Even though tinned, the taste is so sweet and fresh that DonQui prefers not to pre-cook it before putting it on his pizza.
DonQui orders his from Amazon and although more expensive than normal plum tomatoes they are not a hugely extravagant purchase.
The variety is protected in the EU by the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC). This protection does not extend to some non-EU countries. In the USA many of the canned tomatoes sold as ‘San Marzano’ (often at very high prices) are nothing like the real thing.
If using garlic (he does not always add it), DonQui likes to gently fry it in olive oil until it becomes fragrant but before it colours. This takes down the pungent rawness that can be a bit overpowering in a sauce.
Drain the tomatoes and put them in a food processor/blender along with the salt and any herbs. If using basil you can use stalks as well as leaves. Add the garlic along with the oil it was cooked in.
Whizz it all up until it is blended. It does not have to be completely smooth.
If you do not have, or do not want to use, a food processor you can crush the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle.
Tip the mixture into a strainer to drain a little more. If the sauce is too watery then it may make a thin dough crust a bit soggy. You could thicken it up with a bit of concentrated tomato purée (tomato paste) but this will alter the taste as the highly processed concentrate can take away from the fresh taste of the San Marzano tomatoes.
Spread the tomato sauce over the pizza base with the back of a wooden spoon.
Add your favourite toppings and put in the pre-heated oven at maximum temperature (250º+), ideally on a pizza stone (which radiates the heat). Then bake for 6 minutes or until the cheese is nicely melted and bubbling but before it burns.
Can there be any food be any food more completely perfect than pizza? DonQui Oaty thinks not. Therefore he has decided to learn how to make it himself from scratch.
DonQui’s first step is a pizza-making course at the Two Magpies bakery in Southwold, Suffolk. Well known for miles around for its incomparable breads and pastries the Two Magpies has extended its sourdough know-how into pizza making. DonQui is keen to learn more.
The evening course begins with a discussion about flour, sourdough and pizza. DonQui learns the importance of ‘hard flour’ with a high gluten content. This is essential to achieve the elasticity needed for a good pizza base. Using sourdough rather than yeast is a slower and better leavening process that alleviates the problems some people have with gluten. Then it is into the bakery to learn how to make and work the dough.
He works the dough feeling how, with kneading, it turns from a sticky ‘shaggy dough’ into a smooth, elastic mass. After leaving it for 20 minutes the elasticity increases and he kneads it some more. He learns that resting is important because immediately after kneading some of the elasticity is lost. Like muscles strained after a run, it needs rest to strengthen.
When the dough can be gently pulled apart without breaking it is ready to be formed. DonQui learns that the way to do this is too gradually stretch it out — not by rolling it with a rolling pin.
The first step is to take a 250g ball of dough, gently flatten it out on a board (lightly floured to prevent sticking) and press around the edges to create the cornicione or edge.
Then slowly stretch the base out as thinly as possible, careful not to break it. Holding it up over two fists to let the edges fall down while gently turning is a good way of doing this, if feeling confident one could toss it up into the air and spin it around like a professional pizzaiolo. DonQui has yet to master this skill.
With the benefit of adult supervision and a blistering hot professional baker’s oven (350º+), DonQui’s first pizza is a great success.
His first attempts to try this at home are OK but not brilliant. The base ends up a bit ‘doughy’ rather than light and crisp.
Even with the addition of a pizza stone, his home oven with maximum temperature of 250º does not quite do the job.
With further experimentation he finds ways to overcome this. Blind baking the base for 3 minutes before putting on the toppings is his first break-through. This gives a crispy crust at the lower temperature of his home oven. Adding a small amount of dried yeast as well as sourdough levain aids rising and makes the base lighter.
Perfection, however, is only achieved when he tries using strong Italian 00 (super-fine) semolina flour. This flour — made especially for pasta and pizza — utterly transforms the dough. It is almost immediately elastic and the resultant base is as good as he has ever tasted anywhere.
