Musings about Food & the Politics of Food.

TartQueen's Kitchen

Makdous لمكدوس‎‎ا – Stuffed & Preserved Eggplant 1

Posted on September 15, 2017 by Sahar

As I have stated before in this blog, I’m not a fan of eggplant.  I don’t care for the taste, texture, and several bad experiences as a child have all left me wary of this particular nightshade.  However, over the years I have come to appreciate eggplant in two – YES! – two dishes; Baba Ghannouj and Makdous.

Makdous is ubiquitous all over the Middle East. It can be eaten for breakfast (the most common way) or as a mezze.

I’ve been searching for an actual origin story for this dish, but haven’t been able to find one.  No doubt it came, like most preserved foods, out of sheer necessity to get people through until the next harvest.

There is an odd alchemy that happens with Makdous during the preservation process. While it is generally known that you don’t store raw garlic in olive oil, especially at room temperature, it seems to work just fine in this recipe.  It could be the mixture of the nuts, salt, and pepper along with the alkaline nature of the eggplant.  You can store Makdous in the refrigerator or at room temperature in the pantry (as I’ve always seen my dad do).

There are several ways Makdous can be prepared.  One constant is the eggplant should be blanched and drained before stuffing. Some drain the eggplant by stuffing it first, placing it in the jar, then turning the jar over to let the liquid drain out; others will cut a slit in the eggplant, lay it slit side down, then let it drain overnight.  I use the latter method. (There is only one time I’ve seen a recipe that simply salted the eggplant and let it drain without cooking.)  Always use small or baby eggplant.  The baby eggplant will be more tender, sweeter, and less apt to be bitter.  You’ll be able to find baby eggplant in abundance in any grocery that caters to the Middle Eastern community or, if you’re lucky, at the local farmers market or farm stand during the growing season. (In central Texas, we have eggplant from roughly June through the first frost in late October/early November.)  There are also, of course, ingredient variations.  Some will use pepper paste (like harissa), a combination of sweet & hot peppers, cayenne, parsley, lemon, chili powder, Feta cheese (although they don’t last as long), cilantro (coriander), pecans, and pomegranate seeds.  The constants are always eggplant, walnuts, and salt.

This recipe was written in consultation with and advice from my dad.  He is a Makdous connoisseur and, along with my mom, has made Makdous in the past. I just hope he likes this batch once I get a jar to him.


The ingredients.

Japanese Eggplant.

“Dancer” eggplant. This is what I used in the recipe. I got the smallest ones I could find.

2 lbs. baby eggplant or small Japanese eggplant

3 1/2 c. walnuts, chopped

15 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste

1 tsp. Kosher or sea salt, or to taste

Olive Oil as needed

2 – 3 ea. quart-sized Mason ® jars with lids & rims, cleaned


Trim the tops of the eggplant, leaving the caps on.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add the eggplants to the boiling water, turn off the heat, and let the eggplant sit in the water for 10 minutes. (I like to put a small plate on top of the eggplant to keep it submerged.)

Weighing down the eggplant.

After 10 minutes, drain the eggplant.  Once it is cool enough to handle, cut a slit in one side (not all the way through and try to leave about 1″ at each end uncut).  Lay the eggplant on a rack, cut side down, and let drain overnight.

The cut eggplant. Sadly, no. It doesn’t keep its color.

Draining the eggplant. Some people will weigh the eggplant down at this point to drain out as much liquid as possible. I generally don’t; it’s up to you.

The next day, mix together the walnuts, garlic, pepper flakes, and salt.  Taste for seasoning and adjust as you like.

The stuffing. It’s almost like a nut pesto.

Fill each eggplant with some of the stuffing.  You want to get as much as you can in the eggplant without splitting them.  (You may have some stuffing left over; that’s OK.  It actually goes great on pasta or spread on a good crusty piece of bread.)

The (over) stuffed eggplant.

Place as many of the stuffed eggplant as you can in a Mason Jar with minimal crushing.  Slowly add the olive oil to cover the eggplant.  Set the jars on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a thick layer of paper towels or a dish towel you don’t really care about.  Place the lid (only!) on the top of the jar.  Place the baking sheet with the jars in a cool, dark place and let sit for 1 week.

The Makdous ready for preserving. Note how it’s just the lid on the jar, not the rim. You want to allow the moisture to escape.

There will be some overflow from the jars.  This is due to the moisture (mainly water) escaping and overflowing the jar.  Simply check to be sure the oil is covering everything in the jar.

After 3 days. Notice how yellow the towels are. That’s the excess moisture and some olive oil escaping the jar. You may also see some bubbles. This is from the water and air escaping and it’s normal.

After 1 week, carefully clean off the rim of the jar, tighten the lid with the rim, and wash off any oil residue off the jar.

I believe this is after 10 days. (We went on vacation.) I cleaned off the rim of the jar, put on the lid rims, then washed the residue off the jars.

The Makdous is now ready to eat.  You can store it in the refrigerator (just let it come to room temperature before eating) or in a cool, dark pantry for up to one year as long as the contents are always covered in olive oil and the lid & rim are sealed tightly.

I personally like Makdous on a good cracker.


Sahtein! صحتين!


La Pura Vida in Costa Rica 0

Posted on August 04, 2015 by Sahar



Just like Jamaica last year, Steve & I this year traveled to a place we never thought we’d go: Costa Rica. We honestly never had a desire to visit Central America;  it simply had no appeal for either of us. However, when Dad proposed this trip as a way for the whole family (Mom, Dad, three daughters, three sons-in-law, two grandsons) together to go someplace new and celebrate Older Nephew‘s graduation, what were we to say?

Sure, Dad. We’re in.

So, tickets were bought last September, a house was rented for a week, and activities studied and contemplated by one and all. And, since Dad and my younger sister, Danyah (mother of the nephews/grandsons) had already visited Costa Rica, the rest of us relied on them for advice and travel tips. They also unsuccessfully tried convince everyone to go zip lining.


For those of you who don’t know too much about Costa Rica, I’m going to attempt to give you a quick primer:  Costa Rica is in the southern part of Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. Because it’s less than 700 miles due north from the Equator, the climate is tropical year-round (basically, it has two seasons – wet and dry). It’s  sandwiched between the Caribbean on the eastern shore, the Pacific on the western shore, and a whole lot of tropical rain and humid forests with a few arid areas in between. The daylight and nighttime hours are split almost evenly (the sun would rise at about 6am and set about 5:30-6pm).  More than one-third of the country has been placed under some sort of environmental protection, making it one of the most bio-diverse nations on Earth. In fact, in 2012, it had the highest environmental ranking of all the Americas.

The economy of Costa Rica has hit a rough patch over the last 3 – 4 years, but it is still one of the strongest in the Central American region. Its main economic sources are tourism (especially eco-tourism), electronics (mostly cash registers and calculators), and agriculture (bananas, coffee, sugar, rice, ornamental plants, potatoes, etc.).

Costa Rica was believed to be first inhabited about 10,000 years BCE by peoples from the Mesoamerican and Andean regions, and was still sparsely populated by its indigenous people (namely the Bribri and Maleku) before coming under Spanish rule in the 1560’s. It remained an outer colony of the Spanish Empire until independence as part of the First Mexican Empire (1821-23), followed by membership in the United Provinces of Central America (1823-1840; several more attempts were made to continue the union until 1885), from which it formally declared sovereignty in 1847. Following a brief but bloody civil war in 1948, it permanently abolished its army in 1949, becoming one of the few world nations with no standing army.

Even after Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain and declared full sovereignty in 1847, years of invasion, American colonialism – both political and economic, yellow fever, dictatorship, and civil wars, it finally becomes a democratic nation in 1949 when then-president Josè Figueres Ferrer (father of Costa Rica’s “unarmed” democracy) declared a new constitution that granted full citizenship and voting rights to women and minorities.  He also created the foundation for the country’s modern welfare state. Indigenous peoples were finally granted rights of ownership in 1977, and the right to vote in 1994. However, the indigenous populations, like many in all of the Americas, still have their issues with the federal government taking over historically treatied lands and ignoring articles of protection.

In 1986, president Óscar Arias Sánchez, fully asserted Costa Rican independence by forcing out the Nicaraguan Contras the United States basically foisted upon his predecessor, Luís Alberto Monge, by again raising the banner of sovereignty and neutrality, and essentially drove them out of Costa Rica. Sánchez won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for uniting Central America and helping end the Nicaraguan War.

As it stands now, Costa Rica (literal translation: “Rich Coast”) is a green peaceful paradise with amazing wildlife, delicious food, wonderful people, and, as the Ticos like to say, “la pura vida”.


Day 1 – Monday, July 6

Travel Day.

Steve & I drove to my parents on Sunday to be in full readiness for our 6am Monday flight. We had to leave the house by 4am so we could be at DFW Airport and at check-in by 4:30. As part of my over-anxiousness with anything having to do with air travel, I went ahead and checked Steve & I in online the day before. Dad parked in remote parking and so we hiked to the shuttle station for a ride to the terminal. We met up there with Sister Danyah’s crew. I couldn’t even see the airport from the parking lot. That’s when I decided I really do prefer smaller airports. That’s when I also realized I’d overpacked. Again.

After Steve & I checked our bags – and paying the additional $25 per – we headed to security leaving Mom & Dad with Danyah’s (Husband Heath, Older Son/Grandson/Nephew, and Younger Son/Grandson/Nephew) family to do their check-in. (Sister Haneen and Husband Mark were flying from Newark to meet up with us in Miami.)

We all kind of gathered again near the gate and then spread out to forage for caffeine and a breakfast-type snack. One of the few caffeine sellers open was Starbucks (ugh), so Steve got us each a beverage. Coffee for him, hot chocolate for me.

Finally, we all boarded. I distinctly felt like I was being herded onto a cattle truck. Only with a little extra leg room that I paid for and a cubby for my camera equipment. Not long after we had settled in, I heard from Danyah a couple of rows up that Haneen & Mark were delayed out of Newark at least 2 hours due to mechanical issues with their plane. Dad tried to contact them, but, no answer. Family theories started to make their way around. Dad basically said there was nothing anyone could do about it and he’d try to get in touch with them when we arrived in Miami.

After getting a lecture from the flight attendant about sitting in the exit row (Yes. I can open the exit door. Trust me, I’ll be the first one out.), I, for grins, took a look at the in-flight menu.

Really, American? After all the other upcharges?

Really, American? After all the other upcharges?


Ditto. Ugh.


After this, the Dramamine took over and I essentially fell asleep until we landed in Miami.

Mom & Dad rushed off the plane to try to contact Haneen & Mark to check on their progress. The rest of us finally made our way off and headed to the next terminal and gate. (I have to say, Miami Airport is one of the most disorganized and confusing I’ve ever been through, and I’ve been through a lot of airports.)

When Mom & Dad finally caught up with us, they said they hadn’t been able to reach Haneen & Mark. Dad theorized that they likely caught a flight from Newark to Charlotte and then were going to meet us in San José.  We all went with that; it sounded plausible.

After everyone had boarded, it was plain to see that it wasn’t a full flight. Once we were at cruising altitude, I moved over across to the aisle seat so I would feel like I had some breathing and spreading room (I was assigned the middle seat both flights). Bliss. Between dozing, reading, and talking to my sister, the flight was tolerable.

Finally, we landed in San José. Because our flight was early, we had to wait on the tarmac for 20 minutes before the plane was assigned a gate; I always figured this was planned somewhat in advance.

