Agnne, Ojoche’s sous chef, is wearing a black cloth apron and matching chef’s hat, with one corner of the hat slightly drooping to the side. On a day with this much humidity and in a kitchen this big with this many dishes on the stove at once, I’m not surprised her hat is droopy; muggy is an understatement up here in Rincon de la Vieja. When we enter the kitchen, I am carrying a large handwoven basket full of the freshest, plumpest, most fragrant fruits and vegetables I’ve ever had the pleasure of picking from the ground, the vine, and the tree, and Don Gerardo, Vandara Hot Springs & Adventure’s owner and organic farmer, is rattling off details about his farm and ending all of his sentences with a deep, gutteral laugh. He leaves us with Agnne and tells us he’ll be back to eat once we’ve cooked everything.
Agnne introduces herself, tosses Ryan and I aprons that match hers, and motions toward the double-basin sink where we’re supposed to wash up. This is not your average cooking class.
We had arrived at Vandara early in the morning donning our best farming outfits: me in a camping skirt, hiking shoes, and a long-sleeved shirt (a must-wear to avoid bug bites, I’d been told), and my husband Ryan in his own hiking pants and boots. Having been honeymooning in northwest Costa Rica for a week by now, we’d already had some adventure, laid on the beach, learned how to make coffee, and eaten our fair share of fried empanadas, gallo pinto (Costa Rica’s staple dish, a combination of beans and rice), and an unforgettable variety of fresh papayas and coconuts. Now, we were more than ready to get our hands dirty and learn a little more about how all the delicious food we’d been eating all week arrived on our plates.
As soon as we pulled up to the entrance in our rental car, Don Gerardo, a middle-aged man with very large hands and the legendary sign of a farmer (those dirt-crusted fingernails), hurried down to meet us. He served us freshly squeezed pineapple juice in glass flutes and took us around the back of the park. “Everything we use here is locally sourced or grown here in our garden,” he said proudly. From there, we wound around the rows and rows of fresh fruits and vegetables, listening to his elaborate stories about each crop, how and why it grows, and how to know when it’s ready to pick. He lovingly touched each vegetable and fruit as we walked through the rows and rows, pulling apart leaves to show us peanut roots, peeling apart the pods of red beans to show us the insides, shaking his head at the pumpkin squash that didn’t look like they’d been harvested in time. “They’re too big now,” he said, motioning toward his belly. “Kind of like me!”
We stopped at a row of vines that were propped up on wooden sticks, almost like grapes spiraling around stakes in a vineyard. Don Gerardo asked us to pick whatever we liked along the way but to especially take a few of his berejenas pintadas–the purple eggplants so fat and juicy that they look like they’re painted on the vines. We would be making fried eggplant for lunch. We picked a handful of them, added them to the basket, and, hands full, walked back through the hanging bridges to Vandara’s kitchen and restaurant, Ojoche.
This is where we are now. We’ve just met Agnne, washed up, dressed in our aprons, and brought the huge basket to the chefs (all of whom are women). The women pick and grab certain items from the basket, hurrying back to their respective stations and getting ready to prepare the lunch menu. Agnne expertly and deftly moves around the kitchen, slicing, chopping, mixing, boiling, frying, and sauteeing, all while talking to me and walking me through the process of making fried eggplant and yucca, a spicy oil-based dip made with citrus, radish, and cilantro, and butternut squash soup.
“Where did you learn to cook?” I ask Agnee as we chop Don Gerardo’s painted eggplant into slices for the first dish we’re making. She puts the jar of bread crumbs down and fishes out another knife to help me finish cutting.
“La pobreza,” she says, shrugging. Then she picks up a bowl from underneath the counter and dumps in the bread crumbs. She asks me to dredge the slices I’ve already cut up into the egg mixture she prepared next to me. And that was all we said about how Agnne learned to cook.
As a travel writer, I often forget–or am too nervous or too unfamiliar with the language–to ask about the circumstances that lead people to their lives. Sometimes I just get too busy taking notes or talking to other people that I don’t stop and pause to think about the dynamics of the situations that transpire to make us chefs, writers, travel agents, all the jobs we take, love, hate, and do because we have to do. This moment, in the kitchen, is one of them.
Though it’s been a few months since we cooked with Agnne in her kitchen, her words have stayed with me, wafted through my own kitchen, entered my own soups, stews, and dishes. Poverty taught me.
