Kitchen Flops and a Broccoli Cheddar Soup Recipe

My first year living in China was hard. Disastrous. Filled with tears. Begging my husband to take our family back home. Wondering why we had been very specifically called here. Wondering how in the world I would learn to love these people who were so very different from me.

And then I tried to cook. I’m sure the rats outside ate well that year because we sure didn’t! Countless meals—entire meals—went into the trash. The recipes I had a handle on after “learning how to cook” (aka throw some cans of this and a bag of frozen that together, and you have a meal!) in the 3 years I had been married were thrown out the window. For real. I threw those recipe cards away. No canned things here! Well, unless you count cans of scary things I can’t pronounce. No pre-made anything that tasted like home.

So I started from scratch. Literally. Everything I’ve learned how to make in the past 3+ years of living here is from scratch. It hasn’t been easy. There are still tears. I still make the rats happy some days. But I’m learning. I keep experimenting. I have to, or I would still be one unhappy Momma. Cooking and baking successfully brings a lot of satisfaction to this soul. Eating well and feeding my family makes living in this hard place more doable.

A pretty quick go-to recipe for me, especially this time of year is Broccoli Cheddar Soup. It’s always a hit whenever I serve it to others. It’s good enough to transport you back to your favorite deli. Now, if you only had a bread bowl.


The first step is making a roux. Yeah, I didn’t know what that was either. It’s basically the base and thickener for your soup. A crucial step! But don’t fear, it’s not too hard!


Ignore the burnt pieces of onion in this pic. I’m not perfect. First you sauté your onions and remove.  Then melt your butter and slowly mix in the flour. This is what the roux will look like. Whisk constantly or it’ll burn!


Then you’ll add the cream, milk, and chicken stock.  Once that’s cooked down, add the veggies., salt and pepper. (Sorry for the lack of pics…still practicing!) I probably have way more than 1/2 pound of broccoli in here. This recipe is flexible! Just like me. Uhh…sometimes.


Once veggies are tender and soup is thick, add in the delicious cheese. If your cheese supplier is like mine has been lately, providing sub-par cheese, you don’t even have to shred it! Just crumble it because it has been frozen and re-frozen a few too many times. The taste is still good, though. And that’s all that matters.


Once it’s all melty and delicious, try to take a cool picture while your 4-year-old photo bombs. What kid doesn’t love watching steam?

Broccoli Cheddar Soup

Adapted from Market2Meal

1 Tbs butter (or oil)

½ medium onion, chopped

¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

2 cups half and half*

2 cups chicken stock

½ lb broccoli, chopped finely (or blend in food processor to save time!)

1 medium carrot, finely grated

salt and pepper to taste (about 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. pepper)

8 oz grated cheddar cheese

In a large pot, saute onion in 1 Tbs butter. Set aside. In the same pot, melt butter over medium heat, then gradually add flour using a whisk to stir constantly. Cook 2-3 minutes, still stirring. Continue whisking, adding the half and half. Add the chicken stock, whisking until blended well. Simmer 10 minutes. Stir occasionally so the half and half doesn’t burn on the bottom.

Add the broccoli, carrots, onions, salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until veggies are tender, about 15-20 minutes and soup is thickened. (At this point, if you want a smooth soup, you could pour in batches into a blender and puree. I usually skip this step because I’m too excited to eat it!)

Add cheese and stir until melted. Be sure to taste it to see if it needs more salt or pepper.

*I usually use 1 cup of whipping cream (small box of Nestle brand) and 1 cup milk. I have used all milk before, but it wasn’t as thick and creamy. Use what you can get or what you have on hand!


So has anyone else wrestled with major kitchen flops in your overseas kitchen?  If you have a favorite (overseas-friendly) Thanksgiving recipe, share with us!       


  1. Mallary November 24, 2013

    I do love your brocolli cheddar soup!

    1. Ashley November 24, 2013

      Thanks, Mallary. 🙂

  2. Danielle Wheeler November 24, 2013

    I’ve already tried this recipe, ladies (editor’s perks, you know). And let me tell you, this soup will make you SWOON! So, so good. Thanks for this gem of a recipe, Ashley.

