Sunday, May 18, 2014

Foodie Bucket List: Costa Rican Cuisine


While I have no immediate travel plans, what with a four-month-old baby at home and my husband working hard to be the sole provider for his family, I will admit that I am secretly hoping we can swing a trip to Costa Rica this year.  My husband's father has a house down there, which is beautiful, and I feel like we are wasting it by not visiting (is that a good enough argument for my hubby, do you think?).

I love Costa Rica - of course I do; I got married down there!  I love the sunshine, the beaches, the vegetation, the wildlife, and naturally, the food.  Oh, you Costa Ricans know how to make some tasty grub.  For anyone who has never been to Costa Rica (or has and just misses the food), I would like to provide a quick list of my favorite Costa Rican "best dishes to try".  The list is a little short I admit, mainly because once I find a meal I love, I don't often deviate.  Maybe if we go down later this year, I can branch out and try a few more dishes.

Arroz con Pollo

My absolute, absolute favorite meal in Costa Rica is "arroz con pollo", which is simply "rice with chicken".  I would eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day if I could.  Each establishment serves it a little differently, which is why I never seem to get sick of it. Basically, the meal is fried rice mixed with a pleasing blend of garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, cilantro, and cumin. Vegetables are chopped up and mixed in - celery, tomatoes, peas, carrots, corn, peppers, you name it.  Finally, chunks of juicy, marinated chicken are added in.  Like I said, no two places make the exact same arroz con pollo, so sometimes vegetables will be missing, sometimes vegetables I don't have listed here are present.  No matter the recipe, I've never met a dish of arroz con pollo I didn't like!

Yummy arroz con pollo.  Photo via.

Plantains 

A 'cousin' of the banana, plantains are popular in Costa Rica. They are firmer and starchier than dessert bananas and are not typically eaten raw.  You prepare a plantain by either boiling or frying it, much like a potato here in Canada or the US.  Once fried, they become mushier and little sweeter.  Costa Rican dishes don't usually get served with a lot of vegetables (a spoonful of coleslaw, a small amount of Russian salad, or a slice of tomato and piece of lettuce are about all I've had served on my plates) so plantains are a popular side dish to most meals.  I usually save the plantains until the end of my meal, then eat them in place of dessert.

Fried plantains are tasty and can double as dessert. Image via.

Casado

This is the meal most Ticos prefer to eat for lunch in Costa Rica (comida tipica).  The meal is made of rice cooked with finely chopped bell peppers and onions, fried plantains, beans cooked in a delicious gravy, and either a salad or some chopped vegetables.  You can then choose the type of meat you want with it: pork, chicken, fish, or steak.  I preferred the pork, as it is cut rather thin and then sauteed in an amazing blend of spices. The chicken was good too, but it was a thicker cut and didn't soak in the flavor as well as the pork.  In some of the more 'westernized' restaurants, your casado can come with French fries, but I never chose that option.  It just seemed wrong.

A typical lunchtime meal of casado.  Image via.

Gallo Pinto

If casado is eaten for breakfast by the locals, then gallo pinto is the go-to meal for breakfast.  The meal is based on a hearty helping of black beans mixed with rice, served with egg (either fried, scrambled or in omelet form) and, depending on the restaurant, your choice of fried plantain, toast, or a type of handmade bread which is similar to naan.  The beans are amazing - they are cooked in a type of gooey sauce (I know, it sounds gross and sometimes it even looks pretty gross) but the flavor of the sauce is like nothing you've eaten before. 

Gallo pinto - eat like a local and try this for breakfast!  Image via.


Sopa de Mariscos

This soup is great if you are seafood fan (and I am!).  Sopa de Mariscos is a brothy, tomato-based soup loaded with tasties like shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, chunks of fish, and chopped veggies.  Once again, no two restaurants or diners (diners are called 'sodas' down in Costa Rica) make the same sopa de mariscos, so try it more than once if you like it.  It is really good if you order some bread (pan) along with it to soak up the tasty broth.

Chunky sopa de mariscos - if you love seafood.  Image via.

Imperial Beer

Of course, no Costa Rican meal is complete with a cool brewsky.  My husband and I favor the brand "Imperial", although you can often find "Pilsen" and "Bavaria" which are other popular brands.  Most Tico restaurants have a large sign outside their establishment indicating whether they sell primarily Imperial or Pilsen (and then occasionally Bavaria).  Imperial is the 'national brand' of Costa Rica, it seems: you can buy Imperial T-shirts, towels, jackets, and I even found a cool pair of carved coconut earrings in the shape of the Imperial logo.  If you are not into beer, Costa Rican coffee is a delicious second choice - we always make sure we bring home a giant bag of "1850" coffee beans each time we visit Costa Rica.  It is the good stuff!

What are your favorite Costa Rican dishes?  I know there are a ton more that I haven't tried yet: olla de carne (meat stew), ceviche (pickled fish), tamales, chicharones, and much more.  Oh dear, now I'm really hungry... off to the fridge for me!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Exploring Paris' Louvre Museum


No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the world-famous Louvre Museum.  (At least, not your first trip to Paris. It's okay if you don't want to attend the Louvre every single time you hit up Paris!)  The Louvre offers many great things for history buffs, architecture nuts, and art lovers.  Even if you are none of those, you will still probably appreciate at least one visit to the museum.

