Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cooking from Scratch and Other Such Advice

A few weeks ago I felt like making an enchilada casserole. In America, this had always been an easy, yet satisfying meal. In Mongolia, it’s a three or four hour process. Recipes online contain a helpful list of ingredients like “a package of corn tortillas, a can of enchilada sauce, a block of cheese product” etc. A week or so later I decided I wanted to make a cheesy broccoli chicken and rice casserole and was once again confronted with “a can of” this time cream of chicken. A common issue with many recipes is that they are not designed for cooking from scratch. It is assumed that the American reading the recipe on will go to Walmart and purchase the bulk/processed foods. My time in Mongolia has led to a discovery of the joys of cooking from scratch, which has its challenges, but Peace Corps service is nothing if not challenging, and PCVs are nothing if not resourceful, so as my second year of service winds down, I’ve realized that I’ve picked up a lot of great experience on cooking from scratch. This list is a short compilation of advice and shortcuts that I’ve picked up on the way.

  • Almost always use more garlic—People who write recipes with only one or two cloves of garlic don’t know what garlic taste like. If I want garlic to be a flavor in a dish, then I use about a half a bunch or 6-7 cloves per dish, or about a clove a serving.
  • Crushed Peppercorn is underrated—I’ve taken to crushing the kernels between the flat of a knife and a cutting board. This leads to a fresh flavor every time that is a great addition of pepper in any dish. Pepper grinders are nice, but the kernels can get stale.

  • Dried Parsley is underrated—Seriously, I never used this herb in America, but it is a great addition to almost any dish. It can provide a nice color and a subtle flavor that is almost never overpowering.

  • Parsley and Oregano are forgiving herbs—It is pretty hard to put too much parsley or oregano in a dish. The enormous amount of dried herb required to make a dish overpowered with either of these is easy to avoid.  On the opposite side of the scale, basil, thyme, and dill are not forgiving herbs. Use as needed.

  • Semolina flour is a good substitute for corn starch—I’ve used this as a corn starch substitute for pies, soups, tortillas, etc., and have not been disappointed. The course middling from which the flour is derived gives it a grainy texture similar to corn starch. In Mongolia, this is sold in purple bags of the generic brand that you find everywhere.

  • Pungent meat? Remove the fat—Mongolians use a lot of fat in their cooking. The fat from sheep and goats is quite pungent. I tend to cut away most of the fat on red meat. It’s not that nutritious, and the meat tastes better without. An additional plus is a snack for one of our stray furry friends.

  • Iron Horsemeat? Kosher it—Horse meat can sometimes have high amounts of blood in the tissue. By removing the blood, you can reduce that iron flavor that can be overwhelming. Jewish practices of Kosher for meat can be done easily in Mongolia and remove blood. Here’s a link to 4 different methods to remove blood from meat.  The best horse I’ve had in Mongolia is meat that a Kazak family had hung, salted, smoked, and then slow cooked. It was divine.

  • Martha Stewart knows how to boil eggs—I started using this method in America; it is great for making boiled eggs that peal easy.  First, put the eggs in a pot with water and a lid. Bring the water to a rolling boil. Remove the pot from heat and allow the eggs to sit, covered in the hot water for 10-13 minutes. Then dump the hot water and chill the eggs quickly with cold water. The residual heat method cooks the eggs all the way through, and the immediate cold causes the membranes to avoid sticking to the egg leading to an easy peel.

  • Two ways to thicken creamy soups without flour clumps—The first method, learned from my father, must be done at the beginning using a French roux. The roux is a combination of butter and flour, sometimes milk or sautéed onions that is cooked until it reaches a darker color, at which point the fluids of the soup can be added. Rouxs are great for sauces and thick soups, especially Cajun cuisine, but can also be pretty easy to mess up by overcooking or undercooking.  A second method is to cook the soup base first, then when you want to thicken your creamy soup, combine melted butter and flour until you have thick pasty mixture. Then add this to the soup. The butter combined with the flour prevents it from clumping and allows the flour to thicken the soup consistently. When using this method, you can also mix in a lot of seasonings that you want to add to the hot soup keeping your pepper from clumping too!

