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.

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.

Thinking of World Hunger in Our Harvest Season

On Sunday morning, as part of the Tikkun Olam Breakfast at Adath Israel Synagogue, I attended a much-anticipated presentation by the President of American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger.  I knew of Ms. Messinger’s work when she was Manhattan Borough President (1990-1998) and when she lost the mayoral race to the incumbent candidate Rudy Giuliani in 1997.  The next year, she shifted professional gears and became the President and CEO of the AJWS and brought it into philantropic maturity and prominence.  Now in its 25th year, AJWS funds local grass-roots development projects around the world.  In 2005, the New York-based Forward named Ms. Messinger to the top of its annual “Forward 50” list of the most influential American Jews (and re-named to the 2009 list– placing four out of the last five years!).

Why is a Jewish organization involved in development work amongst non-Jews?  It provides a visible, positive presence for Jews in areas of the world that are not familiar with Jews (and its difficult relations with its Christian and Muslim brethren).  And, unlike the disaster relief agencies, AJWS stays for the long-haul, soliciting input from the local people on their needs and wishes for a better future.  They work with the local leaders, in particular the women, in choosing which projects to implement.

What is the biggest obstacle to world development?  According to Ms. Messinger, it’s the American government’s policy of shipping surplus food overseas!  This “free food” is often siphoned off and sold below market prices, undercutting the local farmers who know which crops grow well in their terrain and which foods are tolerated by their people.   Knowing of Ms. Messinger’s liberal political views, I sought a response from my Republican, evangelical Christian brother who commented thus:  “The Acton Institute, a conservative think tank, also does much work in developing countries and is particularly concerned about free market solutions to problems.  Interestingly, they have come to the same conclusion about American policy.  Regarding a particular African country, their research came back that African producers said repeatedly that they’d wish Americans would stop sending them our old clothes.  With such a supply keeping prices artificially low, indigenous African producers and businessmen never get the chance to create enterprises and get their country self-sufficient.  The work at the Acton Institute is intended to help these businesses get off the ground and our own country’s “charity” is keeping them from getting them there.”

The morning session also included presentations by Pesach Stadlin, a local boy who’s now a staffer with AJWS, and Monica Oguttu who spoke about the series of development projects she’d initiated in rural Kenya.  Pesach cited statistics that 1 out of 6 people in this world go to bed hungry.  Instead of the term “developing world” or “the Third World” (passé by now), he prefers the term “two-thirds of the world” because it gives a better scope of the hunger problem.

Ms. Oguttu spoke about the PHD of the developing world: poverty, hunger, and disease.  She was a midwife in the capital city of Nairobi when she became aware of the shortages of health care available to the rural women and she formed what became a network of 350 health professionals.  Once she was apprised of the shortages of hospital beds–  total strangers had to share a bed– she developed home-based care kits and bicycles.  Then, she was alerted to the problem of starving patients trying to tolerate strong medicines on an empty stomach, so she identified local cereals—soya, millet, amaranth– that could be milled into a nutritious flour mixture.  Most recently, she tacked the problem of adolescent girls who stayed out of school during their menstrual periods due to the lack of feminine sanitary supplies.  Her female brainstorming team came up with a local product—reusable sanitary towels—that they’re now marketing for profit.

Another important word about disaster relief: they do not need our surplus food, old shoes or clothes!   The essential need is for money that could be used to purchase local products, which usually are available.  Quoting then U.S. Secretary of State General Colin Powell who was in Sri Lanka in January of 2005: the highest point in that country was a mountain of donated blankets—for a  country that does not experience cold weather at all!

A final quote from the “best advocate for change in Africa,” Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2: “Where you live in the world should not determine whether you live in the world.”