Paris, France, Louvre, Museum, Pyramids, Louvre Pyramid
Entering the Louvre Museum courtyard.

For the history buffs, there are many facets to explore while at the Louvre.  The building itself used to be a palace, built in the 12th century by Philip II as his own personal fortress.  It was added to and expanded over the years, and then abandoned as the official palace when the French royalty decided to head on out to Versailles.  The Louvre Palace became a place for the royals to display their artistic collections.  It was home to several art schools as well, so when the Revolution in France was over, it was natural to decree the Louvre be made into an art museum.

Louvre Museum, Paris, France, art in Louvre
The proud but headless "Winged Victory" statue.

Other fascinating histories can be found inside the museum - there are eight departments featuring the histories - in art - of the Egyptians, Middle Eastern peoples, Greeks and Romans, and Islamic people. (The other four departments are separated into mediums: paintings, drawings, sculpture, and decorative arts.)  There is so much to see in the Louvre that it is said you could spend a week wandering its halls and still not see everything.

For the architecture nuts, there are some very interesting structural highlights of the museum.  The most famous is the Louvre Pyramid, added to the grand courtyard in 1989, and its counterpart, the Pyramid Inversee which was added in 1993.  There are two other, smaller above-ground pyramids as well.  The Louvre Pyramids are surrounded by reflection pools, which make for a very beautiful sight.  I loved the Pyramid Inversee, which is accessed from inside the Louvre lobby.  You can reach out and touch the tippy-top (bottom?) of it - and I also love it because of its tremendous importance to the Da Vinci Code book!

Louvre Museum, Paris France, French art, Da Vinci Code pyramid
Touching the top (or is it bottom?) of the Pyramid Inversee.

For the art lovers, well, what can I say? The Louvre is perhaps the most famous museum in the world due to its massive collection of art from all walks of life.  The key piece in the museum's collection is Da Vinci's The Mona Lisa.  She is a tricky one to see - there are usually huge crowds surrounding her, held at bay from the actual painting by a wooden balustrade and a bulletproof glass case.  The Mona Lisa itself is a tiny canvas, so when you combine that with big crowds full of people that want to pose for their camera in front of her, be prepared to throw some elbows to get up close.  (Just kidding.  I'd never behave like that in a museum... no really.  I have no idea how I ended up front and center...)

Louvre Museum Paris, Paris France, Da Vinci Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa size
The actual size of the "Mona Lisa"

Other fantastic pieces that are considered 'must-sees' include the armless Venus de Milo sculpture, the painting of Liberty Leading the People depicting the French Revolution, the creepy Raft of the Medusa which tells the tale of ship-wrecked cannibals, the headless Winged Victory sculpture (they are always missing some body part!), and The Consecration of Emperor Napoleon I, which has a sister painting in Versailles with a hidden love story painted into it.  Of course, there a TON more things to see, but the purpose of this blog post is not to create a giant list of artworks in the Louvre.

Venus de Milo statue, Paris France, Louvre art, Louvre statues
Posing as "Venus de Milo" with some students.

I had the pleasure of visiting Paris in 2010 when I took 23 junior high students and their 10 parent chaperons on a school field trip.  We spent one afternoon exploring the Louvre, although I wished we could have spent more time there.  One afternoon was probably enough for a group of junior high kids, I suppose.  For those of you NOT CRAZY and heading to the museum on your own or without a school bus full of teenagers, here's what you need to know.

The Louvre is located on the Right Bank in Paris, in the 1st arrondissement. The museum is open every day except Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (on Wednesdays and Fridays it is open later, until 9:45 p.m.). If you go during the off-season (October to March) admission is free on Sundays.  General admission is 12 Euros, and if you want to see everything the price is 16 Euros.  There are several 'special circumstances' in which admission is free: check here to see if you apply to any.  Line-ups can be ridiculous, so either get there super early, or come much later in the day, after the majority of the line has already made its way in.  From what I've read online, most people recommend choosing the Porte des Lions entrance as it is usually manned with more staff and therefore moves quicker.  The second-best choice is the Carousel entrance because it is more remote and less people choose to line up there.

outside Louvre Museum, Louvre Museum pyramids, courtyard Paris France
The beautiful Louvre Museum as the sun sets on our day.

One thing that kept myself and 23 junior high students on track in the museum, and allowed us to see most of the 'must-see' works, was a scavenger hunt that Explorica, our tour company, had put together and provided us.  The scavenger hunt acted as a map, guidebook, and fun activity for the kids to do while we hopped from room to room, searching for famous works of art and learning facts about each.  I won't include the entire thing because I doubt Explorica would like me doing that, but I'll provide one page here so you can see what we were working with.  It was a great way to move a bunch of young teenagers through one of the world's largest museums!

how to find art in the Louvre Museum, Louvre Museum with kids
Louvre Museum scavenger hunt for kids from Explorica