My recent trip to Costa Rica has left me longing for the flavors of the tropics. Passionfruit. Mangos. Pineapples.
We would see them, fallen with abandon to the sandy floor of beachside groves. We would also see people gather them in pick-up truckloads, either scavanged from the fallen or cut from on-high, to be arranged alongside bananas and melons on roadside fruitstands.
Hand-lettered signs would advertise the immature “green” coconuts and their pure, nutrient-rich water. For under a dollar, you could purchase one of these foraged delectables, drilled with a small hole and inserted with a sipping straw.
Cool, barely sweet coconut water was so refreshing.
The coconut has remarkable versatility. From husk to coir to palm frond to trunk, there are no less than 46 documented general uses for it! Of course, we are familiar with coconut milk, the key ingredient in lush curries, or Tom Ka Kai soup. And, in Costa Rica, I found that milk in an unexpected place–cloaking a piece of sea bass at a French-styled bistro.
One day, we drove down the coastal highway to explore the neighboring town, Ojochal. We’d heard there was a farmer’s market going on, and several interesting eateries worth visiting. To our surprise, we discovered a strong French-Canadian community there.
The farmer’s market was small, held in the airy lobby of a hotel/restaurant called Citrus. What a treat! One local farmer was selling ripe tomatoes, slender green beans, and bunches of Lacinato kale. Another had fat bundles of green onions, arugula, and genovese basil. And, a vendor was selling gorgeous artisan bread. Some loaves of rustic wheat had undulating waves and a star drawn and baked into the crust. (with a taste that matched the beauty!) These had been baked by a French man further down the Ojochal main dirt road. His breads were in high demand, available only by special order, or at these markets.
After making a few purchases, we stopped at a little panaderia–a bakery/coffeehouse run by another French couple–for a cup of dark roast and croissant. We snacked under the tin roof porch and laughed every time a coconut fell with a startling crash. Here, we learned about Exotica, the long-standing and possibly best restaurant in Puntarenas province. After giving directions, the bakery owners called ahead for us too, in case we needed reservations.
Exotica is a festive little enclave–thatched hut, breezy covered patio with tables made from tree trunks, charming forged lanterns suspended from the ceiling, and flowers-flowers-flowers, all surrounded by natural bamboo and wrought iron fencing.
We were greeted by hostess and co-owner Lucy, a tall, handsome woman who radiated hospitality. She and her husband, Robert, who is the chef, have run Exotica since the 1990’s—in the early years, without electricity.
Their menu wove French and Costa Rican influences, belonging to neither cuisine, but a happy fusion of the two. We each enjoyed a salad of local lettuces in a bright citrusy vinaigrette, garnished with a huge salmon-colored hibiscus bloom. Bill had a cheese plate with camembert, boursin, and a locally crafted tomme. I chose the sea bass in garlic beurre blanc.
My fish had a delicate pan-seared crust, bathed in a beurre blanc sauce that deviated from the expected French manner. Instead of the traditional lemon-garlic-white wine reduction swirled with a heap of butter, this beurre blanc got its acid note from lime, and its buttery mouthfeel from coconut milk. There was a balance of butter and coconut milk, neither overpowering the other, with nuanced layering of garlic and lime. Served with a timbale of jasmine rice and steamed local green beans, it was a sublime dish, one that I wanted to recreate.
Simply —and with speed—-done.
Here are some notes:
The coconut milk replaces at least half the butter in a classic beurre blanc recipe, and is faster-easier to work with too. The whole process came together in about fifteen minutes, which is so nice for such elegant results.
I cooked my jasmine rice in brown butter with leeks—hence the darker color, and rich-sweet toasty flavor. Saute a handful of diced leeks in a tablespoon of butter, with a pinch of salt. When the leeks are collapsed and the butter solids golden, stir in the rice. Let the butter-leek mixture coat the grains before adding the water.
Sea bass was unavailable at the market the day I went shopping, so I chose flounder. While not as thick a filet, it was still delicious. Any mild white fish should work well.
PAN-SEARED SEA BASS WITH COCONUT-LIME BEURRE BLANC
6 oz. fresh Sea Bass fillets (or flounder, or other mild white fish)
1 fresh Lime, for zest and juice
1/2 t. each: Sea Salt, Granulated Garlic, Black Pepper
1/4 t. Red Pepper Flakes
4 T. Butter, divided (1 T. for saute, 3 T. for beurre blanc)
1/2 c. Coconut Milk (canned is fine)
Fresh Chives, for garnish
Rinse fish fillets and pat dry. Season with grated lime zest, salt, peppers, and garlic. Snip a couple of chives and sprinkle over the fillets, too.
Heat skillet and melt 1 T. butter. Sear seasoned fillets for a couple of minutes on one side (edges will turn golden) and flip. Cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove fillets from the skillet, and place on a separate plate or baking dish.
Return skillet to medium heat. Add coconut milk and stir well, scraping up any browned bits. Add the juice squeezed from the lime and continue stirring.
Cut remaining butter (3 T.) into pieces. Turn off heat, and whisk in the butter, one tablespoon at a time. The sauce will get a glossy sheen. Taste for seasoning and adjust.
Pour the sauce over the fillets, garnish with chives and serve.