Chef Tal Ronnen, owner of West Hollywood’s Crossroads, and his executive chef Scott Jones demonstrated their flavorful vegetarian cuisine for well-healed foodies at Sun Valley Lodge. Although Sun Valley, a celebrity studded Idaho town, may be out of budget for many, Ronnen and Jones’ cuisine at Crossroads is well within the means of the average working American. Chefs to A-list celebrities, Tal Ronnen’s bestselling The Conscious Cook will intrigue any carnivore.
Chef Tal Ronnen’sCrossroads eggplant caponata over toasted buckwheat and black quinoa
Ingredients for the caponata
5 large sweet red peppers, roasted and diced
2 large eggplant, peeled and diced
2 medium to large white onions, diced
3 ribs celery, diced
4 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 Tablespoon minced fresh garlic
3 Tablespoons capers
3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups tomato puree
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Teaspoon red pepper flakes
Preparation for the caponata
Preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C).
Place the red peppers on a lightly oiled or parchment paper lined sheet pan.
Roast the peppers for 30 minutes turning every 10 minutes.
Remove the peppers from the oven and place in a paper bag. Roll the top of the bag shut and cool for 30 minutes.
Remove the peppers and slip off the charred skin. Discard the seeds and dice the peppers. You should have approximately 2 to 2-1/2 cups diced pepper.
6. Heat a wide deep (4”) pot on medium high heat for a couple minutes. Add the olive oil and heat for 30 seconds. Add the eggplant, onions and celery and sauté for several minutes stirring a couple times. Add the red peppers and cook for 3 minutes more.
7. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer.
8. Reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer and cook uncovered for 1 hour stirring every 8 minutes.
9. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
Note: The caponata will stay fresh covered and refrigerated for several days and makes a terrific cold appetizer on crackers or topping for bruschetta.
Ingredients for quinoa
The use of black quinoa is for color contrast, not taste. Therefore any color quinoa is fine.
1 cup black quinoa
3 cups water or vegetable stock
1/2 Teaspoon salt
Preparation for quinoa
Place the quinoa in a bowl, cover with cold water and let sit for 5 minutes. Drain through a strainer and rinse.
Bring the water or stock to a boil. Add the quinoa and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. When done the quinoa will display a tiny white thread.
Drain through a sieve and return to the pan. Cover the pan and let rest for 10 minutes.
Ingredients for the toasted buckwheat
1 cup toasted buckwheat (kasha)
2 cups water
1/4 Teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon olive oil
fresh ground pepper to taste
Preparation for the toasted buckwheat
If you have purchased untoasted buckwheat (kasha), place the buckwheat in a dry sauté pan and toast over high heat, stirring constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes.
In a medium saucepan bring the water, oil and salt to a boil. Add the buckwheat and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed.
Place a generous spoonful of quinoa and buckwheat, side-by-side, on a dinner plate. Place a generous serving of caponata on top but leave each of the grains still visible on the sides. Serve with a tossed salad or a Greek salad and a crisp dry Sauvignon blanc and you have a delicious vegetarian meal.
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Petra was carved into multi colored mineral laden sandstone by the Nabataeans c. 300 B.C., yet this geographically strategic region in present day Jordan generated wealth for whoever had control long before the city existed. As a center for long-haul caravans, some stretching for 700 camels, Petra was an ideal junction for the distribution of goods on their way south, west and north into the Levant, Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. As for security, Petra was a natural bank vault.
The massive city was carved into the red sandstone cliffs on the flanks of Jordan’s vast dry Wadi Araba. The dramatic main entrance through a long towering and narrow gorge – a Siq – was a defensive and psychological tour de force. The eyes are focused on the first building that comes into view, the impressive Al Khaznch. Popularly known as the Treasury, its purpose was more likely ceremonial – shock and awe.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, chosen in 2007 as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and discovered by Hollywood in the Indiana Jones franchise, Petra deserves its reputation as the top tourist attraction in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. With an international mix of visitors, the carriage, horse, donkey and camel rides, the craft and trinket stalls, local musicians and water hawkers add a visceral caravan atmosphere to a serious archaeological site.