    My first year we ate a LOT of scrambled eggs and toast. I didn’t know how to make much else!! My journey in the kitchen has also mirrored my journey with China.

    1. Ashley November 24, 2013

      Danielle, you were my inspiration my first year to keep going. Michael kept saying, “Man, she makes great food.” So that spurred me on to conquer things in the kitchen! Sometimes, when I’m up late at night cooking (ya know, because that’s the free time we have), I have a flashback memory of looking out our bedroom window some nights and still seeing your kitchen light on. Cooking/baking/creating away. 🙂

      1. Danielle Wheeler November 24, 2013

        Ha! It took me three years to get to the level you got to in one! It’s so fun to see the amazing goodness coming out of your kitchen now, when I saw how discouraged you were your first year. I wish I could have had a preview of yourself today to show you back then!

  3. Elizabeth Legendre November 24, 2013

    This looks delicious! I can’t wait to try it in my own overseas kitchen (hopefully, I have one)!

    1. Ashley November 24, 2013

      Somehow the definition of “kitchen” changes slightly when you move overseas, but you’ll get the hang of it! Give yourself lots of grace!

  4. Liz K November 24, 2013

    Durnig langauge school I was trying to figure cooking out…I remember one time I browned some hamburger and served that. Nothing else!! My sweet husband said to me “why don’t we add some tortilla chips and some cheese…” Here in Central America we don’t have what we think of as pumpkins, but we have something called ayote, which looks different but tastes just the same. After you cook it down, you can use it for all your favorite pumpkin recipes, including pumpkin lattes! Also, if you use ripe mangos (it’s not mango season right now here in Costa Rica, but somewhere it might be) and season them like peach pie or cobbler, it tastes a lot the same. Green mangos taste like apple pie or apple crisp.

    1. Laura November 24, 2013

      Oh, I’ve used mangoes but never green mangoes! Thanks for the suggestion.
      We have the added challenge/obstacle/bonus?? of having to cook gluten free. For the most part, it’s easier to do here as we cook everything from scratch but the learning curve was much more of an adventure .
      We still try to rise to the challenge of buying a mystery item at the market and trying to make something out of it. Sometimes we find new favourites, sometimes we have a good laugh at our attempts and sometimes we end the day just as confused about our purchase as we were when we first made it.

      1. Ashley November 24, 2013

        Laura, good for you for keeping a good attitude! I can’t imagine the extra big learning curve you’ve endured!

      2. Karen November 25, 2013

        I like that idea of buying a mystery item and seeing what you can do with it. Inspiring. I think I’ll try it every once in a while.

      3. Annalisa August 23, 2015

        The “mystery item” sounds very Iron Chef-ish.

        A note about green mangos (which probably comes too late for any of you, but I want to put in case anyone else stumbles upon this): Too many at once will give you a really bad stomach ache…I mean, it’s the same as any un-ripe fruit in that regard.  So, just be careful and don’t overdo it until you get used to it.

    1. Ashley November 24, 2013

      Liz, this recipe looks delicious! I’ll give it a whirl once mangoes aren’t $3 each. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  5. Amy Young November 24, 2013

    Ashley if I liked cheese, this sounds really good :). My fav part are the eyes of your helper peeking over!!!

    1. Ashley November 24, 2013

      Wow, you are a rare one for not liking cheese! Yes, my little helper likes to join me in the kitchen and “make” as he calls it. 🙂

      1. Amy Young November 24, 2013

        I know 🙂 Asia was such a treat for not needing to special order food!!! Food freak that I am.

  6. Heidi November 24, 2013

    I came to a team already set up for cooking internationally. They even had their own cookbook! 🙂
    I had a learning curve of trying to figure out a gas stove/oven. The timing never was very good. It took hours for what should have been 45 minutes.
    I did learn how to make the equivalent of condensed soups and still use those in the US when I run out of those ingredients at home (I live in the country without a store closeby).
    My favorite cooking flop comes from my housemates who substituted French’s fried onions on a greenbean casserole for Cheez-Its. It didn’t work. But, I thought it was a fairly good try.

