Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese is such a delicious comfort food. It's one of those dishes that I like to have regularly, especially in the cooler months. In my husband's home growing up, this macaroni and cheese was a main dish, and it totally can stand its own in that role. We eat it as a main in our house and occasionally add a green vegetable side to it. This time we had it with a side of Savory Greens. I adapted this recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook from the 70s. This recipe is a baked version, but it can very easily be adapted for stove top only.

Update: I discovered that the Amul tub cheese (yellow or blue tub) makes this macaroni AMAZING! It's not healthy, but you can substitute one tub for about half of the cheese. 

Baked macaroni and cheese with crunchy topping

Baked Macaroni and Cheese
8 oz. macaroni
3 Tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
2 Tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon mustard
2 cups milk
2 cups cheese, grated
1/2 roll Ritz-type crackers, crushed (optional)

Boil the macaroni in salted water. If you're going for the baked version, drain it when it's slightly undercooked since it will finish cooking during baking. Otherwise, cook it to al dente. With the pasta in a strainer, melt the butter and saute onions until golden. Add flour to the pot and stir for 2-3 minutes to cook the flour. Pour in milk, stirring to remove any lumps. Add the salt, pepper, and mustard. If you're using a salty cheese, use only 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the sauce up to a boil and drop the heat to a simmer. When the sauce is thick and bubbly, turn off the heat and add the cheese. Stir until melted. Add the noodles to the sauce. If you're going for the stove top version, you're done! For the baked version, pour noodles with sauce into a baking dish. Top with crushed crackers. Bake at 170C for 35 to 40 minutes until top is golden and bubbly.

Baked macaroni with a side of greens
A quick shortcut on crushing the salted biscuits is to just crunch them up in the package. Open and sprinkle over the top.

Savory Greens

I love, love, love dark leafy greens as mentioned in previous posts. I know not everyone does, but they're so incredibly good for you that you really should give them a try. Here's a very basic, adaptable version of savory greens that incorporates vitamin C to give your body the boost to absorb all that good iron. This recipe is portioned to be a small side for 4 people. I would generally make almost double for my family because we all like greens so much.

As a general rule, the smaller smooth-leafed varieties are milder in flavor, and big hearty leaves have stronger, sometimes bitter, flavors. Those happen to be my favorites. Bok choy has a very mild flavor and also tastes great prepared this way. You should note that the more delicate the leaf, the smaller it becomes in cooking so 2 bunches of something small would cook into less than 1/2 cup of greens. So, even if you're not a huge fan, I'd advocate giving greens another chance if only because they're little nutrient powerhouses.

Savory Greens
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2-4 bunches greens
3-4 small cherry-sized tomatoes
1 Tablespoon oil

Clean the greens really well with water. Cut the greens into 1 inch slices. If using a larger leaf green, cut both length wise and crosswise. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the tomatoes into a paste. Heat the oil over medium heat in a frying pan. Add in the garlic, careful to keep it moving so it does not burn. Once it starts to change to golden, toss in the tomatoes and cook until they start to look more saucy and less like raw tomatoes. Toss in the greens and saute until wilted. If you're using a thick-stemmed variety, you may want to saute the stems a few minutes before the leaves because they require longer cooking times. Salt to taste.

Best "Box" Brownies

I'm not a huge fan of chocolate, but something about my diet in South Asia makes me want to eat chocolate. I've searched for years for a good from scratch brownie closely resembling boxed brownies at home, but I have not really found anything. If you pay close attention to boxed brownies, they usually have some adaptations for "cake like" and "chewy" brownies. I am one who prefers chewy brownies, that perfect cross between cake and cookie. All of the from scratch recipes I've ever tried result in the more cake like texture, which is okay if it's all you get, but not quite up to snuff in my opinion. I found one that I liked a few years ago, kept adding chocolate chips and peanut butter to make it better, and felt reasonably satisfied with it--even prideful maybe. Then, I ate a brownie at my friend's house that made me feel sad for my brownies. This is the closest thing I've ever made to an out of the box chewy brownie. It's delicious warm or room temp with or without ice cream. The measurements are partly in metric, but I haven't bothered to convert them during cooking since I have a kitchen scale. You can buy the chocolate in big baking bars here or as chocolate chips. I find that the local candy bars don't melt as well.

Also, before giving the recipe, I recently learned from Chuck's Day Off that this is the basic recipe for molten chocolate cakes, too. If you just reduce your cook time and put the batter into smaller baking rounds, you'll get a firm outside and semi-liquid center. Nice to know!

