Comfort Cooking Abroad

Get a taste of home no matter where you live

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

Puff Pastry

Puff pastry dough.

Puff pastry dough.

Puff pastry is a flaky, buttery pastry that can be used in desserts, dinners and appetizers. Sadly, this wonderful pre-made frozen dough isn’t widely available in many countries. It takes a little time and some serious elbow grease, but it isn’t too fussy as far as pastry dough goes. The good news is that it freezes very well one batch can be used for four different recipes.

Ingredients for 1 batch or about 2 pounds

4 cups flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 – 1 1/2 cups very cold water

2 cups butter – room temperature

Stir the salt into the flour and make sure it is completely homogenized; you really don’t want salty spots in your pastry. At this point, some recipes will suggest that you cut the butter into the flour. I recommend that you only do that when you’re making pie crust. You won’t be able to achieve the same level of puffy flakiness if the butter is cut into the flour. Instead, we’re going to skip ahead to mixing in the water. Keep your water as cold as possible for the best possible results. Using your hands, stir in the water, starting with just 1 cup. After 1 cup is mixed in, there should still be some dry flour. Slowly add a just a little more and thoroughly mix it in. Keep doing this until all of the flour has formed into a ball and pulled away from the edges of the bowl. Make sure that you add the water slowly so that you don’t end up with too much and a wet sticky dough.

First stage of puff pastry dough.

First stage of puff pastry dough.

Tightly wrap your dough in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour. While the dough is chilling, start working on the butter. Place a sheet of plastic wrap on your work surface, put the two cups of butter on the middle, and then cover the butter with another sheet of plastic. At room temperature, you should be able to shape the butter with your hands. Press it into a rectangle about 12″ x 9″ (31 cm x 23 cm). Tuck the ends of the plastic wrap around the butter and place it in the refrigerator, keeping it as flat as possible, for at least 30 minutes.

Butter rectangle.

Butter rectangle.

When your dough is thoroughly chilled, take it out of the fridge and roll it into a rectangle about 18″ x 12″ (46 cm x 31 cm). Unwrap you butter rectangle and place off center on the dough.

Butter placement.

Butter placement.

Fold the uncovered portion over the butter.

First fold.

First fold.

Now fold over once more and rotate 90 degrees. Gently roll out the dough to about 12″ x 9″.

Folded then rolled pastry.

Folded then rolled pastry.

Fold in thirds again. Now wrap it up and put in the refrigerator for another 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, do it again. You’ll need to roll it out and fold it four times in total. If you’ve ever made croissants before, the technique is the same. Croissants just get rolled and folded seven times instead of four.

After you’ve rolled and folded the dough for the fourth time, cut the dough into four pieces.

Four portions of puff pastry.

Four portions of puff pastry.

You can see the layers that will help the pastry puff up and become flaky.

Puff pastry layers in side view.

Puff pastry layers in side view.

 

Tightly wrap each piece in plastic and place in the freezer for future use, or roll out to use in something right away. They will keep in the freezer for up to two months. When you need frozen puff pastry to use in a recipe, let it thaw overnight in the refrigerator, not at room temperature, or it can become sticky.

Pesto

Spinach pesto.

Spinach pesto.

Pesto is a delicious and versatile sauce that you’ve probably never considered making without a blender or food processor. But why not? The Italians managed to make it by hand since at least the 1800’s. As long as you have a sharp knife and 15 minutes, you can make it too. And, since you’re making your own, you can change up the recipe to suit your tastes. More garlic, less oil, walnuts instead of pine nuts? Sure. Once you know the basic recipe, it’s easy to mix and match flavors. In fact, I made this pesto with spinach and pecans.

Ingredients for traditional pesto (not shown)

1 bunch basil leaves

1 – 2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup parmesan

1/4 cup pine nuts

olive oil

Ingredients for spinach pesto (pictured)

1 bunch spinach leaves

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup parmesan

1/4 pecans

olive oil

Start by separating your spinach (or basil if you’re making traditional pesto) minus the stems into 2 or 3 small bunches. Get out your cutting board and sharpest knife. If you don’t have a very sharp knife, go get one before you try this recipe. Otherwise you’ll end up with bruised, smashed leaves and your pesto will not be delicious. Put one of your bunches of spinach on the cutting board and chop the leaves as finely as you can. As you’re cutting, keep changing the direction of the blade. Try scooping all the leaves into a pile and then chopping some more.