  7. Ashley November 24, 2013

    Yes, Heidi! I love taking what I’ve learned here and using it when we visit the States. I now (sometimes secretly, so not to offend others) cringe at all the cans and boxes of things people so often use. Homemade just tastes so much better!
    The Cheez-its..ha! Good attempt indeed!

  8. Rebekah November 25, 2013

    My first few months in China, people from the US would ask how they could lift me up and my first answer was always about cooking and going to the grocery store/market. They were always baffled. They would ask me what was so hard about it, but I could never really convey just how upsetting it can be to have no clue what you can actually make to feed your family. And to be stopped by so many people because I have a foreign baby in the stroller along with me. “Please, let me just figure out which of these bins is just plain flour!” It took me about ten times going to the store to not feel like I could melt down by the time I got to the register. Thanks to the Wycliffe cookbook, market2meal, the Pleco app, wonderful teammates and a husband who would eat just about anything, I can now have success in the store and kitchen with much less time breaking down emotionally. I finally am feeling whole again and like I can use my gifts the Father gave me to serve food and host others without making breakfast for dinner every time. 🙂

    1. Morielle November 25, 2013

      Dude, Rebekah, the pleco app has saved me from tears so many times!and I totally get you on how frustrating grocery store trips can be。

    2. Ashley November 25, 2013

      First few months? Glad you got a handle on things so quickly! I, like you, love feeding and hosting others, so it crushed me not to be able to serve good food to them. Somehow, no one died from my food. But they may have wanted to go to McD’s afterwards to get something tastier. Did I just say McD’s was tastier than some of my food? Yes, yes I did.

  9. Morielle November 25, 2013

    My technique to surviving cooking in China has just been to get my students and friends to teach me to cook Chinese food。This means that if/when I live in the States again sometime in future, I’ll have no idea what to do with the things they sell in American grocery stores! I can imagine myself wandering around forlornly asking people if they know how to buy “fragrant vinegar”… :)

    I’d love to try this recipe, but I think it’d be a day trip by bus for me to get butter and cheese, so that’ll probably have to wait until the next time I travel. Thanks for sharing! Like Rebekah, I also couldn’t really communicate the strugz of feeding oneself in a foreign country to my friends, so its fun to see so many people who get it.

    1. Ashley November 25, 2013

      What a great way to thrive, Morielle! Cook like the locals…awesome. As for not having access to butter or cheese, I get that too. That was me our first two years here. Have you heard of Taobao, though? We often order things (everything, really) on there. During the winter, we also buy butter and cheese on there since it’s less likely to melt. Not sure where you are or if you have someone to help you navigate it, but it sure has opened up our world!!

      1. Morielle November 25, 2013

        Hrm. I never thought of buying food on Taobao. I’ll have to look into how long it takes to deliver things out here….

        Also, to the people who talked about the “buying unidentified item and cooking with it”, one of the most delicious things I can make I call “Unidentified Fishy Tube Thing Fried with Peppers”. I have no idea what it is, just bought cuz I thought it might be tofu in the market. But it’s delicious!

  10. Dawn November 25, 2013

    Oh, man. I’m almost 8 months in (because when you’re this new, you need to round up to the higher month ;)) to living in Thailand and it’s been amazing how incompetent I have felt in so many areas I felt fairly competent (most days) in the States, cooking being one of them (among many). I totally relate with the commenter who said her family ate a lot of eggs and toast. Yes! And just when I thought I had a bit of a handle on things, I realized how much sugar we were eating due to the nature of Thai food, white rice, and because all the easier things I had come to make that weren’t necessarily the best nutritionally. Now it’s time to revamp things while trying to keep in mind that, these past 8 months, I really was doing the best I could. Oh, the cooking learning curve … or the learning curve in general. Eek! Thanks for the post and the recipe. 🙂

    1. Ashley November 25, 2013

      Dawn, glad you’re hangin’ in there! Before you know it, you’ll be sharing recipes with us!