While we were waiting, the family grapevine passed the message that Haneen & Mark were only about 30 minutes behind us. They’d managed to re-book and be on their way sooner than we thought. Whew.

Then, there was passport control.

My first glimpse of Costa Rica.

My first glimpse of Costa Rica.

Passport Control. Always fun.

Passport Control. Always fun.

After queueing for 30 minutes, we discover that the flight attendant had given us the wrong forms to fill out. Or, rather, she had switched them – the family form and the immigration form. Hooray.

After the re-filling of the forms in the correct way and number and getting the passports stamped, we all met up at baggage claim where the bags were all neatly arranged and waiting for us. But, before we could leave the baggage area, one more security check. Just our luck, we were stuck behind a family who didn’t seem to know what they were doing; it was like they couldn’t figure out how to put their bags on the conveyor belt. Even Dad, the family model of patience, was about to lose it. Then, the other line cleared out and we took our opportunity. The entire Arafat clan got through while the other family was still plodding along.

Mom volunteered to wait in the security area for Haneen & Mark, but we persuaded her to go out with us; there was only one way out, so we decided they would figure out where to go.

Dad found our driver, Estilio, and enlisted him and everyone except he & Mom to take the luggage to the van that was going to take us on the 3-hour drive to Quepos.


My second glimpse of Costa Rica from the top of the parking garage.


Our transportation for the day. The best part – it was air conditioned.

My first impression of Costa Rica was green. So very green. The humidity hit me next. Then, the rain (we were there during the rainy season). However, despite being at the airport, the air still felt fresh and clean. Perhaps that was simply my brain fooling itself after being in airports and planes for the past 12 hours.

While we waited for the other two (Dad received continual updates on their progress), Danyah & I wandered a little.


Pay phones!


There were warnings everywhere to only use the red airport cabs. I guess there’ve been issues.


Our first food in Costa Rica. These were damn good. Danyah bought another bag.


Waiting. The photo is dark, but that’s from (2nd from l-r): Steve, Heath, Dad, Danyah


Juan Santamaría International Airport, San José, Costa Rica

Finally, after more than an hour of waiting, Haneen & Mark walk through the doors. And the rejoicing begins. However, Mark’s luggage had gone missing and he arrived with only his guitar in hand. The airline assured them that his bags would be delivered via courier the next day at the house in Quepos.

Ah… The joys of travel.

Mom & Dad finally rounded up the crew and we headed up to the van and Estilio. Dad asked him to stop somewhere for all of us to get something to eat since none of us had really eaten anything substantial since… a while ago.  When Estilio asked him what we’d like, Dad said Costa Rican. Hell, we may as well plunge in.

Estilio took us to a restaurant in San José that was probably the best meal we had the entire trip – La Casona del Maíz (The House of Corn).

Our first real food in Costa Rica. Estilio chose well.

Our first real food in Costa Rica. Estilio chose well.

Our view from the table.

Our view from the table.


Another view from our table.

La Casona was a large, open-air restaurant with plenty of room to spread out. It seemed like it was built to blend into the landscape it adjoined. The rain had cooled the air, and while it was humid, the cooler temperature made it tolerable. The air circulation was certainly welcome.

I noticed this beaur=tifully painted oxcart and thought it was unique to the restaurant. Turns out, painted oxcarts (carretas) are a traditional art form in Costa Rica with each region having its own design.

I noticed this beautifully painted oxcart and thought it was unique to the restaurant. Turns out, painted oxcarts (carretas) are a traditional art form in Costa Rica with each region having its own design.

Not long after we sat down, our server took our drink order (her in broken English, most of us in broken Spanish) and then she brought a couple of jars of some of the best pickled vegetables I’ve ever eaten. I ate a lot of the cauliflower out of the jar at my end of the table. It was just the right balance of tart and spicy. I’d like to think that they make these in-house.




Birra Imperial. The National Beer of Costa Rica. Not a bad lager.

Not long after we ordered our food, it started coming to the table.

Wow. Was it good. Better than good – amazing.


Guacamole with in-house made tostadas. Simple and delicious.


Fried plantains with Montenegro Cheese. The sauce was a kind of mayonnaise. Honestly, I could’ve eaten a plate of these for dinner and been happy.


My meal: Tablita de Chicharron. Essentially translates to Small Board of Pork. It was honestly some of the best pork I’ve ever had – seasoned well and fried with a great balance of chewy and tender. I only wish there were more tortillas. The salsa was fresh and the black beans had a wonderful sweet-smoky flavor. Bonus: more plantains.


Steve’s meal: I thought I wrote it down, but, I didn’t. If I remember correctly, he had something similar to mine except his was chicken (pollo) instead of pork and it included a cheese quesadilla.


Danyah’s meal: Arroz con Pollo. A dish you will find everywhere in Latin America from Mexico down to the tip of Chile.


Haneen’s meal: Essentially the vegetarian plate. Her plate included fried egg, a soup of yucca & corn, avocado, cheese, plantains, salsa, black beans, rice, and tortillas. It’s a beautiful plate.


The family enjoying our first Costa Rican meal. Clockwise: my plate, Younger Nephew, Dad, Mark, Haneen, Danyah, Mom, Older Nephew, Steve, Heath


Complimentary rice pudding. Oh. My. God. Wow.

We came to the collective decision that if all the food in Costa Rica was as good as this, we were in for a great time.

While everyone was taking turns using the restroom, the rest of us stretched and wandered around the restaurant and simply took in the scenery.


A coconut palm.

Soon, we were all back in the van to Quepos.  It’s only about 60km (about 38 miles) from San José if you go as the crow flies; but, because the only straight road is the Pan-American Highway, it’s really about 160km (about 100 miles) and takes about 2 – 3 hours to drive to Quepos. Most of the roads in Costa Rica, despite its excellent infrastructure, are small, winding, 2-lane affairs where you’re at the mercy of whatever is in the road and whomever is in front of you. I do have to give credit to the scooter and motorcycle drivers – they were a daring bunch of souls.

As everyone was conversing, dozing, or looking out the windows, we all began to notice that it was already getting dark, despite the fact it was only about 5pm. Certainly not something any of us expected. I can only speak for myself, but I suddenly felt very tired.

A view from the van.

A view from the van.

As we passed over a bridge, we noticed a large number of people looking over into the water.  Estilio pulled over and told us that it was the Río Tarcoles and there were about 30 American Crocodiles living under the bridge. Who were we to say no to this.

After carefully walking either on the edge of the road or on the bridge walkway, there they were. In all their glory. And, because the weather was beginning to cool a little and it was getting dark, they were becoming more active.

We all noticed this big guy.  At first, we thought he had his mouth open. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he lost the top part of his snout either in a fight or, probably more likely, a hunter. He seems to have done well despite the injury. It looked old and well healed up.

We all noticed this big guy. At first, we thought he had his mouth open. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he lost the top part of his snout either in a fight or, probably more likely, a hunter. He seems to have done well despite the injury. It looked old and well healed.


Río Tarcoles


Some of these are tree branches, other, crocodiles. You decide which is which.


Mom, Haneen, and I crossed the road and noticed this one. It wasn’t moving at all. We just assumed it was dead. Then, it moved. I think it found some prey. Not sure if it caught anything or not.


Río Tarcoles. I tried to catch a picture of some Scarlet Macaws flying overhead. I, sadly, wasn’t successful.


Misty Mountain Hop


Brahmas seem to the be the cattle of choice in Costa Rica. I admired the rancher who set up shop next to a river full of crocodiles.

After this little stop, we climbed back into the van and finished our journey to Quepos. It was fairly uneventful but it felt very long. I think everyone wanted just to get to the house.  However, before we made it to the house, we had one more stop to make. We were meeting our property manager and local contact, Ana.  Dad paid her for the week of our stay, got some paperwork, and we asked her a few basic questions about what we were to expect.

There was a full stocked kitchen equipment-wise, but we had to buy food. There was a laundry room and we could use their detergent. The maids come every day. There was air conditioning in the bedrooms. She and Estilio suggested that we go to the supermercado Maxi Palí to stock up on what we needed.

A very nice produce stand

A very nice produce stand


Fruit, Vegetables, Monkeys

We didn’t see Ana again after that stop, but we talked to her quite frequently on the phone for the rest of the trip.

When we finally made it into Quepos, it was completely dark and only about 6:30. It felt so much later. Estilio pulled into the Maxi Palí parking lot and we all piled out. I have to say, trying to keep up with 10 people in a grocery store is like herding cats.


We were frequent customers of various Maxi Palís and the regular Palís during our visit.


Sugary drinks seem to be popular. Thanks, America.


Mark is in there somewhere looking for some sweet duds to wear until his luggage arrives.

We stocked up on vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread, peanut butter, Nutella, Fresca, water, coffee, tea, sugar, lentils, eggs, tortillas, butter, juice, milk, the Costa Rican equivalent of Cheetos Puffs, a couple of shirts for Mark, and various OTC drugs.  The guys also grabbed what they thought was a pound of bacon. (When I went to cook it a few days later, I noticed it was a kilo [2.2 lbs.].)

Finally, we made it to the house. Estilio had a little trouble finding it in the dark. The place we stayed was a gated community with no outside lighting. So, if one was unfamiliar with the roads, it was easy to get lost. Plus, to compound things, the hills felt like they were at a 45-degree angle. After a couple of aborted attempts, Estilio finally found the house – Happy Jacana.

I can’t remember who got the door unlocked, but I know I was one of the first in and managed to find the light switch in the pitch dark. Upon first glance, the house looked lovely, if a little stuffy, climate-wise. But, whatever; we just wanted to get the van unloaded, stake out our rooms, get the groceries put away, and go to bed.

There were two bedrooms in the main house while the rest of them were either separate or on a different level.  Mom & Dad and Steve & I took the bedrooms in the main house; because, you know, we could. So, while Steve took our bags upstairs, Mom tasked me with putting away the groceries. Then, she took her & Dad’s bags up to their room while Dad helped everyone else find their rooms. It wasn’t easy in an unfamiliar house in the dark. I think it took close to an hour for everyone to find and pick their rooms and get settled in.

As for putting away the groceries, I put everything I could in the refrigerator when I noticed the various ant trails in the house.

Well, I figured, we’re in the tropics; not much we can do about the ants. Besides, the house geckos seemed to be enjoying their feast.

I think we were all in bed by 8:30-ish. Collective exhaustion had taken over.

But, just when we thought the fun was over, a transformer blew somewhere nearby and the electricity went out in the neighborhood about 9pm. I could hear Dad stumbling downstairs to call Ana. Whatever she managed to do, it worked. The electricity was back on by 11pm. Thank goodness. I was about to give up and go sleep by the pool. To hell with the bugs and whatever animals might wander by.


(A couple of notes here: a) We decided early on in the planning of this trip that everyone would do their own thing; we couldn’t and/or wouldn’t all be joined at the collective hip. I’m basically writing about what I, and those who were with me for various excursions, did during the trip; b) Also, because I can’t possibly write about what everyone ate every time we were together, I’m writing about my meals and, again, those who were with me or sitting near me in the restaurants or at the house.)


Day 2 – Tuesday, July 7

A little about Quepos: It is basically considered the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park (7km – about 4-1/2 mi.) and is known for the abundance of sport fishing in the area.  The town itself has a population of less than 30,000.  The town is in the Central Pacific Region on the Pacific Coast and is the administrative center of the Puntarenas Province.