Petra’s dominance of the Spice Route in the Levant continued well into the Roman era when the city became the capital of the empire’s Arabian province. Although it’s not clear what use the Nabataeans meant for many structures, the Romans added obvious flourishes – an impressive theater, colonnaded market and freestanding temples. Yet if it were not for the genius of three human accomplishments, the glory of Petra would have been impossible.
Petra’s wealth and life in the Cradle of Civilization were based on wheat, sheep and water. The domestication of a wild grain and a feisty animal in prior millenniums allowed for settled life and the rise of towns. Yet all life was dependent on water, especially in regions prone to drought. The Nabataeans mastered an efficient system of dams, cisterns and water channels carved in rock that provided this desert city with a profitable surplus of water.
While Petra declined after the 5th century A.D. due to changing commercial routes and serious earthquakes, wheat, sheep, people and the need for water remained. The cuisine of Jordan’s Bedouin culture harken back to the basics of ancient settled life. Flat ash bread is still buried under the hot coals while goat, lamb and poultry may be grilled or baked in a hot sand pit. Vegetables of all types are pickled and dried fruits, nuts and cheese round out the basics.
Who knows when humans first discovered that slathering toppings on flat rounds of bread and baking them were tasty and had infinite possibilities? Among the many dozens of mezze – small plates – that dominate Jordanian cuisine, Araies Iahma is a favorite among locals and visitors. Known as Bedouin Pizza, araies lahma is easy to prepare.
Araies Iahma (Bedouin Pizza) – 8 servings
1 pound ground meat – any combination of lamb, beef, mutton or goat
1 medium onion, diced
½ cup olive oil
1 green chili pepper, seeds removed, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed and diced
2 tomatoes, blanched, skinned and diced (see preparation)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C)
Blanch the tomatoes for 45 seconds in boiling water and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Using a sharp knife slit the sides of the skin and slip off the skin
Finely dice the tomatoes, onion, chili pepper and garlic
Add the salt, cumin, and diced vegetables to the ground meat and mix well.
Cut each round of pita in half, and spread a thin layer of meat inside each pocket.
Brush the stuffed pita halves with olive oil and arrange on a sheet pan.
Bake for 7 minutes, turn each pita over and continue for 5 minutes more.
Serve hot with a salad as a light lunch, as an appetizer or part of a festive and elaborate Jordanian mezze buffet.
Araies Iahma is just one of a dozen dishes a visitor can participate in preparing at the Petra Kitchen. The staff of the Petra Kitchen under manager Ali and chef Mustafe have created a participatory dinner that introduces guests to the top tastes of Jordanian cuisine. Couple this with its location at the very epicenter of ancient human achievement, and dining in Petra becomes a bonding experience with the ancestors.
When you go:
Non-stop flights are available from major North American hubs to Amman, Jordan.
Petra is a 3-hour drive south from Amman on modern highways. Although day excursions can easily be arranged from Amman, to give Petra its due, an overnight in one of the new town’s attractive hotels is recommended.
As in all hot arid regions, visitors to Petra are urged to carry and drink plenty of water. Visiting the entire site entails walking 6 to 9 miles round trip, but carriage, horse, donkey and camel transportation is available. Bottled water is easily purchased in the historic site from numerous vendors.
A nighttime candle light illumination of the Al Khaznch (the Treasury) is not recommended. Candlelight at its base fails to do the vast edifice justice. Save your energy for the daylight.
This article on the cuisine of Jordan – with recipes – has little to do with almonds; it has everything to do with the misunderstood terms of authenticity and fusion when it relates to national cuisines. Yet let’s take almonds as an example, in Jordan they do not coat this delectable nut in a tooth breaking armor of sugar. The reason is simple; Jordan Almonds are an invention of the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Jordan didn’t exist until the 20th century – let’s not get into the derivation of the name.
Salatat Khyar and Fatoosh are ubiquitous and refreshing cucumber salads, part of the common repertoire in Jordan. Yet their main vegetable, the cucumber, probably didn’t make its way into Levantine cuisine from India until circa 1000 B.C.E. – long after a thriving food culture had developed. The Spice Route and the Silk Road, legendary commercial links between Europe and Asia, intersected in Jordan and the greater Levant resulting in today’s timeless fusion Middle Eastern cuisine.
