Black bear eating from my apple tree, August night, 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rhubarb Season--Make Ice Cream

It's springtime again, and nothing says spring like a homemade rhubarb pie or rhubarb muffins. But instead of baking, why not consider ice cream instead this time? This delicious recipe was passed on to me by a friend and I think it's worth sharing.

Rhubarb Ice Cream

4 stalks rhubarb, about 1 1/4 lbs  [about 3 cups diced rhubarb]
1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup skim milk


1. Trim the ends of the rhubarb stalks and chop them into 1/2″ pieces.  Place the pieces in a saucepan with sugar and water on high heat.

2. Boil the rhubarb for about 10-15 minutes, or until broken down with a jelly-type consistency.

3. Remove the rhubarb from the saucepan, and blend or puree in a food processor until smooth. Place the pureed rhubarb in the refrigerator to cool for at least 2 hours.

4. Add cream and milk to the rhubarb and churn in an ice-cream machine for about 40 minutes, or until thick and creamy. Serve immediately, or freeze for a less-melty consistency.

Makes about 2 pints of ice cream.  (accessed 25 May 2009. We like to give credit where credit is due.)

As with any fresh ice cream recipe, I've found you need to eat the product as quickly as possible for it to taste its best. So if you can't handle two pints yourself, invite a friend or two over the day you make it.

I'd love to hear comments from any foodies out there.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Driving in Costa Rica--My Two Cents

It seems as if everyone—including me—has been to Costa Rica lately, or is planning to go.  While it’s a special place full of natural wonders (rain and cloud forests, Pacific and Caribbean beaches, volcanoes, wildlife) and the people there are welcoming, driving was a challenge for me.  I thought I’d share some of my thoughts in case any readers out there are trying to decide whether or not to rent a vehicle during their time in Costa Rica.
1.       If you decide you want to explore various parts of the country, which is about the size of West Virginia, you should rent a car. Costa Rican car rental agencies will equip you with a great GPS system for a nominal fee. Pay for it. There are practically NO SIGNS whatsoever indicating streets and highways. While the GPS was a godsend, it pays to look at a road map before you set out so that you have a basic idea of where you are supposed to be going. Our GPS went wacky on us for a half hour and sent us in the opposite direction of our destination. Only because we knew we were supposed to be headed west, not east (and we actually looked at the position of the sun for guidance) did we realize we needed to reboot the little computer. No problems after that.
2.       You cannot estimate driving times, period. Most roads are two-lane and passing is tricky. If you are going through mountains, you will be stuck behind some large, slow-moving vehicles. The speed limit varies, and while many locals admit to going over the limit, the slow-moving trucks will always make for a longer-than-anticipated trip.
3.       Speaking of passing—it can be quite intimidating to pass, but pass you must. I think the couple of gray hairs I came home with are due to passing other vehicles in Costa Rica. I talked to one of our shuttle drivers while there, and he admits that it’s scary to pass on a solid yellow center line, especially going around hairpin turns in the mountains, but that it’s “necessary” in order to keep on any kind of schedule. So other drivers will be passing, even if they aren’t supposed to, sometimes heading blind into traffic. Be aware of this when you can’t see oncoming traffic—a passer may be approaching around the bend.
4.       Some of the roads are terrible. As in, the fillings in your teeth will fall out from the bumps and you may exit the car with actual bruises from being tossed around. These roads cannot be navigated over 5 or 6 miles an hour. Ask someone before you set out what the road conditions might be and if there’s a better—albeit longer—route you can take. This happened when I followed the GPS instructions from the Pacific coast to Monteverde. The road was unbelievably horrible, and locals later told me there’s a bad but not-as-terrible alternate route that was a longer trip. I’d have gladly driven farther and spared myself the jostling around.
5.       Given that many roads are extremely poor, rent the largest vehicle you can afford. Normally, I would never, ever suggest that someone rent anything other than the smallest car to get you, your companions, and your luggage from point A to point B. However, being thrown around in a tiny, low-clearance, economy car was extremely unpleasant. Next trip I’m renting an SUV.
6.       Gas stations are not always easy to find. When your gas gauge gets to a quarter tank, stop at the first gas station you see. Gasoline prices are regulated in Costa Rica, so the price per gallon should be the same everywhere. This does not apply to rental car companies by the way. They can charge whatever they want if you return your car with less than a full tank, so plan on filling up right before you drop the vehicle off.
7.       Consider a combination of renting a vehicle and using transportation services. For example, we had a shuttle (Volcano Shuttle, to be specific) take us to and from the airport but rented a car mid-vacation to go exploring, once we got more comfortable with our surroundings.
8.       Finally, for the most part, Costa Rica is incredibly safe to explore, but property crime is an issue. Don’t leave anything of value, or anything that looks valuable to someone peering in from the outside, in a vehicle, even if it’s locked. A thief will break a window for even a low-value item, so it’s best not to flaunt anything at all. Just clear out the car. And if you have the option, park in a secure, well-lit area.
I thoroughly enjoyed my travels in Costa Rica, and especially loved driving by all the fruit stands on Highway 1, where folks sold watermelons, coconut water, and other delicacies. For a few dollars we were able to pick up fresh smoothie fixin’s not to be had in the states for such a price.
Don't be intimidated by anything I just wrote. After you've spent money on airfare and taken the well-deserved vacation time off from work, it seems silly to avoid exploring this fabulous country because the driving is a challenge. Rent a car when you know you'll want to get out on your own and take advantage of spontaneity. Leave the pros behind the wheel when you simply want to get someplace as quickly as possible.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Arenal Oasis Frog Watching Tour, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

I want to encourage anyone visiting beautiful La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano region of Costa Rica to sign up for a Jungle Night Walk at the Arenal Oasis. Arenal Oasis is an eco-lodge and wildlife sanctuary—privately run by the Rojas Bonilla family—that offers affordable (20.00 USD) 3-hour walks through the rainforest at night. Tours are run by a trained naturalist, and you’ll see things on these walks that will take your breath away.

I decided to do the Night Walk on my last night in Fortuna, and it was a perfect way to end a fabulous vacation. Our guide, Inti, was not only knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the area, but his enthusiasm for interpreting and sharing his knowledge was infectious. We saw toads, lizards, insects (large praying mantis, walking sticks, leaf-cutter ants, etc.), snakes, spiders, a sleeping toucan, and the glorious red-legged tree frogs, all in their natural environment. While we walked the easy-to-navigate (flat) trails, with water and flashlights provided, we saw more than 26 new species we had not seen in the two weeks spent in the country. Although we saw no mammals, Inti pointed out the rooting sounds of a nearby armadillo on the ground, and the sound of dropping fruit signaled to him that a mammal was foraging around above us in the canopy. And Inti also showed us a roost in large tropical leaves that tent bats had recently used for daytime sleeping.
In addition to animals seen in the wild, Arenal Oasis has display cases that feature other species held captive. Looking at hairy tarantulas and poisonous pit vipers, behind the safety of glass, at night, was eerie and exciting.
When I do return to La Fortuna, I hope to be able to spend a night or two at the Arenal Oasis eco-lodge. I believe there are 7 cabins there, and a small restaurant on-site. For me, access to the property and its wild nature would be a huge draw. (We also saw three bird species we had not seen before the afternoon we went on the tour, before the sun went down.)
In hiking the rainforest, most tourists do not venture out at night, when the jungle comes most alive. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience a nature hike like this. Having someone tell us what species made the various calls and noises we heard out there in the dark was a thrill, as was the opportunity to see colorful tree frogs straddling branches a few feet away from our face.  We’ll be back.
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