  11. Kimberly Todd November 25, 2013

    How many recipes do we toss aside because they call for a can of cream of something, especially this time of year? This is what we use to save those. The recipe is for the equivalent of one can of condensed cream of celery soup, but you can replace the celery with mushrooms or cooked chopped chicken:

    3 T butter
    ¼ cup chopped onion
    Clove of garlic, minced
    3 ribs celery, finely chopped
    3 T flour
    6 oz water
    6 oz milk
    1/2 t salt

    1. Melt butter over medium/medium high heat. Sauté onion, garlic, and celery (5 min).
    2. Add flour, stirring it around the veg, coating everything. Clumps happen.
    3. Slowly and continuously add liquids while whisking, making sure lumps are broken down.
    4. Bring it all to a boil, reduce heat to a hearty simmer, and when almost to your desired thickness, turn the heat off.

    Credit to Nick Todd, the chef in our home. But I claim sous status.

    1. Ashley November 25, 2013

      Thanks so much, Kim! I’ve made many a roux but never made a condensed of…! Next recipe I find that calls for it, I won’t immediately throw it aside. Thanks for sharing a success from your kitchen!

    2. Karen November 25, 2013

      Thanks! I know there have been several times of needing something like this.

    3. Elisa December 9, 2013

      Wow, Kim, thanks for this super helpful recipe! And Ashely, I can’t wait to try your soup. Wish it could be in person though. Guess, I’ll have to settle for making it and enjoying it in my own city. 🙂

  12. M'Lynn November 25, 2013

    We ate so much take-out and restaurant food out first year in China because we had no time to learn how to cook! At least we love Chinese food. The first year flops included banana bread that smelled like corn because I accidentally bought bleached corn flour. Fish flavored Apple crisp because I bought some sort of fishy oil, fishy tofu surprise, cakes that would never rise or get done in the middle because I used wet sugar, cookies scorched under the toaster oven broiler since I forgot to switch the “oven” back to top/bottom setting, meat we couldn’t even chew due to trying to save money on a cheap cut of beef…etc, etc! And all the learning was done in a tiny kitchen with no hot water and one hot plate as a stove. I learned some great tricks for cooking a feast in one pot! The great thing about it all is the sense of satisfaction that comes once you finally figure out how to feed your family well in a strange new environment. I found out I really do love cooking. And I couldn’t do it without the help of the Internet! Pioneer Woman’s website is my go-to first stop when I need a recipe!

    1. Emily March November 25, 2013

      I have to admit that I just laughed out loud reading your post because I can relate in so many ways!! I have done very similar things and more! I laugh, because we do our best to keep a sense of humor when it comes to things like this.

  13. M'Lynn November 25, 2013

    Oh, and in honor of this post, I threw an egg on the floor today while baking banana muffins. Brilliant. That’s what I get for baking in a hurry to avoid having to let my son help because I didn’t want to deal with a mess!

    1. Ashley November 25, 2013

      M’Lynn, our kitchen flops are so similar! Haha…that crazy fish oil. It’ll get ya every time!

  14. Emily March November 25, 2013

    My first cooking memory was on an internship in southern Africa. My hosts took me to the market and the “store” and told me to buy my food for the next week. I had only been out of the college dorm for about a year and a half, and could only go grocery shopping if I had a very detailed list of ingredients needed from recipe’s I had found. (In other words – I didn’t know how to cook, only bake!) So about 10 minutes into our shopping trip in Africa, I burst into tears and told my hosts that we had to just go back to their home. That trip, I was house sitting by myself for some friends on vacation, but I ate every meal with my hosts. I felt so foolish. So since then, I worked so hard at developing my skills in the kitchen, that now I simply love cooking and experimenting! Also, I finally learned how to go to the store (or market) and prepare meals with “whatever they had that day!” And yes…it is now 7 years later.

    1. Ashley November 25, 2013

      Cooking with “whatever they had that day,” now that’s a skill! So glad to know we’re not the only ones who go to the store with detailed list in hand, only to find out the main ingredient is out of stock and who knows when it will return. Keeps us on our toes, huh?

