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Costa Which?

A rare glimpse of Costa Rican cuisine.

October 18, 2000|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's early in the morning, but Nelly Orona has already set the table for company. A lacy tablecloth and sparkling wine glasses are in place, just in case the visitors she is expecting are free to stay for lunch.

"Everybody who comes here has something to eat with us," Orona says. That means lots of entertaining, because Orona is chancellor of the Costa Rican Consulate in Los Angeles and semiofficial hostess to the Costa Rican community.

She and her husband, Robert, chauffer important visitors from the airport to their home in Pico Rivera, house them, if necessary, and Orona cooks for them, creating an environment like home.

From the dining room, her guests look out onto a patio that is lush with greenery, just like Costa Rica. One of the plants, a Costa Rican white jasmine, has spread over the arbor that shades the patio. Twice a year it blooms and floods the patio with enchanting perfume. In the shady backyard grow dozens of orchids, carefully tended by Orona.

Born in San Jose de Costa Rica, Orona has lived for 33 years in Pico Rivera, where her husband was born. Robert Orona is Mexican American, a retired history teacher. They met when he visited Costa Rica as a tourist.

Orona conducts a tour of the house, pointing out the paintings by Latino artists that she has collected and the needlepoint that she has designed without a pattern (she once had a clothing business in Costa Rica). Even the kitchen contains mementos of Costa Rica, including brightly painted miniature carretas (carts).

A back room is jammed with books and computer equipment. This is where Orona writes. She has produced two cookbooks, which she published herself. The first, "Florilegios de Mi Cocina," was published in Spanish. Just 1,000 copies were printed, and half went to Costa Rica. It is now unavailable.

This summer Orona produced another book, switching to a Spanish-English format. The title is "Fiesta de Rellenitos del Milenio 2000" ("Millennium Fillings Fiesta 2000"), and it contains a wide assortment of Costa Rican dishes. "My friends tell me, 'You cook so good, why don't you write a book?' " she says.

In doing so, she has provided an insight into a cuisine that is almost unknown here. About one-third of the approximately 70,000 Costa Ricans living in the United States are in California, but the population is widely dispersed in Southern California and Costa Rican markets or restaurants are almost nonexistent.

The book was introduced in July at a reception in the consulate, which is near downtown Los Angeles and serves the 13 western states. Orona's reputation as a cook drew a crowd to sample the buffet of dishes from the book.

There were two picadillos, one made with green plantains and the other with diced potatoes and ground beef. Chicken with peas is a prize-winning recipe--a family friend triumphed in a cooking contest in Costa Rica with that dish.

The food was mildly seasoned. "We don't use a lot of chile," Orona says. She did add jalapenos to a side dish of black beans, but still the beans were not spicy-hot. And though she put pickled yellow chiles into both picadillos and the chicken with peas, they were not apparent.

For one dessert, Orona worked hard at simulating Costa Rican chiverre, also known as chilacayote (bottle gourd). She finally settled on spaghetti squash as the closest equivalent sweet shops sell. In Mexico, you can buy candied chilacayote, which separates into juicy strands much like spaghetti squash. Orona combined the squash with cashews in a dessert with the texture of thick preserves. A similar sweet made with mango included raisins, pecans and a strong dose of rum.

After guests sampled the food, consul general Carlos Kieffer Longan summoned them to another room, where he presented Orona with an award for her achievements.

"Most of the Costa Rican dishes that she prepares are better, in my opinion, than what you would find in Costa Rica," he says. "I look forward to receiving invitations to her home. The quality and the taste of the food are very good."

The word "fillings" in the title of Orona's book needs explanation. Although the main dishes and desserts can be served on their own, Orona presents them as fillings for flour tortilla sandwiches. She lines an electric sandwich maker with a tortilla, arranges the fillings on top and closes the lid, pressing the folded tortilla and contents into the machine's four triangular compartments. When golden brown, the "sandwiches" are done.

Asked if an appliance manufacturer underwrote her book, Orona explains proudly that the sandwiches are her own idea. "I like to do new things all the time. I started this to entertain me," she says. In addition to the fillings, the book contains soups and salads to serve as accompaniments.

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