Pura Vida

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Typical Costa Rican breakfast for a typical great day.

A month ago, sitting alone in front of a breakfast plate of rice and beans and a couple of fried eggs, staring out on to a mostly deserted Costa Rican beach, I thought of Kanye.

“Yea, sometimes I romance the thought of leaving it all behind…” he says on the song Gone from the genius Late Registration. (I don’t care what you say, that album is everything.)

:: Sigh :: Me too, ‘Ye. Me freakin’ too.

I have so little to complain about: a healthy body that puts up with the masochism of marathon training, a cute apartment in a neighborhood I love, the best roommate I could ever ask for, a handsome beau who — gasp! Wait for it — actually seems to like me, a job that affords me trips to sit on deserted beaches and contemplate Kanye lyrics. I have it pretty good, I know.

But yet sometimes, maybe because the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket these days, I really do romance the thought of leaving it all behind.

You know? Forget the midtown office job, the astronomical rent, the moronic subway riders, the bitching, worrying, complaining, hustling, stressing. To hell with all of it.

Just give me a quiet beach tucked away from the world and a desayuno typico, cause at the end of the day your girl’s still Costa Rican and can always go for a plate of gallo pinto (rice and beans mixed together). Well and maybe some company, too, so  people stop asking me why I’m alone and wondering what’s wrong with me.

Maybe chalk it up to me being a Libra — if you believe in that sort of thing — but I always crave balance. I want the madness of New York city but then also the peace and stillness of a place like Costa Rica. I want the whole entire world’s cuisines available for my breakfast options but sometimes I also just want gallo pinto, a fried egg and some tangy Salsa Lizano.

In Costa Rica, there’s a Hakuna Matata-like catch-all phrase people use for greetings, toasts, and thanks among other things: Pura vida. Translated literally it means pure life, but more than that it means enjoying the simple things, being stress free and happy, and appreciating what you have.

I gotta tell you, pura vida sounds as delicious as that beach side breakfast.

Bone marrow freaking bread pudding!

Listen, before you recoil in disgust, ask me how I do it, or give me so much as a hint of shade over my eating habits (which I’ll remind you are only partially documented on this blog), let me say this: I began my Saturday in Charleston with an 8-mile run all up, down and around the peninsula.

Eight miles is not nothing. It’s a pretty exhausting bit of exercise actually. Let me tell you, you work up a good amount of sweat. So much so, that when other runners were wearing fleece headbands, windbreakers and gloves, I had peeled off my long sleeve shirt (mid-run, like the graceful swan that I am) and was running in a tank top, so sweat-drenched I looked like I’d crawled out of the river.

Why did I do it? Well, part of it’s that I’m training for a half marathon next month, but the real answer, the more pressing answer is bone marrow bread pudding.

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You just can’t capture this level of deliciousness in a photo

The MacIntosh had been recommended by a good friend and when I looked up the menu and saw those four magic words— words I’d never seen all together—I knew there was no getting out of that long run.

Now, I ate a lot of great food in Charleston, pretty much only great food, but hands down, the best thing I ate was the Mac Attack, a  hunk of bone marrow bread pudding topped with pork belly, a poached egg, and hollandaise sauce. Basically their version of eggs benedict, the Mac Attack was unbelievably good, all gooey and rich and packed with flavor. The bread pudding was almost custard-like, just fatty enough to remind you where you were but not so fatty that it felt gross.

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When bone marrow pudding is an option, you should always go with it.

I thought it was so exceptionally delicious that after, when the waitress came around to ask about dessert, I easily let her sell me on the Mac Attack’s sweet cousin, a take of sorts on french toast, this time featuring the same custardy bone barrow bread pudding smeared thick with apple butter now and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I’m a fan of mixing sweet and savory so this spoke right to the fat kid heart of me.

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You know what goes well with bone marrow bread pudding? Bacon.

My sister’s entree, a fancy variation of biscuits and gravy, was also delicious, the giant biscuit with butter and jam we split as an appetizer was scrumptious, and my bacon bloody Mary with its candied bacon salt rim was one of the best bloodies I’ve ever enjoyed, but that bone marrow bread pudding… ooooh, I’d run a full ass marathon just for a piece of that at the end.

Southern snacking

Some people can eat their breakfast, lunch and dinner per 24-hour cycle and call it a day, not a single snack in between and it’s all good.

I, sweet reader who probably already guessed this, am not one of those people. (Also, for the record, I’m not one of those people who ever just forgets to eat. It doesn’t matter how busy I am, I always remember to eat. Who are you, people who forget?)

