Sunday, January 20, 2013

Banana Brûlée Oatmeal

Oatmeal is one of those comforting breakfast foods that says winter to me. We've been eating a lot of it lately, but I'm still working on a way to get my daughter to love something other than instant oatmeal packets, which are pretty pricey here. I've dabbled in the Make Your Own Instant Oatmeal as is explained at Simple Dollar and have been moderately successful at something close to packaged oatmeal. For a special Sunday morning breakfast, though, I wanted something closer to a hearty baked oatmeal. When I was in the States over Christmas, my nanny had some food magazines for me, and a number of them had versions of baked oatmeal with a brûlée topping. Here's a tweaked version that works well for us. The oats that come from India don't stand up to soaking overnight as well as steel cut oats so I skip that, but the end product is still pretty tasty. If you use steel cut oats, follow the recommended liquid to oats ratio on the package, soak overnight in the boiled water, cook the oats until tender in the morning, and follow the rest of the recipe.

Can you tell I have only one good location for photos?
Banana Brulee Oatmeal
1 1/2 cups oats
3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 regular sized ripe bananas or 3-4 smaller local ones
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup toasted nuts (walnuts, almonds, or pecans if you're in the US)

Bring the water to a boil and add the oats. Cook over low heat until the oats are done. This usually takes about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the salt, vanilla, and milk, stirring to combine. Pour into a baking dish. Turn on the broiler. My oven has a knob you can turn for just the top heating element, and you just crank the heat. Slice bananas on a diagonal into thin slices. Spread them over the top of the oatmeal. Sprinkle with the brown sugar. Place the dish under the broiler for about 4 minutes or until the brown sugar looks caramely and melted. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the toasted nuts.

No electricity morning version: Toast the nuts in a pan over low heat until fragrant. After the oatmeal is cooked, add all the other ingredients and mix together. Top with the nuts. This method tastes slightly different, but it's still really good.

The verdict with my daughter--empty bowl. 'Nuff said.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Make Ahead Meals

I'm about to re-enter the working world for the first time since I was pregnant with my oldest five years ago. One of my concerns, aside from being away from my children every day for the next four months, is dinner. I remember meals being a challenge after work in India before I had two children waiting for my husband and I at home. With the next two weeks at home, I'm aiming to think about some make ahead meals that will save our family time and hopefully some stress as well. If you live in a developing country, you know that there are few meals that take 30 minutes or less, but if I can in some way reduce any of the prep and cooking times in advance, I'm going to aim for it. Any suggestions for how to accomplish stress free meals without a crock pot and limited electricity to power an oven?

Molasses Cookies

Apparently it's molasses time here, and of course, it would fall after people need it for making gingerbread houses and other seasonal treats. Having spotted small packets of the solid form of molasses in a shop near my house and secured an ongoing source for the rest of the year, I decided it was time for something warm and gingerbread-y. Molasses cookies are one of my favorite, favorite cookies. They're so classic winter, and you could almost get away with saying they're healthy because of all that iron. :) There's a chewiness there that you don't find in a lot of cookies either. Mmmm...

Molasses Cookies - Makes roughly 3 dozen
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon and ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup or 128g butter, softened (tricky this time of year!)
1 cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
1/2 cup liquified chaaku or molasses
White sugar

In one bowl, mix all the dry ingredients down through the cloves. Stir to get the baking soda and spices mixed throughout. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar. Once fluffy add the oil, vanilla, egg, and molasses. Stir until everything comes together. It will look almost curdled. Gradually add the dry mixture to the wet until you have a somewhat sticky brown dough. Cover and chill until firm. This happens in about 30 minutes on the counter during winter in our house!

Preheat oven to 190C/375F. Pour some sugar (chunky or fine--both work) into a bowl. Form 1 inch balls with the dough and roll them in the sugar before placing them on a baking sheet. They don't spread too far so 2 inches or so apart is okay. Bake for about 9 minutes. Look for crinkles forming on top that look just barely dry (even underdone) and remove from the oven to cool.

Try not to eat them all... By the way, the dough does not taste good before it's cooked so don't judge the cookies by their raw flavor.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Broccoli Cheese Casserole

Now that we're back from America, I'm trying to get my family back into our regular eating habits. One of the side effects of being home for a month was eating a large amount of meat, which I suppose can be good occasionally to boost our iron stores that tend to get low here. Although we like to eat vegetarian most days of the week, in the cold months I'm always trying to strike a balance between veggie mains and hearty dishes that keep you warm and full for a while. I think this casserole does it. A canned soup version was often a side dish at potlucks during my childhood, but I think this one can stand on its own as the star performer of a cozy winter meal. I found this recipe at Salad in a Jar (which is such a cool idea by the way!), but made some minor changes to replicate my favorite flavors from Chicken Divan into a veggie dish.

