Comfort Cooking Abroad

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Pickled Beets and Eggs

Some lovely purple pickles.

Some lovely purple pickles.

I’ve recently gotten very interested in pickling. Pickling is a fantastic way to preserve vegetables so that you can eat them out of season. Making them yourself also means that you can cut sown the amount of sodium to make them even healthier. Pickled vegetables retain their fiber and vitamins, and properly fermented vegetables boost healthy gut bacteria for better digestion. I started my pickling adventures with pickled beets because I’ve had, and enjoyed, them before. Turns out their quite easy to make at home.

Ingredients for 1 quart

3 eggs – hard boiled, peeled and quartered

3 medium beets – roasted, peeled and sliced

1 small onion – thinly sliced

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup water

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Once you have all of your vegetables ready, it should only take about 15 minutes to make your pickles. Just combine the vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a pan and put over medium heat on the stove. You don’t need to bring the mixture to a full boil, just dissolve the sugar and salt. You can omit the sugar and salt if you like, but I wouldn’t recommend leaving those out if kids will be eating the pickles. Also, remember to avoid standing over the pot due to the vinegar fumes.

While the pickle is heating, layer all of your prepared vegetables and eggs in a 1 quart jar. You might want to wear gloves while you work with the beets or your hands will end up stained. You might have to press the vegetables down slightly to pack them in.

Once the sugar and salt in the pickling liquid has dissolved, let it cool slightly so that you will be able to handle the glass jar as you fill it. After it is cool enough, just pour it slowly over the vegetables. It is important to go slowly so that the liquid can get down between the vegetables and fill all of the spaces. You will probably have some liquid leftover. Let the jar rest for a few moments before you put the lid on because sometimes there are little air pockets or the vegetables will absorb some of the liquid and you will need to add more liquid. This is totally normal. When you feel like you’ve added as much liquid as you can, put the lid on and put it in the fridge. Leave it alone for at least three days before you eat the pickles.

Pickled beets and eggs with tuna noodle casserole.

Pickled beets and eggs with tuna noodle casserole.

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Beef Stew

Beef stew and fresh bread.

Beef stew and fresh bread.

I’m not a big fan of most stews, but it’s an often requested menu item in my house. A good beef stew has large pieces of vegetables and meat and the liquid should be heavy and almost gravy like. If you know how, it’s very easy to make a great stew.

Ingredients for 6 servings

1 lb beef for stew

1/2 cup flour

salt and pepper to taste

1 large potato – cut in large chunks

2 carrots – sliced

5 cups vegetable stock or beef broth – divided

Combine the flour, slat and pepper in a bowl and dredge your pieces of stew meat. You want each piece to be lightly covered. Save your flour mixture after you dredge the meat. Next, place your pieces of stew meat in the pot of your rice cooker and set it to high heat. You don’t need to add any butter or oil because there should be enough fat in the meat, even lean meat, to put a good sear on it. You don’t need to cook it through, just put a crisp sear on the outside.

Searing the stew meat.

Searing the stew meat.

Now add the vegetables and 4 cups of the stock or broth and bring it to a boil. While the stew is cooking, mix the last cup of stock or broth with the remaining flour. It’s important that the liquid be cold when you mix it with the flour or the flour will clump up and not dissolve into the stew later. When the flour has completely dissolved and the liquid is smooth, we call this a slurry, stir it into the boiling stew.

Adding the slurry to the stew.

Adding the slurry to the stew.

All of the liquid in the pot should quickly thicken up to a gravy consistency and now you’re done. So much better than canned stews!

Tomatoes with Caramelized Onions

Tomatoes and caramelized onions.

Tomatoes and caramelized onions.

Here’s a really simple and delicious tomato dish that I came up with years ago. With 6 ingredients and 15 minutes you can have a side dish that people will beg you to make again. I usually use a variety of heirloom tomatoes, but this time I had a bag full of vine ripened red tomatoes from a u-pick farm.

