Friday, December 30, 2011

Ham beans what I call my mama's green beans, slow-cooked in ham grease in a Crockpot.

The South is not known for its kind treatment to green vegetables. Whereas I like my greenery crisp, my grandmother never met a vegetable she couldn't boil into a grey mush. Preferably with some kind of pork fat. This method works well for collard greens, but not much else.

Except for ham beans. My mom cans dozens of quarts of green beans every summer, and while they're not nearly as tasty as fresh green beans, in the dead of winter they're a lot better than tinny-tasting canned ones. She slow-cooks them with a ham bone and the grease left over from cooking the ham, ending up with a Crockpot full of green beans that taste like ham.

So: green beans (preferably home-canned, but regular canned will work), and the leftovers from a ham. Combine in a Crockpot. Set on low for several hours. Enjoy with barbecue.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rhum J.M

Oh, and the fine aged rum I mentioned. Rhum J.M is like the 25-year-old scotch of rums. It's smooth, gold, and smells almost a little like scotch, if scotch were rum. Probably because it's aged for five years in used bourbon barrels. This is stuff you sip, as an after-dinner drink. It's too good for mixing into a cocktail.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

John L. Sullivan Irish Whiskey

Remember that bottle of good Irish whiskey I mentioned yesterday? This is it. John L. Sullivan Irish whiskey is so much smoother and yummier than, say, Jameson's. I've taken to drinking it neat.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The traveling bar

I love hanging out with my extended family during Christmas, but their tastes in alcohol run to Franzia and Miller Lite. I usually bring my own booze, because I'd rather drink the good stuff.

This year, as I was surveying my newly-expanded bar (thanks to all the fun stuff I've been exposed to at the restaurant), I realized I wanted to take a little of everything, which was clearly impossible.

So you know what I did? I pulled out all the travel water bottles in the cabinets (Camelbaks, etc.), and pre-mixed batches of cocktails in those. All I have to do is pour over ice.

I made a batch each of Paris Manhattans, Aviations, Sazeracs, and Dark n' Stormys. Plus some pre-doctored Bloody Mary mix. I also packed a few bottles of wine, the cranberry liqueur, and the last of the habanero-infused vodka.

I threw in a bottle of good Irish whiskey to round it out, and a flask of top-notch aged rum (for sipping purposes, not for mixing). So I'm all set.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Restaurant review: Gracie's, Providence, RI

One of our Christmas presents was a gift certificate to Gracie's, a top restaurant in Providence. It had been a while since we'd had a real night out, just the two of us, having dinner, no one working. 

I'm happy to say it was a great meal. I let them know I was a fellow restaurant worker, on a rare night off, and they lavished me with a good table, an extra course, and a super-attentive staff. And I came away with the inspiration for pickled cranberries.

We got the full-bore seven-course tasting menu, plus wine pairings. (I didn't catch the wine names for the first three courses; sorry.)

First course: Olive-oil poached tuna with capers.

Second course: gnocchi with foraged mushrooms and rabbit confit.

Third course: foie gras! with sugar pumpkin and pickled cranberries.

Fourth course: bacon-wrapped monkfish with crispy leeks. Wine: Domaine Eden Pinot Noir.

Fifth course (no picture): sweetbreads, with quail egg and truffle reduction. Wine: Kermit Lynch Cote du Rhone.

Sixth course: duck, with duck liver and duck heart. Wine: Beronia Rioja.

Seventh course: cheese! With white port! I hadn't had white port in forever. I ran right out and bought some.

Eighth course: root cake (carrots, parsnips, beets) with a Broadbent Rainwater Mediera.

Yes, that was eight courses on a seven-course menu. Every once in a while, working in a restaurant pays off. 

The service and the food were all exceptional. I totally recommend it. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Here's hoping all of you, like me, can put your feet up, relax, eat a lot with loved ones, and most importantly: not work.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Galliano Ristretto

And one more Christmas-appropriate after-dinner drink: Galliano Ristretto.

