Comfort Cooking Abroad

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Archive for the category “sauces, sides and extras”

Homemade Cheese

Farmer's cheese/Queso blanco.

Farmer’s cheese/Queso blanco.

Okay, I can’t take credit for inventing this recipe. I can’t even pretend that I improved it or added to it. Cheese making is a science and any additions or alterations to the ratios will result in a ruined batch. Your options during the process are limited to lemon juice or vinegar. But, after the cheese is made, the fun of flavoring begins.

This particular type of cheese is made all over the world and has been for many centuries. It is called farmer’s cheese, queso blanco or cottage cheese (not the type you buy in the store). I’ll provide the ingredient ratios here for the smallest batch possible. I recommend doing twice that size due to the low yield though, and all of the photos are from a double batch.

Ingredients for 1 batch

4 cups milk (not UHT)

1/8 cup lemon juice or vinegar

Before we get into the steps of cheese making, lets talk about the science behind it. (Feel free to skip this part if you aren’t interested. I love science and am forever trying to get others to enjoy it as well.) You must use lemon juice or white distilled vinegar to get the correct ph. I have heard a few people talk about trying wine as their acidifier, but the ph of most wines falls between 3 and 4. If you can find a wine that is close to a ph of 2, it might be worth the experiment. Just don’t expect a perfect batch of cheese. A common misconception is that higher fat milks will yield more cheese. But cheese is not made from milk fat. It is made from casein, a protein found in milk. The addition on the acid causes the proteins to coagulate, or stick together. Higher fat contents will give you a creamier texture though. Also, you can use any kind of dairy milk; cow, sheep, goat, camel. The proteins in coconut, soy, and almond are not the same as those found in dairy milk. Although you can use the same process to coagulate proteins in other milks, the result will be different. For instance, you’ll get tofu from acidifying soy milk. Finally, avoid UHT milk because the extremely high temperatures used to destroy bacteria, also break down the proteins.

Now, on to the process. Once again, don’t be intimidated by the idea of making your own cheese. It’s incredibly easy. Put your pot on your cook top and slowly heat the milk. Be careful to stir occasionally to avoid scorching or burning the milk. It is helpful to use a thermometer to accurately check the temperature of the milk as you heat it. However, you can make a very good estimate of the temperature by the bubbles that form in the pan. When you can see bubbles rising regularly around the edge of the pan, but the milk has not begun to boil, it’s hot enough. This occurs around 180F.

Bubbles show that the milk  is almost hot enough.

Bubbles show that the milk is almost hot enough.

Now turn off the heat and add your acid. It will look like nothing is happening at first and you may be tempted to add more acid. Don’t. The ratio of acid to milk is exact. Any more acid will affect the flavor, but won’t change the formation of cheese. Just slowly stir the milk until the curds begin to form.

Cheese curds forming.

Cheese curds forming.

When the curds start forming, be very careful of how you move the spoon. Try to push all of the curds together instead of stirring and cutting through them. Within a minute or so, the cheese will stop clumping up. You will be left with curds and whey. The whey is a greenish yellow color, so it will be very obvious when the process is finished.

Curds and whey.

Curds and whey.

Your cheese won’t look very appetizing at this point. Though apparently Little Miss Muffet thought this was a tasty treat. You can let the cheese cool for a moment while you set up equipment for the next step. You’ll need a bowl with a strainer on top. In the strainer you need a double layer of cheese cloth if you have it, or a similar piece of cloth or nylon that can strain out the whey without losing any curds. Boil the cloth or nylon for 5 minutes before straining your cheese to kill any bacteria that might be hiding in it.

Bowl, strainer and nylon mesh.

Bowl, strainer and nylon mesh.

Pour your cheese into the cloth and let the whey drip through. When most of the dripping has stopped, pick up the cloth or nylon and close it up at the top. I used a food-grade rubber band. Carefully squeeze the excess whey out of the cheese. It should be firm and be able to hold a shape. At this point it may even be a bit dry. Just add a little whey if you want it creamier. It will also have a slightly sticky texture.

Now comes the fun part: flavoring. Farmer’s cheese is basically flavorless on it’s own. I always add a bit of salt to mine. Some other great add ins are herbs, pepper and spices. This batch I only salted because I used it with a curry. Now, wrap it up in plastic and store it in the fridge, or serve it immediately.

You’ll have noticed that there is a significant amount of leftover whey. From the 8 cups of milk I used for this batch, I got 1 1/2 cups of cheese and 6 1/2 cups of whey. (This is why I don’t recommend making the smallest batch.) Don’t throw out all that whey though. It has a lot of potential uses. You can use it in place of stock, drink it as is, add it to smoothies, etc. I have even heard of people using it to water plants, but I would dilute it with water before doing that. I like to pour mine into resealable bags and store it in the freezer until I have a need for it. Whey is loaded with vitamins and I can always find a place for it in my cooking. If you run an internet search for ways to use whey, you might read about making ricotta from it. That only works if the whey is from making cheese with rennet, not from acid. Sadly, you can’t get any more cheese from this whey.

