Yoga, Chocolate and the Rain Forest: Our Costa Rican Idyll

Last August, my husband and I chose to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary by going to Costa Rica. It was our first vacation with an ecological focus, as recommended by old friends who have more refined tastes and more stringent religious commitments. We were delighted to have our girls accompany us. It was a vigorous vacation with hiking, snorkeling in Puerto Viejo (newly discovered by surfers) and daily yoga sessions. My husband was able to decompress faster — and remain relaxed longer — than on any other trip and my review of our stay at the Samasati Nature Retreat posted on TripAdvisor has been read by enough viewers to garner me a free Shutterfly photo album (which, alas, I was too late to redeem). This was a great way to unplug from the world — no phone, no Internet, no television.

Our bungalow overlooked the mountainside and we woke each day to the sunrise (about 5 am) and the chattering of the monkeys. It was the off season in the Caribbean coast, so we had the resort mostly to ourselves. My family had de facto private sessions with the yoga teacher in the beautiful, octagonal studio.

It rained hard most days we were there but at different times of the day. In the capital city of San Jose, the streets have deep and wide gutters, up to two feet in parts. The locals, called Ticos, carry their babies everywhere, not bothering with carriages, strollers or even slings. People can even steer their bicycles, while holding up umbrellas.

All of us but my husband have studied Spanish — my daughter who is a recent college grad is the most fluent but I surprised myself by remembering words and phrases not used since high school. I realized my mistake in studying only the words of the foods we can eat but not words for the non-kosher species we do not eat. As other friends just back from Barcelona remarked, “there are so many ways to describe pork!” The food offered at the Samasati itself was good vegetarian fare (fish can be ordered for Friday night).

We chose to spend a quiet Shabbat on the mountaintop instead of seeking out the Chabad rabbi in San Jose. We reserved a private tour that was listed as “easy.” What we got instead was a guide who wielded a machete — necessary to hack away at the lusty vegetation — and a sweat-inducing, heart-thumping hike through muddy riverbanks, steep inclines, and rocky streambeds. We were up close and personal with the bugs, fauna, and flora.

Sunday in a Catholic country is pretty quiet, but we stumbled upon a cacao educational plantation and the polyglot European owner consented to giving us a tour. We saw and touched the various plants necessary in the chocolate-making process. We participated in the grinding, kneading, and molding. We were invited to “eat as much as we wanted,” because authentic Costa Rican chocolate is so rich that no one can eat more than a piece or two. We learned that families traditionally make chocolate together during their social gatherings. My daughter wanted to bring cacao beans back to her college campus as a different fun activity, but we couldn’t find any on our last days before heading to the airport.

As our first eco-trip, it offered a phenomenal education. The rain forest is God’s gift to mankind. Scientists are studying the therapeutic and medicinal properties of the plants there as well as the inter-relationships of the creatures. Did you know that a certain species of mosquito has the divine purpose of being the pollinator of the wild banana? We have much to learn and appreciate about this precious Earth on which we live.

Hannah Lee now eats chocolate to support the rain-forest economy and still trying to find more time for yoga.

Do Cash Purchases Yield a Healthier Diet?

Flickr: Cafemama

With the opening of this season’s farmers markets, I find myself withdrawing more cash from my ATM — and more cash each week. The vendors do not accept checks or credit cards, so we patrons have to plan ahead or pay nasty surcharges when we run out of money during the middle of a market run and need replenishment from a nearby ATM (although a shout-out to WaWa by my beloved Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market at 2nd and Pine in Philadelphia for not charging extra for cash withdrawals from non-bank members). The consolation is that I spend less at Whole Foods and the other large food chains on my regular shopping rounds.  But does this need to use cash have a deterrence on my total spending budget?

Peter Smith reported recently that it might. “According to a new study reported in the Journal of Consumer Research (subscription required), credit card use may mediate the pain of parting of our hard-earned money.” Manoj Thomas, a marketing professor at Cornell, examined the spending habits of 1,000 shoppers at one chain grocery store. After collecting data over a 6-month period, he found that credit or debit card use contributed to impulsive purchases of “vice products.” Thomas and his colleagues speculated that paying with plastic is “emotionally more inert” and “abstract.” Paying with cash is immediate and tactile.