Happy hour's the best hour. Ask this Moscow mule.

Happy hour’s the best hour. Ask this Moscow mule.

My sister and I were already one full meal and several snacks into our first day in Charleston when I realized that this girl right here, needed a snack. And a drink. (Friday afternoon and out of town? Bartender!)

On a trusted friend and local’s recommendation, we popped into The Rarebit, a cute bar with an even cuter draw: $5 Happy hour Moscow mules.

FIVE dollars? Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit! (I love that saying and I don’t ever get to use it, and here I am writing about southern food so I’m rolling with it. Follow me.) It wasn’t some rinky dink mule either. This was a crisp, deliciously cold, wonderfully refreshing Moscow mule made with Smirnoff vodka, Sweatman’s ginger beer, and zesty limeade, served in a traditional, gorgeous copper mug.

No bad time for grits.

No bad time for grits.

And because the point of our afternoon stop was to appease our peckishness, we got a couple things to eat. A sidenote here: I love breakfast. I love it in the morning, I love it in the afternoon, I love it at night. There’s no designated time for it in my book, because any time’s a good time for breakfast, especially if and when it involves one of my favorites: grits.

Fried okra, cause this is the south, dammit.

Fried okra, cause this is the south, dammit.

In addition to being a cute bar with friendly service, flattering lighting, and those beautiful Moscow mules, The Rarebit also serves all day breakfast, which because hello the south, includes grits. Sigh. Be still my heart.

We ordered a side of them (you know, just a casual snack) and they were surprisingly some of the best grits I’ve ever had. Just plain ol’ grits, no cheese or bacon or shrimp or any of those things that make a good thing great, served with no frills packs of butter, and yet…delicious. Not too runny, just perfectly creamy and thick, warm and comforting.

A side of grits would barely be enough for one De Angelis, much less two, so to go with it and to keep with our theme of when-in-Rome-eat-as-the-Romans, we also got fried okra. One of the most traditional southern veggies, these particular green pods were crusted in a crispy, crunchy coating and served with a tangy, creamy sauce.

How, knowing that this kind of deliciousness is out there waiting to be had, could someone not want to partake between meals, or worse, just forget about it all together? I tell ya, sometimes I just don’t know about people.

Binging in the Lowcountry

Hot damn you guys, I just went on a serious biscuit bender. Almost three days spent in the lovely and oh-so-charming city of Charleston, South Carolina, and let me tell you: biscuits biscuits BIIIISCUITS.

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A biscuit fiend

There is many a mile to be spent on the treadmill in atonement in the weeks to come . Yes, weeks. That’s how much biscuit binging went down this weekend. I let southern comfort food snuggle me in its warm, loving bosom and it was nice. Real nice.

My sister and I hadn’t walked more than a few blocks down King Street, one of downtown Charleston’s main thoroughfares, when I stopped dead in my tracks. I didn’t even read the whole sign on the door but I saw “biscuits” and that’s all I needed to know before I looked at my sister and said, “Let’s go in.”

Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits was just a small counter to order from and a narrow bar up against the biscuit themed mural painted wall, with people pressed in tight to get their hands on some homemade biscuits. There were small, slider-sized biscuits,  larger fist-sized biscuits, sweet ones and savory ones, filled and sandwiched. Biscuit heaven in all its southern glory, if you ask me.

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Southern Lovin’ at its finest

We got the gloriously messy Southern Lovin’ sandwich, made with a big ol’ buttery biscuit, a juicy, hunk of fried chicken, a perfectly runny fried egg, and a small sea of warm made-fresh-right-there, sausage gravy. With sticky fingers, crumbs everywhere and a losing fight with a plastic fork, we agreed this was not date food. But dates be damned, this was a sisters trip and that biscuit was phenomenal.

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Biscuits for breakfast, biscuits for dessert

As a slightly sweeter finish to the first of our biscuit feasts, we went with an order of two small buttermilk biscuits, stuffed full and oozing with dark, delicious blackberry jam. Obviously neater and less challenging to eat, these might’ve fooled someone into thinking we were just two nice girls taking a morning biscuit break.

Bless their hearts, they had no idea we were just getting started on a carb-fueled bender.

 

Mojo between sisters

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You really do.

No one eats with more reckless abandon while on vacation than I do. Add my constant treat-yourself mentality and you’re looking at a lot of calories consumed on any given out of town trip. Case in point: my recent jaunt to South Florida.