Bags of whey.

Bags of whey.

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Baked Potato Crisps

Baked potato crisps, or cottage fries.

Baked potato crisps, or cottage fries.

These crispy potatoes are very tasty and much healthier than french fries. Because they’re thinly sliced, they also cook pretty quickly. That thin slicing can be a problem if you don’t have a mandolin. If you aren’t familiar with mandolins, they are boards that can be supported with one hand while the other hand runs vegetables across a thin sharp blade set into the board. Mandolins are great for slicing quickly and evenly. A really nice mandolin will even have interchangeable blades so that you can julienne, waffle cut, and shred as well. They are usually inexpensive and, I think, worth the investment. Don’t worry if you don’t have one though. You can slice the potatoes a bit thicker and increase the cooking time to compensate.

Ingredients for 4 servings

2 medium red or gold potatoes – thinly sliced (you can use baking potatoes, but they won’t yield the best texture)

1/2 tbsp oil

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 tsp Italian herbs (parsley, basil and oregano is a good mix if you dan’t find a jar of italian herbs)

The preparation for this side dish, or even snack, is ridiculously simple. Put all ingredients in a bowl and mix. That’s it, just make sure that all of the potatoes are evenly coated.

Potatoes ready to bake.

Potatoes ready to bake.

Also, don’t fret if you can’t get herbs where you live. I think they add some great flavor, but these crisps are just as good with only a little salt or you can try adding a bit of chili powder or parmesan instead. Potatoes are such a great base for so many flavors, that I really encourage you to experiment with tastes you love and local ingredients. Let me know if you come up with something amazing.

Now that your potato slices are evenly coated, place them on a foil-lined toaster oven baking sheet. Make sure they are in a single layer and there is space between each slice. They will take longer and not cook as evenly if they are crowded.

Nicely spaced slices.

Nicely spaced slices.

If you have some oil left in your bowl, you can discard it or drizzle it on top of your potatoes. Now they go in the toaster oven on 375 F (using both heat sources) for 10 minutes. Take out the baking sheet and carefully flip one slice over. Typically, one heat source will be more powerful and you want your potatoes to cook evenly. If both sides look evenly cooked at this point, just put your baking sheet bake in for another 10 minutes. If they aren’t even, flip all of your slices before continuing to cook. In most toaster ovens 20 minutes total should be perfect. Your time will vary depending on your oven and the thickness of your slices though, so watch them carefully. The crisps are done when they are crispy and have started to turn golden brown. Don’t let them turn all golden. Those ones have moved from crispy to hard and crunchy.

Baked potato crisps with beer batter fish.

Baked potato crisps with beer batter fish.

Squash Ravioli Filling

Here is my second ravioli filling. This one takes a little longer than the spinach ravioli filling, but most of that is wait-time. I love this filling because it requires almost no effort, is very hearty and filling, and because the flavor not only varies from batch to batch, it improves over time if I store it in the freezer.

Ingredients for 4 servings of ravioli

1/2 medium squash

1/4 crushed pecans or walnuts

1/4 cheese

salt and pepper to taste

It’s important to choose a squash with a firm smooth flesh like acorn or kambucha. Stay away from spaghetti squash, which can be too stringy for pasta filling, or butternut squash, which can be too hard and has a longer cooking time.

Cut your half a squash in half again and wrap each quarter in foil. The foil will keep the flesh from drying out in the toaster oven, so don’t skip this step.

Wrapped squash quarter.

Wrapped squash quarter.

Place the wrapped squash on the baking tray of your toaster oven and cook the squash for 10 – 15 minutes at 400F or using both heat sources. Be sure to use high heat and cook the squash quickly or it can become soggy. Depending on the size of your squash and variations in toaster ovens, yours may cook more or less quickly. You can check whether your squash is done by piercing it with a fork. You can see in the photo above where I did this. The fork should move easily through the flesh. If it is difficult to pierce, keep cooking.

Once the squash is done remove it from the toaster oven and allow it to cool in the refrigerator until you can handle it easily. When the squash has cooled, use a spoon to scrape the flesh into a bowl. If you’ve cooked it long enough, this should be very easy. Now just stir in the nuts, cheese, salt and pepper. Squash is usually very mellow and takes other flavors well, so I recommend a strong flavored cheese. If you can get feta or gorgonzola, that would be delicious. Otherwise, you might want to try a parmesan like I did here.

Squash filling.

Squash filling.

Now just use your spoon to mix everything to a smooth consistency and you are al ready to fill your pasta.