Finely chopped spinach.

Finely chopped spinach.

When your spinach looks like this you can add the next bunch. Now, chop some more. Yes, in theory, you could chop all the spinach at one time instead of doing it in three batches. Unchopped leaves take up more space and you are more likely to make a mess. It’s also a lot easier to miss bits if you have it all in one big mass. As you’ve probably guessed, after you have the second bunch as fine as the first, you’ll add the third.

Once it’s all well chopped, which will probably take you about 10 minutes, toss in the nuts, garlic and cheese. You can make this part a bit easier by pre-crushing the nuts in a small, sealable bag and smashing the garlic with the side of your knife first. Now, get back to chopping. You want to chop until everything has almost transformed into a paste. You should be able to form it into a ball that just holds together.

Almost finished pesto.

Almost finished pesto.

Finally, add the olive oil. No amount is specified in the directions because that will depend on how you will use it. You can add a very small amount and use the pesto to coat fish before baking it. You can add just enough to make a paste and use it for pizza or beef wellington. You can add enough to make it a thin sauce and use it on pasta. No matter how much oil you add, try to use real olive oil. No other oil I’ve found gives quite the right taste or texture.

Pesto pizza.

Pesto pizza.

Beef Wellington.

Beef Wellington.

 

Baked Chicken and Vegetables

Baked chicken and vegetables.

Baked chicken and vegetables.

This is a super quick and easy, all-in-one dish that’s filling and healthy.

Ingredients for 4 servings

4 chicken breasts – cut into fingers

1 tbsp oil

1 tbsp lemon juice

2 cloves garlic – crushed

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 onion – chopped

2 carrots – sliced

1 green pepper – chopped

1 turnip – diced

The vegetables I chose are based on flavor and availability. Turnips have a spicy flavor that not every one enjoys. They can easily be swapped out for potatoes. I do recommend using some variety of root vegetables because they stay good for a long time and have similar cooking times.

Start by marinating the chicken. Mix the oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper in a gallon-size sealable bag or large covered bowl and add the chicken. Let it marinate for at least two hours in the fridge. The lemon juice is important because it will break down the chicken a little and help the meat to cook quickly while retaining a lot of juiciness. If you can’t get lemon juice, or lemons that you can juice yourself, any citrus will work.

Chicken going in to marinade.

Chicken going in to marinade.

Chicken after two hours in marinade.

Chicken after two hours in marinade.

While the chicken is marinating, cut up your vegetables to approximately bite-sized pieces and spread them evenly in the bottom of a foil-lined baking pan. Place the marinated chicken on top of the vegetables and pour the marinade over everything. Before you place the baking pan in the toaster oven, cover it with foil so that the marinade will steam everything a little.

Put it in the toaster oven set to 350 F (or using on the lower heat source) and cook for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and replace in the toaster for another 10 minutes to brown the chicken. Check for doneness by piercing the vegetables with a fork and slicing into the chicken. The vegetables should be soft, but not mushy, and the chicken’s juices should run clear. If everything is done, plate, serve and enjoy.

Finished pan of chicken and vegetables.

Finished pan of chicken and vegetables.

 

Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese.

Macaroni and cheese.

Who doesn’t love mac ‘n’ cheese? Living abroad, it’s one of the hardest dishes to find. The good news? It’s really easy to make and freezes well, so you can make a big batch and have it whenever you want.

Ingredients for 6 servings

4 oz noodles

2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp flour

2 cups milk

2 cups cheese – divided

salt and pepper to taste

The first step for mac ‘n’ cheese is to cook the noodles. You can really use any type of noodle you like as long as the noodles have some way of holding sauce. Spaghetti and linguini just won’t work. Fill your rice cooker pot with water and set it to cook. Don’t add your pasta until the water is boiling or you will end up with sticky, mushy pasta and that won’t make for delicious macaroni and cheese. Follow the directions for al dente pasta on the package and then drain and rinse the noodles. Pour the noodles into a baking pan, lined or unlined, and set them aside.