The many variations on classic cucumber salads found throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean mimic the layers of cultural influence made possible through commerce on the Spice Route and the Silk Road. Research Salatat Khyar and often the Algerian recipe appears, significant for the absence of yogurt in the recipe despite that dairy staple being otherwise well utilized. Why the Berbers and Moors of North Africa left yogurt out is a mystery.
Still this article is not about cucumbers, yogurt or almonds – although Jordan has wonderful raw almonds that are another story altogether. National cuisines – aka authentic – are a myth simply because cooking is regional; it’s all about what’s available. For most that was a 50-mile radius from one’s village. Yet for the Middle East that was the known world.
The delectable smoky flavor of baba ganouj – Jordan’s spelling – is known throughout the Middle Eastern culinary world. Except in Jordan tahini (sesame paste) is absent. Yet tahini was common in the region. Pomegranate molasses on the other hand was an import from Persia brought in by caravan. Concentrating juices of perishable fruits (dibs) was common. The addition of mint is a regional Jordanian variation as well not found in the more commonly known Lebanese baba ghanoush. The result for Jordan’s baba ganuj is a recipe for chopped salad rather than a dip. It’s a refreshing mezze (small plate) with notes of mint and sweet/sour pomegranate.
Baba Ganuj (serves 8)
Pomegranate molasses is available in better markets (Whole Foods, Trader Joes, etc) and Middle Eastern groceries. This recipe comes from The Petra Kitchen, Petra, Jordan.
2 pounds eggplant (approximately 2 medium size)
1 green bell pepper
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 large tomato
1 medium sweet onion
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
Prick the eggplants with a fork and roast on a baking dish in a 375° oven for 45 to 60 minutes until very soft. (Roasting over charcoal in a baking dish will impart a better smokey flavor. Turn the eggplants several times.) Allow the eggplants to cool. Split the eggplants and scoop out all the flesh discarding the skins. Place in a stainless steel or ceramic mixing bowl.
Add olive oil, lemon juice and salt and mash with a fork until a chunky puree.
Dice the tomato, pepper and onion. Crush and dice the garlic and add all to the eggplants.
Stir in mint.
Garnish with parsley and/or additional mint and serve with flat bread.
Muhammara, redolent of roasted red peppers and walnuts, means brick colored in Arabic because that’s the color of the dip – the color of Wadi Rum sand. Yet variations are all over the world of the Spice Road and Silk Route as far north as Georgia in the Caucuses. It’s rich tasting yet light in texture, and this Jordanian recipe is simple to prepare.
Muhammara – 8 servings
2 ½ pounds red bell peppers
1 or 2 small hot chili peppers
6 ounces walnuts
½ cup wheat crackers
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Roast the red peppers until skins are blistered and charred using one of these three methods – (1) on a baking dish in a 400° oven for 10 – 15 minutes (2) over charcoal turning the peppers several times, or (3) over the open flame of a gas stove holding the peppers with tongs or a long fork like marshmallows.
Place the peppers in a bowl and cover or in a paper bag for 15 minutes. This will steam the peppers allowing the charred skin to easily slip off. Discard the skins, seeds and membranes.
In a food processor, grind the walnuts, crackers, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, cumin, salt and sugar until smooth.
Add the red peppers and process until smooth.
With the machine running, add the olive oil in a thin stream and then the chili peppers. If too thick add 1 to 2 tablespoons water.
Scrap the puree into a stainless, glass or ceramic bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight for best flavor, although it’s fine to eat it right away.
Serve drizzled with extra olive oil and/or pomegranate molasses garnished with walnuts or pine nuts and accompanied by wheat crackers or flat bread.
Labna (soft yogurt cheese) is more common than butter as a spread especially on traditional flat breads. It’s frequently on the breakfast table along with smoked fish. Flatbread with labna, smoked salmon, red onion, capers and dill is as common in Jordan as bagels and lox in America. Fusion isn’t the adulteration of cuisine; it’s evolution and creativity.
