Sunday, July 31, 2011

Simple Food for One - Good Hot Drinks

The news sends me into despair. I feel like we will all be jumping off a cliff together soon. I can't really cope with it and don't want to write about it.

So ... now for something completely different ... food, cooking, recipes.

I live alone and have to make meals for myself. I prefer not to just buy ready made food (most of the time anyway) so I have learned to cook things that are good and easy and that serve one person.

Most of the things I cook don't take much time and don't have a lot of ingredients. I don't see much point in  spending a lot of time cooking just for me, especially because it doesn't take me much time to eat what I fix.

I also try to avoid using the stove if I can. I know this is weird, but I find electric stoves to be very imprecise machines, and they heat up the house too much. I haven't had access to a gas stove since .... when? Childhood? Something like that. I have figured out how to cook nearly everything I want with counter top appliances only. The only thing I have to use the stove for is to boil eggs in the shell... so far. I'm working on the egg thing, and I could do it with a hot plate and small sauce pan.

So I use the microwave (yes, I'll risk cancer or whatever it is this machine is supposed to give me, according to Internet rumors), a toaster oven, an electric frying pan and an electric water kettle. In the winter I also use a crock pot. In the past I have owned and used a rice cooker, but I can do rice in the microwave, so I think I don't really need the rice cooker. I do cook rice and pasta sometimes on the stove top when the micro is occupied with something else. I regard this as the same as using a hotplate.  I also make good use of a blender, a coffee grinder, and a mixer. I own other small appliances, like a waffle iron and a regular slot toaster for bread, but I can easily live without those. But don't try to take away my electric kettle and my electric frying pan!

If I needed to create a minimal kitchen, say in an RV or a vacation cabin, I would forgo the stove. I would put in a microwave and use my small appliances. The hot plate and toaster over would work for me just fine in place of a stove.

I eat mostly vegetarian, the lacto-ovo type. Some weeks I'll be 100% vegetarian all week and on into the next and next. But I'll have fish maybe once a week, and I'll eat what's put in front of me when I am a guest. I'll have bird maybe once a month and every so often I just get a craving for red meat so I will indulge. The single hardest kind of meat to resist is bacon, I find. I've heard that lots of vegetarians have that little failing.

So today ... here are some suggestions for making some delicious drinks from scratch. I do my best to avoid ready make mixes and manufactured food, so I like to buy ingredients instead of products. I learned awhile ago how to make delicious hot chocolate from scratch. It's quite easy and takes only a tiny bit  more time than using a mix.

My "recipes" are descriptions about how to do things. As in many things, I think that theory is more practical than prescriptions.

Hot chocolate from scratch for one person

I make this in an over sized cup, a French style one that is used for making breakfast chocolate.

I use a regular teaspoon and put a heaping amount of granulated sugar and a flat amount of cocoa powder plus a pinch of salt in the bottom of the cup. Sometimes I also add in a shake of cinnamon or nutmeg. You could add a few drops of flavor extracts like peppermint if you want. I imagine any sweetener that could be heated would work as well. I have used all different kinds of cocoa. The best is obviously your favorite brand.

I boil some water in the electric kettle and once it is boiling, pour just a tiny splash into the cup ... just enough to be able to turn the dry stuff into a liquid. If you add too much, it won't hurt, but will make the finished product a bit watery.

I add about a regular sized cup of milk to the big cup. You could measure in a measuring cup or regular coffee mug if you wanted. You can use any kind of milk you want. If you want some decadence, add a splash of heavy cream that you might just happen to have on hand. Stir the milk and chocolate together thoroughly. A small whisk works well, as does a spoon.

I put a wooden chop stick into the liquid. This keeps it from boiling over the the microwave. I start with one minute, then stir & test for desired temperature. Add in 30 secs more as often as needed until it's the right temperature for you ... probably 2 more 30 second tries at the most.

More decadence needed? Add whipped cream, powdered flavorings, a peppermint stick .... yum.

If you want to make more than one serving ... you might be treating a guest to something special ... you can just double the amounts. If that is the case, I suggest using a large glass bowl and then pouring the finished product into the prettiest cups you have. Using the bowl will keep things from boiling over. You'll probably need more heating time.

Of course this could be done on a stove or over a campfire, but you'll have to stir the milk as it is heating, and it will take longer overall. You will have to be very careful about not burning the milk on the bottom.

Hot chocolate using solid chocolate

To make hot chocolate using solid bar chocolate, you need to make a few adjustments. The trick is to get the chocolate melted evenly and quickly and then keeping it that way. This will be a bit richer in taste because of the fat in the chocolate.

