Having now done four summer trips of around two months each, we are honing in on some things that work for us, in terms of cooking on the road. There are a lot of variables involved when it comes to finding a nice balance between ease and overall quality of the meals. Some of these include: driving days vs. staying put days, weather, proximity to towns with decent markets, proximity to fun restaurants. We aimed to reach the maximum level of flexibility so that we could adjust to the conditions at hand without having a ton of food go bad. One of our other goals was to increase healthy meals, including vegetables, and not rely quite so heavily Bertoli and P.F. Changs.
One Pan Wonders
On “journeying days,” when we need to make tracks and cover miles, I don’t usually feel much like cooking. Our go-to in these cases has been one pan meals. We can always find a variety of frozen, packaged, 2-person meals at Walmart, or Trader Joe’s when we’re on the west coast. We’ve also started to see them at smaller grocery stores. These are perfect in that they are fast, low mess, and sometimes include veggies. It’s also a nice way to eat pasta because you don’t have to strain any water. We try to always have two of these in the freezer so we can pull one out when tired. In 7-10 minutes on the stove, you’ve got yourself a satisfying dinner. Yes, they are great, but they do get a bit tired if that’s all you’re eating.
Cooking Indoory in Dory
Besides baked things, there’s really nothing that cannot be cooked inside the Alto, though there are a few things we avoid. One of those things is pasta, or boiled potatoes, or anything needing to be strained. We don’t like putting the waste water into our holding tanks, partly because it takes up valuable tank space, and also because it will make things get smelly faster than shower water. Rice is great, and most of the recipes I used for inside cooking included rice. Tortillas are also great, and I discovered that you can warm tortillas quite nicely if you put them in foil and use a camping toaster on medium to low heat. Just be sure to flip the packet after a couple of minutes so they don’t burn.
I got my routine down pretty well this summer. I’d first just assemble all the ingredients on top of the stove area with the lid closed. That’s the primary surface I used for prep, with cutting boards placed on top. Then all the veggies would get rinsed and chopped and placed in their little mis en place containers. I brought paper muffin tin liners and disposable paper bowls for that purpose and that was awesome. It reduced dishwashing by a lot. The only time I used non disposable prep containers was for liquids, like sauces. The Joseph and Joseph nesting bowls saw a great deal of use and I’d say those, along with the Magma pot set, are must have items for me. I also like having color coded flexible cutting boards to separate raw meat surfaces from everything else.
Cooking on the WeberQ
One thing that pleased me was how well things like potatoes, carrots, and broccoli do in foil packets on the grill. Most of the recipes where I tried this originally called for baking on a cookie sheet in a 450º oven. Potatoes did better as wedges than as slices, and everything did extremely well with just olive oil, sprinkled spice blends and/or salt and pepper, for 20 minutes over a medium/medium-high flame. I flipped the packet over half way through.
The stand out celebrity for the last trip was definitely the little Weber Deluxe Grilling Pan. This allowed me to make sauces and sautés, right on the grill. I could also use it for small things, that would otherwise have fallen through the cracks. Kale worked like a charm with a bit of garlic, sometimes a shallot or pepper flakes, vinegar, and a bit of water.
I can tell that the next thing I’m going to want to try is grill mats. For now though, I’m pretty happy with this pan.
It was sometimes a squeeze to get a cut of meat, a foil packet of potatoes, and a grill pan, all going at the same time on a WeberQ 1200. But figuring out the real estate paid off big time when it was too hot to cook inside. A few times I cooked rice meals, marked for indoor cooking, outside. In order to minimize heat from the stove, we used a small kettle to quickly boil a cup of water, which was then poured into a thermos containing Minute Rice. You get all the ricey goodness, without the 15 minute flame time.
We do Blue Apron at home, and have been for quite some time. Thus, we have amassed an impressive collection of recipe cards. One big project was to flag ones I thought I could replicate on the road. The decision making criteria I used was mostly tied to what ingredients I thought I could find in the middle of nowhere. The other factor involved how much of a pantry of weird ingredients to bring along. Luckily, there were enough recipes using the same weird ingredients that I was able to pull around 20 for indoors and 20 for outdoors with a good crossover. We hardly had any repeats after two months traveling and it’s amazing what a difference it makes when meals feel ‘new.’
The cards got post it flagged for indoor vs outdoor, and the ingredients I’d need to buy fresh got highlighted. That way, every five or six days, we could plan ahead and evaluate our needs based on where we were going to be, and what the weather looked like. If it seemed like it was going to be cold and rainy, we’d go through the indoor pile and pick 3-4 cards. If it looked hot, or even nice, we’d choose from the grill pile. We tried to match up recipes if we needed to buy large things, like kale, or things you can only buy in a package of 10, like tortillas. Once selected, we added the highlighted items to the Grocery Gadget shopping app, and we were good to go. I will note that things I imagined would be impossible to find (Sambal Olek, Gochujang, pickled Jalapeño peppers) were in fact rather ubiquitous. I will also note that the only recipe cards that never got used were sea food. It’s really hard to plan for getting fresh fish or shrimp and be able to cook it that day so it doesn’t start to smell everything up.