Keep your rice cooker set to cook and melt the butter in the pot. When the butter is melted stir in the flour to make a roux.

Roux

Roux

This is how you will get your cheese sauce to thicken. Slowly mix in the milk as soon as the roux forms a smooth paste. Don’t let the flour brown or it will lose its thickening power. I like to add the milk a little at a time to make sure that it has blended well and not formed any clumps. This butter, flour, milk mixture is called a bechamel sauce and is the base of most cream sauces, so it’s a very important skill to know. Keep the heat on high, stirring often to prevent scorching, until the mixture thickens.

Bechamel sauce.

Bechamel sauce.

Add the salt and pepper, and 1 1/2 cups of cheese. I used a white cheddar because it is the easiest to find in most countries. Stir the sauce until the cheese has all melted. Remove from the heat and slowly pour the sauce over the noodles. I like to give the pan a few taps to remove air bubbles after pouring in the sauce. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese over the top.

Macaroni and cheese ready to cook.

Macaroni and cheese ready to cook.

Put your pan of macaroni in your toaster oven at 350 F (or using only the lower heat source) for approximately 30 minutes or until everything has set. During the final 2 – 3 minutes turn on the upper heat source to brown the top of the dish. It can still be a bit loose when you first take it out of the toaster oven, so allow the mac ‘n’ cheese to cool for 10 minutes before serving. Because it can be a pretty heavy meal, I like to serve it with something light, like this roasted beet salad.

Mac 'n' cheese with roasted beet salad.

Mac ‘n’ cheese with roasted beet salad.

Note: For those coming from the U.S., white cheddar might be a strange sight. Milk from strictly pasture raised cows produces a cheese with an orange coloring during the summer when they get more beta carotene in their diets. This summer cheese was thought to be more nutritious and better tasting, so dairy farmers started adding orange coloring to cheddar year-round to keep sales steady. After hundreds of years of this, Americans find anything other than orange a bit off putting, while the rest of the world cringes at orange cheddar. But, aside from the coloring, they’re all the same.

Banana Cake

Rice cooker banana cake.

Rice cooker banana cake.

I love bananas. They’re a fantastic healthy snack, and relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, I don’t usually eat a whole bunch of bananas before one or two of the start to get soft and spotty. Bananas that are just edging into overripe are perfect for baking though. I like to save aging bananas in the freezer until I have enough to make a cake, bread, muffins, etc. When I take them out of the freezer they slide right out of the peel and barely need any mashing to mix into the batter. Put the bananas on a plate or in a bowl while they thaw unless you want to clean up the drippy mess afterwards.

Frozen bananas.

Frozen bananas.

Ingredients for 1 cake 8 servings

1 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup sugar

pinch salt

1 egg

3 – 4 bananas – thawed

1/4 cup oil or melted butter

1/4 walnuts or pecans – crushed

This cake is extremely easy to make, and I should probably be ashamed to admit it is the same recipe I use for banana bread. Simply combine the flour, baking soda, sugar and salt. When the dry ingredients are thoroughly mixed, incorporate the egg, bananas and oil or butter. The bananas should be soft enough to blend in with a fork.

IMG_1129

Banana cake batter.

Banana cake batter.

When it’s well blended, just fold in the crushed nuts. Crushing nuts in a small kitchen can be pretty difficult if you don’t have a food processor or blender. I like to put them in a sealed bag flat on the counter top and roll a mug over them. As long as the nuts are in a single layer, they’ll be in tiny pieces in just a few seconds without making a mess everywhere.