  • Curry dishes use a lot of curry—The trick to a good dish with curry is to use a lot of it. This can seem weird especially since curry is often sold in small containers, but good curry rice sometimes needs more than two tablespoons of curry to create that nice Indian color and flavor.

  • Marinades (an easy path to flavor)—Marinades are a great way to bring flavor to dishes that are baked, stir-fried, or grilled.  I usually make my own marinades that are little different depending on the dish. A basic marinade may contain two parts olive oil, one part water, ½ to one part light vinegar (I love using the Korean apple vinegar), some salt, and seasonings galore. Seriously, don’t be afraid to try new things with seasonings. I’ve done marinades with twists toward Indian, Italian, and spicy Mexican cuisines. The trick to a good marinade is to allow the meat or tofu to sit in it for at least an hour at room temperature. Refrigerate if you intend marinating overnight.  A lot of recipes would have you remove the meat from the marinade, but I’ve enjoyed dumping everything into a skillet or baking pan with veggies for flavor infused dishes that are served great with a side of rice or potatoes.

  • Bread crumbs are better than flour for fried cheese sticks and baked chicken—Flour battered chicken sometimes doesn’t achieve the ideal texture when baked. Bread crumbs, instead of flour, work better for stuffed chicken breast. Cheese sticks are great, but it can be hard to get a good coating using only flour and egg.

  • Cream cheese is good for baking—This is hard to do in Mongolia, but it is sometimes possible to find cream cheese in aimag centers. Cream cheese holds its shape in dishes, like stuffed chicken breast, better than regular cheese which can melt and spread all over the place.

  • Woops the salt exploded—We’ve all been there. It is a hard place to recover from, but if a dish is too salty it is possible to use light vinegar (not the concentrated crap) and lemon juice to remove the flavor and bring the dish back to edible.

  • Secret to rising dough—If you are using a dough that has yeast, then the secret to success is creating a warm humid environment for the yeast to live for thousands of generations before you obliterate their world in your oven. My favorite method, also learned from my father, is to place a half full mug of water in the microwave and let it cook for 7 or 8 minutes until the inside of the microwave is steamy. Then place your dough inside this environment in a container with plenty of room for growth. Usually most doughs only need about 30 minutes to rise successfully in this environment. This can be a lot trickier without a microwave, but it is possible to create a warm humid environment by placing your hot water under a larger container with the dough preferably near the ger stove.

  • You can’t walk away from good cooking—American recipes are so often centered around “Just 30 min of prep time!” When you are cooking from scratch it really becomes a process that can take hours. For the enchilada casserole I made, it was necessary to first prepare the enchilada sauce. I then needed to make tortillas and pan fry them. After this I sautéed meat and veggies, adding taco seasoning to flavor the dish. Then I had to grate the cheese. This was followed by assembling the casserole. It was only when the casserole was in the oven that I could walk away and do something else. Walking away becomes especially impossible when cooking on a hot plate or stove top. It is really easy to burn things if they are not stirred regularly. If you are creating a dessert on a stove top, like a pie filling, forget about doing anything else. The sugar in these recipes makes them ridiculously easy to burn.

  • Taste often—Adding the finishing touches to flavoring a dish is not always something that can be taught. It is more of a skill acquired from lots of practice, successes, and fails.  Until you have firm understanding of how certain herbs and spices flavor a dish, it is best to take things slowly tasting often to determine what needs to be added. It is always easier to add to a dish then to recover from too much of anything.

  • Finally, don’t accept limitations—One of the biggest successes in cooking from scratch in Mongolia is to let the sky be your limit. Many of the best meals I’ve made are things that seemed impossible, but when broken into smaller pieces yielded great results. Even with a limited selection of products at stores, it is still possible to find new and exciting ways to create the dishes you want to eat.


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