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The Well-Equipped PT Kitchen, Part 2: Food for the Wandering Soul

Sunni Maravillosa

In the last issue, I offered suggestions and ideas for maximizing the flexibility of the PT kitchen, focusing on the tools and equipment one might want to have on hand. This time, let's turn our attention to the food essentials of a well-stocked PT kitchen. Sure, you can eat at restaurants all the time... but, even eating at a different one every time, eating out can get old. And, as Tom Spooner attests in his article, it can be an expensive habit. Another option you might consider is buying pre-made "meals" in cans--such as beef stew, ravioli, and the like. That, too, can be expensive. Such a diet will likely get boring quite quickly, too, because those foods tend to be flavored rather blandly. Even if you're not the greatest cook, there's something about making it yourself that just tastes better... and for many people, having the food you love is a real comfort when you're on the road.

As was the case last time, it's impossible to cover every person's PT situation and eating preferences. Instead, I'll speak to general issues and offer ideas for specifics where appropriate. I will focus on goods that should go with you as you PT, leaving it to your creativity and tastes to get fresh items for your cooking. I'll also include some helpful links to Web sites from which you can get special goodies that will expand the flexibility of your traveling kitchen, or help the local food taste more familiar.

The basics

Most folks are familiar with the basics of a permanent kitchen: you always want to have bread, eggs, milk, coffee or tea (if you drink them), flour, sugar, cereals, some meats, vegetables, and fruits on hand so that you can make a variety of things from those basics. But if you're on the road, carrying eggs and milk around is dumb--you can easily end up with a mess and wasted food. Besides, those items are ubiquitous in some form in most countries, so getting them when you need them is fairly simple. Similarly, carting around lots of fresh fruits and veggies is an invitation for flies and other pests, as well as messes and spoilage. When you're mobile, the concept of kitchen staples shifts from what you want on hand to what is important to have on hand. The things that are important to have on hand should be items that can be augmented, supplemented, and varied with locally obtained goods. This can happen by shopping at the local market, foraging in the woods and fields, or bagging your own game.

Certain things are essential no matter what: all-purpose flour, sugar, salt, pepper, baking powder, baking soda, powdered milk, coffee/tea, solid fat, liquid fat, nonstick spray, spices, vanilla, bread, pastas, rice, beans, and condiments. Along with the perishable staples that I'll assume you will buy at stops, and local fruits, vegetables, and meats, you'll have a fairly fully functioning kitchen with just these items. Some comments are in order about some of them. If you're crossing international borders, you may want to shift some of these items from the "take with" to the "buy local" tally; if you do, remember that they may work differently in recipes. You may need to try various local products to see which ones suit your needs best.

Other basics are items that can be used to create a variety of tasty dishes, yet travel well. Canned goods are the workhorses here. Canned whole tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste can be used in virtually limitless ways, to create sauces for lots of dishes, or in casseroles. Tuna is a must, too, if you like it. Various canned fruits can be used to make sauces for breakfasts, for pies, or eaten out of the can for a quick dessert. Canned condensed soups, such as cream of mushroom and cream of celery offer a lot of variety, from adding interest to gravies, to serving as gravies on their own, to tasty components of casserole dishes. Don't buy canned soup stock or bouillon, though; you'll be carrying mostly water, and there are other, more flavorful alternatives for soup and gravy stock I'll mention below. If vegetables you can't live without aren't locally available, carry some cans with you. If you use beans as part of a larger soup, then it might be worth it to you to have a few cans of those on hand. If you regularly use items like anchovy fillets, clams, mushrooms, or other specialty items that you think might not be available where you're going, stock up when they're on sale.

Some fresh fruits and vegetables can and should be stocked for regular use. Lemons and limes are more versatile than most American cooks realize, giving a tangy zing to many main courses as well as featuring in tasty desserts. Oranges are great for snacks as well as cooking. Onions and fresh garlic are essential to have on hand, and while you can buy each in dried forms (minced and powdered), you lose much of their flavor that way. You also lose a lot of versatility and nutritional benefits.

Even some cheeses can travel well, and serve a variety of purposes in the kitchen. Parmesan, asiago, and romano are well known for topping tomato-based sauces, but they can be added to a basic white sauce (perhaps with some fresh garlic and mushrooms) to create a flavorful sauce for topping pasta or rice, or as a casserole base. Thin slices with fresh fruit--apples and pears come to mind--makes for a simple yet elegant dessert. Save the rind and add a chunk to any soup or stew that you'd top with the cheese; it'll impart its delicious flavor during simmering. They will last longer with refrigeration, but can stand being unrefrigerated in chunk form without much danger of mold. However, cheese is made just about everywhere on this planet, and discovering different types is one of the true joys of traveling. Some wonderful cheeses can only be found in the villages where they're made, or only as far as the local marketplace, so be sure to explore them.