Like most of you, I only knew Galliano for that tall skinny bottle of bright yellow banana liqueur. Gross. But I discovered this stuff at the restaurant where I work the other day: Galliano Ristretto, a coffee liqueur.

This stuff makes Kahlua taste like dirt. Seriously. Don't bother mixing it into anything--just pour yourself a little of it, neat, and sip it slowly. Hard to find, and pricey, but totally worth it.

A reminder to all of you out there: I'm working tonight, on Christmas Eve. If you go out to eat today, please, pretty please, with sugar on top: tip your servers well.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best after-holiday-meal drink: Nocino della Cristina Napa Valley Walnut Liqueur

This stuff is awesome. You may read "walnut liqueur" and think "Ewwww," but it's exceptionally well-balanced. Not too sweet, not too nutty, not too cloying: it's like a yummy nutty holiday in a glass. Drink it neat, like a digestif. You could also use it for cocktails, but hey, if it's good enough to drink all by itself...

Retails for around $30 for a 375ml bottle.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best wine with turkey: Papa Celso Dolcetto di Dogliani

Here's my vote for best holiday/turkey wine: Papa Celso dolcetto.

Dolcetto is a medium-body Italian red, fruitier than pinot noir but just as versatile. This one is especially lovely; open it an hour or so before you want to serve it, as it's a little tight right out of the bottle. It pairs exquisitely with turkey, potatoes, stuffing and gravy--in short, everything at the holiday table. Not too tannic, not too dry, lots of notes of dark cherry, cloves and pepper with a long, satisfying finish.

Retails for $24-30.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Good gravy is just pan drippings, reduced.

You know all that goo in the bottom of the roasting pan when you take the turkey out of the oven? That's gravy.

Leave it in the roasting pan and remove all the solids with a slotted spoon. (Onions, carrots, whatever you put under the turkey when you roasted it.) Set the pan over two burners on the stove. If you need more liquid, add chicken stock. Bring to a simmer while scraping all the browned bits off the bottom with a wooden spoon. Let cook slowly for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, mix 1/4 cup water with 3 tablespoons cornstarch into a smooth paste.

Whisking constantly, pour this into the simmering broth, then cook for one minute.

There! Done!

You can add salt and pepper to taste, maybe a little port if you want to get fancy.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sweet potato pie

No marshmallows needed or allowed.

I used the standard pumpkin pie recipe, and just substituted roasted, peeled and mashed sweet potatoes for the pumpkin puree. The finished pie was a little lumpy; if you like a smooth pie, puree the sweet potato mash first. I used six small sweet potatoes; roast at 400 until cooked all the way through, then let cool and slip them out of their skins.

I used my standard pie crust recipe, too. No need to pre-bake it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


In this case, sausage and apple stuffing, though you could just as easily leave the sausage and apple out.

Also, I split the batch in two, and cooked part inside the turkey, and part outside. Cooked outside, it will be crispier. Cooked inside is moister. I like it crispier, but either way is fine.

Stuffing is recycled bread. That's it. I used half a loaf of slightly stale homemade bread, then added a bunch of homemade croutons for crunch.

From Joy of Cooking:

10 cups bread cubes (any kind of bread, preferably stale), in a large bowl
1/2 stick butter
1 onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
Seasonings: parsley, sage, thyme, salt and pepper, nutmeg, ground cloves
Chicken stock

Melt the butter in a skillet and saute the onion and celery until soft. Add the seasonings, stir, and add to the bread cubes in the bowl. Mix well; add chicken stock until just moist (more if you like moister stuffing). If cooking outside the turkey, turn into a buttered casserole dish and bake at 350 for 30 - 40 minutes, until crusty on top.

For sausage and apple stuffing, force the sausage out of two links of Italian sausage and cook in a separate skillet until browned. Add two Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced, and cook for another minute or so. Add to the bread cubes bowl along with the onion and celery mixture.