Best "Box" Brownies
150g butter (about 1 Tbsp more than 1/2 cup)
125g chocolate (roughly 1/2 cup)
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
Pinch of salt

In a bowl, melt butter and chocolate together. You can use a double boiler or heat in microwave in 30 second bursts, stirring in between, until melted. In a separate bowl, beat eggs and sugar. Add in vanilla. Slowly add the melted chocolate to the eggs and sugar, careful to temper so you don't scramble the eggs. Add the flour, cocoa powder, and salt, and stir just to combine. A few lumps are okay. If you over-mix, the brownies will be hard.

Pour into a buttered baking dish (9x9 or 11x7). Line with baking paper to make clean up easier. Bake at 180C for 40 minutes or until the middle looks risen and a toothpick comes out relatively clean. If it's slightly soft in the middle, it will make for a more chewy cooled brownie.

Note: No, I did not leave the baking soda or powder off the recipe. Somehow it magically rises without any leavening.

If you're in a hurry or feeling lazy, I did find that you can kind of throw everything into the bowl with the melted chocolate and get similar results. The final texture is slightly different, but not enough to notice unless you eat both kinds of brownies back to back. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Missing Milk

During my years overseas, I had come to the conclusion that milk here would never taste like it does at home. If you buy the UHT milk that you don't have to refrigerate until opening, it tastes like it came from a package. If you buy powdered milk, it's bearable when chilled, but not quite right. If you buy the local packet milk, you have to boil it because of potential pathogens and the likelihood that water may have been added to "top it off." That leaves the milk with a distinct cooked taste. While it tastes alright chilled and is by far the least expensive option (almost half the price of the alternative), it's still just not there.

This summer I discovered a farmer was delivering milk to my upstairs neighbors every day, good quality milk that he is very proud of. We started having him bring it to us, too. He quietly arrives in the early morning and pours milk into a pot I have waiting for him outside. I just put the pot out at night so I don't have to wake up. :) From this small operation of only 20 cows that actually eat grass and a man so proud of his delicious milk, I determined to find alternative methods of pasteurization that did not ruin this good milk. I discovered that when you're not concerned about water you can pasteurize more like modern dairies do, albeit with less technology and speed.

So, if you can spot a farmer around your neighborhood or ask someone who might know one, you can pasteurize your milk this way. Over low heat, slowly bring the milk's temperature up to 165F or 74C. I did it a few times with a thermometer, but worked out that this is the point at which tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan and gradually connect with each other. It needs to stay at this temperature for 20 seconds, then you can switch it off. Another trick is to begin cooling quickly so I will put it in a tub in the fridge within about 10 minutes of pasteurizing, that gives enough time for some of the chewy cream to settle at the top so I can strain it. In America, they say that raw milk straight from the farmer that you pasteurize and put in a sealed container will keep refrigerated for about 8 days, much better than the recommended 48 hours we see on packages here. Not that ours ever lasts that long though!

The chilled version of this might vary in flavor according to the cow's daily diet, but it tastes much more like plain ol' milk than anything I've ever had in this part of the world. And I'm a serious milk drinker.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kitchen Staple: Molasses

Well, this isn't really a kitchen staple for me, but it's one I like to have on hand during this season. I am a huge fan of gingerbread and molasses cookies so it's really nice to have this. It begins with a local ingredient called chaaku or gud. Most little shops that sell a variety of dry goods will carry it, although there seem to be special times (like January) when it becomes easier to find.

1 small block/ball chaaku
2-4 Tablespoons water

Place the block into a pot and add 2 tablespoons water. Over low heat, stirring occasionally, heat the mixture to melt it. If it seems too thick, add additional water. The trick is to add enough water that the mixture will remain a syrup rather than returning to a block state. It does not usually take more than 1/4 cup, but you want it to look watery enough that you know it could never be solid again so add whatever you need to accomplish that. Once it is sufficiently thinned and melted together, pour through a strainer into a jar and store at room temperature. Mine usually lasts for months without going bad.

Note: You may find sticks, stones, and all kinds of other weird stuff when the block melts. Molasses is near the very end of the sugar making process so it's the bottom of the barrel so to speak. It's loaded with minerals so I find I can look past the weirdness. Just strain it before you jar it.

Kitchen Staple: Cottage Cheese/Ricotta

I am not a person who likes to just eat cottage cheese or ricotta on its own, but I do like to use both of these in cooked applications. In a pinch, you could buy paneer and crumble it into small pieces, but making this is fairly straightforward.

