If you know me at all, then it is no secret to you that I love to cook. I love the process of preparing something with my own two hands, I love the end-results of a nourishing meal, and I especially love the part where we get to gather around the table together – whether it’s “just us” on a busy week night or a table full of friends and family with ample time to linger. The nourishment of body and soul isn’t really possible without the preparation, though.
As you might imagine, cooking overseas takes a bit of imagination sometimes. And I will be the first to admit that imagination is not one of my strong suits. Truth be told, I’m kind of a recipe girl. And by “kind of” I mean “totally and completely”. If the recipe calls for long-grain rice, you better believe I’m not going to be substituting minute-rice, even if it is a short cut (and this, my friends, is where my sister and I could not be more different). I like to create my meal plan, make a detailed list, and be fully prepared when I hit the kitchen. Or I should say….that’s how I used to do it before I moved my family of 6 to a foreign country.
I’ve always loved the challenge of making things from scratch (thankfully), but that has taken on a whole new meaning these days. I never really thought we used that many “convenience” foods in our home, but I have realized how wrong I was since moving here! Let me give you a few examples: One of our go-to meals has always been a Chicken divan, a recipe my cousin Barb gave me way back when I was just a newly-wed. It’s really simple, basic ingredients: Chicken, rice, broccoli, cream of chicken soup, mayo, chedder cheese, parmesan cheese, and corn flakes. When I found cornflakes in the store one day, I quickly thought of this recipe and thought I’d try putting it together. So I rounded up the ingredients.
First, the rice. I’ve always used minute rice in this (because that’s what the recipe called for, dog gone it!), but definitely can’t find that here. No big deal, regular long-grain rice it is. Oh, but first I need to soak it? For a couple hours?? Ok, check.
The chicken I found in a store who’s freezer I trust. I pay a bit more for it, but I’m just not quite ready to buy the whole chicken hanging in the open-air market. I know how to handle boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Check.
Broccoli. No problem. I find a head at the local store. But first, it must be soaked in vinegar water, then washed in our good drinking water. Then chopped. Got it. Done.
Mayo. Check. Whew, finally something easy!
Cream of chicken soup. Ummm….crickets….nothing like that here. Pinterest to the rescue! I find my own recipe for the home-made variety. It tastes SO much better, but definitely added a few more steps. Ok, check.
Cheddar cheese & Parmesan. I carefully read the labels in Cyrillic and am elated when I find that the words for Cheddar and Parmesan are actually phonetically the same! Score! But first, they both need to be shredded…no easy dump-and-measure here. Ok, check.
And the corn flakes! I know I have these because they were what inspired me in the first place, right?? But I scour my drawers for a Ziploc bag to crush them…something else I can’t seem to find here. I finally track one down in my bedroom that I had used to pack something (clean…I think…). Cornflakes…check!
I compiled this meal in one of our first weeks here, and let me tell you…I was utterly unprepared for the length of time that meal would take me. But let me also tell you, we were SO excited to eat something that tasted like home – all of the kids actually told me it tasted better than they remembered it (I attributed it to the homemade cream of chicken…mostly).
After that first laborious attempt to create a familiar meal, I set out to find ways to feed us in a much more timely manor, but also in ways that were healthy and familiar. While we enjoy experiencing the new foods here, we also find a lot of rest in making our home feel like, well, HOME. So I thought I’d share with you a few of the foods I’ve created from scratch to bring a bit of the familiar to our new foreign place.
Applesauce was pretty high on my list of “missing staples”, but I was also a bit gun shy because of the labor-intensive process of peeling and chopping a bazillion apples. Once apple season hit, however, I found my courage and made a batch. I think everyone’s eyes rolled back in their heads with the first taste of warm, cinnamon applesauce. It has been added to the regular rotation here, needing to be made about once every other week. I may never convince them to go back to the jarred variety if ever we have the opportunity.
Granola bars were another staple that I absolutely always had in our pantry back in the States, though I’m realizing that might have been for my own benefit as much as for theirs. I would actually look forward to the days we needed to go somewhere and I could enjoy a granola bar on the drive 🙂 My mornings are busier now than ever as I have to run out the door by 8:15 to make it to language lessons 3 days a week, and I was missing that quick, easy bar to grab. So I created my own! I have been very pleased with the results, and am playing with different varieties as I find different ingredients (although, I still miss that handy-dandy packaging sometimes).
The next one is a pretty simple staple that I didn’t know I took for granted…half and half. Not a hard fix, but it took us a bit of time to get the ratio right. As it turns out, “half and half” is not exactly right. We finally figured out the percentage of “sleevkie” (cream), the percentage of milk, and the ratio of the two mixed. Finally our coffee tastes good again!
The last one is something I’ve been making for a long time, thanks to my Mom’s careful teaching…apple pie. There’s nothing more American, right? But as it turns out, Crisco is also pretty American. So I determined to find a new kind of crust with ingredients I could find here (but first, a moment of silence for putting to rest my all-time-favorite pie crust recipe. Sigh.). Fortunately, pinterest won the day again and gave me a wonderful all-butter crust that turned out beautifully! Next time I think I might try the vodka crust, since I have certainly never lived anywhere that sells vodka for less than water 😉
I’m sure I’ve lost most of my readers by now, so I’ll stop for today. But I may revisit this topic from time to time as I discover new ways to cook here in Central Asia. A quick shout-out to my Mom and Grandmas and many Aunts who passed on their love of cooking and the art of making things from scratch. I’m so thankful I learned how, even when I didn’t always have to.