Little Things We’ve Learned To Adapt To…


There are a few little everyday things that we’ve had to figure out how to make ourselves or do without or find a substitute for. And other things we’ve just had to learn, silly little things ,like metric measurements and temps on the stove. For the most part we are able to find just about everything we need here. But every once in awhile we find it difficult to find little things like for instance buttermilk, we have yet to have found it here, at least in our Romero’s which is Panama’s equivalent to Safeway. So we just learned how to make buttermilk, which is surprisingly simple and fast. You only need two Ingredients…
1 scant cup milk (whole, 2%, or heavy cream)
1 tablespoon lemon juice or white vinegar

Measuring cup
Measuring spoon
Stirring spoon

Combine the milk and lemon juice. Measure 1 scant cup of milk. Stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar.
Let stand 5-10 minutes. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for 5-10 minutes. When it is ready, the milk will be slightly thickened and you will see small curdled bits. (This substitute will not become as thick as regular buttermilk.)……It’s that simple!

Another thing we often do not find is Brown Sugar. Most of the time we have no problem finding brown sugar in the market but there have been a couple of times when there was none so, we learned how to make it ourself…. all you need is 1 cup of white sugar and 1 Tablespoon of Molasses. You simply mix it together and voila! You have brown sugar! No problem, how simple is that? In the past, these are two things Brown Sugar and Buttermilk that I would never have even thought about making myself, but living in Central America there are times when you must just make do with what you have, and so thank goodness for the internet. I’ve also learned how to make candied walnuts for a salad that I love to make. I used to buy candied walnuts at Drager’s or Andronico’s, two of the gourmet grocery stores in Los Altos. But low and behold, there is no such thing as a “Gourmet Market” here in Boquete. 🙂 So, now I just make my own, and let me tell you, it’s not rocket science nor is it an all day project, it’s so easy.

My mother in law knows how much I love Guacamole and when she lived with us she always made sure we had plenty of those wonderful spice packets to make guacamole. The thought of making Guacamole without my little spice packet never crossed my mind! But now….you guessed it…I’ve learned how to make fresh guacamole without that handy little spice packet and who knew….It’s delicious!! Yes, it takes a bit more time than just cutting open the packet and mushing it all together. But I have more time these days and I must admit, I’m really enjoying little things like this more than I ever knew I would. I have since seen some spice packets now and then but I no longer buy them since I’ve learned how to do it all from scratch and have learned how much more delicious it tastes with fresh ingredients. And It’s also been fun to tweak my little recipe and figure out how to make it even more yummy each time I make it. And to go with the Guacamole Scott has been making big batches of fresh homemade salsa. We used to buy salsa at the grocery store but of course we haven’t found anything other than crappy stuff in a jar. So we almost always have a big tupperware container of fresh salsa sitting in the fridge ready to go!

Here’s another simple thing we’ve begun to make from scratch that we would never have even thought to do before. Chicken Stock! Yes! We used to always have a box or two of Chicken stock in our pantry for Scott. He often adds it to many dishes and finds that it adds a lot of flavor to many different things he cooks. So like the brown sugar, we’ve usually been able to find boxes of Chicken stock but not regularly. So Scott decided to make his own. Wow! Once every couple months we just throw a bunch of veggies and some chicken necks and other chicken parts, lots of spices and some white wine and water (and who knows what else he throws in there!) into a big pot and let is stew all day long. Then we have a bunch of small plastic containers and we separate it out into portions and freeze it. Then we always have fresh chicken stock on hand whenever he decides something needs a little oomph! Just yesterday he made chili and we used up a couple containers of stock. I said to Scott, “We never made homemade chicken stock before”, he said, “I know, that’s because we never had the time!”. And let me say, having the time to make things like that has been a glorious thing.

The oven temperature nobs are all in metric! So we’ve had to download a conversion app to figure that one out. And the packages of butter are also printed in metric measurements, uggg! I just can’t seem to remember the equivalent measurements and have to use a converter anytime I am making cookies for my household Cookie Monster! The Metric system is something I just don’t think I’ll ever learn, I mean, come on! My brain is maxed out with Spanish!! Sheesh! I’ve adapted to the speed limits while driving, that’s not hard, the car has both on the dash, no problem. Although I have learned to ask for “Un Libra” or “media libra” of sliced meat or cheese at the deli counter at the grocery store. I have to constantly remind myself not to ask for ” Un Libro” because that’s “Book”, and I get a very funny look from the butcher when I ask for “a book of smoked turkey”! Hah! And sometimes “Un Kilogram” as well. I have no idea what the equivalent is, but I do know that amount is good most of the time.