Quepos is a fairly small town that has managed, for the most part, to keep a decent balance between the needs of the local citizens and tourists.  The town is laid out, grid-like, and, while there are no street signs, is still easy to get around if you simply pay attention to the landmarks.  It’s not the most picturesque place, but, the locals are friendly, the food and nightlife are great, and it was within walking distance from our house.



There was one main road that ran in front of the gates of our enclave – go right, Quepos; left, the road to Manuel Antonio. Most of the higher-priced restaurants, hotels, and general tourist stuff was on this road. For the most part, we opted to stay and do business in Quepos.


I was fully awake by 5:30am. I went downstairs figuring that I might be the first one or just my mom. Nope. Mom, Danyah, and Haneen were all downstairs already. I think we all silently decided to enjoy quiet conversation for as long as we could because, when the menfolk decided to stir, quiet would be over for the day.

After my breakfast of green tea and peanut butter on toast, I went back upstairs to grab my camera and get my first real photos of the landscape around our rented house.


First photo from the balcony. The tree in the foreground with the red flowers is called the African Tulip Tree.


I don’t know what the names of these trees and bushes are, but later in the day, the monkeys sure had fun in them.




Looking through the canopy at Quepos.

At this point, it was about 7:30 – 8am and just about everyone else was up and moving. Breakfast was (as it was most days) a fend-for-yourself affair. I was pretty obsessive about making sure the kitchen stayed as clean as possible because of the ants. Once everyone started throwing out their trash, the ants tended to congregate around the trash can. I was content to let them have at it if it kept them out of the rest of the kitchen.

After breakfast, Younger Nephew and I decided to have a look around in front.


The front of the house we rented – Happy Jacana. Jacanas are water birds that has a widespread population throughout Costa Rica’s wet regions.


Around the side of the house at street level. That’s Quepos through the trees.

I’m no botanist, but I know what I like, plant-wise. And just like in Jamaica, I remembered my love and enjoyment of tropical plants in Costa Rica.


A type of Croton. It is a bushy shrub that can grow up to 3 meters (about 9 ft.) tall.


Ixora. We saw these in Jamaica as well. They grow throughout tropical regions.


Another type of Croton. This one is a narrow-leafed variety.


This is the “fruit” from the Monkey Comb tree.

After I took the picture of the Monkey Comb fruit, I saw my first Iguana in the wild. I was so excited, I wanted to get my wide angle lens. I wasn’t paying attention and walked right on into the wrong house. Luckily, they were nice about it after I apologized profusely. I told them there was an Iguana on their roof and I was just going to grab a piece of camera equipment so I could get a better shot. They came out with one of their children and had a look. It was then that I took my opportunity to get the shot and sneak off.

Younger Nephew was just standing there. Smiling. Punk.


Said Iguana that caused me to walk into the wrong house. It looks like the Spiny-Tailed variety.

When I went back to the correct house, I went to the back balcony again and chatted some more with Mom and whoever else was out there. Then, Mom saw it. A huge Iguana in the trees perfectly in our line of sight. She went to get her binoculars so we could all get a better look.

It was a large male Green Iguana out for a little morning sun and to, I presume, survey his kingdom.


There he is in a Yellow Elder tree.


The orange coloring on his face and body indicated that he was a breeding male.


He was fascinating to watch. I’m not sure how long he was in the tree, but it was easily hours. Older Green Iguanas tend to be arboreal; the younger are terrestrial.


It was time to get ready. Danyah, Dad, Heath, Older Nephew, Younger Nephew, and I were all heading to the beach at Manuel Antonio. Our original plan was to go to the beach in the park; however, when we arrived, the line for tickets was crazy long. Plus, we had no idea that we would have to pay $15 a head to get in just to go the beach. So, we asked our driver to turn around and take us back the public beach next door. It was lovely and free.

So, with a promise to pick us up at 11:30, the driver dropped us off.

Playa Espadilla (also known as Manuel Antonio Beach #2) is a large beach with a mix of dark gray and yellow sand. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike. There were vendors walking around hocking everything from pottery to coconut water still in the nut. The beach wasn’t too crowded and the rain held off, so it made for a pleasant morning.


First real glimpse of the Pacific.


The other side of the rocks is the beach in Manuel Antonio park.


When we arrived, the tide was going out. The beach seemed to get wider as the morning drew on.


You could rent a couple of chairs and an umbrella for $10 for as long as you needed them. We did just that. Everyone, except the boys, took turns watching our stuff.

Swimming in the ocean isn’t something I do often. I had to remember to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t swallow a bunch of salt water every time a wave hit.

Also, my attempts at body surfing were unsuccessful.

The boys

The menfolk in the Pacific: Younger Nephew, Heath, Older Nephew, Dad

Danyah getting ready for her open water swim. The orange thing is her inflatable buoy so people could see her.

Danyah getting ready for her open water swim. The orange thing is her inflatable buoy so people could see her.

Dad taking over watch duties for me after his swim. He looks like a contented man.

Dad taking over watch duties for me after his swim. He looks like a contented man.

As always, I wandered a bit. I was done swimming for the time being. Plus, I was starting to feel a little sick from the sea water I swallowed.

Beach rocks. With a few shells and coral thrown in for good measure.

Beach rocks. With a few shells and coral thrown in for good measure.

The barrier between the Playa Espadilla and Manuel Antonio

The barrier between the Playa Espadilla and Manuel Antonio and part of the humid forest that makes up this region of the country.


I believe most of the rocks and rock formations around the beaches are volcanic.

Not long after this, Heath came out of the water to rest – the boys refused to came out of the water until we basically forced them to right before the taxi arrived. Dad, Danyah, and I took a walk around the beach.

So there was this happy warning.

So there was this happy warning. Basically, it said that area was a crocodile habitat and the water had fecal contamination. FYI – this was at the back edge of Manuel Antonio Park and across an inlet.


Some of the large volcanic rock formations on the beach.


The inlet stream flowing into the ocean.


Looking out onto the Pacific


Looking towards Playa Espadilla


One of the inlet streams coming out of the park. I had no idea whether or not I was standing in contaminated water. Nothing happened, so I guess not.


Dad and Danyah


Teeny tiny Hermit Crabs were everywhere.


Looking down the beach towards the park


Another little Hermit Crab. It’s in the center of the photo.


Dad said this was a Sea Urchin. I wasn’t so sure. As a precaution, I didn’t pick it up.


One final beach photo at the rocks.

While the others were packing up our belongings, I ventured back into the ocean to get the Nephews. They weren’t too thrilled about having to actually get back on dry land. We probably could’ve left them there and it would’ve taken them hours to notice.

So, back to the house to clean the beach sand off of weird places on one’s body and rinse out the swimsuits.

For our first full day in Costa Rica, it was decided that we’d go into Quepos for lunch. I don’t think we really had a plan; just find a place that looked good. We came upon a restaurant called Restaurante el Jardin del Mar (essentially “Restaurant Garden of the Sea). The food there was good and there was a lot of it. The restaurant wasn’t large, but it was open-air, and great for people-watching.


Day 2 restaurant of choice. Like a lot of restaurants in Quepos (and, I suspect, in most cities), it was open for breakfast (desayunos), lunch (almuerzo), and dinner (cena)


I hadn’t had one of these in years.


Jugo de mango. Mango juice. More of a smoothie, really. It was really good.


My lunch. Mariscada de la Casa. Basically, “Seafood Plate of the House”. It was huge. Steve ordered the same thing. We easily could’ve split one plate. There was snapper, squid, crab, shrimp, mussels, and one other fish I couldn’t identify. Other than the squid being a little overcooked, it was really delicious. The nephews had to help me finish it, though.


Danyah’s lunch: Pescado en Salsa Limón (Fish with Lemon Sauce). By the way, French Fries are very popular.


Younger Nephew’s lunch: Seafood Paella. I tried some of the rice; it was really  good.


The family: clockwise from my plate: Steve’s hand, Younger Nephew, Heath, Mark, Haneen, Dad, Mom (hidden), Older Nephew, Danyah

After lunch, there was the usual debate when you’re with a large group as to what everyone was going to do next. While this was happening, Steve and Haneen went onto a nearby book and record store. About 10 minutes later, they came back and told Mom and I about a tour at a spice plantation on Wednesday. I must have given Steve a look of pure joy, because he said “I can tell by the look on your face, you’re in”. Haneen went back to the store and booked Mom, Dad, Steve, herself, and me on the tour.




Quepos. Not the most picturesque or touristy town, but it’s what we wanted.


Fruit on display in a carneceria.

After this, I, Mom, Heath, and I can’t remember who else, decided to take the taxi back to the house while everyone else stayed in town for a little longer.

Later in the afternoon, this happened. A small show was put on for us by the local family of Red Back Squirrel Monkeys. We were told that there was a good chance we would see some monkeys during our stay. The best thing to do was just watch them and stay out of their way. Don’t engage or feed them. They bite.


It’s not the best photo, but here’s one on the roof.


In the palm leaves.


Mom & baby hanging out.


The monkeys scattered after this bird started flying overhead. So, my best guess is it was a Double-toothed Kite because they tend to stalk monkey groups.

I didn’t do much the rest of the day. I swam a little in the pool, read, rested, and was generally quiet. Dinner was a fend-for-yourself event. In fact, I’m not even sure I ate dinner.


Day 3 – Wednesday, 7/8

Mom, Dad, Haneen, Steve, and I were outside waiting before 9am for the bus to take us to our tour to Villa Vanilla. And, we waited. at about 9:15-ish, Haneen went back inside to call the tour operator to see what was up. Turned out there was a small strike among taxi drivers that day because the government reneged on a promised salary hike. But, once our bus picked up some of the other tour attendees and made it through the traffic, they’d be by to pick us up.

Well, fine.

So, in the meantime, we entertained ourselves.

A spiny-tailed iguana that happened to be passing by.

A spiny-tailed iguana that happened to be passing by.

A Flycatcher. We watched it in action.

A Flycatcher. We watched it in action.

Bird of Paradise

Parrot’s Flower

There were quite a few iguanas coming out to sun themselves. The workmen nearby didn't phase them at all.

There were quite a few iguanas coming out to sun themselves. The workmen nearby didn’t phase them at all.

Amarillo Peanut. I didn't pull it up, but there was very likely a legume in the ground. The plant has become more popular as a ground cover because of the flowers.

Amarillo Peanut. It’s become popular as a ground cover because of the flowers and the way the plant spreads.

Lobster Claw

Lobster Claw


I came across these, but I couldn’t find the name of the flower. They are lovely, though.

The parents. Aren't they cute?

The parents. Aren’t they cute?

Finally, the bus arrived and we were on our way. There were about a dozen more people joining us on the tour.

The trip to Villa Vanilla took about 45 minutes.  It’s only about 16km/10 miles way from Quepos, but once you’re outside of the main town and on the way to Naranjito, the roads become a little less vehicle-friendly.

My first glimpse of Vailla Vanilla. It was humid. Damn humid.

My first glimpse of Villa Vanilla. It was humid. Damn humid.

We arrived at the plantation and were greeted by our guide for the day, Giselle. She was wonderful. The first thing she did was take us to a small building on the property to show us how the process the cinnamon, vanilla beans, and, unexpectedly, cocoa beans and turmeric.

The cinnamon trees they grow are ones that produce Ceylon cinnamon (the kind we know more here in the US is Cassia). Ceylon cinnamon is finer in texture and sweeter than cassia cinnamon. (Giselle kept calling it “true cinnamon”.) Both are from the second layer of tree bark, but the cassia is much more dense and hard. (Here in the US, you can find Ceylon cinnamon at Mexican/Latin markets. It’s labeled “canela”.)