Ingredients for 4 servings

1/2 onion – thinly sliced

1 tbsp butter

3 tomatoes – sliced about 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) width

1 – 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (no substitutions on this one)

dash salt

2 tbsp grated sharp cheese

In a pan melt the butter and add the onion slices. It’s better to use butter here to get the best flavor and texture on the onion, but oil will work as well. Cook the onions on medium low heat, stirring occasionally. The keys to caramelizing onions are to cook them slowly and make sure your slices are even.

While the onions are cooking, spread the sliced tomatoes on a serving dish and top them with the balsamic vinegar and salt. I’ve tried other types of vinegar and none  of them tasted as nice as balsamic. Play around with flavored balsamic vinegars though if you like. The tomatoes in the photo were made with white peach vinegar and they had a very interesting sweet and tangy flavor.

When the onions have finished, after about 15 minutes, layer them on top of the tomatoes. Finally top the whole thing with the grated cheese. I like asiago and gruyere best, but parmesan and dubliner are also tasty. It’s very important to layer the ingredients in this order. I’ve tried doing it other ways and it never comes out quite right.

Leftover Rice Pudding

Rice pudding made with leftover rice and coconut milk.

Rice pudding made with leftover rice and coconut milk.

I recently had a lot of leftover rice from Chinese takeaway. Everything but the rice had been eaten and I didn’t want to throw out 2 cups of rice. Usually when I make rice pudding, I cook the rice in a thick custard, but this time I decided to make something closer to what I used to have at breakfast in KSA. I even had real cinnamon and cardamom pods to add, which is what you see in the lower left and top center of the pot.

Ingredients for 8 servings

2 cups leftover rice

1 12 oz can coconut milk

1 1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp salt

1 egg

cinnamon and cardamom to taste – optional

This recipe couldn’t be any easier. Put the leftover rice in a pot and break it up a little. combine the coconut milk, milk, sugar, salt and egg in a bowl and add it to the rice. Add cinnamon and cardamom if you like. Bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally until most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Pudding mixture before cooking.

Pudding mixture before cooking.

The rice will soften and the liquid will thicken slightly. Don’t expect a custard-like pudding when you finish. This Arabic style rice pudding is much thinner. Try topping it with crushed pistachios for a bit of crunch.

Picked Cherry Tomatoes

Pickled tomatoes.

Pickled tomatoes.

Here’s an idea to use up extra cherry tomatoes before they go bad. I’ve been experimenting with pickles lately and wanted to try pickling these cherry tomatoes. The results were amazing. At first they taste just like you would expect, rather tart, but then the freshest, sweetest tomato flavor just explodes in your mouth. They’re amazing in salads and with pasta. I’m going to start buying an extra pint at the grocery store just to have these on hand at all times. These pickles are very easy to make, so don’t be afraid to try them if you’ve never pickled anything before.

Ingredients for a half pint

1/3 cup vinegar

1/2 cup water

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

1/2 pint of cherry tomatoes

Chopped fresh herbs of your choice 

In a small pot combine the first 4 ingredients and simmer until the salt and sugar have completely dissolved. Try to avoid inhaling the fumes as vinegar can be very irritating to your eyes and lungs. Not harmful, just unpleasant. While the pickling liquid is heating, pack a 1/2 pint jar with the tomatoes and herbs. I used a combination of basil, dill and tarragon.

Tomatoes, herbs and jar.

Tomatoes, herbs and jar.

Try to alternate the tomatoes and herbs so that the flavors are evenly distributed and pack them in fairly tightly. When all of the salt and sugar have dissolved, allow the pickling liquid to cool to just above room temperature and pour it over the tomatoes. You will probably have some liquid leftover, but it’s always better to have too much. Don’t try to cut the recipe down because any tomatoes that aren’t covered could go bad. Now just cover the jar and store it in the fridge for at least 2 days before eating. Save the pickling liquid when the tomatoes are gone to make an herbed vinaigrette.

