A few years ago, while living in Costa Rica, I made a list of all the foods I could not buy there. It was frustrating because I was still learning (and of course still am, to some extent) the ins and outs of the kitchen. Perhaps I had no idea that you could substitute plain yogurt for sour cream (I don't care for sour cream, and Costa Rican natilla really isn't sour cream at all, I don't think), or that you could make your own buttermilk substitute. The list embraced everything from unbleached flour to almond paste, greek yogurt and vegetable stock to sherry vinegar. Once in a large supermarket, after asking an employee where I could find the CousCous, he laughed and repeated "CousCous," shaking his head as if it were funny.
I went on hunts for tahini, common spices, shallots, ricotta cheese, and phyllo dough. Most of the hunts came to no avail; however, when I did end up finding the precious loot, I was generally exuberant for at least a week. But after some time passed, I learned how to make my own ricotta and vegetable stock, to give up hope on not ever eating vanilla yogurt again, and resigned myself to the fact that imported Chilean blueberries that tasted like cardboard cost eight dollars for a dinky box. My adventures were endless, but I learned how to make useful substitutions in the kitchen.
I also learned how to not waste food: once, my ex-boyfriend's mom took a tupperware with some leftover shrimp from 8 or 10 days before out of the fridge and asked me to sniff it to see if it was still OK. It didn't smell too yummy, so I told her it would be best to throw it away. She felt very bad about wasting it- and I could only wish that Americans would have the same attitude towards wasting.
Along the way, I learned how to make my own fresh juices using the ripe produce available. If you ever go, you will be served fresh cas, blackberry, passionfruit, and other juices at almost every meal- they are wonderful! Although I admit I never got into the bi-daily habit of eating rice and beans, I learned simple techniques and shortcuts in the kitchen. I learned to cook more instinctively and make do with what I had on hand, although I did not realize this until I came back to the States.
If you had known me before I lived on my own in Costa Rica, you would have thought correctly that I didn't care for cooking. You would have thought that I had a not-so-secret despise for leftovers, and had irregular eating habits (that hasn't changed completely). But living on my own, I had to either learn to cook, or enjoy mac n' cheese from a box five nights a week. And when I ventured out and started cooking and baking, I realized I was good at it. And that it was much, much better than any of my other common prepared options. Sure, it took me two years to find tofu, it wasn't until the very end that I found shallots, and goat cheese was hard and expensive, but Costa Rica taught me something very important: to be grateful.
Now that I'm back in the land where you can purchase just about any food item, I still find myself improvising and substituting. I still feel elated when I spot a goodie I could not have found before, and my sense of adventure has risen because there is so much available. The kitchen is a very symbolic place, where warm energy and love wafts through the air. Where you learn to cook is very special, and the memories in the kitchen determine much of how you view food. I'm happy to have had to learn to cook simply, improvise, and use what I had on hand. Where did you learn to cook?
Tea-infused Asian pear tarte tatin
1 sheet puff pastry from 17.3 oz box, or homemade
3 medium-large or 4 smaller Asian pears, peeled, cored, and quartered (lengthwise)
Juice of ½ a lemon
1 ¼ cup sugar, divided
1 tsp your favorite loose tea (I used one from Tealuxe (Boston) called Unity Blend)
6 TBSP unsalted butter
Thaw puff pastry on counter without unfolding for about 20 minutes. Unfold and place on parchment-lined baking sheet; stick in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the recipe.
Preheat the oven to 425F with rack in the center. Gently toss the peeled, cored, and quartered pears in a medium bowl with the lemon juice and ¼ cup of sugar. Let sit 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the caramel by melting the butter over medium heat in a 9 or 10-inch ovenproof skillet (preferably cast iron). In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1 cup of sugar with the loose tea until well mixed together. When butter is melted, add the sugar to the pan. Stir almost constantly until the sugar melts and the mixture turns golden brown and caramelized. Remove the skillet from heat and stir to cool slightly (it will keep cooking, we don't want it to darken too much).
Remove the pears from their bowl with a slotted spoon, leaving liquid behind. Place, round side down, into the caramel in a circle shape with stem ends facing the center, filling the pan with just one layer of pears. Remove puff pastry from the refrigerator and place over the skillet, trimming edges as needed. Press down onto the pears and cut four small steam holes near the center. Bake for 25 minutes or until the pastry is golden and puffed.
Have a small bowl nearby and ready. When you take the tatin out of the oven, carefully pour the loose juices into the small bowl. Let the tart sit a minute, then carefully invert the pan onto a serving platter. Return the loose juices to the skillet, if you wish, and reduce them over medium heat before pouring them back on the tatin or reserving them for another use.