Vanilla sauce and pineapple certainly don’t seem like they ought to pair with fish and seafood. Yet this savory sauce along with caramelized fresh pineapple accent the natural sweet notes of salmon and scallops in surprising ways. Just as in desserts, the vanilla highlights the natural flavors of this dish.
As a chef I enjoy playing with food especially deconstructing dishes I’ve enjoyed in restaurants. The recipe I’ve created for this dish was inspired by several variations of these four ingredients over the years. For this dish please resist substitutions.
Vanilla extract will be too intense whereas the natural bean provides a subtle essence of vanilla. Sweet unsalted butter will coat your mouth with flavors in a way oil will not. Canned pineapple is too wet to properly caramelize; seek out a ripe fresh fruit.
Sautéed salmon and scallops with caramelized pineapple and vanilla sauce
Ingredients for two generous servings
2 six ounce wild salmon fillets with skin
6 sea scallops, approximately ½ pound
3 one inch thick slices of fresh pineapple, skin removed
7 tablespoons sweet butter
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
kosher salt and white pepper to taste
Ingredients for the sauce
1 whole vanilla bean
1/3rd cup (5 ounces) white wine
2 tablespoons grated sweet onion
2 tablespoons sweet butter
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 tablespoon corn starch dissolved in 2 tablespoons white wine
kosher salt and white pepper to taste
Place one large cast iron pan and two medium size cast iron or heavy stainless steel sauté pans into a cold oven and preheat the oven to 425° F.
For the salmon, scallops and pineapple
Lightly season the salmon on both sides with kosher salt and white pepper.
Dry the sea scallops with paper towel.
Remove the pineapple skin and cut 3 one inch thick round slices. Slice each round in half. (reserve and refrigerate the remaining fruit for other uses).
Pull off 1 packed tablespoon of fresh tarragon leaves
(Set all these ingredients aside and make the vanilla sauce before proceeding with step 5).
Using a thick potholder remove the large hot cast iron pan and place it on the stove over high heat – leave the other 2 pans in the oven. Melt 3 tablespoons of sweet butter in the pan, add the fresh tarragon leaves and top immediately with the salmon fillets skin side down. Sauté the salmon for 2 minutes.
Using a thick potholder, remove the medium pans from the oven and place on the stove. Using the same potholder place the large cast iron pan with the salmon into the oven and bake for 7 to 10 minutes. Leave the salmon skin side down as it will become crisp and flavorful.
Place the medium cast iron or stainless steel pans onto high heat and melt 2 tablespoons sweet butter in each. Sauté the pineapple in one pan until lightly caramelized for 5 to 7 minutes turning half way through.
While the pineapple is cooking sauté the sea scallops in the other medium pan for about 2 minutes per side.
When the pineapple and scallops are finished remove the salmon from the oven and follow the plating instructions.
For the sauce
Slice the vanilla bean in half and gently scrape the seeds into a small saucepan and add the pod. Pour the wine over the vanilla. Over medium heat bring the wine to a simmer and reduce to 4 tablespoons (2 ounces). Discard the pods.
In a small sauté pan melt 2 tablespoons sweet butter over medium heat and add the grated onion. Gently cook for a few minutes until the onion is translucent. Do not brown.
Add the onions to the reduced vanilla wine and pour in the almond milk.
Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook uncovered for 7 to 10 minutes.
Dissolve the cornstarch in 2 tablespoons white wine and stir into the almond milk. Simmer gently for 1 to 2 minutes until the sauce is slightly thickened.
Line a strainer with cheesecloth and strain the sauce into a small heat proof bowl and keep warm by placing into a larger bowl containing enough hot water to reach half way up the side of the sauce bowl.
(Continue with steps 5 – 9 of the salmon, scallops and pineapple).
To plate the dish
Cover the bottom of a dinner plate with vanilla sauce. Place one salmon fillet in the center of the plate. Arrange 3 sea scallops on top and/or to the side of the fillet. Arrange 3 half slices of pineapple to the side of the salmon and scallops.