Cream of Broccoli and Mushroom Soup

Broccoli and mushroom soup with cheddar.

Broccoli and mushroom soup with cheddar.

This recipe combines my two favorite cream soups and is much healthier than the traditional recipes. I traded half of the milk for whey, which I had leftover from making farmer’s cheese, and still got a rich creamy taste.

Ingredients for 6 servings

2 cups whey

1 small head of broccoli – chopped

1 cup sliced mushrooms

2 tbsp flour

2 cups cold milk

salt and pepper to taste

Cheddar cheese for garnish if desired

This recipe is very simple and fast. Pour the whey into the pot of your rice cooker and set it to cook. When the whey begins to boil, add the vegetables. The broccoli needs to cook down until it is very soft. It will take 10 – 15 minutes for the broccoli to become soft and the mushrooms to cook through. * It’s important to keep the top of your rice cooker open while you are boiling liquid in it. If you close the cooker, you risk having the soup boil out of the steam vent and onto the electrical plug.

Cooked broccoli and mushrooms.

Cooked broccoli and mushrooms.

I like to keep the broccoli in bite sized pieces, but some people like to have it mashed into the soup. If you prefer to have the broccoli mashed, it is very easy to do with a potato masher. Just be careful not to splash the hot soup onto your hands.

When the vegetables have cooked, stir the flour into the cold milk. The milk needs to be very cold to mix the flour in without lumps. When all the flour has been absorbed, stir the mixture into the soup along with the salt and pepper. It should thicken quite quickly leaving you with a creamy soup. Now just pour it into bowls and top with cheese if desired.

Chicken Fried Steak with Country Gravy

CFS with mashed potatoes and country gravy.

CFS with mashed potatoes and country gravy.

This is an American diner classic. If you’ve never had chicken fried steak, it’s simply cubed steak that has been breaded and fried. Cubed steak is made from either round or flank steak, both of which are very tough, and this method of cooking can elevate the less than desirable beef to a dish people search for on a diner menu. If you can’t get cubed steak where you live, it’s actually pretty easy to tenderize a flank steak. Of course, a meat tenderizer or mallet is the best tool because it will have the weight and shape necessary to break down the meat fibers. Don’t be afraid to get creative though. A heavy soup can, a sturdy glass bottle, or even a coffee mug can be be used to tenderize the meat. Just remember that you don’t have to use a lot of force. Put wax paper or plastic wrap on both sides of the meat and use just the edge of your improvised tenderizer, raising it only about 2 – 3 inches. 

Ingredients for 4 servings

For steaks

2 large or 4 small cubed steaks

1/2 cup flour

salt and pepper to taste

2 eggs

1/4 cup milk

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp oil

For country gravy

1 tbsp butter – if needed

2 cups milk

salt and pepper to taste

To start with, you’ll need to prepare the coating for your steaks. Combine the flour, salt and pepper on one plate and mix the egg and milk on another. Thoroughly coat the steaks in the flour mixture, then in the egg mixture, and then in the flour again. Reserve the extra flour.

Coating mixtures.

Coating mixtures.

You can cook the steaks immediately after you coat them, but it’s better to let them rest in the fridge for about 10 minutes first. If you’ve ever tried to make chicken fried steak before, you are probably familiar with having all the coating come off the steaks and stick in the pan. Letting them rest in the refrigerator will minimize coating loss.

Heat the butter and oil together in a pan. It needs to be very hot before you add the steaks. If you have any extra egg mixture left, try dropping just a bit into the oil and butter. When it’s hot enough, the egg will immediately start to sizzle. Place the steaks in the pan and don’t touch them. If you try to turn them too soon, you will lose the coating. Just keep an eye on the edge of the steak. When it has become well browned, then you can turn them over.

Steaks almost ready to turn.

Steaks almost ready to turn.

