gallo pinto

I was feeling a little sentimental this past weekend about a number of things, but, namely, a little place near and dear to my heart, called Costa Rica.  I have an affection for the land and its people like none other.  This Central American country operates on a simple universal notion encompassed in two Spanish words: pura vida.  Literally, this translates to “pure life,” but it is interpreted a number of ways, such as “real living” or “full of life.”  We’ve traveled there a couple times, but our most recent trip was exactly three years ago in January 2009 when Joe proposed.  Obviously, that in itself, makes this a special spot in the world for us.  However, we sensed on our first visit a year prior, that it always would be when we touched down on the Osa Peninsla .  With waves crashing on the shore, sloths lollygagging in the trees, and howler monkeys barking in the background, we knew without any hesitation that our version of paradise was found.

A traveler’s proverb oft rattled as you head out into the country is “bad roads, good people.”  Well, there were some bad roads on the way to our destination… and some even better people.  We were instantly embraced by our amazing ex-pat hosts at the Iguana Lodge, as well as the Ticos.  Coming from the New York metro area, I was a little skeptical of how good natured the locals seemed.  I recall spending the first few days wondering what their ulterior motive was for being so dang nice.  However, as the week went on, I realized they were – quite simply – happy, kind, and helpful people, not because they wanted something in return; but because they were genuinely happy, kind, and helpful people.

Every day on the Osa, we’d rise with the sun and feast on a stunningly fresh assortment of local tropical fruits (a food moment I’ll never forget was biting into the juicy sweet white fleshed pineapple), creamy avocado, eggs, robust coffee, and, today’s feature, gallo pinto.  Gallo pinto is a simple staple Central American side dish consisting of rice and beans, typically served at breakfast time with meat (carne) or eggs (huevos), but I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t also a mainstay at every other meal.  The synergy of the rice and the beans rocks, as the two eaten alone are good sources of nutrition, but together they’re even better.  When rice and beans are eaten in conjunction, all essential nine amino acids come together in the right proportions (this aspect is crucial) and form a complete protein in one sitting; something easily found in animal protein, but a relative rarity in plant sources.   As a healthy side note, the nine essential amino acids are required by the body to build the proteins that help maintain muscle, bone, and organs.

Despite gallo pinto’s short list of ingredients (mainly rice and beans), its flavor varies greatly around the country depending on the preparation and seasonings used.  Whose gallo pinto reigns supreme?  I say the Iguana Lodge’s.  All of the food was cooked on premises by the most amazing tico chef, and upon rave reviews, the owner published an amazing downloadable cookbook, allowing former guests and the culinary curious the opportunity to bring the taste of Iguana back home (wherever that is).  Today’s recipe is a loose adaptation of the gallo pinto recipe in the cookbook that we enjoyed every morning on our visit.  Now, if I feast on this, shut my eyes, turn up the heat in my condo, and download some howler monkey audio, maybe for just one moment I can bring myself back to our little piece of paradise…

Gallo Pinto
Loosely adapted from Iguana Lodge Cook Book
Serves 6

1 medium onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 Tbsp. vegetagble oil
3 cups of cooked brown rice
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
2 Tbsp. Salsa Lizano
2/3 cup fresh chopped cilantro

Coat a large deep skillet with vegetable oil on medium heat.  Add onion, bell pepper, and a couple pinches of salt.  Saute for 4 minutes until soft.  Add beans and another pinch of salt.  Cook, stirring often, on medium-low for 4 – 5 minutes.  Add brown rice and Salsa Lizano.  Cook on low for three minutes, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pan.  Season to taste with more salt if necessary.  Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.  Serve immediately.

  • As recommended in the post, this side dish goes well at breakfast time with meat or eggs.  A few slices of creamy green avocado and fresh fruit don’t hurt either… Yum!
  • We like ours with a few healthy glugs of hot sauce, such as Cholula or Chipotle Tabasco… That’ll get your fire started in the morning.
  • Get double duty out of this dish and serve again as a side with lunch or dinner.
  • Salsa Lizano is a homegrown tico favorite!  I was able to order some on, but you may be able to find it locally if you have a good ethnic section in your supermarket or Spanish grocer.  A little goes a long way and it lasted for a while.   It also works great as a condiment on eggs, chicken, beef or pork.

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