Cottage Cheese
1 Liter milk
2-3 Tablespoons vinegar

You can use regular dairy milk for this application because it will be pasteurized in the process and is much cheaper than the UHT or powdered milk. Bring the milk to a boil. It should be kept at 165F for about 20 seconds, but without measuring it's around the point at which the little bubbles around the pot connect. Switch off the heat and add 2 Tablespoons vinegar. Lightly stir and allow to sit for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, stir the curds. If you still see milky liquid, add another Tablespoon. That should finish separating the curds from the whey. Pour the mixture through a cheesecloth or fine strainer. If you notice a strong vinegar smell, rinse the cheese with drinking water. Strain until it reaches the consistency you like.

To make paneer, place a heavy plate or can on top of the cheese overnight, slice, and cook. To make cottage cheese, you may need to add a little cream to the cooled curds to get the right consistency. A little salt will also help boost the flavor. This works great in lasagna, ravioli, Mexican casseroles, etc.

Kitchen Staple: Sour Cream

I was thinking this week when I used a few very basic kitchen staples that a series on how to make them via cheater versions could actually be helpful. So...without further adieu here are some not super exciting recipes that will hopefully make you realize you really can have some of those tastes of home in the kitchen.

Sour Cream
1 small box fresh cream (technically not fresh since it's in a box)
1-2 capfuls white vinegar or lemon juice
Pinch salt

You can easily adapt this recipe for the 1 liter box, but I am not sure when I would ever need that much sour cream. First, place the box in the freezer for about 30 minutes. This will help the thick cream and the liquid in the box more easily separate. I find the fridge does not work as well for this. Pull up the corner tabs on the bottom end of the box. Sip off a corner and dump over the sink. An almost clear liquid should pour out. If it does not, you might try snipping from the other end. I can never tell which side it will settle at. If it's frozen, just scrape off the more icy looking bits which would have been more like water. Finish cutting the whole top of the box open and scrape into a bowl. Add 1 capful white vinegar and a pinch of salt. Stir to mix thoroughly and taste to see if the sourness is enough. If not, add up to another capful and stir again. Chill until ready to serve.

No, this is not technically sour cream. I think it's more along the lines of creme fraiche, but it works great in place of sour cream both as a topping and in cooked applications.

Apparently, the process for making real sour cream involves mixing cream and buttermilk and sitting out at room temp for 24 hours. I'm going to give it a try in the next few weeks so I'll let you know how it turns out!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Caramel Apples

We have had a wonderful problem in our home here lately--loads of apples! Our neighbors pass through areas where apples are in season right now so every few days we seem to be another bag of good apples. Before I share this recipe, I wanted to share a little trick I have found when it comes to selecting apples. Aside from looking for the more obvious bruising on the outside of the apples, the main thing I look for is the blossom end of the apple. It should be tightly closed rather than open. This is an indicator of the length of time the apple has spent away from the tree. Generally, if I only choose apples with closed blossom ends, I end up with crisp apples.

Now, on to more delicious things.  I wanted to make an apple pie, but didn't have enough flour. I decided to make apple crisp only to realize I had no oatmeal. Baked apples it would become. I like caramel. I like apples. I like caramel apples. I don't like sticky messes. This recipe combines the apples and caramel in a less messy way. If you have an ovenproof dish that also works on the stove, then you could only dirty one dish. I'm willing to wash an extra pot for caramel goodness though.

Pre-baking: Apples are covered with caramel and dotted with butter.

Baked Caramel Apples
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons water
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
 4 large apples, chopped (peeled or unpeeled)
2 Tablespoons butter, for dotting
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Place the brown sugar, water, butter, flour, and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly. Do not leave this or you risk burning the caramel. Once the caramel begins to thicken to a gravy-like consistency, remove from heat. Place the apples in the bottom of a baking dish. Pour over the warm caramel and dot the top of apples with the butter. Sprinkle cinnamon over the top. Bake covered for 30-40 minutes in a 175 degree oven.

Pressure Cooker Beef Stew

I often use the pressure cooker for making pot roasts, but to make it seem more fall-like I decided we should something more like a stew. This one inspired by Emeril's Beef Stew turned out really nicely and also has very little clean up as a one-pot meal.