Smith also cites Dan Ariely’s 2010 book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions in which the author recommended the use of “self-control credit cards” with a $50 limit on impulse purchases. Or the feedback aid of a credit card that displays the debt as soon as a transaction has been enacted.

Me, I use my credit card merely as a bookkeeping tool, as my husband and I pay off the full amount each month, never even bothering to remember what our bank charges for interest payments. Yes, I do find it easy to ring up purchases at Whole Foods. When I shop at my two farmers’ markets (Sundays and Thursdays to carry us through the week and for Shabbat), I see how much money I put in my pocket and how much I hand over to each vendor. And I do feel a pang when I have to detour to the ATM because the maple syrup vendor appears (after a disastrous sap season in 2010) and I want to spend more than I’d allocated for that week. For me, a conscious locavore, spending cash for local fruits and vegetables means that my family is eating food that is as fresh as can be (often harvested early that morning!).

A different argument might be posed for families living on the brink of poverty. Their government-supported food stamps — whether through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance For Needy Families), or WIC (Women, Infants and Children) — are often not accepted by the small-scale vendors at farmers’ markets. Around the country, most SNAP clients use an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) Access card at approved grocery stores, where the amount of a purchase is automatically deducted from the monthly allowance. This presents a challenge for farmer’s market vendors who do not usually accept credit cards. However, many markets around the country are setting up EBT stations where folks with snap benefits can transfer their electronic benefits for tokens that the farmers will be able to accept.

In my advocacy work with refugees (families being resettled here by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)), I’ve learned that there is often a steep learning curve for these new arrivals in budgeting via a plastic accounting system. There is also the temptation of many new “food” products never before imagined in their native countries. Finally, many poor families — though not my refugees — live in “food deserts” where they have to rely on small stores, known as bodegas in cities with a large Hispanic population, that do not offer much choice in fresh produce.

For people in various economic situations, cash payments do not necessarily result in a healthier diet. While I have the luxury of being able to afford my weekly trips to the farmer’s market, I understand that not everyone is able to or has the access to fresh healthy food like this.

Hannah Lee writes from her home in Pennsylvania, in between taking care of her family, her shul, and the refugees being resettled by HIAS.

Tradition Tested

I’m fascinated when tradition gets tested by modern science and comes out standing.  I’d cheered when acupuncture was shown to be effective for chronic pain.  Now, I’ve learned that America’s Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook’s Illustrated, has subjected challah to its test kitchen experimentation.  The results: pretty much what you’d learned from your mother and grandmother (or would, if you had one).

The best tasting challah is not too sweet, not too dense, not too fluffy and not from the commercial bakeries.  Their results, from the Holiday Baking 2009 issue, included:

3-3-1/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 c sugar

2-1/4 tsp instant yeast

1-1/4 tsp salt

2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk

4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted  *

1/2 c plus 1 tbsp warm water

1 large egg white (for wash)

1 tsp poppy or sesame seed (optional)

* For the kosher bakers: they also tested oil and found that it did not add much flavor.  But, you already knew that.

This yields one large loaf, which is not enough for the average Jewish household in which Shabbat is observed and one would need two whole loaves for each meal.

Methods for braiding the challah were also tested and they preferred the trompe l’oeil method (which I’d discovered on my own but has abandoned) of topping a large three-braid loaf with a smaller three-braid one.

Reviewed by Hannah, who usually makes a pareve, vegan, German-style challah for Shabbat.

Iron Chef America Featuring the White House Garden

So, did you all watch Iron Chef last night?  It was touted as a historical battle of super chefs, including Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Emeril Lagasse with White House Chef Cristeta Comerford.  Their asssignment:  to use anything from the White House Garden (and Beehives) to create dishes– locally sourced, organic, sustainable– that would wow America.  I reveled in the shots of the lush White House Garden, filmed last October during the full harvest bloom.  I marveled at the panoply of professional equipment (and sous-chefs) at the Stadium Kitchen where they held the competition. I learned some marvelous techniques, including blanching and pan-frying icicle radishes to complement scallops (which I don’t eat or serve in my kosher home) and also that professionally trained chefs also have trouble with short pastry. The finished four dishes per team were beautiful to behold.

No spoiler here: you could find out about the winning team elsewhere, such as the informative Obama Foodarama website.