That's all you need for good all-purpose stuffing. You can get fancy with oysters or nuts or dried fruit, but people tend to like their stuffing plain and all-purpose, especially the kids.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cranberry syrup, and then cranberry sauce

I made two things from the exact same batch of cranberries: cranberry syrup, and then cranberry sauce.

The cranberry syrup is for cocktails, and is just simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, stir over heat until the sugar dissolves) with cranberries in it. I let the cranberries steep until the syrup had cooled all the way down, then strained them out and put the syrup in the fridge.

Then I thought, "Hey, there's nothing wrong with these cranberries. Most of them are still whole, and they've been soaking in sugar water for like two hours. I bet I could reuse them in cranberry sauce, and I wouldn't even have to add sugar!"

So that's what I did.

I made this cranberry sauce, without the brown sugar. It was yummy. And I felt all frugal and stuff.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to cook a turkey

Just in time for Christmas!

The most important thing about cooking a turkey is this: don't get all worked up about it.

People put way too much pressure on themselves, and a picture-perfect turkey, during the holidays. Really, it's just a turkey. Whether or not to brine it, whether or not to stuff it, whether or not to blast it with high heat at the beginning or the end, whether or not to put foil on the breast as it cooks: ultimately, none of these things really matter.


A turkey is just a big chicken. If you've cooked a roast chicken before, you can cook a turkey.

Here's how you do it.

1. Thaw it. Completely. Either on the counter overnight, or in the fridge 2-3 days before you want to cook it.

2. Get a roasting pan. Put some things in the bottom of it--I put in a roughly chopped onion, carrot, and a few stalks of celery, along with a bag of small potatoes, halved. Pour in some broth--maybe 1-2 cups. If your turkey comes with a neck/giblets, put those in the bottom too.

3. Wash off your thawed turkey. Pat it dry, then rub it all over with butter. If you want, you can separate the skin from the breast and shove a bunch of butter in there, too. Put salt and pepper all over the turkey.

4. If you're not putting stuffing inside the turkey, put some aromatics in there. A halved onion, a halved citrus fruit of some kind, some fresh herbs, any/all of the above. You can put stuffing inside there too--I like my stuffing crispy, so I usually cook it outside the bird, but if you like moist stuffing, it's perfectly safe to cook it inside the turkey.

5. Tie the legs shut with twine.

6. I usually blast the turkey with high heat at the beginning of the process. Put it in a 500-degree oven for 30 minutes or so, then back it down to 350 degrees. Cook at 350, basting every 30 minutes or so, until the button in the turkey breast pops out. You can reverse this process, with no discernible difference in color or texture or taste, by high-roasting the bird for the last 30 minutes, but it's harder to accurately predict when the last 30 minutes will be. So I do it at the beginning.

7. LET THE BIRD REST. Take it out of the oven and just let it sit for a half hour or so. If you don't, all the juice will run out the instant you cut into it and you'll have a dry bird. (Also it will be too hot to eat.)

The biggest thing about cooking a turkey is that you have to plan your oven usage around it. I had a 12-pound turkey, a smaller one ($6 on sale!), and it took a good four hours of dedicated oven time. Fortunately, most holiday desserts/breads can be made ahead of time.

That's all there is to it. Once it goes in the oven, it's pretty low-maintenance. I forgot to baste for long stretches of time and the turkey still didn't dry out or anything. (There wasn't enough juice left over for gravy, though.)

So, coming up: recipes for stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie, and gravy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Srirazerac

This tongue-twister of a drink is a Sazerac with Sriracha bitters added (pronounced "sir-az-er-ac"). It has the same complexity of a regular Sazerac--official cocktail of New Orleans, holla--but with a really interesting lingering fire behind it.

