One of my favorite things about living in Costa Rica is the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables that are available year round.

Everything seems to grow to Jurassic proportions. In most instances, the produce you purchase in Costa Rica has been grown within a 20 mile radius of where you are purchasing it and, more often than not, the growers are using at least partially organic growing methods.

When clients, friends, or family come to visit Atenas, one of the first “must sees” that we send them to is the Friday feria (a.k.a. farmers’ market). Every Friday morning from 6 a.m. and running until around noon, local vendors set up in the park just in front of the Atenas Central School (la Escuela Central de Atenas). These vendors bring an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, homemade cheese, yogurt, sour cream, herbs, flowers, and plants to sell at very reasonable prices.

After spending the morning at the feria, many people who are not familiar with our local fruits and vegetables are left perplexed as to what these items are called and how to use them. Many things are easily adapted to our typical North American recipes and can be substituted for produce that we are familiar with back home. Other items are not as adaptable, but are delicious if you know how to prepare them properly.

Part of the joy of visiting or living in a new country is immersing oneself in the culinary delights that make that place unique. Food is a major part of the cultural experience and, in my opinion, one of the most enjoyable. Below is a list of the more unique fruits and veggies that you will find in Costa Rica that most North Americans and Europeans are not accustomed to finding back home. In addition, I have added a few of my favorite recipes using these products. I hope that by sharing this knowledge, I will add to the joy of your cultural and culinary experience.

Vegetables

  • Chayote – Squash family
  • Camote – White Sweet Potato
  • Ayote (tierno/sazon) – Pumpkin/Squash
  • Nampi/Tiquisque- Tubers/roots
  • Yucca – Cassava
  • Plantanos (green/maduros) – Plantains

Fruits

  • Cas – Sour Guava
  • Guanabana – Sour Sop
  • Carambola – Star Fruit
  • Guava – Guava
  • Mamey/Zapote – Mamey

Vegetables

Chayote – Chayote is a member of the squash family and is very versatile. There are several varieties of the vegetable, but I use either the medium sized light green or large dark green varieties for most of my cooking. The large white variety is also wonderful and we use them to make chancletas, which are prepared just as you would a twice baked potato! There is also miniature variety of chayote.

The miniatures are boiled whole and served with a creamy mushroom sauce. If the chayote is fresh and tender then there is no need to peel them. Otherwise, just peel, cube, or slice like an apple and boil them in salted water, and serve with a pat of butter. Chayote is also used in soups and stews, as well as in picadillo de chayote. You can also make a mock apple pie using chayote instead of apple. It tastes virtually the same! Chayote can also be eaten raw and adds a nice, crunchy texture to a green salad.

Camote Camote is a white sweet potato and can be prepared and eaten in the same way as the North American sweet potato or yam. However, it is a bit more starchy than our traditional yam or sweet potato from the north. In Costa Rica, camotes are used in soups and can be mashed to make a wonderful puree. When served mashed, you simply add a bit of milk, butter, and a few tablespoons of sugar to make a tasty side dish.

You can also use camote in your favorite sweet potato casserole recipe. However, make sure to double the amount of liquid in the recipe due to the extra fiber. If not, your casserole will be drier than normal.

Ayote – Ayotes are also in the squash family and can be eaten tender or mature. When eaten tender, you can prepare them the same as you would a yellow summer or zucchini squash, eating the peel, seeds, and all. Costa Rican cooks prepare a tasty dish called Guieso de Ayote. It is a simple stew that is made exactly like picadillo de chayote (substiting the ayote for the chayote) and adding cream at the end of the cooking process.

Meanwhile, mature (sazon) ayote is prepared and used in the same manner as you would use a pumpkin. Many housewives prepare a cream de ayote or cream soup just like cream of pumpkin soup. It can also be candied by peeling the ayote, cutting it up into chucks and cooking it with water, cinnamon, and tapa dulce (molasses sugar) which makes for a sweet treat that is eaten as dessert. You can also use sazon ayotes in any recipe calling for pumpkin, including pumpkin pie.

Ñampi/Tiquisque – These are two tuber vegetables that are almost exclusively used in soups in the same way you would use a potato. Both are found in the famous Olla de Carne, the meat and vegetable stew of Costa Rica. Simply peel and cut in halves or quarters depending on the size of the root and add to your soup or stew. The next time you make beef stew, try adding a few of these new roots!

Yucca – Yucca is very versatile, much like the chayote. It is often either boiled and eaten with Cuban style with mojo (a garlic, lemon and olive oil sauce), parboiled then fried, prepared like french fries, or used in soups. Yucca can also be mashed and used like mashed potatoes in recipes such as Shepherd’s Pie.

