Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Adventures in "Self Catering"

After Tyler and I decided that we really were going to try and travel around the world, we had to find ways to save money. No new clothes, no movies, no casual eating out. In fact, except for special occasions and our traditional Sunday Crosswords coffee and lunch, we didn't eat out at all. To aid our efforts, we also signed up for a weekly organic produce box. While that doesn't necessarily seem the common sense way to save money, it meant that we had food to cook--and that needed to be cooked in a reasonable time. Since I hate to waste food, it was a great motivator. And it also meant that I got better at cooking with what was at hand rather than exclusively relying on recipes and cookbooks.

We started cooking for ourselves (or self-catering, as Lonely Planet oddly refers to it) a bit in Chile. Without many facilities (refrigeration at one hotel, nothing most the time), this mostly meant some breakfasts (yogurt, fruit) and lunches (sandwiches with salami, cheese, avocado and cucumber). As we've gotten into more expensive countries (Easter Island, Tahiti, New Zealand), cooking for yourself is common enough that there are generally facilities at hostels and campgrounds.

Of course, there are also limitations. You never know exactly what amenities will be at hand. There's usually a skillet and a pot or two, but never a strainer, cutting board or much else. When you pick up that canned good, you have to ask yourself whether a can opener will be available (probably 50-50). And you may or may not be lucky enough to be somewhere that provides some meager basics, such as oil, salt and pepper--things that aren't convenient to buy in single serving packets. There might be refrigeration, but it's probably full of other people's rotting food, if it's available at all. There is also no such thing as a good knife while cooking on the road. They run the gamut from butterknife sharp to random bread knives. Mostly we relied on our trusty Swiss Army knife.

You also need to keep in mind other limitations--many times no oven and many other hostellers or campers all hoping to cook at the same time, so whatever you make needs to be made and finished relatively quickly. No baking, roasting or long cooked stews or soups.

Some of that situation changed with our Spaceship rental, which has some cooking amenities. At the very least, we do know what we have at hand (a worn skillet and a quart pot with lid, can opener, spatula, silverware (plastic), four plates and four bowls, cleaning supplies), but cooking skills honed from camping and backpacking trips still come in handy due to spotty refrigeration. There is a "chiller" that runs off the auxiliary battery while running and for two hours after stopping, but that means no DVD at night (the auxiliary battery can really only do one thing well at a time) and doesn't help at all if we don't drive that day.

The Enterprise also has a propane gas two-burner "BBQ," and when we rented it, the salesgirl was sure to note, "Be sure to refill the gas tank if you use it." That struck me as strange at the time (why wouldn't we use it?), but we've found on the road that all the campsites (holiday parks) have amenities blocks that include kitchens. Why pass up free electricity, counterspace, and possible interactions with other campers and Kiwis?

While these situations seems to lead many young backpackers to many meals of pasta or ramen noodles, we're old enough--and I like to cook enough--that we weren't going to go that route. While we did have the odd lunch of PB&J or ramen noodles, there was the odd moment of inspiration.

Quick Cheesy Pasta

Cut up any veggies you have on hand (usually carrots, broccoli, green beans) as well as any leftover salami/lunch meat and cube cheese. Bring water to boil (one amenity I will miss from NZ is the ready availability of hot water dispensers or kettles--always at the ready for tea times!), add veggies and pasta. Drain the contents, trying to minimize scalding of the hands and only cursing a little bit as noodles or veggies inevitably slip from under the lid. Add a good dollop of margarine (which can travel a long time without refrigeration) and cut up garlic (there's no real dicing possible with a Swiss Army blade) and stir. Then add the cubed cheese and meats. Since you can't refrigerate the cheese, it's already soft and melts quickly. If it doesn't melt completely, cover for a few minutes with the lid then stir again. Top off with a little salt and pepper and dig in. Especially good after a long day of hiking. (Note: can be made to be alfredo-y type noodles if no meat or veg is available.)

Lamb Burgers

Taste wine all day. Go to the market looking for something to go with the lovely Shiraz you bought from a local winemaker. Remember that the nice South African woman down the hall told you you could have her leftover buns from her sloppy joes the night before while looking at the minced lamb at the butcher (because in this town, only the butcher sells fresh meat). Mix ground lamb with garlic (again in chunks because of knife limitations), salt and pepper. Top with cheese, eat on salvaged buns with chips and good wine with green beans on the side, with margarine and some salt from packets found in the B&B kitchen.

Suggested variation: buy some local minced venison for a cervena burger. Quite good with a nice Pinot Noir.

Hot Cross Buns French Toast

Buy Hot Cross Buns but kind of forget about them for a few days. Eat a few, as they grow increasingly dry. Think about making Hot Cross Bun Bread Pudding until you realize no oven is available (nor is a baking dish). Realize instead that you could make eggs more palatable to the husband and use up the stale buns (remember, I hate to waste food) by making french toast with eggs. Top with margarine and sugar as no syrup is available. Very good with morning tea.

Camper’s Shepherds Pie

Boil water for dehydrated potatoes. Microwave packet of Beef Ale Casserole. Divide up potatoes and casserole on plates. Eat about two minutes after starting cooking. Great after kayaking when you don't have refrigeration and the closest grocery store is an hour away along a very winding road. (Actually, compared to the freeze-dried schlock you can usually buy for backpacking trips, this stuff was really impressive: no preservatives, no mystery ingredients, and meat was always the first ingredient. I also loved that the packaging for an item in every grocery store for convenience cooking noted specifically that it would be ideal for tramping and camping.)

As you can see, necessity truly is the mother of invention. But at least we have some good wine pairings with our meals!

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