With these items, plus fresh goods that are available locally, you should be able to put together tasty meals with quite a bit of variety very easily. To make your traveling kitchen products taste even better, make room for a nice variety of spices. They may seem like luxuries, but when your taste buds get tired of things spiced with just salt and pepper, you'll be glad you have them.

Spices are the variety of life

Spices add immeasurably to one's cooking. Unless you have retractable taste buds, even the variety of meals that can be prepared with what I've listed will begin to taste bland without different spices to perk them up. Fortunately, most spices travel well, being both compact and fairly intense in flavor when used properly.

My essentials for the kitchen are: parsley (it ain't just a garnish!), oregano, marjoram, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaves, paprika, dill, thyme, basil, cayenne pepper, cloves (ground and whole), and celery seed. With just these basic spices in various combinations a cook can impart a wide variety of flavors to his or her creations. I also like to have some spice blends on hand, such as chili powder and taco seasoning. If you've gone to your local supermarket to buy these or other spices, you know that they can be expensive. Good news: Penzeys Spices offers an amazing array of herbs, spices, and blends at lower prices than the supermarket, and their quality is much higher. I've been a customer for almost ten years and have never been disappointed by their quality or service. They ship internationally too, so that you can get the things you like that aren't available locally (be warned, though, international shipping expenses add up quickly). Penzeys has spices and blends from around the globe and for just about every meat, including many suitable for wild game. They also sell soup bases that are much more flavorful and economical than the bouillon found in the supermarkets. If you're in or near Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, or Connecticut, consider stopping by one of their stores (directions are available on their Web site).

For folks who like to bake, King Arthur Flour is another merchant who'll make your PT life more tasty. They mill several varieties of flour, including pastry flour, bread flour, and other grain flours, but that's not all they offer. They sell mixes based on their stellar flours, a huge assortment of other baking and cooking goods (for example, they have several different kinds of sea salt), and kitchenware and appliances. Many US supermarkets carry some of their flour products, but not to worry; all their products are available online. They do ship internationally, although some countries have product restrictions or specific customs requirements; it'd be wise to check before ordering. Next time you're out of the country and craving a thick, toasty bagel, a quick trip through their catalog for the flour and malt powder you need is all it'll take for you to be on your way to making them yourself.

Can't carry it or get it? Order it online!

The advent of online commerce has made it possible for an expat to get all kinds of specialty foods "from home". Whether you're across the country or across the planet and can't get the chow you're craving, in many cases getting that bit of comfort food is as easy as an online search and a virtual stroll through the company's catalog. If you're a hot commodity at home, though, beware of ordering online and leaving a trail for the thought police to easily find you. Have a native friend order for you, using his or her address and credit card information--you can reward the friend with a share of the booty once it arrives. Or, if you're really, really into privacy and that isn't an option, set up a mail drop and use an international money order or similar means of payment that can't be traced to you. It'd be nice if more companies accepted e-gold or some other form of digital payment, but they don't seem to be in any hurry to do this at present. If this is a service you want to see them offer, mention it every time you place an order; the only way a business will know folks want it is if people request it.

Having things shipped to you across national borders almost certainly means some thought police thug somewhere is going to stick his or her nose into the package. To reduce the likelihood of some of your property being liberated from the package, stick to shipments from companies. Ordering from them, rather than having an item sent from a friend or family member, might not stop all unhappy consequences of international shipping, such as taxes being levied on your incoming merchandise, but it will cut down greatly on items mysteriously going missing. It still can happen, though, and some countries are worse about it than others. Be warned--and ask around before you place an order.

A mobile life, or one away from the comforts of home, needn't be one of total deprivation. Sure, you can survive on MREs, canned chili, and the like, but that diet gets old real quick. Why deprive yourself of the foods you enjoy? With the equipment and ingredients you need to make them happen, even a creative outdoor cook can make his or her favorite foods. You may require other staples, such as specialty flours, baking goods, or other items for your mobile kitchen to work well for you; plan them into your carrying space and shopping stops and you'll have the best of your kitchen available at your fingertips, no matter where you are.

(c) 2000


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