Cinnamon trees grow in the tropics and it takes 8 years before a tree is ready to be harvested. The outer bark is scraped off and the inner (second) layer of bark (the cinnamon) is then carefully shaved off, dried, and stored.  The remaining wood is used for firewood and/or made into charcoal that they use at the plantation.


The gentleman (I forgot to write down his name) scraping off the outer bark of the tree. The branches underneath are white as he scrapes off the bark. However, they quickly oxidize to the gold color you see. The outer bark is composted.


Our wonderful guide, Giselle. Her son, Roy, joined us later as we began trekking the plantation.


Shaving off the second layer of bark – the cinnamon.


The box of shaved cinnamon just before it’s spread out for drying.


Mom with her piece of cinnamon. Everyone got a small piece  to eat. It was amazing to try cinnamon fresh off the tree.


The wood ready for the fire. Everything on the farm is re-used or recycled in some manner.

After the cinnamon lecture was over, Giselle opened up the ovens for us so we could see what they were currently drying: cinnamon, cayenne peppers, and turmeric.


The drying ovens.




Cayenne peppers.


The back tray is cinnamon.

The next thing she talked about was cacao. They don’t grow enough on the farm for it to be commercially viable for them except as ground cocoa. Which is too bad, because we each got a small sample of how good their chocolate can be.


Some candies made in-house. The ingredients were cocoa, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. The texture was slightly grainy but that didn’t take away from the flavor. It’s really too bad they don’t grow enough to sell these commercially.


Giselle showing us what the raw beans look like. We had a chance to try raw beans later in the tour.


The dried beans. When they are crushed, they become nibs.


The old way of crushing cocoa beans.


Dried beans on display.


These beans were in the middle of the 2-week drying cycle.

After the cocoa, Giselle started talking to us about vanilla beans. We quickly learned why they are so expensive.

The vanilla vine takes 2 years to become mature enough to grow the flowers needed for pollination. Because the flowers are only open for a few hours (3-4) one time, hand-pollinating is necessary to make sure that there will be a crop. This is done by running a small, thin stick through the pollen and then fertilizing another flower. Once the fruit begins to grow, it takes 6 months for it to come to full maturity.  The immature pods are dark green; the pods are picked when there is dark yellow coloration at the tip of the pod and it begins to split slightly. At this point, the harvest is continual to be sure that the pods are picked before they over-ripen.

Once the pods are picked, the drying process takes 2 months and then the pods are aged for 1 year before they are packaged and sold.

Giselle said that the pods will last for 60 (yes – 6.0.) years if they are kept in a sealed glass jar in a dark, cook place.

One of the ladies grading and sorting the vanilla beans.

One of the ladies grading and sorting the vanilla beans.

Piles of vanilla beans. It smelled so good in that room.

Piles of vanilla beans. It smelled so good in that room.

When we were done with the ripe beans, Giselle, now joined by her son, Roy, began the tour of the grounds.

Another variety of Croton

Another variety of Croton


A little diety surrounded by flora.


More flora: red ginger, croton, palm, ficus

Giselle showed us a cocao tree growing in the front of the property. She explained that the pods aren’t ripe until they have turned yellow.

A very tiny cocao pod.

A very tiny cocao pod.


Some of the larger pods. These were still months away from being ripe enough to harvest.




Looking through the canopy

Thsi may be Quetzalcoatl for all I know.

This may be Quetzalcoatl for all I know.

We began our journey through the rest of the plantation. It was dense with vegetation and wildlife. And, it was absolutely fascinating and beautiful.

Butterfly's Nest

Butterfly Weed



A type of Heliconia

A type of Heliconia

Giselle stopped at the composting shed to show us what they use around the plantation. It is the usual mix of dead vegetation, some shredded wood, and sheep manure.

Giselle in the composting shed

Giselle in the composting shed

A wider view of the plantation by the shed. Those are cinnamon trees, allspice (pimento) trees, and vanilla vines.

A wider view of the plantation by the shed. Those are cinnamon trees, allspice (pimento) trees, and vanilla vines with a few palm trees in for good measure.


Torch Ginger


Rattle Ginger. Roy told us that the hummingbirds like it because of the water that gathers in the folds. He also told us that in India the water is harvested to make perfume. We used it to wash our hands and faces. The water smelled great.


Red Dracaena


Vanilla vines with the immature pods.


More vanilla pods.

I did wonder what an immature one would be like. The thought did briefly cross my mind to pick and pocket one. Then, I thought the better of it.

Fairy Queen

Fairy Queen


Red Dracaena, Palms, Croton


Rattle Ginger

A turmeric root Haneen came across.

A turmeric root Haneen came across.

It was at this point that I realized I had stopped listening to Giselle and became absorbed in taking photos. I honestly felt a little guilty.

But, Roy was there to help.  Plus, I think he had a little crush on my sister.


Roy with a ripe cocoa pod. He was very sweet.


Coconut palm



Here was a surprise. Allspice (Pimento) trees. Allspice is grown all over the Caribbean. We didn’t see any berries on the trees, but Giselle pulled a couple of leaves off the tree. They smelled like allspice, too. I certainly wasn’t expecting that.


Allspice (Pimento) tree.


The leaf that smells like the spice.

Next, we stopped by a pepper vine. I always thought peppercorns grew on bushes. She pulled off a bunch so each person could try a peppercorn.

I find them to be far more spicy fresh than they are dried. I couldn’t finish mine.

Peppercorns are green when they are harvested. After harvesting, the peppercorns are boiled briefly to clean them. The heat ruptures the outer membrane and this causes the peppercorns to turn black as they dry.  White pepper comes from the outer husk being rubbed off.  Green peppercorns retain their color with the addition of sulphur dioxide during the drying process. Green peppercorns can also be pickled. Pink peppercorns are actually members of the cashew family and generally aren’t considered to be real peppercorns. (Black pepper is part of the Piperaceae family.)


Peppercorns on the vine.


Giselle holding the bunch she sacrificed for our amusement.

The inside of the peppercorn. As much as I enjoy spicy, I honestly couldn't finish it.

The inside of the peppercorn. As much as I enjoy spicy, I honestly couldn’t finish it.

Dancing Lady orchid

Dancing Lady orchid

Starfruit in the tree. Giselle said when they're orange, they're fully ripe. The only ones I've ever seen are green.

Starfruit in the tree. Giselle said when they’re orange, they’re fully ripe. The only ones I’ve ever seen are green.

More croton.

More croton.

Looking through the canopy. The rain held off.

Looking through the canopy. The rain held off.


Vanilla pods.

At the end of the tour, we were directed to a roofed, open-air seating area for a tasting. I don’t know if any of us knew about it so it was a wonderful surprise. All of the food either came from the farm or the nearby village.


The fully ripe starfruit. I’ve never seen it this color in Texas. When I’ve seen it in the stores, it’s always been green or green/yellow.


The ripe starfruit isn’t overly sweet. It still has a slight tartness to it and a juiciness that makes it really refreshing.


Our view.


More. It was certainly relaxing. I almost didn’t want to leave.


Haneen, Dad, Mom

Next up came the biggest surprise of the tasting. Cinnamon Tea.

It was literally the cinnamon from the plantation steeped in water for 12 hours. We all thought it had sugar in it. Nope. No sugar. Giselle insisted that the type of cinnamon used makes all the difference.


Cinnamon Tea


Steve enjoying his tea.


Taking it all in.

I will say right here that I am highly allergic to cinnamon. However, I really had to try this. While I didn’t have the reaction I was expecting, I did feel a little like I was on an alcohol buzz. It was a strange feeling.

Next up, Giselle broke open a ripe cacao pod for everyone to try. it’s really hard to believe that these raw white beans would’ve eventually became really good chocolate.


The pod. The look of it was a little startling.


To me, the white part of the bean tasted like a cross between mango and passionfruit. It had the texture of a mango, too. I could’ve honestly eaten a whole pod on my own.


The bean after I ate off the white part.


Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be purple inside. It tasted like a raw bean. Which, I guess it was.

Next on the menu was a wonderful vanilla bean ice cream with a spicy chocolate cookie. Again, most, if not all, the ingredients were from the plantation.



Then, there was vanilla bean cheesecake with a bit of unsweetened chocolate sauce on top. It was a lighter texture than I’m accustomed to; in other words, it wasn’t New York cheesecake.

More yum.

More yum.

Giselle finished off the tasting with some unsweetened hot chocolate (we had our choice between regular and spicy cocoa [they put a bit of cayenne pepper in their spicy mix]) and a cocoa nib cookie. I think the cookie was everyone’s favorite.

Giselle making the hot chocolate.

Giselle making the hot chocolate. She made it with the cocoa and water – much like the ancient way of making hot chocolate like the Aztecs and Olmecs.

Hot chocolate. Once we all had a sip, Roy came around and added a couple of drops of vanilla extract to everyone's cups. It made a huge difference in the taste; more than one would realize.

Hot chocolate. Once we all had a sip, Roy came around and added a couple of drops of vanilla extract to everyone’s cups. It made a huge difference in the taste; more than one would realize.


Quite possibly one of the best cookies I’ve ever eaten. The cocoa nibs had a wonderful understated flavor and the cookie wasn’t overly sweet.

Once the tasting was over, we all went (of course) to the gift shop where almost everyone stocked up on spices. I bought cinnamon sticks, cocoa, turmeric, cocoa nibs, cayenne peppers, and vanilla beans. I’m mot sure what Haneen or Mom bought, but I know Mom outbought me.

Unfortunately, Villa Vanilla doesn’t have mail order. They only sell from the plantation or in a few towns nearby. They also supply some of the local restaurants.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it would be feasible for them to set up at the farmers market in Quepos. Or, if they even want to.

Henry. The Owner. A bunch of us watched him remove a snake from the eaves of his house. I had a short chat with him; nice man.

Henry. The Owner. A bunch of us watched him remove a snake from the eaves of his house. I had a short chat with him; nice man.

On the drive back, Mom & I decided that this was the best part of the trip. No matter what else we did, nothing would top this.

We were the first to be dropped off when the bus arrived back in Quepos. It was still fairly early in the day, so Haneen decided to do a little cooking so everyone could have some lunch. She made some egg salad, tuna salad with apples (I was surprised at ow good it was), and my favorite, a tabouli variation, but with lentils instead of cracked wheat. There really wasn’t anything left after all 10 of us landed on the food.

I come from a family of good eaters.

Haneen's creation: Lentil Tabouli

Haneen’s creation: Lentil Tabouli

The running joke all week was how many bags of cheesy poofs we went through during the week. My count was 6.

After lunch, I cleaned up and rested for a while. That’s really all I had the energy to do in the middle of the day when the humidity was over 90%.

Older Nephew in the pool. He was in there for about 5 hours straight.

Older Nephew in the pool. He was in there for about 5 hours straight.


The other Costa Rican beer. Not bad.

Later in the afternoon, I walked into town with Dad and Danyah. She needed to get some aloe for the boys’ sunburns and we needed more groceries (we were out of cheesy poofs).


Dad and Danyah.


The photo doesn’t do justice as to just how steep this hill was.



Whenever we would walk into town, there was this one particular house we would always pass.  We finally nicknamed it The Chicken Lady’s House. She had no less than 20 roosters, chickens, and pullets running around at any one time. She became our landmark going and coming.


At the Chicken Lady’s house.


Try as I might, I couldn’t find the name of this church. It’s just the Catholic Church in Quepos.


A bit of public art.


Another street scene between rain showers.


Local kids playing fútbol on the pitch.