Spinach Ravioli Filling

I love all kinds of pasta fillings from sweet to savory. My only rule is that it should be easy to make. In honor of that here is the first of two fillings for ravioli that can be prepared in 20 minutes, with minimal fuss.

Ingredients for four servings of ravioli

1/2 tbsp butter or oil

1/2 onion – diced

1 bunch spinach – chopped

3 ounces cream cheese

salt and pepper to taste

Heat the butter or oil in the pot of your rice cooker and sauté the diced onion. Once the onion is translucent, add the spinach and cook it down.

Cooked onion and spinach.

Cooked onion and spinach.

You’re looking for the spinach to just wilt, but retain a bright green color and good texture. Remove the spinach and onion to a separate bowl to cool for a few minutes. When the mixture reaches room temperature, stir in the cream cheese, salt and pepper.

Spinach filling.

Spinach filling.

It needs to be quite thick and not at all runny for filling the ravioli. If the mixture is too wet, try adding just a little more cream cheese. That’s it. Cooking time for this filling is only about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on your rice cooker.

Pasta Dough

Rolled pasta dough.

Rolled pasta dough.

Today’s recipe is ridiculously simple, but don’t let that fool you. There are only three ingredients and pasta dough, unlike bread pie dough, isn’t very touchy about kneading. You can be a bit forceful, in fact you’ll need to be, or re-roll the dough if you need to. On the other hand, pasta needs to be rolled so thin you can see through it. If you’ve got the elbow grease for it, you can get started making your own fettuccine, lasagna, ravioli, cannelloni, pierogi, spatzle, etc. So, clear some space on your largest work surface and get out your rolling pin (or an empty wine bottle if you don’t have a rolling pin).

Ingredients for small batch – will make about 8 cannelloni

3/4 flour

1/4 tsp salt

1 egg

Usually pasta is made directly on the counter top where you’ll be rolling it out, but you can definitely make it in a bowl if you like. Combine the flour and salt and form a well in the center for the egg.

Double batch of pasta being started.

Double batch of pasta being started.

Using your fingers, mix the very center of the well. As it combines, slowly mix in more of the flour. If you go too quickly the egg will spill over the side and make a mess. Continue until all of the flour has been mixed thoroughly into the egg. If the dough is too dry and the flour doesn’t all mix in, you can add a very small amount of water. Just a sprinkle of water at a time. If the dough is wet and sticky, just a bit more flour. Now that you have everything combined, knead it a few more times to really homogenize the dough and get a smooth consistency. The wrap it in plastic and put it in your fridge for about 30 minutes.

Kneaded pasta dough.

Kneaded pasta dough.

After 30 minutes take the dough out of the fridge and divide it. Rolling dough with a pasta machine is pretty easy, but doing it by hand is not much fun. I find that dividing the dough into four parts makes it easier to roll the dough sufficiently thin. Just remember to keep the other parts of the dough tightly covered so they don’t dry out.

Quartered pasta dough.

Quartered pasta dough.

Lightly flour your work surface and start rolling. Start in the center of the dough and roll with even pressure to the edges. After a few rolls, turn the dough over and roll some more. Keep doing this until you can see your hand through the dough. Tomorrow, I’ll show you how I make ravioli from fresh pasta dough in a tiny kitchen.

Rice Pilaf

Simple rice pilaf.

Simple rice pilaf.

Here’s a very basic but flavorful rice pilaf. Rice is easily the most common grain eaten around the world. Plain rice day after day with every meal gets a bit boring. A pilaf gives you some variety and a lot of flavor with very little work. So what is rice pilaf? It’s simply a cooking method, that most likely originated in Iran, in which the rice gets sautéed in some type of fat and then boiled in a seasoned broth. So really all you have to do is trade water for your favorite broth or stock and add one extra cooking step that takes about two minutes. Easy, right?

Ingredients for 4 servings

1 tbsp butter or oil

2 cups rice

2 cups vegetable stock

Your favorite seasonings to taste

Start by melting the butter or heating the oil on high heat in the pot of your rice cooker and then add the rice. Stirring occasionally, cook the rice until it takes on a light golden color. This step should only take two or three minutes on high heat, so watch your rice closely to avoid burning.

Sauteed rice.

Sauteed rice.

Now add your vegetable stock and seasonings. I used garlic and onion powder. You could also add 1 clove of crushed garlic and half a diced onion when you sauté the rice to get a similar flavor. You could also try turmeric, curry powder, jerk seasoning or just the basic salt and pepper. Close the lid of your rice cooker and wait for the machine to click over to warm.

You could try adding peas and carrots with the stock or any other mix of vegetables or pre-cooked meat for a heartier rice dish that could be a meal on its own. The basic recipe is so easy but impactful that I like to pair it with main dishes that can be rather time consuming. Let me know what variations you come up with!

Rice pilaf served with beef wellington.

Rice pilaf served with beef wellington.

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.

 

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.

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.

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