There were some adjustments needed for some of the recipes, especially those being done on the grill instead of the stove and oven. But really, I was mostly able to follow the same procedures and use the same cooking times. Overall the meals were flavorful, fresh, and satisfied the healthier dinners requirement. We were both really happy with how this worked.
Pantry and Storage
I did some rearranging of the pantry items before leaving and I think my favorite modification was my silly little garlic box. It’s a simple thing, made from coroplast and hot glue, but it perfectly fits three heads of garlic and contains the mess from the husk flakes. That lives with the spices behind the stove. Then, in a clear container that lives in the under-sink storage area, I have all of the non-refrigerated liquid items. In the fridge there is another clear container that has all of the perishable things.
For fruit, we purchased produce bags in varying sizes and used those for both fruits and vegetables. We hung the fruit up and out of the way when stationary, and hung it in a protected place over the sink for travel. The only fruit that went into the fridge were the blueberries and blackberries. For those, we poked some holes in the top of a couple of storage containers and that kept them from getting too moist, and/or leaking all over everything.
Mostly I didn’t even need to make substitutions, but when I did, they were minor. Like sometimes I used rice vinegar instead of white wine vinegar, snow peas instead of Bok Choy, or red pepper flakes in lieu of a Birds eye red chili pepper. Sour cream is a totally adequate substitute for creme fraiche or fromage blanc.
Non perishables included: soy sauce, olive oil, red wine vinegar, rice vinegar, honey, balsamic vinegar, sesame oil, and maple syrup.
Perishables: Sambal Olek, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup (had WAY too much), Hoisin sauce, soy glaze, Thai chili paste, Gochujang, tomato paste, capers, sour cream, and a tube o’ ginger. I liked tube o’ ginger. It might not have tasted as strong as fresh chopped ginger, but it meant I didn’t have to shop for it or end up with way too much.
Blue Apron Spice mixes: Cajun, Smokey, BBQ, Tuscan, Weekend Hero, Mexican. Also had: saffron, salt/pepper, black and white sesame seeds.
Additional: white sugar, cornstarch, Jasmine rice. Potatoes and onions got stored separately, and only as needed.
Cooler for Veggies
Our first shopping trip did not go well. It was pretty hot and we came out of the market with bags of stuff we needed to cram into the fridge before it went bad. Our fridge is really small. You get the idea.
The very next thing we bought was a small plastic cooler and some gel ice packs. This actually worked surprisingly well. Really, all we needed to put in there was the bulky stuff, like broccoli heads, bunches of kale, scallions, Brussels sprouts, or bags of pre-shredded cabbage. I needed to swap out the ice packs every day, but that became part of my morning routine along with making my protein shake. The additional space was not much, but it was enough to handle what we needed, and it did seem to keep things from going bad for 5-6 days. I would never put meat or dairy in there, but the veggies mostly did ok.
Cilantro does not last well, but those little packages of freeze dried Cilantro worked great. Bags of pre-shredded cabbage worked great for all cabbage recipes. Brussels sprouts are hardy creatures. Broccoli is bulky and one time it turned yellow after a few days in the cooler, not sure what that was about. Kale was better in bunches than pre-chopped in bags, but it won’t last a week without starting to look sad.
We learned after the first shopping trip not to try to store meat in the freezer because it gets rock solid frozen, even with the fridge at a low setting. We ditched some of the carbonated lemon waters we like to keep under the freezer and used that space to store meat. That was a winner for not too cold, but cold enough to trust. Another thing that helped with storing meat was to remove it from its store packaging right away, divide servings into individual Ziplock bags, and place everything inside a large Ziplock bag. For this purpose, we got some disposable gloves so that I could do this right after shopping, and get everything stored quickly. Then it was ready to grab for meal prep time and there was no longer any worry of juices getting all over everything in the fridge (cause that is exactly what happened the first time).
I’d say the only challenge buying meat was getting what we wanted in reasonable serving sizes. Most chicken breasts sold in stores were huge and came in packages of four. Sometimes we lucked out and found butcher departments, but other times we did last minute substitutions based on what we could find in reasonable amounts. We didn’t want to be throwing out a bunch of meat, so we only bought for the recipes we’d selected. On most shopping trips we’d have: 2 frozen pan dinners and 4 recipe card dinners. With that assortment, we could store it all safely and could last about a week (with eating out an average of once a week). No meat ever spoiled and that, in and of itself, was an encouraging sign of success.
We found this to be kind of a perfect mix of easy vs fancy. We had only one cooking catastrophe when a corn salad au poivre became tres beaucoup au poivre due to the unexpected detachment of the pepper grinder lid.
Paper plates are awesome. I can tell that Richard wants to never go back to regular plates.
Even the smallest change in similar ingredients feels like a whole new recipe. And having so many new recipes was really fun.
Getting the grill out of the car is a pain. We are thinking about making some kind of contraption that would create a protected slot in the trunk for the grill. All it would need to do is prevent all the other things from sitting on top of the grill so that we don’t have to empty the car any time we want to use it. That was the single most limiting factor in how much the grill got used. I really like cooking on it, so it would be worth the effort I think.
We ate well this summer for sure! Proof of concept has been achieved and now I look to every new Blue Apron recipe with an eye for how it would fare on the road. And that is a fun thing to think about.