Broccoli Cheese Casserole
2 small to medium broccoli heads (about 4 cups chopped)
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 thin stalks celery, finely chopped (optional)
3/4 cup mushrooms, finely chopped
2 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1 Tablespoon mayonnaise
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
2 cups cheese, grated
1 1/4 cups cooked rice (even a little undercooked is okay)

After washing and chopping the broccoli, steam for 3-5 minutes or blanch them for 1-2 minutes (I like it to still have bite after cooking).  Rinse in cool water to stop the cooking. Melt butter in a saucepan over med-low heat and add the onions, garlic, celery, and mushrooms to the pan. Cook until the onions become translucent and the water from the mushrooms has evaporated. Sprinkle the flour over the pan and stir for 1-2 minutes to get rid of the raw flour taste. Pour in the milk, stirring to get rid of any lumps. Bring the sauce up to a boil and then simmer until it begins to thicken. Turn off the heat. Add the salt, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted. Add the broccoli and cooked rice to the sauce, and stir gently until everything is nicely coated. If it seems to thick, add milk a spoon at a time. Pour into a greased casserole or Miracle Oven. Bake in a preheated oven at 170C/350F until bubbly. It takes about 20 minutes in the Miracle Oven.

Notes: For the mushrooms, just use whatever you have. In my neighborhood we get big oyster mushrooms so I just used one of those. To minimize waste, go ahead and use some of the broccoli stalk. I sometimes go up to 5 inches down from the florets and still have tender pieces. Just be sure to chop those finely in case there are fibrous bits. And yes, the mayonnaise might sound weird, but it adds a real richness that makes the dish. You could even sprinkle the top with salted biscuits (Ritz-type crackers) before baking for an extra crunch.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

For the Kiddos: Playdough

Not everything I cook in my kitchen is for food. Sometimes it's a weird science experiment for my kids. In this case, the not so weird experiment was playdough. I know that probably every overseas parent knows how to make playdough, but I thought I'd share just in case. I think this playdough feels better than what you can buy in prepackaged tubs. If you keep it in plastic after each use, it literally lasts for ages.

Cooked Playdough
1 cup flour
1/4 cup salt
2 teaspoons cream of tartar OR 3 teaspoons white vinegar
1 cup water
Food coloring

Combine the flour and salt in a pot, stirring to get the salt thoroughly incorporated. Add the acid agent (either cream of tartar or vinegar), the water, and how much food coloring you'd like. You could also opt for a packet of Koolaid, but who would waste that good stuff?! Stir the mixture until it's relatively lump free. The color should be a few shades lighter than you want the final product as it will darker significantly during cooking. Over med-low heat, with a strong wooden spoon, stir the mixture constantly, scraping the bottom and sides as you would scrambled eggs. It will clump similar to how eggs would, eventually forming a large solid mass or masses. If you see any milky or wet parts, turn the piece so it rests on the bottom of the pan for about 20 seconds. Once all the liquid is gone, turn off the heat. This takes 3-5 minutes. Plop the playdough onto a lightly floured surface. After giving the dough a few minutes to cool, knead until it feels silky and smooth like playdough and there's no more flour visible.

Enjoy a few moments of peace while your kids play with their new creations!

Mini-Mince Pies

I think the name of these is not the most appetizing, but I discovered these little gems while celebrating Christmas with my friend Penny when my husband and I lived in India. I felt like we Americans had missed out on these delicious little morsels, having the ugly cousin, fruitcake, on our tables instead. Traditionally, mincemeat pies contain suet, the fat from around the kidneys, and some booze as part of the mincemeat. Since the suet kind of grosses me out and since I want my kids to eat these, I leave both of these out and still have a tasty little product--more tasty if you ask me. The first instructions are for a food processor with regular instructions following. That's a kitchen tool I waited years to get in Asia and just got a few months ago. Indispensable! You can use whatever dried fruit you'd like in this recipe. Last year I did cranberries and apricots. This year I used dried figs and cherries--both ways were delicious!

If only mine looked this beautiful! They disappeared too fast!
Juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon
Zest of 1/2 an orange
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 apple, cored and cut into large pieces (not peeled)
1 cup golden raisins/sultanas (kismis locally)
1 cup mixed dried fruit
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 cup orange juice or brandy

Since everything is going to chop finely, I use a vegetable peeler to remove the zest from the lemon and orange (white and all). Then, with the outer peel side down, I scrape a paring knife over the peel to remove any pith.