Here, below, is DonQui’s recipe based on the Two Magpie’s original instructions with his own modifications.
It makes two small individual pizzas or a single large one.
250g strong white bread flour
½ teaspoon dried yeast
95g sourdough levain (starter)
5g salt (a good teaspoonful)
10g olive oil
Combine the flour, yeast, water and levain by hand into a shaggy dough.
Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until a smooth non-sticky dough has formed.
Add salt and continue kneading until all granular traces have gone. Slowly add the oil and work it in until fully incorporated and the dough is smooth and strong.
Leave the dough to rise for 2 hours in a lightly oiled, covered container at warm room temperature (22-27ºC).
Cut the dough in half (makes approximately two 250g portions). Shape each into a tight ball and either use immediately or wrap in cling film and refrigerate for a maximum of 48 hours. The dough balls can also be frozen.
To use, bring the dough back up to room temperature (if refrigerated), work it a few times to check elasticity by gently stretching and folding. It should be possible to do so without the dough immediately breaking apart.
Let rest for 20 minutes then stretch into shape on a lightly floured surface. The final stretch is best done on parchment paper so that the base does not end up sticking to the board.
Blind bake at maximum temperature in a pre-heated oven (250º C at least) for 2-3 minutes on the parchment paper. Using a pizza stone will give a crispy base but be sure to put the stone in a cold oven or it will crack.
Remove from the parchment paper. Put on toppings when cooled.
Bake at maximum temperature for 6 minutes directly on the pizza stone. This will give a crispier finish than if it was left on the paper.
Pizza dough is best made with Italian Tipo ‘00’ durum wheat flour. It is finer ground than normal and has a high gluten content. It will give the dough an incredibly smooth, firm, texture.
If using white bread flour, make sure it is a strong one that’s high in gluten. It is the high gluten which gives the essential firm elasticity. Look for Canadian flour which has a higher gluten content than most European ones. Normal all-purpose flour will simply not do the job.
Some millers in the UK are now producing pizza flour which combines Italian style fine grind with local high gluten wheat.
It has been a while since DonQui Oaty returned from Sicily. Back in his home paddock he has continued to experiment with some of the foods he discovered while he was away, doing his best to recreate them in his own kitchen.
One of the most interesting and unusual dishes he came across in Sicily was pasta con le sarde or pasta with sardines. Probably dating back to the Arab conquest of the 8th century, it is unlike any pasta dish DonQui has ever tasted. Saffron, raisins, pine nuts, almonds and wild fennel bring the tastes of North Africa and the Middle East to merge with Sicilian cooking.
What follows is DonQui’s version of the ancient recipe. He is rather pleased that it turned out as good as what he had sampled in Sicily.
Ingredients for 2 people
1 small onion, finely chopped;
2-3 anchovy filets, cut into pieces
2-3 sardines (ideally fresh), filleted and cut into pieces
a bunch of fresh wild fennel tops (or a tablespoon of dry wild fennel)
a good pinch of saffron strands lightly pulverised with a pestle and soaked in a little boiling water
a glass of dry white wine
a handful of currants or sultanas soaked in water for 20-30 minutes (currants are traditional)
a handful of toasted pine nuts
a level tablespoon of ground almonds
a teaspoon of tomato purée (tomato paste) dissolved in a little water (optional and not traditional)
water to dilute
salt and pepper to taste
a handful of toasted breadcrumbs
150g dried bucatini, linguine or spaghetti
Wild fennel (finocchio selvatico) is not easy to come by outside Sicily and it is quite different from cultivated fennel. DonQui uses some dried finocchio selvatico he brought back from his travels.He understands that a reasonable substitute can be made from dill along with ground fennel seeds.
Fresh sardines are best. They are not in season at the moment so DonQui uses tinned sardines preserved in oil as a reasonable substitute.
Pour boiling water over the saffron and the sultanas or currants and let them sit for 15-30 minutes. This allows the dried fruit to re-hydrate. It also brings out the saffron flavour and colour from the strands.
