Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cooking on the Cuff

April has been a busy month.  Road trips, camping, canoeing, sightseeing, multiple deadlines at work and a friend's wedding have left little energy else for anything other than just enjoying those moments.  I've had less time than I'd like for writing but plenty for thinking.  Much time driving in the car, or sitting in a canoe, was spent in comfortable silence with my boyfriend as he thought about the things he saw from his seat, amongst other things, while I happily got lost in thought about food.  From devising what we were going to eat for our next meal to what I'd like to write about here.

The Whanganui River

Breakfast at Whangaparoa Bay, SH35 (The Pacific Coast Highway)

For example, I got to thinking: one of my favourite things about these weekends away was definitely cooking on the cuff. Without all the tools and ingredients available at home, and only the selected items that I'd deemed useful enough to bring along.  After previous camping trips, we had a list of things that we knew we would need: a good knife, pan, mandoline, tongs, can opener, oil, salt and black peppercorns (ground with two flat stones found somewhere in the South Island). Chickpea flour was also on the list this time.  Being off the grid for some of those weekends required forward-thinking when it came to what we would want to eat; and what we would want to eat would have to work with that set of tools and little refrigeration, if any.

After all that, the meals of greatest success were: 
  • Zucchini fritters; then,
  • Zucchini fritter, carrot and peanut butter sandwiches;
  • Beetroot, chickpea and feta salad (with Steak);
  • 2 Bean and Beef Nachos; and,
  • Spaghetti Carbonara  

Dinner at Sponge Bay, Gisborne

So simple and relatively quick, I was proud to prepare these meals even if there was no-one to share it with other than ourselves.  Cooking away from home need not be limited to instant-anythings.  (However if it's instant noodles, with an egg stirred through towards the end of cooking, I could be okay with that.)

Zucchini Fritters (and Zucchini Fritter, Carrot and Peanut Butter Sandwiches)
Makes 6-8 small fritters 

These were a hot tip that a workmate gave to me a few weeks ago.  We often share recipes and as she's vegan, our chats are even more invaluable now that we are virtually dairy-free.  The beauty of this recipe is that it utilises a basic understanding of the zucchini's chemistry and needs so few ingredients for it to come together.  I rarely measure anything for this recipe but instead test the consistency once I add the chickpea flour.  You can do the same.  I've found that the more chickpea flour in the batter, the easier it is to handle in the pan and it cooks faster.

2 medium-sized zucchini, grated
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp curry powder
2/3 c-ish chickpea (or gram) flour (available at all good Asian supermarkets or health food shops)

Sprinkle salt over grated zucchini in a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Stir through and let stand for a few minutes to let water be drawn out.  Add curry powder and chickpea flour, crushing any lumps as you combine.  Check consistency - it should be fritter-like: sticky, not too runny and able to hold it's own in the pan.  If you think you need to add more chickpea flour, don't be shy (see above note).  Once happy with the batter, heat pan to medium with a small swirl of oil.  Add spoonfuls of the mix to the pan (any size you like) and when you see the edges cooked through, this is when you should flip it over using a fish-slice (about 1-2 minutes).  The other tell-tale sign is that the fritter is easy to lift - the less cooked it is, the more likeliness that it is going to fall apart.

We didn't have any condiments on us but it would be lovely served with a raita (cucumber yoghurt sauce) or tzatziki (pretty much same thing, but Greek), or with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and dill.  We enjoyed them as they were or in a sandwich between slices of wholegrain bread lathered with natural peanut butter (nothing but nuts) and freshly grated carrot (thank you mandoline).

Beetroot, Chickpea and Feta Salad (on the cuff)
Serves 2 Our first night camping, we served this with steak and had a glass of wine.  It was not bad at all.

1x 400g can of sliced or baby beetroot
1x 400g can of chickpeas
Some feta (we had a good quality goat's feta that we found did quite well at room temp)

Open can of beetroot, drain using lid (though not too religiously as the liquid will help combine all the flavours) and while keeping the beetroot inside the can, chop within (slicing to-and-from the sides) until nice and chunky.  Drain chickpeas.  Combine all ingredients, crumbling the feta as you do.  Season with salt and pepper.  

