With a few changes to your pantry, you can make quick, cleanup-free meals on the road
My mother thinks I’m a food snob. Though she’s lived around the world, she was born and bred in the Midwest, and her cooking reflects that straightforward, no-nonsense approach. She can whip a pound of ground beef and a few odd veggies into a feast in under 30 minutes. By the time she’s finished eating and cleaned up, I’m usually still fastidiously julienning the carrots, digging through the fridge for Thai basil (because standard won’t do), and weighing the pros and cons of rice vinegar versus mirin.
But living in Artemis, our Airstream, has changed all that. Don’t get me wrong—compared to tent camping, we have a Top Chef–worthy kitchen with a three-burner gas stove, an oven large enough for full-size baking sheets, and a five-cubic-foot refrigerator. Still, when you are constrained to 12 square inches of counter space, gourmet cooking is hard. In the name of time and water efficiency, we have resorted to many kitchen shortcuts. As much as I hate to say it, these purchases have made our evenings calmer and resulted in more time to idle at the table and under the stars. Also, my mother will be proud.
Bagged Prewashed Lettuce
In the same way that I know meat doesn’t come in neat blocks from a shrink-wrapped package, I have always resisted bagged greens. But we eat salad every night, and properly washing a dirty head of lettuce could burn through 5 percent of our water for two weeks. So we’ve resigned ourselves to bags—at least in the trailer. Pro tip: Skip the stuff in plastic boxes. They take up way too much space in a tiny fridge.
Grated Cheese and Sliced Bread
Our miniature camping grater gets the job done but takes ages and often produces bloody knuckles. Buying grated cheese saves time and dirty dishes. As for bread, I used to bake at an artisan shop and believed you shouldn’t be able to buy loaves presliced any more than an apple or a filet. But cutting bread spreads crumbs on the floor, which we already sweep three times a day.
Paper Kitchen Products
I have an aversion to single-use paper products like a Pro Tour racer has an aversion to a Huffy. But on the road, where we sometimes go two weeks between laundry, paper towels are a godsend. They soak up grease, wipe spills, clean pots, and save water. If we used tea towels to clean the kitchen, we’d have to get a second hamper. Similarly, we wash our plates every night, except when we have company, which means lots of dishes and lots of water. In that case, paper plates aren’t so bad.
My aversion to freezer vegetables was probably even greater than my aversion to bagged lettuce until I realized that in the off-season (the majority of time we’re eating this stuff anyway), frozen peas, asparagus, and strawberries are probably more nutritious than their fresh counterparts. Also, frozen veggies keep longer and don’t generate scraps from cleaning and chopping.
You know what takes up a lot of space in a tiny fridge? A bottle of wine. And I think canned wines are like screw-top bottles a decade ago: They seem inferior, but really our aversion is just cultural. I’m no sommelier, but we’ve had a bunch of wines that taste pretty good to our palate (Underwood!). Don’t just take it from me.
I was raised in a family where every meal is made from scratch, but having some prepacked options makes mealtime easier, especially if you’re up a forest road and haven’t been able to resupply for a while. And there are healthy options: Maya Kaimal Curries served over a meat or veggie, Annie’s Shells mac and cheese with broccoli and fresh tomatoes, or any of the Good-to-Go entrées. These aren’t fancy, but they’re quick, nourishing, and tasty.
Though conventional wisdom says you need just an apple a day, we like to eat bananas, mangos, apples, kiwis, raspberries, blueberries, and tons of other fruits. But that’s a lot of bulk when you head out for two weeks. Even if you could store it, half would go bad before you got to the bottom of the bin. We discovered freeze-dried fruit at Trader Joe’s and haven’t been vitamin C deficient since. There’s a veritable cornucopia of flavors (strawberries…mmm!), and the bags weigh next to nothing (one to two ounces) while packing a week’s worth of fruit.
This will sound counterintuitive because of my fixation over storage space, but I love our FoodSaver GameSaver Outdoorsman. We originally bought it for packaging elk and deer for winter, and it’s a godsend. But we also use it to make our own boil-in-a-bag meals. When we cook stews, curries, or rice dishes (or pretty much anything), we make double batches, vacuum-pack the leftovers, and freeze it. Presto! Dinner a week later. It’s also great for cleanup-free overnight backpacking trips.
Dirty dishes mean wasted water, which is our biggest bane since water is a precious commodity and the most limiting factor in how long we can stay in the woods. Rather than stuff leftovers in Tupperware, which will need washing, or worse, Ziplocs, which will just get tossed, we’ve come to love these beeswax-infused organic cotton wraps called Bee’s Wraps. They keep pretty much anything fresh and need just a quick wipe before you can use them again. One sheet last months.
This gourmet gadget cooks whatever you want in a perfect-temperature water bath, but honestly it’s a boon for easy food prep and cleanup. In the past, we’ve had trouble cooking the perfect steak on the road; now all it takes is preseasoning the meat, stuffing it in a Ziploc (or sealing it with the FoodSaver), and tossing it into a pot of hot water. (A quick sear on the grill is nice for color and carbon.) From pork to chicken, salmon to eggs, you can throw it in, set the thermometer, and come home to the perfect meal every time. There are all kinds of DIY setups for turning a cooler into a safe cooker at camp. Best of all, when you’re done, there’s zero cleanup, and you can recycle the water for making coffee or washing your face.