Next, place the orange and lemon rind in the food processor with the brown sugar and whiz until finely chopped and mixed. Add the apple, lemon juice, and half of the golden raisins and mixed fruit. Whiz until the apple is finely chopped, then add the remaining raisins and fruit, spices, salt, and orange juice/brandy, and blitz again just until everything is combined. Sit out overnight in a covered container.

By-hand Alternative: Finely chop the zest of the lemon and orange. Next, finely chop the apple and half of the golden raisins and half the dried fruit. Put all this into a bowl, and stir in the brown sugar, lemon juice, remaining dried fruit/raisins, spices, salt, and liquid. Stir to combine, cover, and sit out overnight.

Using a basic pie crust recipe (slightly sweetened if you'd like), press the crust into a muffin pan to make mini-pies. Fill each pie with about a tablespoon of the mincemeat. If using a mini-muffin tin, use only about a teaspoon. Top with another piece of crust. I like to use the star design that you see all over the web, but a simple crisscross looks great, too. To make them really sparkle, brush the tops with an egg wash or butter and sprinkle with chunky sugar. Bake in a 200C/400F oven for 12-15 minutes or until the pastry is golden. Once cooled, store in an airtight container. They freeze really well, too, so I think these shouldn't be just reserved for holidays.

These are perfect little afternoon tea snacks!

Note: The recipe did not come from the Joy of Baking site, but theirs were so cute I had to share the picture.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Gingerbread Houses

We have been enjoying a really nice time with family in America over the Christmas holiday thanks to a wedding in our family. While it has been wonderful, I have not had much time to add recipes though I've been testing recipes off and on during this break. Yes, though I'm far away, I have been thinking of my friends in South Asia and what they could make during this season with few ingredients. Soo..... I'm hoping over the next few posts to fill your heads with ideas that might inspire some post-Christmas celebrations or at least make it into the plans for next year.

Front of gingerbread house with sprinkle sidewalk

Building gingerbread houses was something I never did in my house as a child. We made gingerbread and sometimes delicious molasses cookies, but I can't recall ever building a gingerbread house until I made one with my daughter last Christmas. That time I found a kit on sale for $5 and thought it was a deal. With no such deals this year, I thought, "People made them all the time before kits came out. How hard can it be?" Not very, actually.

While I don't have a printable template for you to use, I can even explain how to cut the pieces out based on Beatrice Ojakanga's recipe. First, cut out 2 3x5 rectangles (outer walls of house). Then, cut 2 rectangles 3x5.5. These will be slightly larger than the wall pieces and will form the roof slabs. The front and back take some thought. Make a 3x3 square. Mark the halfway point vertically and draw a line extending up 2 inches higher than the square. From that point, you can make 2 slanted lines to connect to the top right and left corners of the square, and you'll have a house shape. Make 2 of these. With any of the pieces, you could cut just 1 piece and remember to cut 2 pieces of gingerbread for it.

Back of the gingerbread house

128g or 1/2 cup butter, softened (not room temp since that's too cold this time of year!)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 Tablespoon ground ginger or 2 inches ginger, finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
2 Tablespoons water

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and baking soda. Once thoroughly combined, add in the flour and water. Mix until you have a well blended, moderately stiff dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm. This probably won't take long in winter anyway! Preheat oven to 190C/375F. Roll out the dough to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness. Lay the template pieces over the dough and cut them out. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes. You're looking for nice firm pieces. This makes enough dough to make some other gingerbread cutouts, too, if you want to add some flair to your house.

Once the pieces are cooled, prepare Royal Icing....or use gummy worms like Max and Ruby did.

Royal icing:
1 egg white
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or lemon juice
2-3 cups icing sugar

This is a rough approximation. You want this to be moderately stiff, but soft enough that it can go through a piping bag or plastic bag with a snipped corner. Add more water or sugar to get the right consistency. Cover with a wet towel when you're not using it. Use this to assemble and decorate your house. You can use books or other household objects to hold it together while the "glue" solidifies. Nowadays there are all kinds of exciting candies available locally to use as decorations.

Side view: Didn't she do a good job sticking on the candy?

This will totally be a family tradition for us because I love doing it. It was not super fun the first year with my 3-year-old, but now that she's able to contribute to the decorating, it will just get better. Happy housemaking! And yes, it's after Christmas, but c'mon, don't you want to make one?!