Enjoy this mélange of flavors from the tropics and the sea with a crisp green salad and a dry white wine such as a sauvignon blanc.
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As I often do, I created a recipe with ingredients I had on hand. In this case it became a baked stuffed pepper recipe using lentils instead of rice. The nutritional difference between rice and lentils is negligible. I simply like the taste of lentils and figured it was a good alternative. The prosciutto and feta cheese adds all the salt this dish requires.
Ingredients for 2 to 3 servings:
3 bell peppers – note: I prefer to mix bell pepper colors: red, yellow, green, and orange
½ cup lentils
1 ½ – 2 cups water
1/3rd of a sweet onion
2 cloves garlic
2 celery stalks with leaves from the center of the bunch
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
3 slices prosciutto
1/3rd cup crumbled feta cheese
6 leaves fresh basil
3 sundried tomatoes
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
Bring 1 & ½ cups (12 ounces) water to a boil. Add the lentils and reduce heat. Cover when the lentils are gently simmering. Simmer for 30 to 40 minutes checking half way through to add additional boiling water if necessary. The lentils should be tender and all water evaporated.
While lentils are simmering, slice the tops of the peppers off and set aside. Place the peppers into an oven proof baking dish that will provide a snug fit for the peppers.
Dice the onion, celery and garlic.
Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan and gently cook the onion, celery and garlic until soft but not browned. Turn the heat off.
Dice the prosciutto, basil leaves and sundried tomatoes.
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
In a small sauce pan heat the chicken or vegetable stock just to the boiling point.
When the lentils are tender combine with the onion, celery and garlic. Add the prosciutto, basil leaves, feta cheese and sundried tomatoes. Gently combine – do not mash the lentils.
Spoon into the peppers and replace the tops. Pour the stock into the baking dish around, not over, the peppers.
Place the dish into the preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes until the peppers are soft.
A crisp dry white wine goes well with this dish. Try an Assyrtiko from the Greek island of Santorini.
Pejibaye (pronounced pay-hee-by-yay) is the fruit of the Peach Palm tree. It’s indigenous to Central and tropical South America and for centuries has been a staple before and after European invasions in the 16th century. About the size of a plum, the bright reddish orange fruit is packed with vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates and remains wildly popular, especially in Costa Rica.
The Peach Palm tree (bactris gasipaes) not only produces large clusters of fruit for 50 to 75 years but also is a major source for heart of palm that’s favored worldwide. From street vendors to top chefs Costa Ricans adore pejibaye. The thick-skinned raw fruit must be simmered in salted water from one to three hours before eating – it’s difficult to over cook the dense butternut squash like textured fruit.
Costa Ricans enjoy cooked pejibaye as a snack sliced and dipped in mayonnaise and sometimes coated in corn meal and fried. Chef Diego Seitour at Peace Lodge adds thin slices to his incomparable Ceviche Tucurrique of sea bass. Chef Francis Canal Bardot of San Jose’s premiere hotel and restaurant Grano de Oro, features the fruit in its most popular incarnation as cream of pejibaye soup.
The dense texture of pejibaye ideally lends itself to soup. Yet as is common with a national dish, there is no one authentic recipe. The simplest are purees of cooked fruit with onions, water, a little milk and perhaps some garlic and cilantro. Other recipes include chicken or vegetable stock, cream and any number of additions such as celery, bell peppers, butter, carrots, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves.
What I’ve created is in keeping with my culinary belief that a recipe should enhance and not mask the natural flavor of the prime ingredient. I also like the silky mouth feel of adding heavy cream and the depth of flavor from a good chicken stock.
In North America it’s nearly impossible to find fresh pejibaye, even in Latino markets – the raw fruit is little known and perishable. In Florida, where I live, it is available in Latino markets preserved in jars ready to eat – after peeling the skin, splitting the fruit and removing the seed.
