How I Cook on the Road

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Auntie M suggested I tell you how I cook on the road before I tell you what I cook on the road. She thinks it’s impressive, but it’s simply second nature to me. I’ll share my cooking techniques today, in the event they might help someone else.

I’ve used a variety of stoves while living on the road–one burner, two burner, propane, butane. My current setup is a basic Coleman two-burner stove connected to a 15 pound propane tank. For many years I used the one pound propane canisters, but The Man finally convinced me to upgrade to the larger, refillable tank. As I said in a past post about saving money on the road, it costs a lot less to refill the tank than it does to buy a comparable number of small canisters. I also produce a lot less waste by refilling the large tank.

This is the cast iron pan I usually use when cooking just for myself.

When The Man and I are cooking for the two of us, we use his big (12 inch?) cast iron skillet. When I’m cooking just for myself, I use a smaller cast iron skillet. (I have a second, even smaller cast iron skillet I also use sometimes if I need to cook two things seperately, but at the same time. The second burner on my stove is sometimes quite handy.) We use a cast iron pan to cook the main part of our meal, which usually consists of vegetables and whole beans or tofu. It’s super convenient to cook everything but our grains in one pan. It’s quicker cooking that way, and we save cleanup time and water by not having to wash several pots and pans.

To cook grains, I use either a large or a small stainless steel pot. The large one is actually a pressure cooker I was given years ago when a friend of a friend moved. The small one was left behind by camp hosts at the end of the season last year.

To prepare the main part of our meal, I first pour a generous amount of olive oil in the cast iron pan, then light the burner under the pan. While the oil is heating, I chop an onion. (If the onion is huge, I might only use half of it.) When the onion is chopped, I makde sure the oil is distributed across the bottom of the pan, then I throw in the onion, spread it out evenly, and put the lid on the pan. Then I chop the other veggies that need a longish time to cook (bell peppers, carrots, and/or potatoes) and add them to the pan. If I’m using tofu or tempeh or seitan, I’ll add it in early in the cooking process. Vegetables that need the shortest time to cook (like broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and yellow squash) are thrown into the pan last. I stir the veggies enough to keep them from burning, and I adjust the flame as necessary.

Once all the veggies are tender, I add any canned ingredients like diced or stewed tomatoes, whole beans, or refried beans. Then I throw in spices appropriate to the dish I’m cooking. Once all ingredients are in the pan, I make sure everything is heated thoroughly. I should probably let the food simmer longer in order to “marry” the flavors, but we’re usually pretty hungry so we just eat.

Cooking grains ws a hassle when I used small propane canisters and butane because grains take so long to cook. I always felt like cooking grains took up too much fuel, so I either bought precooked brown rice (expensive!) or cooked the grains in a way that used less fuel. Now that I spend less money to fill a large propane tank, I don’t worry so much about how much fuel it takes to cook grains, but I do use parboiled brown rice and quinoa a lot because they cook faster.

Dwelling Portably 1980-1989 (DIY)
You may be wondering how I cooked grains in a way that used less fuel. I first learned of cooking with insulation in one of the Dwelling Portably books by Bert and Holly Davis. The concept is simple: food is partially cooked, then the pot of food is insulated to hold heat in so the cooking process can continue without flame. The insulation can be as simple as wrapping the pot in blankets and letting it sit for several hours or as complicated as building and insulating a box for the pot to sit in. The technique is old, with evidence of hay boxes dating to the 1800s.

I made my own insulated box from a square foam cooler left behind by folks who stayed in the campground where I was the camp host. I lined the cooker with flexible, reflective material from a foldable solar cooker kit The Lady of the House had lying around in her laundry room. Because I used materials that were unwanted by others, I didn’t have to spend any money on my insulated box.

When I was ready to cook a pot of grains, I measured the appropriate amount of water and grain into my large stainless steel pot. I brought the mixture of water and grain to a rolling boil, then let it boil vigorously for ten minutes. After ten minutes of boiling, I’d close the pot tightly, which was easy because it is actually a pressure cooker with a latch and seal. (I would not go out and buy a brand new pressure cooker to use in an insulated box, but the one I already had is quite suited to this method.) I then put the pot in the insulated box, covered it with a couple of dish towels, and put the lid of the box on tightly. (I often put something heavy–like a jug of water–on top of the lid to hold it down and seal the box as tightly as possible.) If I boiled regular, not parboiled, brown rice and got it into the insulated box by 10 am, it was fully cooked and ready to eat by 4pm.

Alas, when The Man and his dog and all of their wordly possessions moved into my van, the insulated cooker box was a casualty. We had a lot of stuff, and lots of things had to go. The cooker box was nice, but nonessential. The Man made a sort of bag for the pot by taping together pieces of the flexible, reflective solar oven material, but it never worked as well as the box.

Now that The Man has his own rig and I have room in my van again, I’m on the lookout for materials to make a new insulated box. A foam cooler should be fairly easy to find since people discard them frequently. I probably won’t find a foldable solar oven again, but I could line the cooler with newspaper, cardboard, or even old towels. The goal is to fill in as much space in the cooler as possible so the heat can’t escape. Lots of easily found, cheap or free materials can do the job.

I hope you can use some of these ideas to save time and money while you’re living and traveling in your van. You have to eat, so you might as well eat healthy and delicious food. I’m proof that a rubber tramp can eat yummy meals that are nutrituous and don’t cost a fortune.

Blaize Sun has been cooking and eating on the road for almost six year. These methods work for her. They may not work for you. Do what works best for your body, your health, and your life. You know yourself better than Blaize Sun ever will, so cook and eat accordingly.

I took the photo of the cast iron skillet. The image of the book is an Amazon affiliates link. If you click on the links, then do your regular Amazon shopping, I will get a small advertising fee at no cost to you.

2 Responses »

  1. You can buy a new space blanket at Walmart for two – three dollars, and you can use it to line your cook box and/or make a solar oven. Solar ovens use zero fuel and you can use discarded boxes to make them, too. 🙂 Just Google for plans. If you come across a decent wide-mouthed Thermos, you can use that for thermal cooking, too.

    Since you already have a pressure cooker, why don’t you just cook your grains, (dry) beans, and lentils with that? They’re very efficient and you would save money and storage space by buying regular staples instead of the vastly overpriced parboiled or canned varieties.

    Great article, thanks for sharing your experience and methods!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for your feedback.

      I found an emergency blanket that I got from the free pile at the RTR and used that to line an insulated shipping box from Omaha Steaks my sibling had lying around in the garage. On top of the pot I used a silver windshield sunblocker that is too small for my windshield. So I’m back to a zero cost cooker box!

      I don’t even try to use a solar oven when I’m working in the woods because I’d have to spend my whole day chasing the sun and moving the oven. Maybe I’ll give something like that a try when I’m back in the desert.

      I’ve read that rice can’t easily be cooked in a pressure cooker because it makes a lot of foam while cooking. I’d have to find a smaller metal bowl to put the rice in, then put the bowl of rice into the pressure cooker. Do you know anything about this technique?

      The main reason I don’t use the pressure cooker as a pressure cooker is that it’s from Europe and I haven’t been able to find detailed instructions for it. A friend cooked dinner with it a couple of weeks ago and used it successfully as a pressure cooker, but she already had experience with pressure cookers, so she was able to make it work without blowing up dinner.

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