Costa RicaCosta Rica

Gallo Pinto & Arroz Con Leche

I remember the first time I bit into a juicy mango, how the juices ran down my fingers as I devoured the sweet, orange fruit. Likewise, my first taste of arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), laced with spicy chili sauce, is forever imprinted on my mind. Tastes and scents create vivid memories, and I have found that local food is one of my favorite aspects of travel to foreign lands.

Costa Rica’s cuisine is mostly savory – instead of piquant spices, Costa Rican cooks favor fresh herbs, onion, garlic, and other mild blends to season their dishes. In kitchens around the country, you’ll find homestyle comfort food that tastes delicious and fills you up – dishes like gallo pinto (rice and black beans), or sweet and creamy arroz con leche (rice pudding), served as a warm snack or special dessert.

Gallo Pinto (Rice and Beans)

Just three days after moving to Costa Rica, a friend came over to my home, his arms weighed down by two heavy grocery bags. Their contents: white rice, fresh black beans, onions, sweet pepper, garlic, and cilantro. After a welcome peck on the cheek, he was off, pulling knives from drawers, washing vegetables, and heating oil on the stove. For the next hour, we diced, sautéed, boiled, and stirred as the aromatic dish took shape before us. When my friend pronounced it ready, we chopped up fresh cilantro and sat down to our delicious meal. Over juice and good conversation, we breakfasted on hearty gallo pinto (Costa Rica’s famous dish of black beans and rice), accompanied by fresh corn tortillas and a Costa Rican sour cream called natilla. To this day, gallo pinto is one of my favorite meals, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do:

1 lb. black beans – best if fresh, but dried will also work; use canned beans only if necessary
½ bunch (8-10 sprigs) fresh cilantro
1 small white onion
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 small bell pepper
3 cups chicken broth; may be substituted with water
2 cups uncooked white rice
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon + 1-3 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
4 tablespoons Lizano sauce (worcestershire will substitute in a pinch)

If the beans are dried, cover them with water and soak overnight; if they are fresh, just rinse them under cold water. Drain and cover beans with fresh water and salt and bring to a boil. When the beans are boiling, cover the pot, reduce heat and simmer until beans are soft (approximately 3 hours).

When they are almost cooked, finely chop the cilantro, onion and bell pepper. Add one tablespoon of oil to a large pan and sauté the dried rice for two minutes over medium-high heat and then add half each of the chopped pepper, cilantro, garlic and onion. Sauté for two more minutes, then add chicken broth, or water. Bring rice mixture to a boil, cover, and simmer until rice is tender (about 20-35 minutes).

The rice water should be absorbed, but the beans will have a significant amount of black bean-colored liquid – do not drain! Add the cooked beans to the pan and sauté on medium heat with the rice, Lizano sauce, and the remaining bell pepper, cilantro, garlic, and onion until everything is mixed and well cooked. Sprinkle with a little fresh chopped cilantro just before serving. Once the rice and beans is prepared you can also refrigerate or freeze it.

Arroz con Leche (Rice Pudding)

After several months of dating, my now-husband, Federico, decided it was time to introduce me to his parents. When I arrived for lunch, the kitchen was a flurry of activity: chicken was cooking on the stovetop, the table was full of salad dishes (vegetable, potato, pasta), and a sweet smell wafted out of the oven. Over the next couple of hours, I talked with Federico’s parents, swapping stories and laughing at family photos. As I said goodbye, Federico’s mother placed in my hands a large, still-hot portion of her homemade rice pudding, with the proviso that it was best served warm, but cold pudding is also delicious. On top of the container sat the recipe – I already felt like part of the family.

2 cups uncooked rice
4 cups 2% milk
4 cups natural or white sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
½ teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground cloves (or 6 whole cloves)
½ teaspoon freshly grated fresh nutmeg
4 oz butter, preferably sweet cream butter
1 cup raisins (optional)

Cook rice uncovered in 8 cups of water for 45 minutes until it is cooked soft. Drain any extra liquid. Stir remaining ingredients into the rice and simmer for 30 minutes or until mixture thickens.

Gallo Pinto & Arroz Con Leche in Pictures