We cooked many dishes that day at Vandara. I learned about the differences between chayote, the green squash that looks like a flattened pumpkin and is best cooked in strips and eaten as a side, and ayote, the all-too-familiar butternut squash I grew up loving. I learned how to tell when a red bean is ripe for picking and how to properly eat a pejibaye, a hand-sized starchy palm tree fruit that is boiled and served with lime-infused mayonnaise. Today, though, I wish to focus on the simplest dish we made: a delicate, creamy, comfort food, a rural housewife’s food, the crema de ayote. A food that if you have a squash, some garlic, and some chicken stock, you can make again, and again, and again.
I choose this dish to share here because it is elegant in its simplicity, easy to prepare, and nearly universal in its ability to conjure up images of cozy kitchens and family dishes. It’s also the most delicious food I tried during our week in Costa Rica, and it’s the favorite soup of many, many Ticos. Whenever I asked around about the crema de ayote in my mission to learn more about it, I heard it again and again: es la comida de mi ninez…me hace pensar en mi mama….tengo muy buenas memorias con esa sopa….
Unlike guiso de ayote, a thicker butternut squash stew with chopped up vegetables, crema de ayote is a thinner, creamier soup. There aren’t very many ingredients, which makes it a versatile dish, and it utilizes one of the oldest crops in Costa Rica (and in Central America in general, actually). Squash, whose cultivation has been traced back at least 10,000 years, are native to Central and South America and were essentially unknown in Europe and Asia until about 1500. In fact, the squash, along with corn and beans, are believed to have originated in Mexico and Central America and been eaten as daily comestibles for over 7,500 years. The Portuguese and other European traders carried the seeds abroad and introduced the crops to their countries, and soon enough, butternut squash ended up planted in gardens all around the world. Squash are typically divided into two groups by agriculturists: summer (thin, edible skin and seeds), and winter (thick, inedible skin with seed groupings inside that must be removed). The butternut squash is easily identified as a winter squash, although, unlike its name, is grown year-round in the tropical Costa Rican climate. They’re also not vegetables at all. They’re actually fruits.
There are plenty of recipes for crema de ayote. Probably as many recipes as there are villages in Costa Rica, because everywhere has its own access to different ingredients and traditions. Agnne’s recipe is one such recipe, coming from her village outside of Guanacaste. Butternut squash literally grows everywhere in this country, though, so no matter which region you’re visiting, there will very likely be a butternut squash cream soup recipe somewhere. Here is hers:
Do keep in mind that this recipe isn’t perfect–like any soup, it takes a lot of adding, mixing, and sampling to get the taste just right. And, our cooking class came with no written recipes. As Agnne had us collecting ingredients, chopping, and sauteeing, she rattled off the ingredients and instructions to make the soup. Later, my husband and I, along with Ana Yancey, our guide from TAM Travel, recreated the list of ingredients, scribbled down the recipe instructions as best we could, and translated it later. Here, then, is my rough approximation of Agnne’ creamy masterpiece:
- about 1/4 cup of finely chopped white onion
- 1/4 cup finely chopped sweet chiles (any chiles that aren’t too spicy will do–you don’t want to alter the sweetness of the butternut squash too much)
- 1/4 celery stalk, finely chopped
- 3/4 stick of margarine (or butter)
- 2 kilograms of ayote (about one whole butternut squash, de-seeded and chopped up)
- plenty of grated garlic
- a few cups of water
- one envelope of concentrated chicken consomme (we bought the Maggi brand instant consomme at a local Costa Rican grocery)
- salt and pepper to taste
In a large non-stick skillet, saute the garlic, chiles, onions, and celery in the margarine or butter until they are lightly browned. Set aside. Then, in a new skillet, dissolve the consomme in the water and toss in the chunks of butternut squash. Add the garlic/chile/onion/celery mix and put the mixture to boil on the stove. Cook the mixture down until the squash can be lightly mashed with a spoon. Then, if you prefer a creamier soup, remove the mixture from the stove and place in a blender and puree. Return everything to the skillet, add liberal amounts of pepper and salt, cook to desired consistency and heat, and serve. If you prefer a chunkier soup, there’s no need to blend. If you wish, you can also top the hot soup with slivered almonds.
And then, of course, buen provecho. Good eats!
To arrange your own tour of Vandara’s organic farms and to take a private cooking class in the Ojoche Restaurant, you can book online or contact TAM Travel Corporation to help you arrange all the details.
Article and all photographs by Kristin Winet.
A special thanks to Ana Yancy Chaves and the rest of the team at TAM Travel Corporation for hosting our beautiful honeymoon in Costa Rica.