Plantanos – Plantanos (plantains) are a staple in all Latin American kitchens. They are very versatile and are used in a variety of ways. Offering many nutrients, they contain more potassium than a regular banana! Green plantains are used in soups or are made into chips by cutting them into 1 1/2 inch pieces, frying, mashing, then re-frying in hot oil. Ripe plantains are fried as well to a sweet, caramelize perfection (platanos maduros).

The key to a really sweet, ripe plantain is to wait until the plantain has turned COMPLETELY black before you use it! Here in Costa Rica one of my favorite ways to eat ripe plantains is to bake them in milk and top them with cheese. Delicious!

Fruits

Cas – Cas is an acidic guava. It is exclusively used for juice. You blend the fruit with water in the blender. Strain, add sugar, chill, and drink cold. It is very refreshing and has a tangy, sweet and sour quality! It is also great as a slushy. Add the juice to some ice in the blender and enjoy!

Guanabana – Guanabana is also used almost exclusively as a juice fruit. It can be eaten fresh, but the pulp is very fibrous, so be careful when eating it as it can choke you! Cut the guanabana in quarters and scoop out the pulp, eliminating the seeds. Blend in a blender with either water or milk. Add sugar as desired. Serve cold or blended with ice as a slushy.

Carambola – In Costa Rica, carambola is used as a juice fruit. Simply chop, add to a blender with some water, strain, add sugar and drink. The fruit is also used as a garnish in salads by slicing in rounds that form a beautiful yellow shaped star, hence the nickname starfruit.

Guava – Guavas are very common in all tropical climates. They can be white, pink, or red fleshed with many little hard, edible seeds inside. You can eat the fruit fresh or use it to make juice. Another common use for the guava is for making jam or preserves. The aroma wafting from my grandmother’s kitchen while she was making homemade guava jelly is memory I will never forget! There are also a wide variety of desserts that you can make with guavas including substituting guava shells* for another fruit in your favorite cobbler recipe.

*Guava shells are the meat or pulp of the fruit. You must peel the fruit, cut in half, and use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds. The meat that is left is the “shell”. You can boil the skins and seeds to make stock for making guava jelly.

Recipes

Picadillo de Chayote-

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, chopped into small cubes
  • 1 cup of fresh corn
  • 5 large chayotes peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 lb. of ground pork sausage (chorizo)
  • 2 tbs of olive oil
  • 3-4 sprigs of cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbs of Salsa Lizano (Costa Rican salsa)
  • 1 cup of water (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Chop all vegetables. In a 8 quart stock pot, sauté the onion, bell pepper, corn and carrot in olive oil, cooking until the onions are transparent. Add the sausage and garlic, cooking until the sausage is done. Add the Salsa Lizano, salt, pepper, and chayote. Cover and cook over low heat until tender (about one hour). Add water as needed. During the last 5 minutes of cooking time, add the cilantro. Serve with white rice and this makes a one pot meal!

Baked Sweet Plantains with Cheese

  • 4-5 large, ripe (BLACK) plantains
  • 1 stick of butter, softened
  • 2 cups of milk
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups of grated white cheese (Turrialba, Mozzarella or Cheddar)

Take your ripe plantains and gently massage them before you remove the peel. Remove the peel and cut them in 1/2 length wise without going all the way through (like a hot dog bun). Place the plantains in a 9×9 baking dish. Smear the insides of the plantains with the butter and pour the milk over the plantains. Cover with plastic wrap, leaving one corner uncovered. Cook in the microwave for 15 minutes on high. Remove from microwave, discard plastic wrap, and sprinkle the plantains with sugar and top with grated cheese. If the milk has absorbed into the plantains, add an additional 1/2 cup of milk. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Serve hot! Personally, I don’t like these reheated.

Guava Cobbler

  • 1 cup of self rising flour
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 cup of guava shells*
  • 1/2 stick of butter

In a large mixing bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, and milk until if forms a batter. In a 9×9 baking dish, melt the butter and add the fruit. Pour the batter over the butter and fruit. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes or until done. This recipe can easily be doubled or tripled for a larger cobbler.

*If using fresh fruit, parboil the fruit in one cup of sugar water for 5 minutes and add the fruit and sugar water to the cobbler. Doing this will make a very moist and delicious cobbler! Note that canned guava shells can often be found in your local grocery store.








Cooking in Costa Rica – How to prepare those strange vegetables you find at the feria!

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