When my sister announced we were having donuts for breakfast Sunday morning, I was fully on board and off we went to Mojo Donuts in Pembroke Pines, the otherwise barren desert of strip malls and gated communities.

While I’m a lover of just a plain ol’ French cruller or a classic Boston cream, my sister loves really over-the-top  donuts, filled with jams and custards, crusted with all manner of confections and drizzled with syrups and sticky, sugary things.

Mojo was one hundred percent my sister’s kind of donut shop, but you know what? I thought it was pretty great, too.

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You really do.

For a light breakfast to start off a day that would end up with me in a bikini by the pool, we went with a red velvet, banana cream pie, pistachio mousse chocolate, cannoli, guava and cheese, and Nutella and bacon assortment of donuts.

Completely over the top? Uhm, yea. Gluttonous as all hell? Duh. Finger lickin’ good and a perflectly acceptable way to bond with your sibling over your shared love of carbs and sugar when you have little else in common? Absolutely.

Dal bhat power 24 hour

My diet during the two weeks I spent volunteering at an orphanage in Pokhara, Nepal can best be summed up by something I saw on a t-shirt at a local souvenir shop: Dal bhat power 24 hour.

Dal bhat, you see, a combination of lentils and veggies (that’s the dal) and steamed rice (the bhat), is pretty much THE staple dish of the nepalese diet. And no kidding, they eat it 24 hours. What’s for breakfast? Dal bhat. How bout lunch? Dal bhat. And dinner? Yup, more dal bhat.

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All day, every day

Sure, there are lots of variations on the traditional dal bhat plate, and in cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara, which have seen a large influx of international travelers over the last few decades, you can certainly find other things to eat, but generally speaking, dal bhat is the national culinary star. At a self sustaining rural orphanage that grows and provides all of its own food this was certainly the case.

I should pause here for a moment to say that in no way am I complaining about my dal bhat heavy diet, nor did I complain at the time when I was eating it twice a day. The women who ran the orphanage and prepared the food were pros and worked magic with herbs and spices. Simple lentils, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes and other things grown right behind the orphanage turned into rich, delicious, saucy, curried meals that left kids and volunteers alike scraping their plates and going back for seconds.

My fondest memories of my time volunteering in Pokhara will always be those when we huddled around picnic tables outside in the January chill with a group of giggling, goofy, squawking kids, pouring rich lentil soup over fluffy white rice, mixing in chunky, comforting curried veggies over it all. Makes me kind of wish I had bought that t-shirt.

 

Where it all comes from

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Delicious, fresh picked carrots

These days, there’s a lot of talk about knowing where your food comes from. It’s why people join CSAs and shop at farmers markets, why some people won’t eat meat unless they know the animal was treated well and had a good life.

I’ll be honest and admit I’ve never been super concerned. I kind of just trust that my food’s not coming from a terrible place, that my fish weren’t caught from a river next to a nuclear waste plant or that my veggies didn’t get their water from the likes of Flint, Michigan.

But during the two weeks I spent volunteering at an orphanage in rural Pokhara, Nepal, I not only saw where every veggie and grain of rice I consumed came from and petted the cows that provided our milk, but I met the people who planted, cared for, picked, cleaned and prepared everything I ate. And I have to say, it was nice.

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Learning what’s what from the kids

I have a hard time keeping houseplants alive (RIP orchid I got for Christmas and small cactus in my kitchen) so to see a group of about 30 kids, ages ranging from two to 17, and a handful of women, run a self sustaining orphanage that feeds everyone several times a day, and feeds them well, was impressive and humbling. (And made me feel slightly incompetent for my own black thumb.)

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Learning to milk a cow… and failing

The orphanage had cows and goats (for milk only) and a small plot of land where they grew seasonal vegetables— broccoli and cauliflower while I was there— and then a separate, larger farm space  further into the country where they had rice, more vegetables, herbs and more cows and chickens (for eggs, not meat.)

The kids, from the little ones to the older teens, were involved in every part of keeping things going: watering plants, milking cows (which they taught me to do one day… and I was horrible at it), rinsing vegetables, cutting, cooking, cleaning, serving, all of it.

It all helped me appreciate the actual food in a way that I hadn’t really thought of before, to feel gratitude for actually having it and being able to eat it, for knowing that it wasn’t grown in a lab kitchen or sprayed with toxic chemicals. And any time I can further appreciate food, well that’s a great thing.