Like most foodies, one of the things I like most about traveling to other countries is discovering new and interesting foods. Unfortunately, most foodies are a bit disappointed when they discover that most Costa Rican food, while good, is usually rather simple and boring. We have fabulous fresh fruits and vegetables, but that's about it. The better restaurants and home cooks focus more on international cuisine than on national dishes.
One notable exception to this is in the Caribbean province of Limon, particularly around its capital city of the same name. In the 1870's a large number of blacks came to Limon from the Caribbean islands, particularly Jamaica, to work on construction of the railroad. They greatly influenced the culture and the cuisine of the region and their descendants still form a major part of the population. Most are English-speaking and although their families have lived in Costa Rica for generations, Spanish is their second language which many don't begin to learn until they start school.
The typical cuisine is heavily Afro-Caribbean influenced and some of it is absolutely fabulous. One of their best-known dishes is “Rice and Beans”, always called by its English name. It is decidedly not “arroz con frijoles”, which simply means a plate of white rice served with beans alongside, nor is it “Gallo Pinto” - a staple in the diet of most Costaricans, made by mixing leftover cooked rice with cooked beans, adding a little onion, sweet pepper and perhaps cilantro, then reheating it. It is usually eaten for breakfast, but often for other meals as well. Gallo pinto is cheap, filling, nutritious and even tasty, but it definitely isn't very exciting or interesting.
Rice and beans is another story altogether – spicy, aromatic and an interesting blend of spices and flavors, as you'll see when you read the recipe. It's usually served as an accompaniment to a chicken, meat or seafood dish which is also prepared Caribbean-style. My version is served with chicken.
As far as I know, no complete written version of these recipes exists anywhere, certainly not in English. My version was compiled from numerous imperfect Spanish-language sources and from conversations with local cooks who prepare the dish. Of course, none of them have written recipes or measure any of the ingredients and everyone makes it a little differently.
Although neither the rice and beans nor the chicken recipes are particularly complicated, I don't recommend that you make them for guests until you've made a couple of trial runs for yourself. I'm certain you'll want to tweak the seasonings, amount of liquids, etc. to suit your taste.
It was a lot of work compiling, translating and explaining these recipes. I'm glad to do it and to share them and hope you enjoy them. I'd very much appreciate feedback, positive or negative. I'll consider doing other recipes if people find it worthwhile.
Caribbean Rice and Beans with Chicken
Caribbean Rice and Beans
(Rice and Beans con Pollo Caribeño)
¼ cup dry small red beans
2 cups water
1 whole clove garlic
1 whole medium onion
1 whole habanero or scotch bonnet pepper
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups coconut milk (see note, below)
2 cups uncooked rice
1. Wash beans and soak overnight in 2 cups water.
2. Place beans and soak water in a pot. If preferred, discard the soak water and use 2 cups fresh.
3. Add one whole onion, one whole clove garlic, one sprig fresh thyme, one bay leaf and one Tbsp olive oil.
4. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and cook until the beans are done, about 1 to 1 ½ hrs. Don't overcook.
5. Remove and discard onion, garlic, bay leaf and thyme.
5. Add 2 cups coconut milk, salt and pepper to taste, and one whole habanero pepper. Bring to a boil.
6. While it's re-heating, wash and drain the rice.
7. Add washed, drained rice to the pot, stir well, and reduce to simmer. Cover and cook until done, about 17 to 20 minutes.
8. Remove habanero pepper, fluff the rice, re-cover and allow to sit for 5 or 10 minutes before serving.
Serve with Caribbean Chicken in Coconut Milk. For important hints, see the notes following the chicken recipe.
Caribbean Chicken in Coconut Milk
(Pollo Caribeño en Leche de Coco)
2 to 2 ½ lbs chicken pieces (I prefer thighs for this recipe)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbsp curry powder
1 Tbsp Lizano Sauce, optional (available online and in some Latin markets)
Cooking oil of your preference (use no more than is necessary)
1 sweet pepper, cut in strips (red preferred)
1 or 2 habanero peppers, whole
1 medium onion, cut in strips
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 cup coconut milk
1 tsp achiote paste (available in any Latin market)
1. Squeeze lime juice on the chicken and season with salt, pepper, curry powder (and Lizano Sauce, if you have it). Let it rest for a few minutes.
2. Brown chicken in cooking oil in a hot skillet.
3. In a separate skillet, saute onion and sweet pepper in cooking oil until limp. Add chopped tomato and cook briefly.
4. Add coconut milk, whole habanero pepper and achiote paste. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
5. Pour the sauce over the chicken, reduce heat and cook uncovered until chicken in done. Add more liquid to the sauce if it begins to reduce too much. You can use more coconut milk, water, chicken broth, or regular milk. The cooking time will depend on which pieces of chicken you use and how much you cook the chicken during the browning process. Cook it (turning occasionally if you like – I don't turn mine) until its tender enough that a fork will easily pierce all the way through a chicken thigh. (approx. 20 to 25 minutes).
6. Remove the habanero pepper before serving.
Serve with Caribbean Rice and Beans.
Canned coconut milk can be purchased in most Asian and Latin markets. Be certain to buy coconut milk, not cream of coconut or coconut water. They aren't acceptable substitutes. Also, you can make your own using fresh or shredded, unsweetened coconut. Don't use sweetened coconut. If using fresh, choose a coconut that sloshes when shaken. Pierce the three dark eyes with a clean phillips screwdriver or a nail. Drain the water. Place the drained coconut on a baking sheet in a 350F oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until the shell just begins to crack. Let cool slightly, then place it on a solid surface and hit it along the crack with a hammer or mallet and break it into pieces. Pry the meat from the shell with a blunt instrument (screwdriver, oyster knife, table knife, etc.). Pare off the brown skin with a knife or vegetable peeler. Grate the coconut with a box grater. Measure the grated coconut and place in a heatproof bowl or pot. Add one cup boiling water for each cup coconut and allow to steep for ½ hour. Strain through a colander lined with a double layer of cheesecloth, squeezing out the liquid. Repeat. Discard the coconut. Add water to yield 3 cups total. You'll need 2 cups for the rice and 1 cup for the chicken (recipe follows).
You can use canned beans, if preferred. If small red beans aren't available, substitute red kidney beans or black beans. I always drain canned beans. Whether you drain them or not, be sure to increase the water in the recipe so you have a total of 4 cups liquid. You need about ¾ cup of cooked beans, so one can should do.
The rice and beans can be prepared in an automatic rice cooker, if you have one.
Lizano Sauce (Salsa Lizano) is ubiquitous in Costa Rican cooking and has become popular throughout Central America and increasingly in North America. It's worth going to the trouble to find it, but this recipe won't suffer much if you don't add it. For more info, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salsa_Lizano