How Being an Expatriate Can Improve Your Culinary Skills

I miss peanut butter. This is the most common food question for many Americans who come to Spain: Where can I get my hands on some good old American-style peanut butter? Luckily, if you’re in Madrid, the answer is easy. Actually, most towns that have a Carrefour or Mercadona will have peanut butter. (Now whether it’s any good is up to you to decide.)

But there are many other foods we crave. As good as Spanish food is, I know I have a list of things I like to eat when I get home. I crave spice, Ranch dressing, cottage cheese, and mainly anything from Trader Joe’s. (Someone please bring a bottle of their Champagne Pear salad dressing, stat. Oh—and some trail mix.)

So how have all these cravings made me a better cook? Easy—necessity is the mother of invention. Or so they say.

What can the American expat make in Spain instead of traipsing from Taste of America to Al Campo to El Corte Inglés?

Peanut Butter Spain

  • Peanut butter. Making your own peanut butter is easy—if you have a food processor. I prefer homemade, natural-style peanut butters, so I can’t help you if you like yours mixed with lots of hydrogenated vegetable oils or mono- and diglycerides. However, if you want to attempt making your own peanut butter, let Alton Brown be your guide.
  • Ranch dip. I love making my vegetables way less healthy by dipping them in things. (See: hummus.) Ranch dip is easy to make. I just buy full-fat Greek yogurt and garlic salt, dill, and perhaps oregano and some cut up green onion. Tastes just like it, and it’s a bit healthier too!
  • Vanilla extract. Buy a bottle of rum. Put vanilla bean inside. Let sit for six weeks. Done, done, done!
  • Brownies, cookies, cakes. I never understood why some would spend upwards of $8-$10 for a box of cake mix when you can make your own. Don’t even get me started on those cookie-dough rolls. Ick.

Pumpkin Pie in Spain

A pumpkin pie for my birthday/Thanksgiving in 2011

  • Pumpkin purée. Okay, guys, it’s a shocker, but Libby’s pumpkin purée is actually made from a variety of butternut squash. So don’t waste your energy buying a pumpkin (if you can find one when it’s not Halloween). Buy butternut squash instead! And make the purée yourself. Now all you need is to make the pie!
  • Spice blends. Buy all the spices you need; mix. Could it be any simpler? Pumpkin pie spice is a mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice (maybe harder to find), and cloves.

Have you been “forced” to make any new recipes since moving to Spain? What’s one ingredient you wish you could find?

17 thoughts on “How Being an Expatriate Can Improve Your Culinary Skills

  1. I like your idea for making substitute ranch dip, I’ll try it! About the pumpkin pureé…I used to hate pumpkin pie when I lived in the US because it’s always made from super-processed canned stuff. I now buy baked pumpkin from my local bakery and mash it. They sell it all Fall and Winter. It’s much easier than trying to find an bake a pumpkin yourself and it tastes much better because they do it all the time (and the pie will taste amazing). ;) I think you’ll like this recipe: I’m making again it this year for Thanksgiving! :)

  2. Aww, man! I wish I had read this post before I went out and bought azúcar natural, although it’s brown…enough…for my sweet potato casserole. Molasses + white sugar = super easy!

    I’ve never had problems finding vanilla extract here, and while I’ve always wanted to try the rum + vanilla bean cocktail (or vodka + bean…), I hardly use the extract except during Thanksgiving and baking cookies, so it wouldn’t be worth it :P

    And I concur with the butternut squash purée as a substitute for Libby’s! I did that last year and my from-scratch pumpkin pies turned out DIVINE. Exact same flavor.

    One recipe I was forced to make from scratch last year was Sloppy Joe sandwiches. My mom would always cook some ground beef, pour a can of Manwich into the pan, and dinner was served. Here in Spain…no Manwich. So to substitute said missing ingredient, I fried up garlic, onion, red + green peppers, and tomato sauce, together with chili and cumin powder and a splash of vinegar and sugar, and it tasted exactly. the. same.

  3. Ah, this makes me remember my Thanksgiving in Mexico. I think my mom had mailed me chocolate chips. Next step was finding an oven, as my host family didn’t have one!

  4. This post certainly rang true for me! I have always loved making baked goods, so I’ve learned to make several substitutions for baking. For example, I fake buttermilk by adding lemon juice to regular milk and letting it curdle. A chopped bar of chocolate is a fine substitute for chocolate chips. Because flours differ a lot between countries (in name and protein content), I found a post on Webos Fritos called “Trece Preguntas sobre la Harina” to be indispensable:

    Keep on cooking/baking!

  5. Is it me or am I the only one that doesn’t get the fascination with expats and peanut butter?
    I’m not a big ranch dressing fan but your recipe sounds rather good, I am going to give it a try. Thanks

    1. At the herbolario, but I swear I’ve seen some at a grocery store like Carrefour too! Definitely Corte Inglés, but you probably knew that already.

  6. it’s great that you all seem to find in Spain things that you miss from the USA, and i do understand it.

    when i was in the USA in 2010 i went to a bar/restaurant of Spain’s food called Ferdinand or Ferdinand’s in Philadelphia….i was in need of jamon serrano, pulpo, chorizo or olives, so my stomach ended up full of it and happy.

  7. I live in an area with lots of English, Scandinavian and German expats and Chinese and Moroccan grocery stores so I can find sour cream, brown sugar, cottage cheese and lots of other things I need. I do miss Trader Joe’s immensely, and kale! The hard thing is that the things I miss are fresh things or restaurant foods that can’t be shipped or replicated. Oh, and corn tortillas! I tried making my own, which I did occasionally in the states, but the masa harina I found is different and they didn’t really come out. And people always want me to make Hawaiian foods because I lived there for many years, and except for the tropical fruit, I can’t get the ingredients!

      1. If you’re going to buy a food processor, get some zucchini and apples while you’re at it. Together, they make the most awesome soup that is divine for warming up in cold weather.

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