Cream of Pejibaye Soup – 4 servings
4 cups of well flavored chicken stock
1 cup of heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium sweet onion, diced
½ cup diced celery
3 cloves of garlic, diced
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 roasted red pepper plus a couple tablespoons cream
¼ cup minced fresh cilantro
If you happen to have raw pejibayes, cover with cold water and add ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for at least one hour. Cool enough to handle and peel off the skin with a small sharp knife. Cut the fruit off the seed – the fruit will be dry and easy to separate from its seed. If you’re using ready to eat pejibayes in a jar, drain, rinse in cold water, peel and slice.
Preheat the oven to 400° and place the whole red pepper in a small baking dish. Roast the pepper for 30 to 40 minutes, turning every 10 minutes, until soft and the skin is slightly brown. Remove the pepper to a small bowl, cover and let cool. When cool enough to handle slip off the skin, remove the seeds, slice in strips and set the roasted pepper aside.
Melt the butter in a heavy four quart saucepan.
Add the diced onion and celery and cook over medium low heat until the onion is soft, transparent but not browned. Add the garlic and cook for two additional minutes.
Add the sliced pejibayes and chicken stock. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
While the soup is simmering, heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan over low heat just until small bubbles appear in a ring around the pan. Add the cream and white pepper to the soup and turn off the heat.
Puree the soup with an immersion blender or transfer in batches to a blender and liquefy – I prefer using an immersion blender directly in the pot.
Puree the roasted red pepper in a blender or with an immersion blender adding just enough cream to make a smooth sauce.
Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with a flourish of red pepper puree and a sprinkle of cilantro.
There are conflicting Internet statistics on the caloric content of pejibaye. The calorie counts on sites range from an outrageous 1,100 calories per fruit to a low of 56. On the jar of prepared fruit I’m using the nutritional label indicates 190 calories for three pejibaye – 65 per fruit. Considering the fruit is not sweet, I find it difficult to believe any higher figure. Regardless, it’s an easy, nutritious and flavorful national icon of beautiful Costa Rica – ps: and farm animals love pejibaye.
“We’ve grown smaller,” Pedro Belmar said quietly as we sampled the crisp organic kale with Parmesan tapas. That would not ordinarily be a hotel’s best business plan, but as a Small Distinctive Hotel of Costa Rica, the Hotel Belmar strives to reduce its carbon footprint while at the same time expanding its hospitality. That sentiment has greater resonance coming from a second generation heir to a hotel that has his name on everything.
A pleasant reminder of Pedro Belmar’s vision for the new look of success is as close as the hotel’s La Chispa cocktail. It’s firmly rooted in the forest and the 21st century cocktail revolution.
cedar pine needle smoke
premium Sloane’s Gin
black tea syrup
Crushed ice is swirled in a cocktail glass. Local dry cedar pine needles on a flameproof dish are lit with a torch. Discard the ice and invert the glass over the flame which should extinguish immediately and rest it on the needles capturing the smoke. The gin, syrup and lime are stirred in crushed ice. Upright the glass and strain the cocktail into the captured smoke.
Sipping a smoky cedar scented La Chispa ensconced in the all-cedar Hotel Belmar overlooking the cloud forest tumbling down to the Gulf of Nicoya is an expression of “growing smaller.” The black tea syrup was made from ingredients in the Hotel Belmar’s organic garden as well as fresh limes. The cedar pine needles are on site. The gin may be imported, but the new craft cocktail menu anchors the Hotel Belmar’s commitment to sustainable growth and 21st century eco-luxe travel.
When his parents, Pedro and Vera Belmar, opened their home as a bed and breakfast in 1985 in the heart of the country’s fabled Cloud Forest, Monteverde was a remote hamlet among lush subsistence farms. Located 85 miles northwest from the capital at San Jose, backpackers and naturalists exploring the cloud forests were the area’s first tourists. Isolation and climate conditions favorable for a plethora of unique indigenous flora and fauna helped Monteverde develop a mystic for natural wellness.
With nary a paved road to what is recognized today as a biological treasure, travelers to the cloud forest grew from just backpackers to seekers of tranquility with comfort. The 13 room all-cedar Hotel Belmar main building is Pedro and Vera’s homage to a love of alpine architecture. The extensive amount of cedar wood made opening a wood shop on site a logical decision. Handling all the work for hotel maintenance, it made sense for the wood shop to design and craft designated tableware for both the dining room and bar such as the sectional plate for the craft beer and tapas tasting.