2 1/2 oz rye

1 teaspoonful simple syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 drops Sriracha Bitters
1 dash absinthe

Coat a rocks glass with absinthe, swirl and toss out excess. Stir the remaining ingredients in a mixing glass. Strain into a rocks glass. Twist a strip of lemon peel over the glass and drop in. Top with Sriracha Bitters to taste.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sriracha bitters

Since I started working in a restaurant with craft cocktails, I've learned all sorts of new things. Mostly I've learned that my home bar needs to be expanded by about 300%, with full professional bar tools, with all sorts of niche brands of booze I'd never heard of before. And that I need to become a professional bartender, because then your home booze is tax deductible.

But I digress. The restaurant's bar is fully stocked with quality booze--no flavored vodka or Red Bull here--and I get to taste it all. I've tasted $700-a-bottle tequila, $40-an-ounce 23-year-old bourbon, $115 bottles of Barolo. (Not worth it, worth it, well balanced but awfully tannic, in that order.) They also have a full array of bitters and housemade syrups and tinctures, and I've added (IMHO) the best one to my home bar.

Sriracha bitters.

Is that not just the most awesome thing you've ever heard of?

Okay, probably not, but I was pretty darn excited. Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters makes them, along with several other exciting flavors, but since they're $20 a bottle, I started with just the Sriracha.

I've already tried the recipe that came with the bottle, for a tarted-up Sazerac, which I'll post here tomorrow.

But I'll leave you with this thought:

A Bloody Mary. With habanero-infused vodka, Sriracha bitters, in a glass washed out with a smoky mezcal.

You're welcome.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Caper salsa verde

Capers are awesome. Salty, delicious little morsels of briny goodness. They're actually the bud of a plant that grows in the Mediterranean, which is picked and then preserved in brine.

They add punch to lots of different dishes, pasta especially. But caper salsa verde is a great thing to spread on toast with feta cheese.

It's just capers, finely chopped red onion, lemon juice, olive oil, and parsley. The end result should be liquidy; lots of olive oil, but enough lemon juice to keep it from tasting like olive oil. Mix together and let sit for a while to let the flavors marry.

Then spread on toast with feta cheese. Yum.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cranberry upside-down cake

And yet more fun things to do with cranberries that aren't sauce!

From The New York Times:


4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
9 ounces (2 2/3 cups) fresh cranberries
1/4 cup fresh orange juice


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, separated
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

To prepare topping: In a 9-inch round cake pan over low heat, melt butter and add brown sugar. Stir sugar until it dissolves, swirling pan to coat bottom. When sugar starts to caramelize, remove pan from heat and allow to cool.

In a small bowl, combine cranberries and orange juice. Toss to coat berries well. Spread berries evenly in pan, and sprinkle with any juice remaining in bowl. Set pan aside, and prepare the cake batter.

To prepare batter: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, cream butter with sugar until pale, light and fluffy. Add vanilla, and beat in egg yolks one at a time, scraping bowl once or twice. Add flour mixture alternately with milk, ending with dry ingredients. Set batter aside.

Using electric mixer, whisk egg whites with cream of tartar just until whites are stiff enough to hold a slight peak. Fold whites into batter 1/3 at a time. Spoon batter into prepared pan, and spread it evenly over cranberries. Bake until top is browned and cake pulls away slightly from edges of pan, 25 to 35 minutes. Let cake cool for 15 minutes before turning onto cake plate.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cranberry coffee cake

More fun things to do with cranberries that aren't sauce.

From The Joy of Cooking:

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon each baking powder and baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups sour cream or plain/Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups cranberries

For streusel topping:
Pulse together in a food processor until mixture resembles coarse crumbs:
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup pecans or walnuts
2/3 cup brown sugar
5 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

Whisk the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt together thoroughly. Combine the sour cream/yogurt and vanilla in a separate bowl (you can add a little orange or grapefruit zest to this, if you have any).