Mmm… I want one.

After a successful shopping trip, we headed back to the house and passed the night uneventfully.


Day 4 – Thursday, 7/9

Another activity day. Some were heading out for zip lining, some ATV-ing, some of us (me, Mom, Steve) were headed to do a walking tour in Manuel Antonio National Park.

A walking tour is generally in my wheelhouse.


The view from my & Steve’s bedroom.

We were picked up by our absolutely fabulous guide, Pablo, and, after picking up a Dutch couple from their hotel, we were on our way to the park.

Manuel Antonio National Park  was founded in 1972 so the region’s biodiversity could be protected from developers who were already decimating the surrounding areas. The local people convinced the central government to set aside and protect the land so it could be protected and so everyone could enjoy its beauty. It’s names after the conquistador who was buried near the park.

It is Costa Rica’s smallest park (1700 acres), but boasts almost 300 species of animals. Because of the size of the park, only 600 visitors during the week and 800 visitors on the weekends are allowed in the park at any one time.  The popularity of the park belies its size; it’s basically the Yellowstone of Costa Rica.

Our first stop was at a tree near the park’s entrance. Pablo (who’s been doing tours of the park for 20 years) immediately spotted a frog in the tree. It took a while for the rest of us to see it.

The Gladiator Tree Frog. He was happy in the shade and anjoying the water splashing on him.

The Gladiator Tree Frog. He was happy in the shade and enjoying the water splashing on him.

After this first stop, we made it into the park. Almost immediately, Pablo set up his small telescope and pointed another creature out to us.

The Golden Orb Weaver. This is the fame; the males are smaller and duller in color.

The Golden Orb Weaver. This is the female; the males are smaller and duller in color.

In Latin, this is called a Heliconia Imbricata. Pablo called it a Rattlesnake Plant.

In Latin, this is called a Heliconia Imbricata. Pablo called it a Rattlesnake Plant. He said the hummingbirds loved it because it holds water in its folds; the snakes love it because of the hummingbirds. Plus, it looks like a rattlesnake’s rattle.

The park was crowded with both tourists and locals either on tours, walking on their own, or just heading to the beach. All the guides pointed out sights to each other (they’re a fairly close group) so no one – guides or visitors – would miss anything.

(Some of the photos I took were through the viewfinder of Pablo’s telescope; hence, the odd framing. They still look cool, though.)

This looks like a Helmeted Iguana

This looks like a Helmeted Iguana

Greater Fishing Bats literally hanging out.

Greater Fishing Bats literally hanging out.


I think this is an immature Giant Grasshopper. The mature ones lose the striations and are green with large red wings.

Peach Palms. The whole tree, including the fruit, has been used and eaten by the ingenous peoples of Costa Rica for centuries.

Peach Palms. The whole tree, including the fruit, has been used and eaten by the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica for centuries.

And then, we saw them… Sloths. Two- and Three-Toes sloths are both common in the park. They are both arboreal, leaf-eaters, and are mainly nocturnal (although they can be active during the day).  However, the Three-Toes Sloth cannot support its own body weight, so it only comes down to the ground once a week to defecate in a small hole it digs with its stubby tail; it is also a good swimmer. The Two-Toed Sloth can support its weight and is known to crawl on the ground.

We were also told by Pablo, they don’t make the best moms. The baby clings to their fur, but, if it falls off, the mother generally isn’t willing to climb down from the safety of the tree to retrieve it.

Our first glimpse of a Three-Toed Sloth doing what they do best - hanging out.

Our first glimpse of a Three-Toed Sloth doing what they do best – hanging out.

We would see more sloths, but first, other flora and fauna.

A female Yellow-Headed Gecko.

A female Yellow-Headed Gecko.

The Great Pablo

The Great Pablo

Peach Palms

Peach Palms




A sleeping Red-Eyed Tree Frog


Halloween Crab. Pablo called them the most important animal in the forest. They basically do all the composting.


Mom spotted this one in the leaves – Helmeted Iguana.


I’ve no idea what this is. It’s very likely a bud. The contrast to the green is striking.

I'm really proud of myself for getting this photo. Long-Billed Hermit Hummingbird

I’m really proud of myself for getting this photo. Long-Billed Hermit Hummingbird


More green.


A closer look at the Peach Palm

As we got closer to the beach, we started to see more Mangrove Trees.

As we got closer to the beach, we started to see more Mangrove Trees.


Vines on the Mangrove


Fruit from the Peach Palm. There are quite a few animals in the forest that eat the fruit.


Just a nice little stream.

I happened to see this off the side of the trail. I don't know what type of fungi this is, but itwas fascinating to look at; I've never seen this type before.

I happened to see this off the side of the trail. I don’t know what type of fungi this is, but it was fascinating to look at; I’ve never seen this type before.


Mangrove trunk


More fungi.

Another Mom discovery - the Owl Butterfly.

Another Mom discovery – the Owl Butterfly.

We finally made it to the beach. After traipsing through the humidity of the forest, the open air was welcome.

We stayed for about 30 minutes and rehydrated, rested, and took a few (more) photos.

The no-so-nocturnal Crab Eating Racoon. They aren't afraid of people.

The no-so-nocturnal Crab Eating Raccoon. They aren’t afraid of people.

We watched the raccoons search around for food in the usual places you would think (i.e. trashcans), but they weren’t shy about digging around in peoples’ belongings. And you thought only monkeys did that.

The world over, racoons enjoy a good barrel of garbage.

The world over, raccoons enjoy a good barrel of garbage.

Then, we looked up; along just about everyone else on the beach.

Mother Three-Toed Sloth with baby

Mother Three-Toed Sloth with baby

She was just hanging out in the tree right above the beach. If she hadn’t’ve started moving, no one would’ve noticed her. As slow as people say sloths are, she moved around quite quickly and deftly. Also, the baby did its job and held on.

Mother & baby on their way.

Mother & baby on their way.



Steve & I walked around a little on the beach. But, it was very high tide at the time we were there, so there wasn’t much beach to walk on if you didn’t want to get wet. Pablo told us that the reason the tide was so high so late in the morning was because they were expecting a tropical storm later in the evening. If it happened, it didn’t make it to Quepos.

The beach at Manuel Antonio. Also known as beach #1

The beach at Manuel Antonio. Also known as beach #1


Tree on the beach.


Coconut and the beach. A natural combination.


More beach. Very high tide.


Looking out into the Pacific.


Walking down to the less crowded end of the beach.

The dreaded Manzanillo Tree.

The dreaded Manzanillo Tree. The fruit is poisonous, the sap causes blisters (you can see the sap – it’s the white stuff on the upper branch), and the smoke from burning the wood causes respiratory problems.


Mom told us when she was growing up in Florida, she remembered people falling asleep under Manzanillo Trees and waking up with blisters from the sap.

After this, we started the walk back to the bus. As fun as the tour was, we were ready to go.


I think this is what is popularly called Lengua de Gallina – Hen’s Tongue. It’s part of the orchid family. This looks like new growth.


I can’t identify what all these plants are. I just know I really liked the way it looked.

More wood fungi.

More wood fungi.


One last look at the beach. Fallen Mangroves and Palm trees.


Last glimpse of the raccoons. Go forth and forage, you crazy kids.


Termite nest. These are everywhere. Kinda creepy looking.

A Stream Anole lizard. Pablo called it a Jesus Lizard. Not sure why.

A Stream Anole Lizard. Pablo called it a Jesus Lizard. Not sure why.

We finally made our way out of the park. I noticed that the main gates were closed and we had to go through a sort of turnstile to the right (think the NYC subway). I figured the quota must’ve been reached and, if they were letting people in, it was on a one-on-one basis.

I decided to grab some coconut water for me, Mom, and Steve. I found a vendor who guaranteed his was cold, so, I bought some. Right in the shell. the price was right, too. 300₡ (Costa Rica Colones – about $.75)

Better than water at helping one’s thirst. Tasted better, too.

The gentleman prepping our coconut water.

The gentleman prepping our coconut water.


Oh. Yeah.

On the drive back to Quepos, we asked Pablo what his favorite place is to eat in town, he suggested a soda (small mom & pop local restaurants) called Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. Mom, Steve, and I were all hungry, and Pablo hadn’t steered us wrong all day, so we took his suggestion.

It was the second best meal we had in Costa Rica.

This place was great. And cheap.

This place was great. And cheap. As locals places usually are.

This was some damn good fried chicken.

This was some damn good fried chicken.

Our proprietor. I think his wife was doing all the cooking.

Our proprietor. He was curmudgeonly in a charming sort of way. I think his wife was doing all the cooking.


My and Mom’s lunch: Arroz con Pollo. Quite possibly the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m not sure if it’s just a Costa Rican thing, but the chicken was shredded and the rice was fried with all the ingredients.


Steve’s lunch: Arroz con Gambas. I had a bite; it was great, too.


Watching the bus trying to turn into traffic. It was a show.

After lunch, we caught a cab back to the house and spent the afternoon talking about each others’ excursions. Finally, I cleaned up, had a nap, and was ready to stay in and just be quiet.

Mark had noticed a restaurant on the road towards Manuel Antonio – Emilio’s Cafe. He said it looked good, they had live music, and wanted to give it a try.

Sure. Why not?

But first, we had to contend with a couple of things.

To begin with, Older Nephew had a rather nasty sunburn that had kept him up the night before and had been made worse during the day. He said he’d worn sunscreen, but didn’t reapply. As Danyah put aloe on his back, it was decided that he was to stay at the house while we went out. He didn’t object.

Second – Some Capuchin Monkeys decided to give us a visit.

Well. Hello.

Well. Hello.


Capuchins live in groups of up to 30. They are omnivorous and have been known to use tools like apes (i.e. chimpanzees) do. They forage in both the trees and on the ground.

This was about the time we decided we'd better go into the house.

This was about the time we decided we’d better go into the house.


They then took over the patio.


Enjoying the pool facilities.

I don’t know how long they stayed.

As we were leaving, Steve told Older Nephew that he expected three of the monkeys trained when he got back: a butler, an accordion player, and a cymbal player. Older Nephew just gave him with a “yeah. right.” look.

When we arrived at Emilio’s, we discovered there was Flamenco that night. Cool.

Emilio's. Very good. But touristy.

Emilio’s. Very good. But touristy.

It’s a nice space overlooking the ocean with a studied rustic charm.

Our view from the restaurant.

Our view from the restaurant.

The menu was billed as “Mediterranean”, but it was most definitely a fusion of Mediterranean and Costa Rican.

I wasn’t really all that hungry, so I opted for basically an appetizer for dinner. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a Passionfruit Mojito, though.

My Passionfruit Mojito. Meh.

My Passionfruit Mojito. Meh.

I was a little disappointed. The only passionfruit I could discern was the seeds. I drank it, though.

We decided to go all out on dinner; appetizers (entradas), salads (ensaladas), main courses (platos fuerte), and desserts (postres).


Felafel salad. Not bad, although the felafel fell apart very easily.

Ceviche. This was excellent and arguably the best part of dinner.

Ceviche. This was excellent and arguably the best part of dinner.


Fried Calamari. Very good; the breading was a little on the heavy side, though.


Dad’s dinner: Fish Fillet with Tahineh Sauce. I had a bite; it was better than I expected. Dad seemed to enjoy it.


My dinner; Broiled Octopus with Boiled Potatoes. This was an appetizer and it filled me up. I thoroughly enjoyed this.  The potatoes had a really good flavor and were cooked just to the right amount of doneness; the same could be said for the Octopus.