Now it’s time to get your rice cooker ready. You can use butter to coat the bottom of the cooker pot, but you risk having the butter burn a little. Oil is a better choice in this instance. Just put a small amount of oil on a paper towel and wipe the bottom and sides of the pot. Now pour in your batter, put the lid down and turn it to cook. Rice cookers are regulated to turn from cook to warm at 101 F. This means you’ll have to listen for the click or ding that signals the temperature change and check on your cake. It will probably change within 20 minutes and that won’t be enough time for your cake to finish. Open the lid so it can cool off slightly, then close it and push the cook button again. My cake was finished in an hour, but the time varies quite a bit between models. You’ll know it’s done when a skewer comes out clean. Due to the steam while cooking, it will be very pale and spongey on top, so don’t try to go by the appearance.

Finished banana cake.

Finished banana cake.

Try serving the banana cake with caramel sauce and candied orange peel.

Banana cake with candied orange peel and caramel sauce.

Banana cake with candied orange peel and caramel sauce.

Vegetable Stock

Vegetable stock

Vegetable stock

As part of my never ending quest to save money and not throw out anything that can still be used, I started making vegetable stock about a year ago. I use it to replace any kind of stock or broth in recipes. It’s also completely free of fat and salt. As a bonus, the leftovers are great for composting.

Ingredients

Vegetable scraps

Water

Yep, that’s it. Just leftover vegetables (and occasionally fruits) and water. Whenever I peel vegetables, cut the ends off vegetables, etc. I put what won’t go in the recipe into a quart sized freezer bag and store it in the freezer.

Frozen vegetable scraps.

Frozen vegetable scraps.

When the bag is full, I put all the scraps into a pot with 2 1/2-3 cups of water and simmer it over low heat. The amount of water depends on how full your bag is. There should be enough water to cover all the scraps but they shouldn’t be swimming. You’re making stock, not soup. Cook everything down for about an hour or until the vegetables are all soft. You can do this in a rice cooker, but I recommend using the cook top.

Simmering vegetable stock.

Simmering vegetable stock.

After your stock has cooked down, drain the vegetables over a bowl. Let them drain until the stock has cooled enough to handle and most of the liquid has drained into the bowl.

Draining vegetable stock.

Draining vegetable stock.

If you want to avoid any sediment in your stock, line the strainer with cheese cloth or something similar. Once it’s cooled, set the strainer aside and pour  your vegetable stock into freezer bags and save in the fridge for up to a week, or store for up to three months in the freezer.

Note: I also add apple peels and cores, pear cores, and sometimes melon rind. If you add apple cores to yours, remember that apple seeds contain trace amounts of arsenic, so you might want to remove the seeds first. You might be okay adding other fruit peels (not bananas) but I have not tried it and can’t say for sure if it would work. If you want a meatier flavor you can add dried mushrooms or sun-dried tomatoes.

Baked Potato Soup

ImageBaked potato soup is one of my favorites. It’s warm, hearty, very easy to make and doesn’t require a lot of ingredients. In fact, there are only four ingredients in the basic recipe, all of which are pretty easy to find.

Ingredients for 4 servings

4 medium potatoes (russets or white potatoes have the best texture for soup)

2 cups vegetable stock

1 cup milk

1 cup shredded cheese

Chives, green onions or scallions (optional)

Salt and pepper (optional)

Sour cream (optional)

Bacon (optional) 

As you can see there are a lot of optional ingredients. Adding all of the extras, as you see in the photo above, will give you a loaded baked potato soup. The basic recipe is great for vegetarians.

Start by peeling the potatoes then dice them finely. It’s important to cut them rather small to help them cook quickly and make mashing them easier. Pour the vegetable stock into the pot of your rice cooker and set the heat level to cook. Remember that you should leave the lid off when boiling in a rice cooker so that liquid doesn’t froth over the sides and spill into your electrical connection. Keep an eye on your stock and carefully add the diced potatoes as soon as it starts to boil.

Keep the temperature set on high and check the potatoes for doneness periodically. The best way to check is with a fork. Stab through one of the large pieces and lift it out of the stock. If it’s easy to get the fork into the potato, but the piece stays on the fork when you life it up, it isn’t done yet. If the potato falls of the fork when you lift it, you’re ready to start mashing.