Under the second generation the past five years, Pedro, Jr, and his sister have renovated the hotel and transformed the original home into the sleek wood and glass nine room Chalet. The Chalet is the center of the hotel’s wellness program, spa services and organic juice and tea bar. The juices are made from fruits and vegetables grown on site.
On eight cultivated acres at the nearby Belmar family farm and the compact but expanding hotel organic garden, chickens for eggs, coffee, dairy, sugar cane, bananas, avocados, curly endive, lettuces, kale, watercress as well as sunflowers, nasturtiums, fennel, amaranth seeds and dozens more items supply the hotel’s Celajes Restaurant.
A smoke house made from recycled materials smokes cheese, bacon and churresso sausage with the wood shop supplying the cedar chips. Plans are to grow mushrooms using the farm’s coffee hulls and natural compost.
Methane gas is collected for kitchen use through the hotel’s biological water filtration system. The system uses no energy yet produces methane, which is stored in a tank for the kitchen. Clean water is returned to the mountain stream in exchange for energy.
“My parents had the ideas,” says soft spoken Pedro taking little credit for the Hotel Belmar’s successful transition into a 21st century Small Distinctive Hotels retreat that consistently achieves Costa Rica’s highest awards for sustainable tourism. Knowing that the caché of Monteverde and the Cloud Forest is the region’s draw, Pedro wants to position the Celajes Restaurant and bar as the hotel’s unique attraction. It starts with the view: located on the main lobby floor, the spacious Celajes Restaurant and bar commands a sweeping vista of the forest, mountains and Gulf of Nicoya far below.
The bar reaches deep into the hotel’s organic garden for unique flavors to combine with premium sprits. Bitters and syrups are house made from reduced stout, coffee, eucuplytos and garden plants such as palo santo, a lemony scented herb that has been burned in South America to cleanse spaces of contrarian spirits – like sage. Room mini bar options include excellent house bottled Hotel Belmar cocktails.
Roberto Saenz is the Hotel Belmar’s brew master. The compact brewery just down the hill from the main hotel building was created using recycled equipment. All bottling is done on site. An inventive beer and food tasting is offered to guests at the bar or after the brewery tour.
The Aura Pale Ale was light with a refreshing hint of citrus and paired well with veggie ceviche: chiote, green bananas, cilantro and lime were fresh and tangy on a small tortilla. The dark, earthy hops of Dos Maros IPA melded with the rich meat of house smoked churesso. A creamy Stout had a great vanilla nose and a lingering molasses flavor. Coffee and chocolate notes in the stout blended well with smoky and lightly candied house made bacon. The small batch brews change often so pairing combinations will vary – that’s fun.
The freshness of both the ingredients and artistry of Celajes Restaurant does not disappoint. Breakfast can include a coconut milk and yogurt with chia seeds, fruit, tarragon and basil accompanied by house made granola. A lunch of beef carpaccio was a visually stunning platter of ultra thin slices of raw beef napped with a caper vinaigrette.
At dinner house baked bread is served with chimichuri sauce harkening back to Pedro, Sr, Chilean roots. Roasted beets, micro greens, grilled carrots, fennel flowers, basil, sunflower seeds with a yogurt dijon vinaigrette made a colorful salad. Beef tenderloin was seasoned with soy sauce, lemon juice, cilantro and fennel flowers. Wild sea bass was gently poached in butter. The perfume of a light dessert of verbana water, lavender flowers, tarragon, tropical fruit and guanabanas sorbet linked the dinner to the scents of a Cloud Forest evening.
The ethos of Hotel Belmar and of all Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica is to succeed by taking less from the Earth. What is taken must be sustainable and is often delicious. Pedro Belmar and his diverse staff enhance the guest experience by living the true meaning of less is more.
When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose and 3 hours to Monteverde. Getting around: Costa Rica has an extensive inter city bus system and many tourist van options. The easiest transportation is renting a car. Costa Rica’s road system is generally in good condition.