Gently toast the breadcrumbs in a dry pan on medium heat until they turn golden.
Fry the onions in oil until they soften and begin to colour.
Add the sardine and anchovy pieces and continue to gently fry. The fish will break up and begin to dissolve (approximately 3-5 minutes on a low-medium heat)
Turn up the heat and add the wine, letting it boil off until reduced by about half.
Then add the fennel and the saffron (with its soaking water). Cover and simmer gently for about 10 minutes.
Strain the sultanas/currents from their soaking water and add them to the sauce along with the ground almonds, diluted tomato purée, and half the pine kernels. The almonds and tomato purée will thicken and bind the sauce. Add a bit of water to dilute as needed.
Bring the sauce back up to a gentle boil and simmer for about 5-10 minutes uncovered to allow the flavours to come together. Stir frequently to avoid scorching, adding more water if needed to dilute. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper according to taste.
Meanwhile prepare the pasta in salted boiling water until done (about 12 minutes) then strain. If you have a good supply of wild fennel add some to the pasta water.
Tip the strained pasta into the pan with the sauce and mix it together well. Add a dash of the pasta cooking water to dilute and keep everything moist.
Turn into a serving dish, sprinkle with the toasted breadcrumbs and remaining toasted pine nuts. Then serve.
In some parts of Sicily the final dish with the breadcrumb topping is put into a hot oven for a few minutes to crisp up. DonQui has not tried it this way yet so cannot say if it is an improvement or not.
The result is an astounding combination of flavours which DonQui highly recommends.
Duchess was quite taken a-back on first tasting but the more her tastebuds became accustomed to the flavours the more she liked it. She thought capers might be an interesting addition and although they are not a traditional ingredient, she may well be right.
A little extra virgin olive oil served on the side makes an excellent addition. A little drizzle seems to bind the flavours beautifully. Do not be tempted to add any cheese — it would clash horribly with the taste.
A crisp southern Italian white wine makes an excellent accompaniment. DonQui chooses the Gambino Winery’s Tifeo bianco, made from Carricante and Catarrato grapes grown on the slopes of Mt Etna. It is a perfect match.
Continuing his exploration of Sicilian food, DonQui Oaty turns his attention to olives, the second most important staple of Sicilian cuisine (after wine!).
The olive trees at Casa di Latomie near Castelvetranto on the west of the island, are rooted in the limestone of an ancient Greek quarry. They derive much of their flavour and nutrients from it. They are picked by hand from in order to ensure the careful selection of high quality olives.
DonQui is introduced to the great-grandfather of the olive trees. 1200 years old, this tree was a sapling when the Arabs took Sicily from the East Romans and grew into maturity when the Normans came. It is still producing fruit.
The olives, the oil and tapenade that DonQui samples are utterly delicious. The tapenade is served on crusty rustic bread made from tumminia flour. This ancient grain has a delectable nutty taste and is unique to Sicily.
Meat does not feature much in Sicilian cuisine. Milk and butter are noticeable only by their absence. Olive groves and vineyards dominate the landscape and, apart from a few sheep and and the odd cow or two, DonQui does not see any animals in the fields.
Livestock is mostly important for cheese. At La Masseria dairy, near Ragusa, DonQui encounters a whole menagerie including a distant Sicilian cousin.
At the dairy DonQui learns how caciocavallo is made. This a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese is quite mild.Sicilians prefer to use it rather than northern Italian parmesan on their pasta.
DonQui finds it pleasant enough but a bit too bland to get excited about.
He does rather like the fresh version which has not been aged and is served with olive oil and herbs. It is a bit like mozzarella but slightly firmer
The curds are made into a delicious ricotta. The taste is vastly superior to any ricotta DonQui has tasted at home in England.
Sweetened ricotta is the filling for cannoli. These ones also have a few chocolate chips in them and they taste fabulous.