Image

Turn the heat to warm and, being very careful not to slosh stock all over your kitchen, begin mashing the potatoes. The best way to do this without making a mess is to use a slight scooping action. Press straight down and then pull the masher towards you while lifting just a little. The potato pieces will get moved around enough to mash them evenly, but not so much that boiling stock splashes you in the face. You’re finished mashing when you reach the texture you like. Some people prefer chunks of potato in their soup, but I like it creamy.

Either way, when you’ve mashed the potatoes to your liking, add the milk and cheese. Leave the rice cooker on warm and stir the soup to incorporate. If you turn the heat up, you risk scalding the milk and that is not delicious. Once all the cheese has melted, which should only take a few minutes, you can add salt and pepper if you like. The other additions are best done in the bowl just before serving.

Candied Orange Peel

I hate throwing things away, especially food. Sometimes rubbish is dealt with in a questionable manner (thrown into nearby rivers or burned by the side of the road) so I try to be extra careful to use everything possible when living abroad. Candied orange peel is a great way to use every part of an orange and add some extra vitamins to my diet. They keep well and make a very tasty snack. In fact, you can make candied peels from any kind of citrus.

Candied Orange Peel

Candied Orange Peel

You can make these one orange at a time if you don’t eat oranges often, but it’s much easier to make a batch from three or four orange peels. When you eat an orange, cut off the peel in fourths and place the peel in a sealable bag in the fridge. They should keep in the fridge for a few days which will, hopefully, give you time to eat enough oranges for a full batch.

Ingredients

Quartered peels of 3 oranges

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Additional sugar to coat peels (optional)

Orange peel quarters

Orange peel quarters

I had fairly large oranges and made a batch of these treats after peeling three oranges. When you’ve collected enough peels, don’t worry about removing the pith (that white spongy stuff) from the peel. Just slice the peels lengthwise as evenly as possible and not more than a quarter of an inch (about half a centimeter) wide.

Slicing orange peels.

Slicing orange peels.

Put the peels in a pot and just cover them with water. You will have to boil them on the cook top because a rice cooker won’t get up to a high enough temperature. Boil the peels over medium to high heat for about five minutes, then drain and rinse them.

Peels just covered with water.

Peels just covered with water.

Draining peels.

Draining peels.

Next, do it again. To remove the bitterness, you will need to boil and rinse the peels two to four times. Oranges can usually be boiled twice, while grapefruit  will need to be boiled four times. After the last rinse, return the peels to the pot and add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar. Now, boil it again. This time keep the heat on medium to low and bring it down to a simmer as soon as it starts to boil.

Peels with water and sugar.

Peels with water and sugar.

At this point the peels are very soft and the smell of citrus will have permeated everything. Keep simmering the peels until they become translucent. When you can see through them, they are ready to come off the heat and get their optional sugar coating.

Translucent orange peel.

Translucent orange peel.

Let the extra syrup drip off the peels before coating them lightly in sugar and placing them on parchment paper to dry. The easiest way to coat your peels is to drop them in a bowl of sugar and shake the bowl carefully until all sides are coated. Make sure you let as much syrup drip off as possible or too much sugar will adhere to the peels.

Sugar coating.

Sugar coating.

Candied Orange Peel

Candied Orange Peel

You now have delicious candied orange peels and, as an added bonus, citrus simple syrup. That’s right, the syrup you cooked the peels in can be used as a liquid sweetener. It tastes amazing in tea!

Caramel Sauce

Finished caramel sauce.

Finished caramel sauce.

One of the easiest sauces to make in a small kitchen with few ingredients, is caramel sauce. It sounds intimidating and, yes, it can be pretty easy to mess up. As long as you watch the sugar carefully, you should have no problem whipping up a batch to pour on cakes, ice cream, fruit, etc.

This sauce will have to be prepared on your cook top, so pull out a fairly deep pot and a wooden spoon. Those are absolutely required utensils for caramel sauce. When it gets to boiling, the sugar will froth up quite high and reach up to a couple of hundred degrees fahrenheit, so you don’t want plastic melting into your sauce or metal spoons transferring that heat to your fingers.