Pressure Cooker Beef Stew
1 Tablespoon oil
1 Tablespoon seasoning salt
1 Tablespoon flour
500 grams beef or buff, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, diced (omit if you don't have access to this)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon rosemary
2 cups broth (1 chicken cube + 2 cups water)
1 1/2 cups red wine
Carrots, diced
Potatoes, diced

Mix the flour and seasoning salt in a bowl. Lightly toss the meat cubes in the flour mixture. Heat the oil in the pressure cooker and sear the beef cubes until brown. Remove the meat from the pot. Saute the onion, garlic, and celery until translucent. Add the beef back to the pressure cooker and add in the salt, pepper, mushrooms, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, broth, and red wine. You can substitute more broth for the red win, but omit the added salt. Clamp the lid on the cooker and raise the heat to high. When the pressure cooker whistle blows the first time, reduce the heat and cook 20 minutes. Release the pressure, open, and toss in the vegetables. Close the cooker again and cook an additional 20-30 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve.

Ranch Dressing

I made this for lunch today and was reminded that it's definitely a recipe worth sharing. Several years ago, a local friend of mine was asking me how to make ranch dressing without packets. She had worked for foreigners most her life, and her kids had developed a particular taste for it. With foreigners the only source of the occasional imported dressing packets here, that means those packets are guarded as precious treasures for only the most special occasions. I find that often I guard those so much they expire before I get to use them! I did some digging for my friend back then and found this recipe. Having had packet dressing this week the night before making this one, I could really do a good comparison. Honestly, they taste very similar. So, here's a quick and easy ranch dressing with local ingredients. It takes literally about 3 minutes to make if that much.

Ranch Dressing
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried dill or 1 Tablespoon fresh, chopped finely
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley or 1 Tablespoon fresh, chopped finely
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together with a whisk to get out any lumps. Keep refrigerated up to a week.

A few notes about this recipe. First, make sure you get a decent mayonnaise as it will really affect the flavor of the dressing. American Garden seems to be fairly priced for a quality mayo. Fun Foods....not so good. Adapt the second ingredient to the thickness you like. For a more thick dressing, you might even drain yogurt over a cloth first. I like dips thicker and dressings thinner so I actually use almost 1/2 cup yogurt and add a little water to top it off. Lastly, if you want a classic ranch flavor, use the recipe as is or even cut back on the dill. If you want a dilly dip, omit the parsley and up the dill. The flavor will increase over time too so don't go overboard. I never have parsley on hand so I just use dill. This time of year, most of the people who sell a variety of leafy greens will also carry dill. Just sniff, and you'll know.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Meal Plan 3

Yes, we've had some silence in blog land thanks to hubby wishing I might apply my efforts elsewhere...such as writing more important blog entries pertaining to work. Since it only takes a few minutes to give you a meal plan and some links, I thought I'd share what's on our plate this week. With the changing of the weather, I wanted to take advantage of that fall feeling as long as I can so I've added a few more hearty recipes until the pumpkins get ripe enough to have truly autumn-inspired meals.

Loaded Potato Soup and Salad - This soup from Gina and Pat Neely is fantastic!

Pasta Agli e Olio and Garden Salad - Cut back on the parmesan to make it affordable.

Pressure Cooker Beef Stew

Poppy Seed Chicken, Rice, and Steamed Vegetables

Homemade Takeout: Vegetable Fried Rice

Apps Night: Hot Spinach Dip, Deviled Eggs, Crudite with White Bean Dip

Pigs in a Blanket with Green Bean Salad in Mustard Dressing

For recipes with no links or the crescent roll dough called for in the Piggy recipe, I'll post as I use them.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Rotini with Greens and Beans

I grew up in the South where cooked greens were a part of most social gatherings. A lot of people I know don't seem particularly fond of greens, which I think is sad considering how packed with nutrition dark leafy greens are. I also know many others who only eat greens raw in salads. Thankfully, I live in a place where a variety of greens suitable for cooking are in plentiful supply and grow almost year round. I am always looking for more ways to use what grows locally and to think about vegetables in different ways than I already know. If you can get yourself to eat greens, this is a nutrition-packed easy weeknight dinner.