The coating on the top will seem to absorb into the steak before you turn it. Don’t worry, after you turn it and cook that side, the coating will crisp up. Ideally, you should only turn your steaks one time. After the steaks stop weeping any blood, they should be cooked through and you can take them out of the pan.

Don’t turn off the heat, we are going to use the oil and butter still in the pan to make the country gravy. At this point you can add extra butter to your pan if too much has been absorbed while cooking the steaks. *If your pan is hot enough, the steaks should hardly absorb any oil. Add the reserved flour mixture to the pan and stir to make a smooth paste. Then just add the milk and additional salt and pepper. The secret to good country gravy is a lot of pepper. Cook the gravy until it thickens and then pour it over your steak and serve.

 

Roasted Pepper Spread

Roasted pepper spread on a hamburger.

Roasted pepper spread on a hamburger.

I’m not a fan of plain mayonnaise on sandwiches. I do, however, love roasted peppers. I came up with this creamy spread to add a bit of extra flavor to sandwiches. This time I used green peppers for a bit of change, but it’s also great with red or yellow bell peppers for a slightly sweeter taste.

Ingredients for about 1 cup of spread

1 bell pepper

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 tbsp mustard

salt to taste

The first thing to do is roast the pepper.If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry, it’s easy. You can roast your pepper directly on the flame of your stove top using tongs to turn the pepper as soon as the skin begins to blacken. You can also roast it in your toaster oven. Just use the upper heat source at 375 – 400 F and, again, turn the pepper as soon as the skin begins to blacken. When all sides of the pepper are slightly charred, set it aside to cool.

Roasted pepper.

Roasted pepper.

When the pepper is cool, just slip the skin off. It should peel away very easily and the flesh inside will be very soft.

Peeling back the pepper skin.

Peeling back the pepper skin.

Chop up the pepper as finely as you can, then scoop it into a bowl and combine with the mayonnaise, mustard and salt.

Mixing the spread.

Mixing the spread.

The pepper will be very juicy and probably won’t maintain much crunchiness. This is what you want as it will help the spread become smooth and creamy. I thing it tastes great on pretty much any kind of sandwich.

Garlic Butter Hamburgers

Garlic butter hamburger with provolone and roasted pepper spread.

Garlic butter hamburger with provolone and roasted pepper spread.

I wanted to find a way to cook hamburgers that didn’t require a grill or a sandwich press, but wouldn’t leave the meat dried out. I had, of course, heard of putting butter in a hamburger before. The idea of adding any kind of fat to a hamburger was a bit appalling though. I finally decided to try it so that I could cook burgers in a toaster oven without having to serve hard lumps of beef. It turns out that folding the meat around a small piece of butter leaves the center incredibly juicy, while giving the outside an al dente texture. My photos are from a double recipe.

Ingredients for four burgers

2 tbsp butter – softened

2 tsp garlic – minced

1 lb of ground beef

The first step is to combine the garlic and butter, and then place the mixture on a piece of plastic wrap. Gently shape the butter into a small roll or log as as you wrap it. Place the finished roll in the fridge for 30 minutes or the freezer for 10 minutes.

Roll of garlic butter.

Roll of garlic butter.

While the butter is firming, divide your ground beef into four patties. Spread the meat thinner than you want the final burger because you will folding it over the butter. When the butter is firm, slice it into four equal rounds and place one on each burger patty.

The bottom 2 have been finished and the top 2 are ready to fold up.

The bottom 2 have been finished and the top 2 are ready to fold up.

Just wrap the meat around the butter and shape it into a good round shape. You will need to place your hamburger patties on the rack of your toaster oven and have a baking sheet placed under the rack to catch any drips. It’s important to keep the burgers out of the grease as they’re cooking, but also keep the grease from dripping onto the heating elements. If you don’t have a way to catch the grease, find one before you try this recipe! Grease catches fire, so be careful. Keep baking soda on hand and never use water to put out a grease fire. If you don’t have a rack to keep the burgers out of the grease, I would recommend using half the butter and flipping the burgers halfway through cooking. I can cook 4 burgers at a time in my toaster oven without over-crowding and it took about 15 minutes at 350 F using the lower heat source only. I turned on the upper heat source for 1 minute at the end to crisp the tops slightly.