In a large bowl, beat on high speed sugar and butter until lightened in color and texture. Add eggs one at a time. Add flour mix in 3 parts, alternating with sour cream/yogurt mix in 2 parts, beating on low speed.

Spread evenly into a greased 13 x 9 pan. Top with cranberries. Top with streusel. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Let cool briefly and serve warm.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pickled cranberries

I had dinner out at a fancy restaurant the other night--more on that later--and one of the things we ate was duck with pickled cranberries. The pickled cranberries were so awesome I decided to make some for myself.

Makes 1 large jar.

12 oz cranberries

1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup apple cider or applejack
5-6 cloves
1/4 teaspoon whole allspice (I used ground)
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 2- to 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon peeled and roughly chopped fresh ginger (I used ground)

Combine all of the ingredients with 1/2 cup water in a large saucepan and bring to a rolling boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Pour the pickled cranberries into decorative glass jars or plastic containers. Cover with the remaining liquid and attach lids. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. They get better the longer you keep them.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cranberry liqueur

The poor typecast cranberry never shows up except as cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving and Christmas; and I daresay most people would rather have the kind that comes in a can, as opposed to the homemade kind.

So I'm going to present a whole bunch of non-cranberry-sauce cranberry recipes, to get everyone in the mood for Christmas.

First up: cranberry liqueur.

Which is essentially a cranberry-infused vodka. Plain vodka is fine, but I had some Absolut Brooklyn on hand, which is red apple and ginger-flavored vodka. I used that as the base, because apple, ginger and cranberry will go great together.

2 cups cranberries
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
12 oz (about 1 2/3 cups) vodka
1-2 cinnamon sticks

In a saucepan, cook the cranberries, sugar and water until boiling, and until the cranberries get soft and start to pop. Puree that mixture in a food processor, then add to a jar with the vodka and cinnamon stick. Put a lid on the jar and put the jar in a cupboard for 2-3 weeks. Strain the vodka through a fine-mesh sieve, and then through cheesecloth. Serve. Yum.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Sneaky Mexican

First cocktail created using habanero-infused vodka:

Habanero-infused vodka plus fresh grapefruit juice.

I call it The Sneaky Mexican because it sneaks up on you--the sweetness of the grapefruit juice, but then the habanero hits your tongue. "Mexican" because it reminds me of the Salty Maria, which is tequila and fresh grapefruit juice.

In fact, I came home wanting a Salty Maria, but we were out of tequila. "What else can I with fresh grapefruit juice?" I thought, as my eye roamed the bar and then fell on the habanero-infused vodka. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Chili with Italian sausage

Everybody has their own chili recipe. Mine is less a recipe and more of a general guideline. I take "chili" to mean "spicy bean and tomato soup," in which the beans can be any color, there may or may not be meat involved, and sometimes I even leave out the tomato.

But whatever. This week it's red beans and meat chili, and since I don't have any ground beef or ground turkey, I'm using Italian sausage instead. It tastes good and it's already spicy.

Red beans, pre-soaked
Tomato sauce
3-4 links Italian sausage, squeezed out of their casings and broken up
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
Seasonings: chili powder, cayenne, cumin, salt and pepper

Saute the onion and pepper in a little olive oil until soft. Add the sausage meat and cook until browned. Add the red beans and tomato sauce and a little broth to make it more liquid. Cover and cook on low until the beans are done. About halfway through the cooking process, add the seasonings to taste. Adjust seasonings again at the end and serve hot.

You can use hot peppers in addition to the green pepper if you want; you can serve with cheese and/or sour cream; you can substitute ground beef or turkey for the sausage; the possibilities are endless here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Eating out of the pantry month, Week 2

The "Eat out of the pantry to save money" initiative continues! Fortunately, it was a money-making weekend at the restaurant; still, I have better things to spend that money on than food I don't need (like Christmas presents, rent, bills, you know, the usual).