Heath’s dinner; Bass with Ginger-Curry Sauce. He seemed to enjoy it.


Steve’s dinner: Tuna Three Ways. I can’t recall the three ways the tuna was done. But, looking at the photo, at least one looks like a glaze of some sort. He said it was really good but there was too much. I’m not even sure he finished.

Younger Nephew, out resident Potato Connoisseur, helped out those who couldn’t finish their potatoes. I think he ordered the same thing I did and it wasn’t quite enough for him; he’s a growing 15-year old after all.

Then, dessert. Apparently, Emilio’s is known for its desserts and is quite proud of that fact. The waiter will take you to the display case where you pick your dessert like you’d pick a lobster in a tank. Then, they bring it to you in a floursh 15 minutes later.

I had Coconut Flan (that I failed to photograph). It was good, but nothing memorable. While the coconut flavor was definitely pronounced, the texture was a bit grainy; like it had been cooked just a little too long.

Key Lime Pie. Not Costa Rican, but the bite I had was really good.

Heath’s dessert: Key Lime Pie. Not Costa Rican, but the bite I tried was really good.


This was Haneen’s dessert: Ginger Cheesecake. I didn’t try any, but she said it was excellent.


Our digestive: a rather marginal Limoncello.


Clockwise from left: Mom, Mark, Heath, me, Dad, Steve, Haneen, Younger Nephew, Danyah


After dessert was finished, the Flamenco started. Now, I love Flamenco guitar and dancing. I find it, well, sensual. This group didn’t disappoint. They were fun to watch, and were all terrific performers. I have no idea whether they were local or a touring group. As far as I know, Flamenco isn’t native to Costa Rica. However, I’m sure with the Spanish colonization, it was introduced to the region at some point.


From l-r: Ximena Araya, José Fernández, Álvaro Madrigal, Allan Naranjo


Yup. Sexy.


She was great. I also liked the fact she was dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Unfortunately, we had asked our cab to pick us up at the restaurant at 7:30. We didn’t know about the Flamenco (it started at 7) and there was no way to contact the driver. So, a few of us decided to go ahead and go back to the house (me included – I was exhausted and starting to not feel well). We had to ask the driver to come pick up the rest of our group at 8:30. He didn’t look at all pleased by this; I think he just wanted to go home.

I asked later if he got a really big tip. Mom assured me he did.

Steve was disappointed that Older Nephew hadn’t used his time wisely and trained a monkey butler.


Day 5 – Friday 7/10

Overall, it was a pretty quiet day for me. I did make breakfast for most of the crew because we still hadn’t touched the bacon. So, I scrambled the rest of the eggs, fried up most of the bacon (there was no way I was going to stand over the stove and cook one kilo of bacon), put out some cheese, made some toast, and heated up some tortillas. Everyone who ate breakfast seemed happy. I finally managed to get a few strips of bacon and a couple of tortillas.

Then, I went all housewife and did my & Steve’s laundry. Ana had managed to get the maids to leave the laundry room key so we could use the facilities. It was like a dungeon down there. And, since my Spanish isn’t great, I had to use process of elimination as to which container held the laundry detergent. I finally got lucky. Then, there were the machines; their settings were in Spanish, too. (Well, of course they would be.) I must’ve done all right because I didn’t ruin any of our clothes.

About mid-morning, I walked down to Quepos with Dad. He wanted to check out the marina take a look around town.


We passed this little guy enjoying the hibiscus flowers.

We decided to walk down to the sea wall and towards the marina. The weekly farmers market takes place on the wall, and I wanted to be sure I knew where it was.


I’m guessing this is some sort of branding. Can’t seem to get away from Texas.



The next few photos are some of the bench art by the wall. I think there were about a dozen in all.

IMG_3924 IMG_3925 IMG_3926 IMG_3927

When we got to the wall, the breeze was a blessing. It was a hot, humid day with almost no breeze in the canopy.

The Sanjuan



Looking towards the Pacific and marina at the sea wall.


The Fisherman


Walking down the sea wall.


I don’t know whether these guys were joy riding or fishermen coming in or going out.


I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to represent – my guess is a vegetable seller – but he just looked so sad with those weepy eyes.


Coconut Palm

We finally made it down to the marina. The marina was opened in 2010 as a way to rebuild the old pier built by the United Fruit Company and as a way to bring in new business and jobs to the town. It has some upper-end restaurants and shopping on the grounds, but the real viewing was all of the fishing boats and yachts the 1% keep at the slips.

I felt like I was spending money just standing there. The marina did look a little incongruous given the surroundings.


The marina.


Some of the larger boats.


A couple of the 1%-er boats.


Morning Glory.



After exploring the marina, Dad and I decided to get some lunch. We went back to Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. I couldn’t resist.

Arroz y Pollo. I probably could've eaten this everyday from this same soda.

Arroz y Pollo. I probably could’ve eaten this everyday from the same soda.

After lunch, I did a little gift/souvenir shopping while Dad talked to the tour operator next door about something. After this, we headed back to the house and settled in for the afternoon.

The afternoon rain on the pool.

The afternoon rain on the pool.

That night, Steve & I decided to have a date night. We simply wanted to have a little time alone. Pablo told us of a place he liked called La Cantina on the Manuel Antonio road. He said they had great barbecue, especially their ribs.

Since it was on the Manuel Antonio road, I was skeptical of how good the food could really be. The restaurants on the road are generally catering to tourists rather than locals and the food can be rather dumbed down.

The first thing I noticed when our taxi dropped us off was the cold case carousel of entrees by the front entrance – for me, never a good sign. The second thing was the very heavy look to the place. As with all of the restaurants we’d been in so far, this one was open-air, but the very heavy wood furniture and fixtures still made the place seem somewhat claustrophobic.

La Cantina.

La Cantina.

To mitigate this feeling, I went all ’70’s and ordered a Piña Colada. I felt it matched the decor.


My Piña Colada. Despite appearances (I had to keep stirring it), it was quite good.


Steve’s drink: Peachy Mango.

After the waiter took our order (we didn’t get any barbecue), we saw Squirrel Monkeys frolicking in the trees. They were a big favorite for all of the tourists in the restaurant. Any locals and the staff were unimpressed. I guess they see this every day.

Out of all the photos I took of the monkeys, this was the only one that came out.

Out of all the photos I took of the monkeys, this was the only one that came out.

After the monkey show, dinner arrived.


My dinner: Cazuela de Mariscos al Curry (Curry Seafood Stew). This was good, but nothing memorable. I seem to recall enjoying the curry sauce with the rice more than the seafood itself.


Steve’s dinner: Pargo Crujiente (Crispy Red Snapper). He really enjoyed his meal. I told him to be sure to get any meat in the head. As you can see, this was a large fish; he managed to finish it.

After dinner, we decided to go downstairs and see some music and get some dessert. The combo was a trio of local guys who sang old standards and Spanish cover versions of American pop songs. They weren’t great, but one had to give them an “E” for effort.

The trio. They really tried.

The trio. They really tried.

The staff seemed to be either overwhelmed or disorganized – it was hard to tell. The restaurant wasn’t that busy since it was still relatively early. Since our cab was picking us up at 8:30, and they seemed to be dragging their feet on getting Steve’s dessert and coffee, I had to do one of the things I know servers hate – ask them to speed it up because we had to leave. (I didn’t say exactly that, but you get my meaning.)

I decided against dessert; Steve had tres Leches Cake and coffee.

I decided against dessert; Steve had Tres Leches Cake and coffee.

Steve finished, we paid, and we went to meet our taxi.

The meat counter.

The meat counter. The cooked meat next to the raw – ugh. I know it goes back on the grill, but, ugh. I’m sure it happens in restaurants more than I know.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

When we got back to the house, everyone else was there having a pizza party. I guess they enjoyed it because there was only one slice of cheese pizza left.

As I was falling asleep, I could hear the Howler Monkeys.


Day 6 – Saturday, 7/11

Honestly, this was the day I’d been looking forward to all week: Farmers Fair (Ferias del Agricultor). The ferias is set up on Friday night and is up and running full blast by Saturday morning. We went early to beat the heat and crowds.

When I mentioned this to Mom before we left on the trip, I asked her if she wanted to go. Her affirmative response was immediate. Steve decided to tag along, too.

It was another humid morning – as one would expect from the tropics – but once we were down at the sea wall, the breezes really helped to mitigate the oppressiveness.

It was a wonderful market. There were vendors who sold shoes and underwear, some who sold souvenirs, but most sold fresh produce.

For the more wide-angle shots, I didn’t really find it necessary to ask the vendors if I could take photos. I’m sure they either didn’t notice or they’re used to it.  However, if I was going to buy from and photograph a stand specifically, I would ask the vendor, “¿Peudo tomar su photo?” – May I take your photo? They were all very nice about it and said “sí”. It’s just a courtesy thing.


Souvenir stand. I should’ve waited to buy the gifts.


Looked like some really cute, if formulaic, stuff.


Tomatoes and potatoes are indigenous to Central America. Carrots come along probably in the 18th or 19th century.


Coconuts and what looked like Mamones Chinos (limes that have a hard shell and soft fruit. They are related to the lychee)


More vendor stands


At all of the stands, the produce was so beautiful.


These look like Fuji Apples, but I can’t be 100% sure.


Pineapples. Of course.




We bought a beautiful piece of tuna and some shrimp.


I was excited to find Otaheiti Apples.


Mandarin Limes.


Another beautiful stand




I think these are the fruit of the Peach Palm. I was also surprised by the number of vendors selling lychees.


Shoes and undies

Steve went looking for breakfast for he & I while Mom & I were shopping. He came across a gentlemen selling tamales. Tamales for breakfast? Yes, please.


There were 2 tamales per package. They were huge. And still very hot from the steamer.


I’d never had tamales like this before. They certainly had the usual masa base, but these also contained rice plus chunks of vegetables and pork. They were also very soft, unlike Mexican-style tamales.

Those tamales were damn delicious. And, I couldn’t finish the second one. I tried to get Mom to try some, but she said she’d already eaten and wasn’t hungry.


Our view while we ate breakfast.

We left shortly after this. It was time to get moving and the tweakers nearby were starting to concern us a little.

Steve decided to stay in town and look around while Mom and I took our purchases back to the house. On the way, I ducked into a carnecería and bought a half kilo of chicharron. They were still warm from the fryer.


The maids pointed out this little guy to us when we got home. I have no idea how he didn’t just slide down off the glass. He was there most of the day just sleeping and sunning.


My bag of goodness.


Now, People, THAT is a chicharron.

I spent most of the afternoon finishing my & Steve’s laundry, reading, packing, and just generally being quiet. I was then distracted by a line of Army Ants moving up one of the walls towards a window carrying a piece of chicharron. I regret now not getting a picture.

Then, Mom called me outside and showed me this.


Toucan Sam

I was lucky I got the photo I did. He flew off almost as soon as I snapped the shutter.

About 4pm, I got started on dinner. We bought potatoes, chayote, tomatoes, avocados, Mandarin limes, pineapple, mangoes, onions, Otaheiti Apples, tuna, and prawns. Along with all of these things, I decided to clean out the fridge as much as possible since we were leaving the next morning and had to either throw away anything left or simply leave it behind.


Scallions, onion, chayote, potatoes


Tomato-Avocado Salad


Some beautiful large prawns.


Mangos & pineapple; otaheiti & green apples; tomato-avocado salad; sliced tomatoes


A lovely loin of tuna. I’m not sure what variety. Most likely, it was yellowfin.


