November 28, 2009

Learning to Live Without an Oven, and Other Lessons From the Road.

I'm lucky to have a sink--two, actually. A foot pump makes it possible for running water (!) to flow from the tiny plastic faucet, and when the dishes are done, the waste water drains into a bucket. I don't know if it's because of the scenery, or the novelty of having a sink outside, but doing dishes has never been more enjoyable.

Because we are sharing a sub-20' van, there is no room for the kitchen inside the living quarters. There is a top-entry refrigerator inside, thank goodness, but all other kitchen accoutrements slide into a cabinet, to be used outside. A fold-up rafting kitchen houses two sinks that can be covered up with two plastic cutting boards--genius!--a wire rack for storage, and little side table for the stove. There is also a place to hang utensils, towels, what have you, above the sink area. To be honest, it's not that much of a reduction in counter space from the cabin kitchen--to which I am grateful for all of the lessons in small space cooking.

A two-burner camp stove and a small propane grill is where it all happens. The grill and the lantern share a big propane tank, and we recently put the lantern on a post, making it much more efficient. We despised those evil little green bottles; expensive and wasteful, we were burning through those way too quickly.

I'm no stranger to camp stove cooking, which has made this adventure much easier, and tastier. I have lived out of a backpack in the wilderness for weeks on end, with a dreadful MSR one burner stove that regularly tested the upper limits of my mechanical and culinary skills. Rice and pancakes were a no-no; in those days, it was a lot of Annie's mac and cheese and just-add water dehydrated black beans.

Later, it was weeks of car camping, followed by months of living in a tent and cooking with the very same two-burner Coleman I'm using now. The menu that summer evolved to include a lot of stir-frys and Asian noodle dishes, vegetarian and -non.  I also got heavy into bean salads, and when I was cooking for one, quesadillas.

While more or less camping in an Ecuadorian apartment, I found myself using a tiny little gas stove, again with no oven. This was the Lentil Phase--for some reason, when in the jungle, I made a lot of Indian-spiced lentils and vegetables, always with rice and flatbreads. When the right produce was available, I would make salsa fresca, guacamole and tortillas from scratch for tacos, or for a real treat, a green salad with lemon vinaigrette. But what I really lived off of was mangoes, sweet and sticky, right from the tree.

I also spent time living in a fire lookout, which was a big step up from the outdoor kitchen, because I had an oven. What I didn't have, though, was a grocery store to keep the larder full. Everything had to be rationed and carefully portioned, lest I run out of cheese, coffee, or wine. Fresh veggies--besides carrots and other root vegetables were gone in the first two weeks, but I did have a serious huckleberry crop just down the mountain. What was also a half-mile down the mountain was the spring: all water on the lookout had to be hauled uphill, on my back, making doing dishes doubly hard.

I made a lot of cornbread, ate a lot of popcorn (why did it taste so good up there?), and drank loads of chai tea on Sheep Hill. Two very special recipes I still use on a regular basis came from that lookout, thanks to gifted chef Karla who lived there before me and happened to leave the recipe cards: red enchilada sauce and the balsamic vinaigrette I make almost daily.

When I look back on the years spent cooking on the Coleman, I realize that this is somewhat of a learned art, so I can understand why food tends to be simple when camping. With limited space, no oven, and no assortment of fancy appliances, utensils or spice rack, the camp cook tends to shy away from complicated recipes. Besides, camping is supposed to be a bit of a break from domestic chores and everyday routines, so mac and cheese and brats might be a real treat.

But that is where this differs--we aren't camping, we live here. Cooking on a camp stove, boiling water for dishes, and raking leaves off the kitchen floor are all part of this new everyday routine. There are moments when I long for hot water to come out of the tap, to preheat the oven to make a big pan of lasagna, or to put leftovers in the freezer. Despite not having some of the luxuries of the average home cook, it's still possible to craft very fine meals out here, and I try my hardest to keep good food on the table.

What's also different is the menu. Baked wintery dishes are no longer an option, and some of my favorites--roasted cauliflower, squash, enchiladas, and of course, cakes and treats of all kinds--are to be saved for those special occasions when I get to takeover someone's kitchen. But gone too are the days of standard camp fare--simple pastas, burritos, and burgers. While they all have their time and place, when you are a from-scratch kind of cook, there is bound to be plenty of experimentation happening on those tiny little burners.

This time of year, I'm making a lot of soup, and I just brought back the flatbreads last night to go with the yellow split pea Dal I made. I've adapted my garlic bread recipe to work just as well--if not better--on the grill. I'm itching to make grilled pizza, and after the garlic bread success, am very willing to experiment using the table-top grill as an oven. I also just learned how to make Dutch-oven brownies (those raft guides are talented!), so may need to invest in one of those as well.

While I may miss my oven, my food processor, and my stand mixer, and my stomach gets knotty when I think of all of that holiday baking I'm going to miss, in some ways, I'm getting just as much pleasure scheming up new ways to keep us well fed. And I'm so grateful that I at least have a kitchen sink!

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