We have had a bit of trouble finding a few fresh herbs that Scott likes to cook with. Cilantro is one that is very hit or miss. So we often substitute Italian Parsley, not the same, but it does the trick. Basil was one that we found sometimes but not always so we now have three big pots of Basil that we have growing on our terrace. I care for them like my babies, always making sure they have water and trimming them and of course a talk to them so they are very happy. They make terrific pesto! Basil is one of my favorite herbs and we find lot’s of things to use it in . We will find some Cilantro seeds and have that in pots too one day. Dill is another one that we don’t find on a regular basis. But we did find it dried in a spice bottle so we cave and use that at the moment.

One other thing that I’ve had to adapt to is one that most of the expats I talk to here say they don’t do and that is boiling our drinking water. When we first rented this house the landlord told us that they have a filter but they don’t know when it was last cleaned. No one seemed interested in cleaning it and so we began drinking the water because everyone just sort of looks at us funny when we ask if the tap water is safe to drink…we get this “OF course!” response. Okay….Well not long after moving into this house and drinking the water right out of the tap, we found out the hard way that it was time to start boiling our drinking water, at least while we’re living in this house. When we move into our own home we will have a very good filtration system and we will know for sure that we’ll be safe to drink the water out of the tap. So for now I have four big jugs that I constantly refill with water that I boil in big pots every day! It’s not something I’ve ever in my life had to do but , hey, remember what I said in the beginning of this post, we have just adapted and learned to do some things just a little differently, no problem. We were told by our good friends who have lived here for a long time that they buy a pill from the pharmacy in town that they take every three months and it just kills any bad things in our delicate Gringo tummies, it’s called Amoebriz and let me tell you…it is our friend. I’m not normally a pill taker at all but after going through two bouts of very un-fun tummy issues, gimmie that pill!!

It’s not so bad to live our lives a bit more self sufficiently. We get a kick out of figuring out a different way to do some things . I gotta say, I didn’t move to another country hoping to find everything just the same as it was in the States. If I had been looking for a place to live that was just like living in the states, then why would I have moved in the first place? Right? We signed up for an Adventure and for a change, that’s just what we got. Sharing all these new ways of doing things is just my way of saying….we’re having a blast! Yes, we may need to do some things a little differently and many of the familiar things that we used to buy at the market just aren’t the same here, but we feel very lucky to be just exactly where we are and we feel like celebrating all the differences, not complaining and never feeling as though we’ve given up anything. Indeed, we feel as though we’ve found our Home.

19 responses »

  1. We make our own brown sugar also, but thanks for the reminder about how to make buttermilk. Mikkel has looked everywhere for liquid or dried buttermilk, but has not found it. So we will have to make our own. Things we took for granted that were readily available in California, we now have to adapt and improvise. It is actually part of the adventure here in Panama.

  2. every now and then they have buttermilk at riba in city, but i have made my own more often than buying it! for cilantro sub, try cUlantro – a long flat leaf herb readily available in panama. the flavor is more similar than parsley. not at all related but if you’ve had enough margaritas it does the trick! haha.

  3. I too learned how to make things from scratch that I had never tried making in the Americas when I lived in India such as peanut butter and tahini. As a Mexican, I am so glad you make guacamole without a spice packet now, that just sounds sinful 😉

  4. Since you like spicy and have tomatoes, try making tomato hot pepper preserves. You can make it as hot as you want or not, adds a great tang and the sugar conceals the heat. We use jalapenos but you could substitute. I’d try a hot sweet mango salsa, it’s great. No mangos so I make it with peaches

  5. Oh my goodness, you are going to be a cook yet! Wow, I am impressed. Could it be that… someday.. seeing all the yummy results that you could …. gasp… LIKE to cook? I know, I know, but anything is possible in Panama.
    You boil your water? Hmm.. interesting, didn’t know that but thankfully your water didn’t seem to cause us any problems.

  6. Hi Holly,
    Another great post. One thing you may have left out is how much healthier what you make from scratch is for you!

  7. Hey, do you like Greek yogurt? I’ve figured out how to make it from milk – it’s so easy and good (if you like Greek yogurt). We eat a lot, so I think my recipe will come in handy in Panama 🙂

  8. I’ve made my own brown sugar, chicken stock and other things, but never buttermilk. Now we can have pancakes and biscuits when we get there! I was surprised at how easy it was to adapt to cooking with bottled water, etc. And one of these days, I’m going to finish the post about the wormy thingys. I’m glad you posted, because I want to know the good, the bad AND the ugly! 😉

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