Cooking the potatoes. These took so long to cook, I was despairing about 90 minutes later.


The chayote, on the other hand, cooked up rather quickly and was better than I remembered. Even one of my brothers-in-law, who hates squash, tried it.


Cutting down the loin. The knives I used were pretty dull, so the cuts weren’t as even as I like. I just pan-seared the tuna until it was a medium-well. I figured that was the best way to go since not everyone likes rare or medium-rare tuna.


Mandarin Limes. These are great. They have a slightly sweeter taste than Persian Limes (what we usually see).


Dinner finished – finally. I made a sort-of Buerre Blanc with what was left of the butter, onions, and limes. I also sliced the rest of the cheese and put it out. The boys kept nibbling at everything before I finished cooking.

Everyone seemed to enjoy dinner. I was happy because there were almost no leftovers and I didn’t have to do dishes.

Then, came dessert. Heath had gone to a bakery in Quepos earlier in the day and picked up a lovely chocolate cake (it had the texture of a Tres Leches) for Older Nephew.


Older Nephew with his congratulations cake.

Not long after I, and most everyone else went to bed, I received this photo via text from Steve:



It turned out he and the boys were sitting around talking and Older Nephew noticed this on the couch. Steve tried to dispatch it, but he only succeeded in making it scurry back under the couch. Steve speculated that it had a nest either under or in the cushion; or, since we had the doors and windows open almost all the time, it could’ve crawled in who knows when.

They took all the cushions off the couch (except for the seat) and placed signs in English and Spanish basically saying “Don’t sit here. Scorpion in the cushion.” If that thing was living in the cushions, we were all really lucky it didn’t come out and sting anyone. Scorpion stings aren’t really too harmful to anyone who’s healthy, but they feel like a red-hot needle poking into you.


Day 7 – Sunday, 7/12

Not too much to tell about Sunday. It was travel back home day for us.

I went over to Haneen & Mark’s balcony outside their room and took a few final photos.



Looking into the canopy.


One final photo of a Flycatcher.


Looking into the canopy.


One final photo.

Estilio arrived just before 9 to pick us up to take us to the airport. Our flight was at 2pm, and with the drive and check-in, we needed all the time we could reasonably get.


The American check-in line. Sigh.

Because Mom & Dad have some sort of priority status on American, they were able to check themselves and Danyah’s crew (Dad had booked all their tickets) in the first class ticketing line. The rest of us had to schlub through the economy class line.

Just as we were about to be at the head of the line, however, a customer service rep took us out of the line and checked us in at one of the kiosks. Problem solved.


Paying the exit tax.

That’s all. Just two more flights, complete chaos at immigration in Miami, and a flight delay, we all finally made it back home.


I’ll definitely go back. Costa Rica was so much more fun and beautiful than I imagined. Those coupled with the great food and lovely people, plus hanging with my family for a week, made it a wonderful and memorable trip.












My Arabic Breakfast فطوري العربية 3

Posted on September 30, 2013 by Sahar

One of the great things about having a parent, or parents, who were born and/or grew up in another country is getting to learn and experience mores, manners, customs, and, yes, food that are different than what you might experience daily in the wider world.

My sisters and I grew up with just such a parent.  Our father is Palestinian.  He’s originally from a town called Nablus.  When he was born, it was a part of  western Jordan. Now it is in the Occupied West Bank under the supervision of the Palestinian Authority.  Dad came to the US in 1960 to go to college.  Eventually, he met and married our mom, graduated from college with an engineering degree, co-raised three girls without losing his mind, worked for the same company for 40 years, and happily retired.

Along the way, Dad did impart in us some of his old-world wisdom.  Or, at least tried to.  And while we didn’t always appreciate the lessons he tried to teach – especially Arabic, which I’m still struggling to learn – we always appreciated the food.

And while my sisters and I certainly ate with glee the kibbeh, sayadieh (fish with rice), mjudarah (lentils and rice), mishi waraq (stuffed grape leaves), and knaffeh (sweet  shredded phyllo dough with cheese) our parents made (Mom and Dad each have their specialties), we especially enjoyed breakfast with unrestrained glee.

Breakfast at my aunt's home in Jordan

Breakfast at my aunt’s home in Jordan

Breakfast in the Middle East isn’t necessarily a rushed thing.  Well, it isn’t unless one has to rush off to work or school. Breakfast usually starts about 8 or 9 with a nice long chat over coffee.  Then, the food comes out.  It can be as simple as some jam, bread, and cheese on up to dips, za’atar (spice mix made with thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt), fresh fruit and vegetables, olives, pickles, eggs, and occasionally leftovers from the night before.

Unlike in the West, coffee isn’t drunk at breakfast.  It’s used as an aperitif, digestive, at social gatherings, and with the desserts the Middle East is so famous for.  Juice, water, or hot sweet tea is drunk at breakfast.

Just to make you hungrier, here’s a picture of my family at the restaurant my cousin Salam owns with her husband. Tarweea. It serves breakfast 24 hours a day.  And it’s amazing.

The family at Tarweea. Damn good food. And company.

The family at Tarweea. Damn good food. And company.

So, welcome to my version of Arabic Breakfast.


The recipes I’m showing you are ubiquitous throughout the Middle East.  Like anywhere else, there are regional variations for each dish.  That being said, I’m going to show you the way I grew up eating these dishes and the recipes I learned Palestinian style.

The Ingredients

The Ingredients

I will be making several recipes in this post:  Ful Mudammas (Fava Bean Dip), Baba Ghannouj (Eggplant Dip), Tomatoes and Garlic Poached in Olive Oil (not sure if this is authentic, but my dad makes it on occasion), and Hummous (which I’ve already made for you,

Hummous. Mmm... Click on the above link to get the recipe.

Hummous. Mmm…
Click on the above link to get the recipe.

The additions will be some lovely olives and turnip pickles:

olives, pickles, cucumber

Clockwise from top: Persian cucumbers, turnip pickles (the red color comes from a beet put into the brine), Moroccan Oil Cured Olives, Lebanese Green Olives

Plates of olive oil and za’atar.

Olive Oil and Za'atar

Olive Oil and Za’atar

Bread is dipped in the olive oil and then the za’atar.  It has a wonderful savory-slightly tart flavor.  Some people will also make a paste of the two, spread it on bread and toast the bread until the top is nice and bubbly.  It’s divine.

We also have some lebneh.  It is essentially yogurt cheese.  A lovely, delightfully slightly sour treat. Try it spread on bread with some tomato. Oh. Yeah.

Lebneh in olive oil. This stuff is the bomb.

Lebneh in olive oil. This stuff is the bomb.

Some farmers cheese is always essential on the table.  Jebne Nabulsi (Nablus Cheese) is our cheese of choice.  Farmers cheese is used in both sweet and savory dishes.  For sweet dishes, it’s usually boiled to remove the salt.  The cheese we get in the US is always packed in brine. If you’re able to buy it in Jordan, it’s much fresher. The difference is striking.

My favorite brand of Nabulsi Cheese. it's not too salty and cooks well.

My favorite brand of Nabulsi Cheese. it’s not too salty and cooks well.


The first recipe I’ll show you is for Ful (pronounced “fool”) Mudammas (فول مدمس).  It’s a breakfast dish made with fava beans. It’s a dish that’s been traced back to ancient Egypt and is still a very popular breakfast choice throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Now, I use the canned ones.   However, if you want to use fresh or used soaked dry beans, it’s up to you.

The ingredients for Ful Mudammas.

The ingredients for Ful Mudammas.

1 can fava beans, drained, liquid reserved

1/4 c. onion, finely minced

2 cl. garlic, minced

2 – 4 (depending on size and heat level) tabasco or pepperoncini peppers, minced

1/4 c. parsley, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Lemon to taste

Olive oil

additional minced parsley for garnish, optional


1.  In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, mix together the fava beans, onion, garlic, peppers,  about 2 – 3 tablespoons of the reserved liquid from the beans, and a pinch of salt & pepper.

Beans in the pot.

Beans in the pot.

Beans, onion, garlic, and peppers waiting to make me happy.

Beans, onion, garlic, and peppers ready to make magic.

Heat the mixture slowly, stirring occasionally.  Cook about 20 minutes.  Add more liquid if the beans become too dry.

Cooking the beans and vegetables. Be sure to not let the beans get too dry.

Cooking the beans and vegetables. Be sure to not let the beans get too dry.

2.  Once the mixture is cooked, taste it for seasoning and some lemon to taste.  Remove the saucepan from the heat and mash the beans, leaving some texture.  In other words, don’t make them a smooth mash.

Mashing the beans. Leave some texture. Don't make too smooth a mix.

Mashing the beans. Leave some texture. Don’t make too smooth a mix.

3.  Place the ful on a plate, drizzle over some olive oil and additional parsley.

The finished dish. Enticing, isn't it.

The finished dish. Enticing, isn’t it.



The next dish I’m going to show you is Baba Ghannouj (بابا غنوج.). It’s a smooth dip made with eggplant.  It can be served as a mezze, a salad, or a side dish.  It is sometimes served with sliced or finely diced vegetables on top.  Some will use parsley or mint.  In some parts of the Arab world, particularly Syria, pomegranate seeds or syrup are used as well.

Traditionally, the eggplant is grilled over an open flame until it’s soft and charred.  However, I’ve found the oven is an excellent alternative cooking source.

When buying eggplant, look for ones with a smooth unblemished skin and no soft spots.

The Ingredients

The Ingredients

1 eggplant

3 cl. garlic

1/4 c. tahineh, more if needed

Salt and lemon juice to taste

Olive oil for garnish

Pomegranate seeds or syrup for garnish, optional

Parsley for garnish, optional


1.  Prep the eggplant.  Heat your oven to 400F.  Line a baking sheet with foil and spray with non-stick spray.  Drizzle some olive oil on the bottom and spread to cover.

Take the eggplant, cut off the top, then cut in half lengthwise.

The eggplant. You want the flesh to be white to off white.  And not too seedy.  A lot of seeds can make the eggplant bitter.

The eggplant. You want the flesh to be white to off white. and firm. And not too seedy. A lot of seeds can make the eggplant bitter.

Place the eggplant cut side down on the baking sheet.  Drizzle to top with a little more oil and put in the oven.  Bake the eggplant until it’s soft, about 20 – 25 minutes.

Eggplant ready for the oven.

Eggplant ready for the oven.

2.  Meanwhile, if you are using pomegranate seeds, time to get the seeds out.



When buying a pomegranate, make sure there are no soft pots, the skin is smooth and free of blemishes, and be sure to check for pinholes in the skin.  That’s a sign of infestation or spoilage.  If you open a pomegranate and any of the seeds are brown or dried out, discard them.

Cut around the equator of the pomegranate just until you break through the skin.  Don’t cut all the way through or you’ll lose some seeds.

Pull the halves until they separate.  This takes a little doing, but it will happen.

An excellent pomegranate. The seeds are bright, red, and juicy. The membrane is firm and a nice creamy color.

An excellent pomegranate. The seeds are bright, red, and juicy. The membrane is firm and a nice creamy color.

I suggest wearing gloves for this next part. It is now time to separate the seeds from the membrane.  It’s really not difficult.  Just time consuming.  if you can remove the seeds in clusters, all the better.  The trick is to break as few seeds as possible and not include any of the membrane (edible, but very bitter).

Removing the seeds from the membrane.  Not difficult, but time consuming.

Removing the seeds from the membrane. Not difficult, but time consuming.

The remains.

The remains.

You will be rewarded for your hard work.

