I spent last week at a family gathering, sharing both a kitchen and the responsibility for cooking with some awesome relatives. The menus were incredibly varied and the food was great, and since no one had to cook more than once, everyone got to roll out their favorite meals. It was the cuisine version of the family’s greatest hits.
My niece made a dish I’d never tried before. It was healthy, delicious and brilliant in its simplicity. She explained to us that it was a traditional Costa Rican breakfast and that the woman who taught her to make it told her that custom asserts that once you’ve mastered this breakfast preparation, you’re ready to be a bride. My niece’s version consisted of a mixture of seasoned beans and rice with eggs and a side of bread.
The meal left me both nicely sated and intrigued, so I did a little research after I got home and discovered that the beans and rice mixture is called “gallo pinto,” or simply “pinto,” and it is considered the national dish in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The eggs are served fried or scrambled, and other added elements often include fried plantains, tortillas and salsa.
Substitutions and variations are common. Traditionally, the dish is prepared with black beans in Costa Rica and small red beans in Nicaragua, but other varieties of beans, such as kidney beans or pigeon peas, are also sometimes used. Onions, garlic, tomatoes, chopped bell peppers, spicy peppers, hot sauce, cilantro and shredded cheese are often either added to the bean and rice mixture or sprinkled over the top of the pinto and eggs.
“Nicoyans eat beans and rice every day, often at every meal. Arguably the best in the world, the black beans they depend on contain more antioxidants than any other type of bean. Paired with corn tortillas and squash, they make the perfect food.”
In his book “The Blue Zones Solution,” Dan Buettner, working with National Geographic and funded in part by the National Institute on Aging, wrote about how he identified the places in the world where people are unusually healthy and live remarkably long lives. One of the regions he singled out was the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Buettner identified a number of factors that possibly contributed to the good health and longevity of the residents of this and other Blue Zones, including activity level, social support, low stress and a moderate, plant-based diet. In Nicoya, this diet is centered around corn tortillas, beans and rice.
In his cookbook, Buettner provides two recipes for the Nicoyan gallo pinto-one with salsa lizano and one without. Salsa lizano is a sauce often served with gallo pinto, but if you can’t find any, Buettner claims that “even Costa Ricans agree that another thin brown sauce very common to U.S. kitchens, Worcestershire sauce, is a fine substitute for salsa lizano in authentic gallo pinto.” If you want to stick to the authentic preparation, you could buy some online or make your own.
Making the actual gallo pinto can be as simple as this: “Cook the beans, cook the rice, and then cook them together!” Or it can be a more complicated affair. That’s up to you. But once it’s done, according to Buettner, for an authentic Nicoyan breakfast, “Slide a fried egg on top of a serving of black beans and rice, sprinkle with finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves,” and it’s ready. Add a bit of greens or a side salad and it’s a perfect dinner! After having my niece’s version, I’ll definitely be giving it a try.
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.