So this week, I've poked around my cabinets and have come up with the following things I can make:

Crawfish and grits
Spaghetti with clam sauce
Corn and bacon chowder
Red beans and rice

And I'll probably do something with eggs, maybe a quiche or a frittata. Eggs are my new favorite.

Well, that and sitting. Sitting is my new favorite too.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Huevos rancheros

My new favorite thing to do with eggs is huevos rancheros. It's cheap, it's fast, it's yummy. There are a billion different variations on this dish, but you can make a very delicious basic version with just tortillas, beans, eggs, and salsa. If you want to get fancy, you can fry the tortillas.

But I usually just warm them (use corn tortillas, please, not the wheat kind), put some leftover beans on top, top that with one or two fried eggs, and put a couple of spoonfuls of salsa over everything. I had some black-eyed peas left over, so I used those. Yum.

So, let's recap: warm corn tortillas, beans (white, black, red, whatever), two fried eggs, salsa. Done and done.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cooking for The Sprint

Now that I'm temping during the day and waiting tables at night, I've dubbed Thursday through Sunday "The Sprint."

Those are the days I work 16+ hours a day, four days in a row, and all of Saturday and Sunday is spent on my feet waiting tables.

By the time Monday rolls around, I'm exhausted, and my feet are killing me.

My schedule at the restaurant will change soon--I've asked to not work the Saturday and Sunday brunch shifts anymore, which means I'll be able to see my husband at least a little on the weekends. But in the meantime, it's The Sprint.

And since I'm only home to sleep (and not very much) on those days, all the cooking has to be done ahead of time. That's even more important since the IRS screwed us and we're on a super-tight budget.

So Wednesday night, after I finished my temp day job, I went home and scrounged around in the pantry.

I bought a few things at Sam's Club to hold us over--eggs, milk, cream, Nutella, you know, the essentials--and my plan is to eat out of the pantry all month to keep food costs down.

First I made a big batch of tomato sauce, so that we could have pasta as a ready option. (I also thawed some pesto from the freezer.)

Then I made a loaf of bread.

Then I soaked some black-eyed peas and made hoppin' john.

Next came a batch of potato soup with blue cheese, since the potatoes were getting a little soft. (And the blue cheese needed to be used up.)

After that, a batch of minestrone with frozen spinach.

Finally, I made refried bean enchiladas: two cans of refried beans plus a lot of shredded pepper jack cheese, folded into corn tortillas, baked at 400 until crispy on top, and served with plenty of salsa.

That should all easily last two adults lunch and dinner for four days.

It all actually didn't take that long--maybe an hour of dedicated kitchen time, since the soups could be started and then just pushed to the back of the stove to simmer for a while.

On Monday, when I have a day off again, I'll start the process over again, with a whole bunch of new stuff.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Things I ate in Costa Rica

I've now added #2 to my list of weirdest things I ever ate.

#1 was horse heart tartare in Montreal.

#2 was cactus ice cream in Costa Rica.

(Technically, cactus fruit ice cream. Bright purple, tastes like a not-very-sweet cross between lime and pineapple. Verdict: I'd totally eat that again.)

Other things I ate that rocked my world: a whole fresh fried bass (see picture above), right out of the water, with yucca fries. Yucca is a starchy root, the South American potato, which tastes like a cross between a potato and a sweet potato.

All different kinds of ceviche. The best kinds were with fish (as opposed to shrimp or other shellfish). Ceviche is a dish with raw seafood, marinated in lime juice and onions and sometimes other things. The citric acid changes the texture of the seafood--the same texture as if you'd cooked it, but it's still raw. And citrusy. It's addictively good.

I ate my weight in fried plantains.

Fresh papaya juice, all the time.

Chicken marinated in a coffee-chocolate sauce, baked inside a banana leaf. Think barbecue sauce, but made with coffee and chocolate instead of tomatoes and vinegar. I'm definitely going to try to recreate that one.

Black beans and rice, and fried plantains, make a really amazing breakfast.