You can use any kind of chocolate you want. If you select a kind that is already sweetened (like milk chocolate) you probably won't need extra sweetener. Or maybe you like that dark unsweet European style drink. That's fine too. So select your chocolate. Your favorite brand and variety is the best as always.

You'll need about an eating  teaspoon full of chocolate. Somehow cut it up into tiny, regular pieces by chopping, grating or shaving. You could use a machine like a food processor or coffee grinder, but it's hard to get such a small amount using a machine.

Heat up the milk in advance in the microwave. Get it almost too hot.

Put the chocolate in a bowl along with sweetener if you are using it. (also any extra flavoring like maybe a bit of espresso powder or some nutmeg) Splash boiling water over it and stir so that the chocolate and sugar all melt. You may need a bit more water than you would when using powdered cocoa. As soon as you have liquid chocolate, add in the hot milk and stir well. I find that making this in a glass bowl is helpful because you can check the bottom of the bowl to make sure the chocolate is all getting mixed in. By the time all the mixing is done, the drink will probably still be hot enough to taste good, but if it has cooled down a bit, just re-heat for about 10 seconds at a time stirring in between each session.

This would probably work all right using that bar "white chocolate" but I haven't tried it. Chips would work, but you would need to chop them up to real small pieces first. If you use un-chopped chips, the pieces would be too big to liquefy fast in the small amount of water you will use.

Hot vanilla drink for one person

I happen to love the mix for Gilly's Hot Vanilla. But it is a mix, and it has to be ordered by mail. So far the company doesn't have its own website, but there is a phone you can call. The company also makes Hot Strawberry and Hot Butterscotch. These products make good gifts.

I figured out how to make hot vanilla drink myself in a way that is almost as easy as using the mix. This is the first application of the concept of "simple syrup."

Simple syrup is just equal parts sugar and water, heated so that the sugar dissolves in the water. When you see recipes, you usually are directed to use 1 cup sugar + 1 cup water. But it's really just a ratio, in this case 1:1. So you can make a real small amount or a real big amount. Same difference.

Hot vanilla begins with vanilla sugar. You can buy it in gourmet stores, especially ones that have Scandinavian ingredients. In Swedish it's called "vanillin socker." You can also make it yourself, but you have to do this awhile in advance. I always have this stuff on hand because I use it a lot.

To make it by yourself you need a good quality vanilla bean. Get the best you can find. Split the bean open lengthwise with the tip of a sharp knife and flatten the bean out. Then bury it in a small jar that is filled with granulated sugar. Leave it alone for a week or so and you're done. You can leave the bean in or take it out as you please while you use up the sugar. This keeps forever. Remember how sugar is a great preservative?

Back to the drink. Use a heaping ordinary teaspoon of vanilla sugar. Boil water in the kettle. Splash in an equal amount of water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Voila ... simple syrup, vanilla flavored.

Pour in about  a cup of milk, mix and taste. If it's not vanilla enough, add in just a drop or two of vanilla extract or a bit more sugar ... hardly any. Stir, taste, repeat until it ends up as you want it.

Heat as before in the microwave in a big cup.

I suppose you could achieve hot vanilla by simply heating up vanilla flavored manufactured milk of various kinds. I have no problems (physical or philosophical) drinking ordinary cow's milk, so I don't use manufactured milk. But if you prefer not drink cow's milk, you might want to give this idea a try.

How I make coffee

In the city I seldom make my own coffee any more. A couple of years ago when I began working at home a LOT, I knew I had to do something to make me leave the house every day no matter what. So I stopped keeping coffee beans at home. When I am in the city, I have to go out every day and get my coffee from one of our many local coffee shops. It's a habit that I enjoy. It probably costs me more than making coffee at home, but there are so many other benefits, that I've decided that it's worth the money I spend.

But in my summer home, I don't have such easy access to coffee shops, so I make it at home. I don't do anything special. I grind my beans in a simple grinder, heat the water in the electric kettle and then use either  a Melitta cone filter or a French press. Depends on my mood which one I use. I owned an electric coffee maker many years ago. It was fine until it stopped working. Then I went back to the Melitta filter and that was that.

But I have a confession .... coffee purists will blanch. In the city I use an old Pyrex glass stove top percolator style coffee maker when I do occasionally want to make coffee at home. It works just fine and makes good coffee when you start with good beans. All you need to do is to keep an eye on it so it doesn't cook too long. Just get it to the darkness you want and take it off the heat right away. You have to let it cool down a bit before drinking because the water was boiling, but the coffee tastes just fine. And I like using such a lovely classic piece of equipment.

Now that I have written this, I have a pile of ideas for other directions for a variety of foods. When I get too upset for words with what's going on in the world, I think I'll just write more about food. Who doesn't like that?

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