Rotini with Greens and Beans
8 oz. or 1/2 pack rotini
Olive oil
8-10 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 cups cooked white beans (or 1 can rinsed and drained)
3/4 cup water
1 veg stock cube (I stock up on MSG-free cubes when they're available)
2 bunches leafy greens, washed, trimmed, and chopped
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions. To make this truly a one dish meal, I cook the pasta, drain it into a colander and continue with the rest of the recipe in the same pot. Saute the garlic cloves in olive oil until just beginning to turn golden. Add the leafy greens and stir to get the garlic off the bottom of the pan. Once the greens begin to wilt, add 3/4 cup water and the veg bouillon cube. Allow the greens to cook down in the broth for about 5-10 minutes or until a lot of the liquid has evaporated. Add the beans and pasta to the greens and stir to combine. Salt generously and add pepper. If you're not using canned beans, you will need more salt. Sprinkle each dish with parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Balancing Act Plus a Meal Plan

In the course of a week here, I try very hard to create various balances: cost/variety, vegetarian/meat, electricity/no electricity, time required/payoff for time, and healthy/less healthy. That often means thinking a lot more about food than I would necessarily like to, but hopefully underscores your feelings that making and preparing for food in South Asia takes a lot of work. Here's this week's meal plan for dinners:

Italian Chicken Chowder with Crusty Bread
If you don't already follow Sara Beth at Market2Meal, you totally should. She's got loads of wonderful recipes that are practical to make here. 

Spaghetti with Garlic Bread

Moroccan Chickpea Stew with Rice and a Mediterranean Salad

Hamburger Helper - Don't be hating...

Veg and Tofu Stirfry with Noodles

Tuna Rice Casserole

Eggplant Melanzane, Pasta, and Leafy Green Salad

Just a few comments if you're thinking something sounds gross, and you're wondering why I'd eat that if I like food. Yesterday, my husband and I were talking about weird foods that we missed--his Hamburger Helper, mine tuna casserole. He's not a big fan of the casserole, but we've never had it in the 11 years we've been married so it deserves a chance. I'm not a huge fan of Hamburger Helper, but I recently stumbled across a Make Your Own version that seems to be fast enough to work with our busy Saturday night Skype schedule. Will let you know how they turn out!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pork Breakfast Sausage

I had lived in South Asia for about 5 years before I ever had breakfast sausage at someone's house. The woman had been making it for years and acted as though it was a cinch to make. Turns out, it is if you have access to ground pork. Pork was hard to come by where I lived in India so I guess that's why I never even looked into it. If you make sausage in America, you need to grind in extra fat because pigs are engineered to be more lean these days. In the less developed world where fat is not on everyone's radar, most ground pork comes with a hefty portion of fat, more than enough to make a good sausage. One ingredient, sage, is not so easy to find in South Asia, but some organic herb growers do sell it. That's one that I definitely bring from the States for holidays anyway, but it also grows really well here if you can get your hands on it. This is my adaptation of Alton Brown's Breakfast Sausage to make it a little more practical for every day use.

Pork Breakfast Sausage
500g pork mince (choose a pack with lots of fat)
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp brown sugar
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp red chili powder, optional
1/4 tsp red chili flakes (thank you, Pizza Hut packets!), optional

Combine all the dry ingredients into a bowl. Mix until everything is thoroughly incorporated. Add the pork and mix by hand until the spices have been evenly distributed through the meat. Cover the bowl and pop in the refrigerator for about an hour or up to over night. At this point, you can either form into patties or use it as crumbled sausage and fry as you would any other breakfast sausage. If making patties, I like to make a small "test patty" first and adjust the seasoning for the whole batch based on that one.

I find that the red chili powder (not American chili powder) and the flakes really boost the sausage flavor to another level so I sometimes add a little more. Enjoy!

Breakfast Casserole

I love breakfast--all the time. One of my favorite breakfasts is the kind of casserole people make for holiday mornings. Why they only make them for those occasions, I totally don't get so I make them whenever. Since I only needed half a pack of ground pork last night, I mixed the rest up to make sausage. This made a large round casserole dish worth, more than enough for our small family for dinner and breakfast leftovers.

Sausage Breakfast Casserole
1/2 pound sausage
2 cups bread, cubed
1 cup cheese
5 eggs, beaten
2 cups milk
3/4 teaspoon mustard powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon onion powder

Brown the sausage in a frying pan and drain. Preheat over to 160C. Butter the bottom of your baking dish. Add the bread cubes. Personally, I prefer a heartier bread for this so it doesn't get soggy and has some bite to it. In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, milk, mustard powder, salt, onion powder, and cheese. Pour over the bread. Top the dish with the sausage. Place in a hot oven and bake for about 1 hour. If the top begins to brown too fast, you can cover it with foil.

I do have a confession after making this tonight though. I just don't have the patience to wait one hour for eggs. So... if you're at all like me, considering electricity/gas consumption and not just being impatient (not!), bump up the heat to 180/200. Check it after 30 minutes to see if the eggs have set. If not, give it another 10-15 minutes. That's how I always do quiche so I assume it should work here as well.