One Mexican chef we met who’d lived in Costa Rica for a long time said we’d love everything about Costa Rica. “What about the food,” I asked. “Oh, the food,” she grimaced. “It’s, umm, basic.”
“It’s bland!” others cried in horror. “And there are fried plantains with everything!”
That’s mostly true. The food is relatively simple compared to the complex cuisines of, say, Thailand and Mexico, countries which can get hot and humid, just like Costa Rica. Fried plantains are served with everything it seems. But the food is not all bland.
Frankly, I was unsure whether to do anything on food at all in Costa Rica. Surely we could write enough about monkeys, birds, surfing, and swinging from tree-to-tree like Tarzan, and just ‘forget’ about writing about a cuisine that is somewhat unexceptional compared to what we’ve experienced on the trip so far.
That was my idea until I serendipitously found some scrumptious local chocolate to experiment with for the Costa Rican edition of The Dish. And the phrase ‘Gallo Pinto’ kept coming up again and again in conversation. Oh, a chicken dish, I thought. I guess that’s ok. But it turned out to be rice and beans. Rice and beans? Yep. The staple of Costa Rican cuisine.
I sampled it a couple of times with eggs for breakfast and brunch. Let’s just say, it’s the kind of dish that you should only eat when you’ve concluded a pre-breakfast activity like surfing for a couple of hours, working a field since dawn, or running a marathon. This stuff is filling. It’s the kind of food that when you’ve finished you feel like you’re going to have what one of our friends in Australia calls “a food baby”.
Getting a recipe for such a simple dish that didn’t overcomplicate matters was as challenging as eating a couple of ramekin-sized portions of the stuff in one session. Everyone had an opinion on the dish and everyone had different ideas about how various stages of the dish should be prepared and exactly what ingredients were acceptable to ensure it was authentic.
Everyone was consistent on two points: you must soak your own beans and you must cook the rice the day before. I can see the logic in both cases.
Firstly, there is something special about soaking your own beans rather than buying them in a tin. Yes, even a humble dish like this brings out the food snob in me! But the main reason is that you control the cooking time of the beans the next day. If they’re too soft (like many canned beans can be) the dish doesn’t work. Plus, and this is a big plus, you want to keep the black water from cooking the beans, as this liquid is a special ingredient in the same way that pasta water is used to finish a pasta dish.
Secondly, cooking the rice the day before helps ensure you get the right texture for the rice as well as the final dish. If your rice is too mushy or moist, the dish doesn’t work.
While gallo pinto is a popular breakfast dish in Costa Rica, served with fried or scrambled eggs, it’s also a great side dish for a main course – typically pork or chicken in the part of Costa Rica we were in. I prefer it with fried eggs that still have a soft yolk so that you can mix the yolk with the gallo pinto.
A final note. The dish can be bland, mainly due to under-seasoning of the beans and the final mix. If you’re using chicken stock instead of water (using water makes this a great vegetarian dish!) this won’t be as much of an issue, just check the seasoning before serving. In Costa Rica they sometimes use a local salsa called Salsa Lizano, either during the cooking process or placed on the table during the meal so you can season the dish yourself. Some say that you can substitute HP Sauce or Worcestershire sauce, but both are a poor substitute.
- 500 grams dried black beans
- 1 medium white or brown onion finely chopped
- 1 small red capsicum finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic crushed
- 2 cups white rice
- 3 cups chicken stock or water for vegetarian version
- 1 bunch cilantro coriander, leaves picked, stems cleaned, and chopped finely
- Salt to taste
- Vegetable oil
- Place beans in a huge pot, cover generously with water, and soak overnight
- Cook the rice using the absorption method (Google is your friend!), however, use chicken stock for a richer flavour and water if you’re vegetarian. Stop the cooking process while the rice still has ‘bite’. Drain the rice. After cooling, place it in an airtight container in the fridge.
- The next morning, drain the beans and add fresh water to the pot. Add a generous sprinkle of salt, add the beans, and simmer for a couple of hours. The beans, when ready, should be soft, but still have a little bite like perfect risotto rice.
- In the meantime, in a large pan (you’ll be finishing the dish in this, so make sure it’s big enough!), add some vegetable oil and bring up to medium heat. Add the onions, capsicum and coriander stems, and stir until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic, and when fragrant, add the rice. Stir to combine.
- When the beans are ready, drain the beans but reserve the ‘black water’.
- Add the beans to the rice. Stir gently but thoroughly. Add some ‘black water’ to keep the dish from sticking.
- The most attractive way to serve this dish is placing a good chunk of it in a small bowl and upturning it onto a plate. As much as that reminds me of horrid French brasserie fare, it is the best way to serve it so it doesn’t look like prison food. Sprinkle the rice with some cilantro (coriander) or sliced spring onions.
- You know you’re not going to finish a batch in one sitting, but the good news is that it tastes better the second time round. Make sure you’ve kept that ‘black water’ to reheat the mix!