Rum and fresh pineapple juice is also really amazing.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Costa Rica

It rained the whole time.

Other than that, it was fine.

Oh, except that right before we left, we discovered a dear relative has prostate cancer, and just before we came back, the State of New York extracted $1700 from our bank accounts, to pay a tax bill from 2007 that I didn’t even know existed.

But otherwise, the vacation was great.

Here are some things you should know about Costa Rica:

1. Most everyone speaks some degree of English, and there are English-language TV channels.

2. Central and South American plumbing is…let’s call it inadequate. You can’t flush toilet paper, it will clog up the antiquated plumbing. It’s only designed to dispose of, you know, human wastes. So you have to wipe, and then deposit the used toilet paper in a wastebasket next to the toilet. (It goes without saying you can’t flush anything else, like feminine products or tissues or anything.) It also goes without saying that the contents of the wastebasket don’t really bear close examination.

When I told my husband that, he thought I was joking. He’s still convinced it’s all an elaborate prank on Americans.

3. The dry season is January through April. The rest of the year, it will rain at least once a day. Sometimes it will rain for two weeks straight and flood everything. Not little-bitty drizzly rain, either—that tropical rain, where it doesn’t so much rain as the skies just open up and vomit water.

4. The roads are dreadful. And all the bridges are one-lane.

5. But the animals are fun: I saw all kinds of birds and lizards, monkeys, even some caimans.

We arrived toward the end of rainy season, and spent most of our time at Arenal Nayara, a fancy-pants resort in the mountains, overlooking Arenal Volcano. Which is all very well and good, but we never got a clear view of the entire volcano, thanks to the rain and fog. In fact, the only times we saw the sun were when we took a day trip to a wildlife refuge near the Nicaraguan border, and in San Jose on the day we left. That’s it.

So there was no sitting in the sun, and we only broke out our bathing suits once. At least it was warm.

The resort was very nice, if overpriced. Each room is actually a private hut, with its own Jacuzzi, hammock, outdoor shower, and view of the volcano. Of course, no one bothered to inform me that we wouldn’t actually be able to see the volcano, it being rainy season and all. There were full amenities, great landscaping, and a swim-up bar. Everyone was very helpful, there were pool boys to take your order at the outdoor hot tubs, there was full cable, free wi-fi, and free calls to the US.

But they nickel-and-dimed us for everything else—and at US prices, not at Costa Rican prices. Want water with your dinner? Flat or sparkling, $5 US a bottle, no tap water option. Want a massage at the spa? They start at $80 US. Want a bottle of wine at the wine bar? That’s $28 US for a bottle of Yellow Tail. (YELLOW TAIL. And that was the cheapest wine available. The rest of the wine options were South American, overpriced, and frankly no better than plonk.) Want transportation to and from the airport? $120 each way in a private van, no van-sharing option available. Breakfast was included (thank God) but dinner was at least $35 a person, with no booze. We never paid less than $100 for dinner, and I’m positive there weren’t any locals coming up the mountainside to eat $100 US dinners. The food was good, but it wasn’t $100 good.

Also, they were super-sneaky when it came to drinks: the drink menu listed most drinks at $6, but that didn’t include obligatory tax or 10% service charge, and the bartenders would never tell you what the house liquor was. There were several times when we’d order, say, a margarita, and the bartender would hold up a random bottle of tequila and say, “OK?” If you said OK back, chances were excellent you’d just ordered yourself a $26 margarita. You had to specify, “House is fine,” or else they’d automatically upsell you the expensive stuff. Caution: the local Costa Rican rum was apparently the expensive stuff, which we didn’t discover until we got our bill at the end of our stay. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where the local stuff WASN’T the house option. I don’t mind being asked if I have a preference for booze, but I really mind not being told what things cost up front.

