Living in this country for 7 plus years has really developed my cooking skills. In many ways, I feel like I "learned to cook" after moving here. Actually, my mom started me early...as young as 10 I was preparing meals for my family. I could use the oven, the stovetop, and often my mom would start a meal and have me finish it after I came home from school, while she was teaching piano lessons. Thankfully she was always in the next room in case I had questions! There were a few disasters, including a time where the butter for grilled cheese sandwiches got too hot in the skillet and filled the kitchen with smoke. My brother Dan came in and shouted, "Hit the deck!" We all did--me including!--until I realized it was up to me to do something and prevent a fire! That story has become a part of our family lore and still gets brought up occasionally! However, most meals worked out fine.
Since I had had so much experience in the kitchen, Advanced Cooking in high school was a breeze for me; I was fascinated by the art and science of cooking. There I learned more about the wonder of the process of baking, why the baking powder or soda were needed for leavening, the amazing properties of eggs, and other such information. It was fun, though certainly still a long way from "from-scratch" cooking.
After John and I were married, I had lots of cooking questions. John was easy to please (still is!) but I had higher standards for myself. I remember some of our early days, trying to find just the right way to cook pot roast. I even called my mom and asked her how her pot roast turned out so well. Was it the cut of beef? No, she just bought whatever was on sale. Was it the cooking time? No, she just "put it in before church and it was done when we got home." Was it the liquid added, or lack of liquid? She usually didn't add much liquid, just "a little bit." Was it necessary to sear the roast first? So many questions! I had lots of trial and error and we certainly ate well, but that was also in the days where I could go to the grocery store and not have to watch the budget too much, so some convenience and prepared foods were perfectly fine.
Then we went through a time where we were both in school again and our budget was drastically reduced. As well, my brother was in the midst of a cancer battle and our whole family was trying to eat more healthy foods. John and I settled on a good (if extremely simple) pattern: oatmeal for breakfast, salad for lunch, and then a simple supper. We did have little "luxuries" within that pattern: our favorite golden raisins on the oatmeal, the salad with tons of fresh veggies, homemade dressing (so much better than the bottled stuff!) and homemade croutons made from homemade bread with olive oil, crushed garlic, and salt. YUM! We had to make a pact not to eat the croutons unless we were eating salad also; they were so very tasty! We made a lot of fresh bread, ate a lot of tuna or egg sandwiches, and ate a lot of pasta (we got pretty choosy about the sauce and loved the Bertolli brand). As well, at that time we were working at Starbucks so I got my fill of caramel macchiatos, vanilla lattes, and americanos. But I still did very little cooking from scratch.
Before we moved here, however, I made a very significant purchase: The Joy of Cooking. This one book fascinated, educated, and inspired me. The chapters were comprehensive, understandable, and gave the history behind foods as well as detailed instructions. Suddenly, with the absence of lots of prepared foods (you know, like diced tomatoes in a can or tortillas in a bag), I had to learn how to cook all over again. And actually, it wasn't very sudden. When we first arrived, we had no kitchen so we ate all our meals at the student cafeteria, restaurants, or from street vendors. (I've mentioned before how a toaster greatly improved my quality of life at that time.) Then we moved to our own apartment, and I still greatly depended on "convenience" food--you know, fresh noodles from the vendor, ordering delivery from the restaurant down the street, things like that. But as culture stress lessened, I bought some pots and pans and a tiny oven, began to figure out where to buy essentials like baking soda and butter, and began to try out some recipes we used to love as well as adapt ones for cooking here. I pored over the Joy of Cooking many a night to learn new techniques and find do-able recipes.
There were certainly some major flops. . . bread that didn't rise, a lasagne that I made with tofu instead of ricotta cheese (I must have bought the wrong type of tofu, it overpowered everything else), cookies and cakes with too many substitutions that didn't quite turn out, my first Thanksgiving turkey and gravy, the turkey was ok but the gravy congealed to the point where it was a solid mass! And once I completely cracked a glass bowl trying to make peanut brittle in my microwave. Oops.
But, trial and error, bit by bit, I began to learn and get a sense of making things from scratch. My skills increased exponentially when my friends Rachel and Amy came to town. We started to trade recipes and techniques and still do, actually!
During all that time, I wish I had known about this site. SB, cook extraordinaire, has a wonderful site jam-packed with all sorts of tips, tricks, and recipes for making the foods we love from scratch where certain ingredients may not be available. Need your own sour cream? Want to try making cream cheese? Or preparing pumpkin puree? Or making authentic mexican food? Or any of a hundred other things. . .she's really done a great job here. If you are an expat mom, you MUST look at her site, I'd bet that even if you've been cooking overseas for years like I have, you will find something new to make!
I tried SB's homemade cream cheese last weekend and was SO pleased with how it turned out. I added a bit of jam and some sugar to it at the very end so that we could use it for bagels, and it is very yummy! It is a bit softer than "real" cream cheese and lacked a bit of the tanginess, but otherwise was amazingly good, better than I expected and easier to make, too.
I've posted a few recipes occasionally myself, and one of my goals is to go through them and tag them as recipes so that they can be found more easily. But for tonight, here's some links to a few of my favorites. Baked oatmeal, breadmaker bagels, Creamy Christmas eggnog, homemade pizza crust, golden honey pan rolls, our favorite cinnamon rolls, Swedish Roll-ups, pumpkin bread, and chai lattes in a crock-pot. There may be more recipes hiding here somewhere, but give these a look-see for now!
Enjoy the recipes! I hope to post recipes on a more regular basis in the future. It's fun and hopefully helpful to some of you as well. And don't forget to check out SB's site!