Ingredients for about 1 1/2 cups of sauce

1 cup sugar

1/4 water

1/2 cup heavy cream (or coconut cream)

Salt to taste (optional)

This makes a creamy caramel sauce, but you can leave out the cream and still have a delicious sauce. If you want to make it creamy and can’t find heavy cream, you can substitute in coconut cream. You’ll have to put a container of coconut milk upside down in your refrigerator overnight. The cream and water will separate and the cream will solidify slightly. When you take the milk out the next day, carefully turn the milk over so that the cream and water don’t remix, and pour the water into another container to use later. Chilled coconut cream is much thicker than heavy cream, but your sauce will turn out the same.

Pour the sugar and water into your pan and put over medium heat. At this point you can very gently stir a couple of times to help the sugar dissolve. As soon as you can see that all of the sugar has dissolved, put the spoon down and back up. Seriously, don’t touch anything! Just watch. If you try to stir now, crystals will form.

Dissolved sugar.

Dissolved sugar.

Your sugar will start to boil and you might be tempted to turn down the heat or stir. Don’t! As long as you are using a pot with high sides (your sugar should only cover the bottom of the pot, not fill it), you don’t have to worry about it boiling over. It might start to look a little scary, but just keep watching.

Boiling sugar.

Boiling sugar.

When you sugar turns a golden brown, remove the pot from the heat immediately. You should not be able to smell burnt sugar.

Golden brown sugar mixture.

Golden brown sugar mixture.

If you want a creamy caramel sauce, now is the time to add the cream. Be very careful when you add the cream. The sugar will froth up again and might splatter you with tiny bits of sugary napalm if you are standing right over the pot.

Adding cream to sauce.

Adding cream to sauce.

The sauce will also thicken up a bit so get your spoon and stir it gently. You can also add salt to taste at this point if you want a salted caramel sauce. Table salt will dissolve and just give the whole sauce a slightly salty flavor. If you want pockets of flavor, try using sea salt or kosher salt. And that’s how easy it is to make caramel. Try it with banana cake and candied orange peels.

Banana cake with candied orange peel and caramel sauce.

Banana cake with candied orange peel and caramel sauce.

Roasted Beet Salad

ImageThis salad is simple and delicious. If you’ve never used beets before, this recipe is a good introduction to them. This beautiful root vegetable stays good for a long time, but it can have a powerful earthy flavor that doesn’t suit everyone. Roasting gives them a mellower taste and pairing them with sweet pears creates a healthy, flavor-balanced salad. It makes a fantastic side dish or light lunch.

The following recipe makes 4 side salad portions or 2 meal-sized portions.

1 beet: red or golden

oil or melted butter to taste (optional)

dash salt (optional)

1/2 pear

1/4 cup pecans or walnuts

1 bag mixed salad greens if you can find it or 1 small head chopped lettuce

Beets have a thin skin that can be difficult to remove before they are cooked. After roasting, the skin can easily be slipped off by rubbing with your fingers under a bit of running water. In some countries you might not want to use tap water, so you can use a small ball of foil instead of your fingers to eliminate the need for running water. Keep in mind that you might end up with red fingers by the time you’re finished. To roast the beet, simply cut it into eights or smaller. Remember that you will have to remove the skin after cooking, so you might not want to cut them as small as I did.

Next, just toss them with a little oil or melted butter and sprinkle lightly with salt. The oil and salt help develop flavor and texture on the beet, but they can easily be skipped without taking much from the dish. 

Line your toaster oven sheet pan with foil (you can use this to remove the skins after roasting) and spread your beet pieces out evenly. Cook them in you toaster oven on 300 F or with both bulbs for 10 – 30 minutes. I know, that’s not a very definite span. Your individual cooking time will vary depending on your toaster oven and the size of pieces you used. You will know they are done when they have developed a deeper color, but not begun to brown, and a fork can easily pierce the largest piece.

Image

While your beet is cooking, put the salad mix or chopped lettuce in a bowl. Cut the pear into 1 inch (2 1/2 cm) cubes and roughly chop the nuts. Add both to your salad along with the beets after they have been roasted and skinned. Toss and serve.

If you can find them, craisins or feta cheese would make this salad even better!

 

 

 

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