If you would prefer to cook your burgers in a traditional oven, use the same steps. Burgers on a rack, baking sheet under the rack, 350 F for 15 minutes.

Don’t let my warnings scare you away from trying this at home. As long as you watch the burgers carefully and exercise causation, it is not dangerous at all to successfully cook burgers in a toaster oven.

Tomato Sauce

Fresh, homemade tomato sauce.

Fresh, homemade tomato sauce.

Today I want to share with you how I make fresh tomato sauce. It’s incredibly simple and only takes three ingredients (plus some water). I got about 12 ounces from just 5 roma tomatoes, so it’s also pretty economical. It isn’t easy to find high quality tomato sauce everywhere, but you can almost always find fresh tomatoes.  There are only a few steps, but it does take a bit of time, mostly for simmering.

Ingredients for approximately 12 ounces

5 roma tomatoes

4 cups boiling water

4 cups ice water

1 – 2 tbsp olive oil

salt to taste

It is possible to use other types of tomatoes. For example, if you have a blender, you can use cherry tomatoes and skip the boiling and skinning steps. Or you can use some other medium-sized tomato as long as it has a high flesh to seed ratio.

The first step is to get the skin off your tomatoes. To do this, cut an X on the bottom of each tomato. The cut doesn’t have to be very deep or long. Just slice gently through the skin. Have your boiling water and ice water prepared and set right next to each other. You might be able to use your rice cooker to boil the water, but I find a pan on the stove is much better.

Boiling and ice waters.

Boiling and ice waters.

Place the tomatoes in the boiling water and watch carefully. The skin will start to peel away from the flesh. As soon as it peels back or the X you cut splits, take the tomato out of the boiling water and place it in the ice water.

Tomato with split skin cooling.

Tomato with split skin cooling.

After the tomato cools, the skin will slip right off. The tomatoes should only take a couple of minutes at most in the boiling water. Sometimes, they will peel at the stem end, even if you cut the X at the bottom.

Once all of the tomatoes have cooled and you have slipped the skins off, the messy part begins. Take the tomatoes over to the sink and squeeze out the seeds. Even if you will save the seeds to add to a dish or use in making stock, it’s best to do this down in the sink because the seeds sometimes squirt out of the sides. Don’t worry if you can’t get all of the seeds. The most important thing is to remove as much of the liquid and as many of the seeds as possible.

After you’ve finished that bit, put the olive oil and tomatoes in a pot over low heat. You don’t want them to do more than simmer. Have a potato masher on hand so that you can occasionally smash the tomatoes as the heat. It will take at least half an hour for the tomatoes to really break down. The longer you cook, the smoother the tomatoes will become. *If the tomatoes you used have a woody or fibrous center, remove that at the same time you remove the seeds because it won’t break down as it cooks.

Nearly finished tomato sauce.

Nearly finished tomato sauce.

It’s really up to you when the sauce is done based on the texture you want. I like a smooth thick sauce with lots of fresh tomato flavor. Just add salt to taste and pour into a storage container. I’ve saved it in the fridge for up to a week.

For those who are using cherry tomatoes and a blender, skip the boiling, cooling, peeling and seeding steps. Throw about 1 pint of whole tomatoes into the pot with olive oil and cook them down gently. They will burst open as they cook and begin to fall apart. At that point, put them in a blender and pulse until you get the consistency you like. The add salt and store just like the other recipe.

If you want to add more flavor to your sauce you try adding garlic or herbs like basil, oregano, tarragon or rosemary to the tomatoes while they are simmering. It takes a little more time and effort than I’d like, but fresh tomato sauce is definitely worth the effort.

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