Your reward. They look like jewels.

Your reward. They look like jewels.

3.  Check the eggplant.  Give it a quick poke with your finger or a fork.  If it feels soft, it’s ready to come out of the oven.  Take the eggplant halves off the baking sheet and set aside until cool enough to handle.

The baked eggplant.  You want the char.  It adds a smky flavor to the final dish.  However, be sure not to let the eggplant burn.

The baked eggplant. You want the char. It adds a smoky flavor to the final dish. However, be sure not to let the eggplant burn.

4.  when the eggplant is cool enough to handle, carefully peel off the skin and discard.

Peeling the skin off the eggplant.

Peeling the skin off the eggplant.

Place the peeled eggplant in a small bowl or dish.  Set aside.

5.  With a food processor running, drop the garlic cloves down through the feed tube and chop them.

The chopped garlic.

The chopped garlic.

Add the eggplant, tahineh, and a little salt.

Ready to mix.

Ready to mix.

Puree the ingredients until a smooth consistency is achieved.  Add a little lemon juice through the feed tube while the machine is running.  When the lemon is mixed in, taste the baba ghannouj for seasoning.

6.  Place the baba ghannouj into a bowl and garish with a little olive oil, some parsley, and a few of the pomegranate seeds.

This is delicious. And I don't like eggplant.

This is delicious. And I don’t like eggplant.


As for the Poached Tomatoes and Garlic, I really don’t know if it’s an authentic part of the meal.  However, I remember my dad making this dish from time to time, so I do, too.  My husband and I  like this dish, so I make it for that reason as well.

The ingredients

The ingredients


4 large tomatoes, quartered, core (blossom end) cut out, and seeded

10 – 12 cloves garlic, smashed

3/4 c. olive oil

1 tsp. salt


1.  Place all the ingredients in a large skillet or shallow saucepan over low heat.

The ingredients ready to be poached.

The ingredients ready to be poached.

2.  While the ingredients cook, you can mash them a bit if you like. Just cook until the tomatoes have completely broken down, about 30 minutes.

Cooking down the tomatoes and garlic.

Cooking down the tomatoes and garlic.

All done.  Yes, it's a lot of olive oil. It tastes lovely.

All done. Yes, it’s a lot of olive oil. It tastes lovely.


Fried Nabulsi Cheese

1.  Take a few pieces of the Nabulsi cheese and cut them into smaller pieces (I usually cut them in half crosswise and then again lengthwise).  Place them in a bowl and rinse with water several times until it runs clear.  Let the cheese soak in the water to remove some of the salt.

Some of the cheese. The shape and saltiness of the cheese depends on the brand,

Some of the cheese. The shape and saltiness of the cheese depends on the brand.

Soaking the cheese

Soaking the cheese

Before you get ready to fry the cheese, take it out of the water and drain on paper towels.

2.  In a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Once the butter starts to foam, place a few pieces of the cheese in the skillet to cook.  Cook until each side is golden brown.

Frying the cheese. Not the most healthy way to cook it, but hey, why not?

Frying the cheese. Not the most healthy way to cook it, but hey, why not?

Drain the cooked cheese on paper towels and eat while still warm.  It doesn’t really keep once it’s cold.

Believe it or not, this is excellent on warm pita bread with a little jam.

Believe it or not, this is excellent on warm pita bread with a little jam.


Of course, the one indispensable ingredient for the whole meal. Bread. Khubuz خبز


The bread.  The most indespensible ingredient of all.

The bread. The most indispensable ingredient of all.

And, here is the final table.

The final table. Invite a few friends.

The final table. Invite a few friends.





















Tomato Soup & Welsh Rarebit Souffles 1

Posted on May 23, 2013 by Sahar

“What exactly is Welsh Rarebit?” you’re probably asking yourself.

Most of us know this dish as basically cheese on toast.  Not a bad thing.

It’s actually a dish that was born of poverty in 18th Century Wales.  At that time, only the wealthiest could afford meat.  Cheese was the “meat” of the poor.  Over time, “Rarebit” became the bastardization of “rabbit”.

Most recipes that I’ve found contain some sort of alcohol, generally ale.  However, I wanted a recipe that didn’t have any alcohol.  And, I finally came across one written by Jennifer Paterson of “Two Fat Ladies” fame.  It is different than traditional Rarebit, which is generally a cheese sauce, in that this recipe is more of a souffle-style.

This won’t behave like what most would think of as a souffle.  It certainly doesn’t rise like one.  The souffle-style comes from the base  (cheese and egg yolks) folded into beaten egg whites which makes the topping a souffle effect.

The tomato soup is just a natural paring.

Tomato soup goes with just about everything.

Welsh Rarebit mixed with tomato soup or tomatoes is known as “Blushing Bunny”.  Huh.


Now.  To the recipes.


Now, of course, with either of these recipes, you can serve them separately with a simple salad to make a nice lunch or a light dinner.  Together, they make a rather hearty end-of-day vegetarian supper.

For the Rarebit, if you want to use other cheeses or all of one or the other, go ahead.  However, cheddar is the most traditional.  Be sure to use a sharp cheddar.  Once you add the egg whites, it will neutralize the flavor of the cheese mixture, so you want a stong-tasting cheese.  Longhorn cheddar won’t do.

With summer coming up, fresh tomatoes will be abundant.  If you want to use your fresh home-grown tomatoes, by all means, do.  Use the equivalent amount to fresh tomatoes.  Depending on how “rustic” you like your soup, you can peel and seed your fresh tomatoes before using them in the soup if you prefer.  It’s up to you.

As for canned, I use Muir Glen Fire Roasted.  If you want to use your fresh tomatoes but would like the roasted flavor, you can either roast your tomatoes on the grill or slow-roast in your oven.


Tomato Soup:

The ingredients

The ingredients

The spices (clockwise from top): Red Pepper Flakes, ground Bleck Pepper, Kosher Salt

The spices (clockwise from top): Red Pepper Flakes, ground Black Pepper, Kosher Salt


2 tbsp. olive oil

1 small onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, optional

4 tbsp. tomato paste

1 lg. (28 oz.) can tomatoes

1/4 c. balsamic vinegar

1 lg. sprig rosemary, left whole

4 c. vegetable broth

Pinch sugar

Salt & Pepper to taste

1 bunch fresh basil, julienned

Shredded Parmesan or Romano


1.  In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, saute the onions and garlic until the onions begin to soften, about 5 minutes.

Sauteing the onions and garlic.

Sauteing the onions and garlic.

2.  Add the red pepper flakes, if using, and cook another minute.

3.  Add the tomato paste and, stirring frequently, cook until the tomato paste begins to take on a rust-colored appearance (this indicates the sugars in the tomato paste are caramelizing).

Cooking the tomato paste. The paste is beginning to turn a burnt orange color.

Cooking the tomato paste. The paste is beginning to turn a burnt orange color.

4.  Add the tomatoes, rosemary, vinegar, broth, sugar, salt & pepper.  Stir until the soup is well mixed.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Once the soup has come to a boil, uncover, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook for 30 minutes.  Stir occasionally.

After adding the tomatoes, broth, rosemary, vinegar, and spices

After adding the tomatoes, broth, rosemary, vinegar, and spices

Bringing the soup to a boil.

Bringing the soup to a boil.

5.  After the first 30 minutes of cooking, remove the soup from the heat and remove the rosemary stem.  Let the soup cool slightly.

After 30 minutes of cooking.

After 30 minutes of cooking.

6.  With either a stand blender (in batches) or a stick blender, puree the soup.  Make it as smooth or as texture as you like.  If you want a super-smooth soup, then pour the pureed soup through a strainer.  Taste for seasoning.

Pureeing the soup with a stick blender. (I find the stick blender easier and it uses fewer dishes.)

Pureeing the soup with a stick blender. (I find the stick blender easier and it uses fewer dishes.)

7.  Put the soup back on the stove to reheat over medium heat and just bring back to a boil.  Turn off the heat and add the basil.  Set the soup aside and let the basil “steep”.


Adding the basil and letting it "steep" in the soup.

Adding the basil and letting it “steep” in the soup.


Meanwhile, while the soup is cooking, make the Rarebit.


The Ingredients

The Ingredients

The Spices (clockwise from top center): Paprika, Kosher Salt, Cayenne Pepper, dry Mustard, Black Pepper

The Spices (clockwise from top center): Paprika, Kosher Salt, Cayenne Pepper, dry Mustard, Black Pepper

Cheddar and Gruyere cheeses

Cheddar and Gruyere cheeses

1 c. grated extra sharp Cheddar Cheese

1 c. grated Gruyère or Emmenthal Cheese

3 eggs, separated

1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

1 tsp. dry mustard

1/2 tsp. cayenne

1/2 tsp. paprika

1 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce

Salt & pepper to taste

4 thick slices bread (sourdough or country loaf works best)


1.  In a large bowl mix the cheese with the egg yolks, Worcestershire, dry mustard, cayenne, paprika, salt & pepper.  Set aside.

The cheese mixed with the eggs and spices.

The cheese mixed with the eggs and spices.

2.  Preheat the oven to 450F.  Place the bread on a baking sheet lines with foil and parchment paper and toast the bread until it is lightly toasted on both sides.  Set aside.

Toasted bread.

Toasted bread.

3.  In a mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until the whites reach stiff peak stage.

Stiffly beaten egg whites.

Perfectly beaten egg whites.

4.  Take 1/4 of the egg whites and mix them into the cheese mixture to lighten it up a bit.

Folding in the egg whites.

Folding in the egg whites.

5.  Take the remaining egg whites, 1/3 at a time, and fold them into the cheese mixture.  Don’t worry about making a homogenous mixture.  You just want to get a good mix with the cheese.

Ready for the bread. Don't worry about making a homogeneous mixture.

Ready for the bread. Don’t worry about making a homogeneous mixture.

6.  Divide the mixture evenly between the pieces of bread (there will be quite a lot).

Ready for the oven.

Ready for the oven.


Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 10  – 12 minutes or until the souffles are brown and have risen slightly.

The finished rarebit. Golden brown, slighly puffy, a little crispy.

The finished rarebit. Golden brown, slightly puffy, a little crispy.


Finish the meal:  By this point, the soup should be finished and the basil “steeping”.

Spoon the soup into a bowl and sprinkle some Parmesan or Romano over the top.

The finished soup.

The finished soup. Parmesan to be added.

Place one of the Rarebit on a plate.

The finsihed Rarebit.

The finished Rarebit. Molten gooddness.



Supper! Yummy, yummy supper.




Happy New Year! 1

Posted on January 01, 2013 by Sahar

Happy 2013 to All!

Like most Texans, my husband, Steve, and I will be enjoying the traditional Texas (and, yes, universally Southern) New Years Dinner: Hoppin’ John. With Collard Greens and Cornbread.

New Years Dinner. Yummy, yummy good luck goodness.

New Years Dinner. Yummy, yummy good luck goodness.

For those of you who don”t know the symbolism of this tradition, here is a quick rundown:

Black Eyed Peas: coins

Collard Greens (or Cabbage): paper money

Cornbread: Gold

So, if you haven’t surmised by now, it’s all about the money.  The more you eat, the more prosperous you’ll be in the new year.

Plus, you’ll be starting that New Years diet resolution off right.

Oh, yeah. And, since this is Texas, Pecan Pie for dessert:

Pecan Pie. A Texas Tradition.

Pecan Pie. A Texas Tradition.

OK. Well. The pie could set your diet back a little.


Enjoy! Have a great new year!



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