  15. Carolyn November 25, 2013

    Can I just say how fun and encouraging – and relieving! – it is to read all of your stories? I’m on my tenth year on the field, having survived every stage from single to married-with-three-kids, and have lived in three different countries in the process… and I still feel like I’m only just getting started with this learning how to cook thing! (Don’t let that scare you, newbies – and yes, I ate tons of eggs and hash browns my first year in Asia!) Just yesterday, someone in the expat community here loaned me a crock pot and I am SO excited, because we have been rotating through the same 5 or 6 meals for the last several months and we’re all sick of them! (Spaghetti, hot dogs and oven fries, pizza, chicken and dumplings, and Indonesian rice!) So… tonight was a crockpot chicken casserole, and this winter the world is my oyster 🙂 Yay for crock pots and new recipes!

    1. Ashley November 25, 2013

      Awesome, Carolyn!! A crock pot is definitely a great asset! Hope you have fun finding and trying out new recipes! So great to prep a little and then just let the goodness simmer all day. 🙂

  16. Karen November 25, 2013

    I am so thankful for the blessing of still being only 3 hours away from the US border down here in Monterrey, Mexico. And even though I don’t always make a trip up, I have the convenience of American influence in the city. Even so, I can relate to times of going to the grocery store feeling lost, or not being able to find what I need because they just simply don’t have it, and leaving the store with buying as many American things that I could find as consolation! Kudos to those who deal with even more adjustment than I have!

    1. Ashley November 25, 2013

      Karen, haha, I totally get your “buying as many American things that I could find as consolation!” So buying a favorite candy bar or soda is ok when I’m annoyed to the bones that they don’t have what I need?! 🙂

      1. Karen November 25, 2013

        Exactly! It definitely is okay every once in a while.

  17. Debbie November 26, 2013

    Thanks Kimberly for the cream of soup recipe. We are going to make the green been casserole this week and yeap everything will be from scratch. My daughter found a recipe for the french onions too. Hope it all turns out good. Some Italians invited us over for thanksgiving. They said they be honored to have Americans at their thanksgiving dinner this year!!!! It seems we are sitting the menu now. Fun times!

    1. Kimberly Todd November 26, 2013

      I’m so pleased it’s useful to you. May your feast with local friends better than turn out; may it be deeply satisfying.

  18. Patty Stallings November 27, 2013

    Congratulations, Dawn, on your successes in these past 8 months! They might seem like small things, but they are huge. We are celebrating with you for your success in getting food on the table in a new country!

  19. lizzy June 30, 2014

    I’ve been living overseas for about 9 years, and it helped tremendously that I learned to cook overseas before having children. If it’s tough, stick it out. These years have turned me from a decent cook who relied on canned soups and boxed mixes daily to a lover of food. Cooking is like a love language for me now! Watching tons of Food Network on those times when you’re on home leave can really give you a crash course in “from scratch” cooking skills, too. Alton Brown has lots of good explanations for the science behind the food which goes a long way in from scratch cooking.

  20. Sandi January 31, 2018

    I love these stories, thank you. Feeding our families (family feasting) so easily restores our families hearts after a tough “cross cultural” day.
    I have been in the Andes in Peru for one year now. We started in our mud brick house with our 8 children, no inside kitchen water or sink or kitchen!
    We ate lots of ham and cheese and eggs…. that is once I had worked out how to boil eggs at high altitude! This mama couldn’t even boil eggs… let alone get my fail safe chocolate cake recipe to rise. I have spent the year conquering bread and rice and potatoes. I even found that it was fun and gave me much respite from a foreign culture and language…yes I think I hid in the kitchen too much this past year 🙂

    1. Ashley February 3, 2018

      Oh my, I wouldn’t be able to cook eggs either without a kitchen! Bravo to you for sticking it out and figuring it out! In the end, I tell myself that the local women have had it figured out for years (not MY way of cooking, but cooking still nonetheless!), so it can be done! Press on, sister!

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