Any fresh leafy green herb (basil, coriander, mint or parsley) would be a nice addition here, I think.  And if at home, and with time, I'd like to roast or steam my beetroot, adding a red wine vinegar dressing (with an optional pinch of sugar) to enhance the beetroot's sweet counterpoint to the saltiness of feta.

Zucchini Fritters and Beetroot, Chickpea and Feta Salad with grated carrot for dinner, Sponge Bay, Gisborne

2 Bean and Beef Nachos
Serves 4 hungry people with leftovers

The addition of the cannellini beans and the creamed corn were purely to achieve the wet consistency of a recipe that you would use canned tomatoes to help bind the beef and beans together.   Cannellini beans are more creamy than other bean types and corn has a sweetness in absence of tomatoes (due to my boyfriend's allergy).  We made this twice on separate trips this April, and the second time had us sharing with others so we separated the mix just before adding tomatoes.  Figured it can't hurt to have the extra nutrients that creamed corn and beans provide us with anyway.  In fact, the first time we had this, we had it without the beef, added some slice mushrooms and grated carrot at the end.  Also lovely.

300-400g premium beef mince
1 small onion, diced
1 tsp chilli powder (optional)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cumin (if on hand)
1x 400g can red kidney beans
1x 400g can cannellini beans
1x 400g can creamed corn (look for high % of corn in ingredients) (optional)
1x 400g can whole tomatoes (optional)
Bag of good corn chips (enough for whoever's eating and if chips are left behind, these will be handy for future hunger pangs)
Grated carrot (optional)
Grated cheese (optional, but recommended)
Coriander leaves to serve (a bonus)

Cook onion until clear over medium heat in a large frypan (or pot).  Add mince and seasonings if you have them.  Cook until beef has been all browned.  Add beans, corn and tomatoes (or whatever combo of these you wish to use) and simmer for 15-20 minutes to reduce, or as hunger allows.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  To serve, I like to create a single layer of corn chips, add some of the mixture, grated carrot, another layer of corn chips, more mix and then some grated cheese so it melts on top.

I've always been a huge fan of nachos and like them to be a good compromise between guilt-inducing (melted cheese, chips) and guilt-relieving (onion, carrots, corn, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchinis, chilli, almost anything!), no matter how inauthentic they get.  To me, they will always be a comforting meal.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Serves 4

The only hampering thing about this dish is that it requires two burners - one to cook the pasta and one to cook the rest of it.  Perhaps a bit luxurious on a camping trip for that reason, but my favourite thing about it is that you're using all of what you buy for the recipe.  And if you buy a six-pack of eggs, you can have a boiled egg each for breakfast the next day.

1x 500g pack of dried spaghetti
1 small onion, diced as finely as possible
2 free-range eggs (no compromises)
Some bacon, diced
100-200g mushrooms, sliced (or as much or as little as you like, we love mushrooms)
Grated cheese to serve (parmesan if you've got it)

Cook spaghetti in plenty of salty boiling water until al dente.  Drain but reserve a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid.  While pasta is cooking, saute onion until clear in a pan (or pot) with a small swig of oil over medium heat.  Add bacon and cook for a couple of minutes before adding the mushrooms.  Let cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms have browned and lost their stiffness.  This is probably when the pasta will be cooked (not forgetting to keep a few spoonfuls of the starchy cooking liquid).  When mushrooms have cooked, season with plenty of salt and pepper.  Remove off the heat and add spaghetti with reserved liquid to the bacon and mushroom mixture (some cheese can also be added here if you have extra).  Combine gently with a few stirs at first and now add the eggs straight over the pasta.  Continue to combine with love, folding all of the sauce elements through the spaghetti.  With luck, and the right timing, the eggs should not appear obvious within the pasta and should more likely add a lovely glaze, helping to bind it all together with a subtle richness.  Serve with cheese sprinkled over and more cracked pepper if you wish.

There has been debate over whether or not the addition of some cream to the sauce is authentic for the Italians and my thoughts are that if it's delicious without it, it's not needed.  Why bother with the calories.  If anything, I'd add more parmesan.

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