Here’s a thing about van life that most people don’t think about until it’s too late: There is not enough Febreeze in the world to undo the damage of frying fish inside a 6-by-12-foot box.
Make this mistake once and you will never, ever make it again. Or you could skip this odorous life lesson by reading The Great Outdoors, written by Markus Sämmer, a German chef who quit his fine-dining gig in the early 2000s to travel the world in a Volkswagen bus. This 267-page cookbook should be the van chef’s bible. It’s packed with tips like how to grill a fish on a stick, how to make perfect camp coffee, and how to tell if your steak is done without a thermometer. If you’re the type of dirtbagger who survives on a diet of energy bars and taco trucks, pick up this book and learn to embrace the art of a home-cooked meal while on four wheels.
“Cooking fresh meals is never a waste of time,” Sämmer says. “It is healthy, entertaining, slows [you] down, and tastes way better than convenience food.”
The book starts off with a packing list of kitchen supplies (corkscrew, plastic containers for leftovers, vegetable peeler) and pantry staples (capers, balsamic, a short list of herbs). Sämmer ranks the recipes by ease and burners required to cook the meal to save you from embarking on a multiburner recipe when you only have a single-burner stove. He also notes if they’re “quick and easy” dishes or “fortifying and hearty.” Some dishes really are quick, like the Four-Minute Tea Eggs recipe (below), which cooks your morning tea and your eggs simultaneously. Others, like saltimbocca, can take some time. But that’s on purpose, because, for Sämmer, spending time in your tiny van kitchen is part of the adventure.
He knows this firsthand. Sämmer did most of the research for his book on the road, jotting down notes as he wandered between snowy peaks in the Andes and surf spots in Australia, sometimes in his own van, sometimes in a rental. Between recipe sections, you’ll find pages with gorgeous photos from his trips. If the images don’t get you excited about your own weekend outing, Sämmer’s essays about mountaineering in Peru and biking in the Alps will.
While he did a lot of brainstorming on his trips, the actual recipe testing took place in a real kitchen. I was curious whether the recipes truly were tiny-kitchen-friendly, so I confined myself to a three-foot stretch of kitchen counter and shunned my kitchen stove for a single-burner camp stove and tried a few. Sämmer’s fieldwork seems to have paid off. Most things—like the super-fast spaghetti carbonara and the hearty lentil stew with bacon and potatoes—came together in just a single bowl, and after-dinner cleanup was minimal.
Sämmer’s basic must-have list is minimalist, as cooking on the road should be. But we asked him to divulge some of the “extras” he keeps on board. His extravagances? A jar he uses for foaming milk, a grinder for freshly ground pepper, a good bread knife, and a small bottle of high-end olive oil. “Things you can, of course, survive without,” Sämmer says, “but they make camping kitchens just way better.”
My biggest complaint with The Great Outdoors is that it will give you major FOMO. Sitting in an office, thumbing through pictures of someone mountain biking in the Alps is a surefire way to ignite your inner grump. But for those who manage to unchain from their desks and get out (someday!), this cookbook is worth packing alongside your Dutch oven, knives, and bottle of Febreeze—just in case you forget about that no-fish thing.
4-Minute Tea Eggs
- 2 to 4 eggs
- Enough water to cover
- 2 tea bags
1. Using a pin or thumbtack, prick a tiny hole in the base of the eggs. Place them in a saucepan with the water.
2. Cover the saucepan and bring to a boil. When the water starts to boil, turn off the heat, add the tea bags to the water, cover the saucepan, and set your timer for four minutes.
3. When the timer goes off, remove the eggs and tea bags from the saucepan. Enjoy your tea and perfect soft-boiled eggs while still hot. This method saves time, fuel, and water.