This all makes me sound like a crank, I know. It actually was a very nice vacation—we got away, and spent five unbroken days with each other, with no work, gaming, computers or phones to intrude. Costa Rica is a beautiful country, even with the rain, and we’re definitely planning to go back at some point (to one of the coasts this time, rather than the mountains). And even though the food was overpriced, it was good. I ate my weight in ceviche and fried plantains.

I’m just cranky because the GODDAMN F*CKING STATE OF NEW YORK STOLE $1700 OF MY MONEY WITHOUT WARNING ME. WHILE I WAS OUT OF THE COUNTRY AND COULDN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Which meant all our vacation cash had to go to pay our rent for next month, and then the vacation had to be charged to a credit card, which makes me exceptionally cranky because the whole point of the vacation was that we could pay cash for it.

Right before the road trip in 2009, I got a bill from the IRS informing me that I’d filed my 2007 taxes improperly and I owed over $3000. (Some paperwork apparently never got mailed to me, so I never included it.) I freaked out, called them, and worked out a payment plan to pay it back. I finally managed to pay off the last of it this year.

Yesterday, while dealing with the IRS and the State of New York, I was told that in the fine print of that original bill, I was supposed to contact the State of New York MYSELF within 90 days so that my state tax return could be reworked. Naturally I never saw that provision, it being buried in the fine print, and no one at the IRS bothered to point that out to me. When I never contacted NY, they reworked my tax return themselves, and have been sending bills for said tax return to my old address in California—which never got forwarded to me, because I haven’t lived there for over a year. When they never heard from me, they issued a tax levy on my accounts, which meant the bank had to empty various savings accounts and send them $1700 on my behalf.

Now, let’s recap. They were sending bills to my California address, but I never got anything while I lived there, which meant they’ve only been trying to contact me within the last year. For a tax bill that’s now four years old. And yes, my address has changed, but my PHONE NUMBER AND EMAIL ADDRESS ARE EXACTLY THE SAME. Also, clearly they had no trouble digging up my current bank account information, so why couldn’t they be bothered to, you know, maybe CALL ME AND TELL ME I OWED THEM $1700?

I spent all morning on the phone yesterday, trying to figure out what happened when and what I could do about it. Short answer: I’m screwed. That money’s gone.

So now we have less than $500 left in emergency money, on an already tight budget, with Christmas coming up. Good times.

I wanted my husband to have an upscale vacation. By myself, I was always perfectly happy to stay in the local illegal Craigslist B&B and wander through the bars and restaurants the locals frequented. That way, I could spend my money on one or two really nice four-star dinners and museum admissions and the like. But I figured he’d want to be eased into international travel, which is why we opted for an expensive resort in the mountains—nothing to do but relax and be pampered, right? With no worries about being robbed in our sleep or getting Montezuma’s Revenge from the water. So, we had the upscale vacation, and thanks to the extra food and beverage charges, paid through the nose for it. Which I wouldn’t even mind, if it hadn’t been for that unexpected tax bill.

So, the moral of the story is: don’t bother with the upscale resorts. Stay in the cheap hotel, eat with the locals, really get to know the country. I can hang out with English-speaking white people at home for free, I don’t need to pay extra to do that somewhere else.

Also, be sure to have a healthy emergency fund, no matter what.

And what does this mean for you, dear readers? I'm not entirely sure yet, to be honest. We'll be eating out of the pantry all this month, that goes without saying. When our budget gets tight, food expenditures are the first to be chopped. My CSA is over, so I won't have any fun new CSA vegetable recipes to post; I'll be eating the old stand-bys, rice/beans/pasta/soup, and slashing all other expenditures to the bone. (Unplugging things/turning off the lights when we're not using them, turning the heat down to 60, not going out, not buying anything that's not absolutely necessary.)

The good news is that I got a post-Thanksgiving sale turkey at Sam's Club for $6. That's right, a whole turkey for $6.

I popped that right into the freezer. That's our Christmas turkey, for $6.

I did eat some really yummy things while in Costa Rica--more about that tomorrow.