Last week, I returned from Costa Rica where my classmates and I spent 7 days in a tiny village town called Santa Cruz de Leon Cortez. The town’s main income came from the coffee plantation which lined and weaved through the town. My host family lived high up on the mountains and in the mornings I could see the clouds floating lazily above the mountains. Everything was quiet and most days I would wake up before the sunrise so the light was still misty and cool. My host mom would always pour me a coffee (fresh coffee, might I add) and as I sat and drank it she would bustle around to prepare breakfast. Usually I would just eat fresh fruit, but it seems that the culture in Santa Cruz is to give a never ending food supply, three meals a day. Without fail, rice and beans are served at every meal but the side dishes range from pasta to fried plantains to meat.
Here’s a photo of a memorable lunch of mine one day:
In my house, we don’t have a staple food, like rice and beans. I imagine that some families eat bread everyday, but usually not every meal. Rice and beans are by no means the peasant dish, all families no matter wealth eat it and my host father even told me that his father could not even afford rice growing up. He told me that his father’s diet consisted only of tortillas, beans and agua dulce (a kind of raw sugar drink produced locally). Personally, I never got sick of it, I love beans and I don’t usually eat rice at home so I enjoyed having something different and I admired the simplicity of the food. I would never consider making fried banana pancakes (ingredients: egg, banana, salt) not because they aren’t delicious but because its almost too simple. There’s an art to crafting my uncle’s wonderful and elaborate Thanksgiving dinner as well as preparing an “almuercito” with only a few things to work with. So that’s my takeaway, people search far and wide for certain delicacies, but eating a satisfying, local meal feels just as special.
Once back on the East Coast, however, I found myself craving what Santa Cruz did not provide: salad. If I had to pick one staple-type food in my house, it would probably be a salad. We have one almost every night with the same garlicky dressing my mom has made for years. Each one however has its own eclectic mix of toppings, some that I would never eat together by themselves. Grapes, olives, artichokes, seeds, almonds, beets, carrots, tomatoes, avocados and pomegranate seeds have all found their way onto the jumbled disarray that we eat most nights. This time, however, I wanted to go simple, to learn from my own teachings, and carefully assemble a quirky but yummy salad that mixed colors and taste. Don’t get me wrong, I love the chaos of my family’s salads, but sometimes the toppings can even overwhelm the lettuce!
Pears give this salad a delicate, sweet vibe, where beets (I love beets…) always add dramatic color, pine nuts are naturally creamy and nicely compliment the mellowness of the beets, and fennel adds crunch. I was careful about how I cut each vegetable/fruit for decorative purposes; the long and thin pieces of pear and fennel look very elegant, and the beet wedges also add a beautiful color. The dressing, which is a orange-mint that I created, adds a cooling yet interesting flavor to this mellow salad and the apple cider vinegar works well with the orange juice.
1 red, medium beet
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. fresh squeezed orange juice
1/2 tsp. salt & pepper to taste
1/3 toasted pine nuts
1 Bartlett pear, very finely sliced
1/2 Fennel Bulb, thinly sliced
3 or 4 cups of mixed salad greens
For Orange-Mint Dressing:
1 1/2 oranges, for juice
2 tbsp. mint, finely diced
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tsp. salt
4 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 420. Peel beet and cut into 1/2 inch wedges, about 2 inches long. Put beets, orange juice, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar in a 9×12 baking pan and mix with a spoon, making sure to coat all the beets in the sauce. Put in oven and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the beets and tender and browned on the outside. Let cool in pan.
Toast the pine nuts in a pan over the stove for roughly 5 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Let cool in pan.
Peel, wash and slice fennel bulb. I tried to make very thin long pieces, which look beautiful when contrasted with the burgundy beets, but whatever shape works for you is fine.
Slice the pear in long strips, so thin that that the pieces are nearly translucent. They should be able to hold together in a salad, but thinner is better. Set aside. The pears should be sliced last, as they are susceptible to browning or attracting fruit flies if left out too long.
Rinse salad greens. Put in a large salad bowl.
For Dressing: Dice mint and juice oranges. Mix all ingredients, except for the oil, in a bowl. When they are thoroughly combined, add the oil and use a whisk to blend. Shake well before drizzling.
To assemble salad: Add the nuts, beets, pears, fennel on top and drizzling about 2 tbsp. (or more, depending on your liking) and toss. If you have any extra mint leaves, they can be added to the salad greens. Let sit for 15 minutes to achieve a slightly wilted, warm salad affect.