July 6, 2010

The Impromtu Kitchen.

Among the group of six on our recent sailing/camping trip to Sinda Marine Reserve Island, the priorities and concerns we each held were quite distinct.

The Italian was worried about perfecting his tan lines, fearing he would not be permitted onto the beaches of his motherland on his upcoming trip should he happen to have a dreaded T-shirt or sock line on his otherwise perfectly tanned body. The French girl cast aside her typical worries about where to acquire the freshest baguette or most delicious crepe, and instead worried about where she would shower on the uninhabited island over the course of our one night stay and how she would wash her hands. The Ukrainian American was worried about toys and entertainment lest we find ourselves bored in tropical paradise, accordingly he brought a sound system and fully loaded 80gig ipod to serve as a backdrop to our stay on the island, in addition to a kite, several solar powered lamps, and a frisbee. The American boy was worried that we did not bring enough stuff, and sorely regretted leaving at home his camp table and chairs and not purchasing a Safari Cookbook nor a shovel (to dig what we were unsure). The American girl, new to Dar es Salaam, was perhaps just plain worried. And I, the former "fat kid" worried about my next snack turned wannabe "hostess extraordinaire" was chiefly worried about the meals we would consume.

Inspired by one of my favorite cooking blog authors, Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks, who regularly uses her blog as a forum to highlight the creativity she employs to produce truly inspired and healthy meals via campfire, I thought it would be interesting to share some of the "recipes" we relied on to feed ourselves over our two day's long adventure on a deserted island. A little bit of luck, some advance preparation, and the "everything always comes together in the end" potluck spirit made our weekend quite a culinary success.

To properly set the stage, it is important to give you a better understanding of the context we were operating in. Any time you are on the open waters off the coast of Dar es Salaam, it guaranteed that you will eventually cross paths with local fishermen in a wood carved traditional dhow. Opportune timing combined with good bargaining techniques may guarantee that the fresh catch of the day will become the central feature of your campfire dinner, however it is far from a guarantee.
On this trip it seemed both timing and the powers of persuasion were on our side, we managed to score a whole Changu, a barracuda, and an octopus off of local fishermen, needless to say all for the "best" price. When fish is this fresh, there is no need for a marinade or heavy spices to enhance the flavor - a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon as it finishes is enough to grill up a truly delicious meal.

Recognizing that it pays to be prepared in this environment, here are some of the dually inspired food items we packed in advance for our adventure.

The Italian very generously prepared pasta for the group, however it was consumed before we even lifted the anchor of Jammie Dodger and braved the swells of the Indian Ocean. It was delicious and full of flavor. Yet it was a very simple dish, consisting of only a few key ingredients - onions and garlic sauteed in a generous splash of olive oil, canned diced tomatoes, and browned bacon to finish off the tomato sauce and truly pack a flavorful punch. I forgot how easy it is throw together a quick pasta based meal when you are short on time but big on appetite. My hesitation is that it is nearly impossible to find whole wheat pasta options here in Tanzania.

Next up, I threw together a rice and bean salad. Creativity and improvization are encouraged in the following "recipe."

Begin with a large bowl.
Throw in some cooked rice (brown is my preference)
Choose two cups of your favorite bean(s) - I used a combination of garbanzo beans and kidney beans
Note: to save time, you can feel free to rely on canned beans - however, canned beans usually come pre-salted so you will need to adjust the dressing accordingly
Throw in a generous handful of diced scallions (green onions)
Peel and grate a large carrot into the bowl
Throw in several diced fresh tomatoes

To dress the salad: the more experienced cook can throw the following ingredients directly into the bowl and adjust according to taste, but the more novice may want to mix and adjust according to taste in a separate bowl before mixing with the other salad ingredients.
Add two glugs of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (approximately 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp)
Juice from 1/2 lemon + 1/2 lime
A generous pinch of salt
A generous pinch of cumin
A couple of winds from a fresh ground pepper mill
A dash of paprika
Optional: A dash of hot spice of your choosing (tabasco sauce, crushed red pepper flakes, a dash of cayenne pepper, etc)

And voila - a healthy, filling meal a matter of minutes! Yes, "cooking" can be that easy!

We also brought a package of sausages and pita bread to cook and toast over the campfire. The only thing missing in this winning combination were some whole grain mustards to add extra zip to the sandwich. Interestingly, if you can tell from the picture below - our makeshift campfire was created by gathering rocks, digging a hole and filling it with burning coals, and then placing the grill guard from a standard charcoal grill on the circle of rocks over the embering coals to create our cooking surface (in a pinch, we have even used a metal shelf from a refrigerator to achieve the same effect). In the absence of a proper grill utensils, Andrei used a stick to flip the grill contents.
A plum cake, a sliced mango, a fruit and nut chocolate bar, some local beef jerky, and a flask of whiskey were on the offering to complete the evening meal.

For the morning, I brought a dozen pre-boiled eggs, along with juices and fresh fruit. Someone in the group thought to bring along a pound of potatoes and foil. We were able to individually wrap the potatoes and throw them under the fire while we waited for our coffee and tea water to boil. The potatoes finished with a slightly crunchy outside and a warm, intensely flavorful inside. A dash of salt made this a perfect complement to the hard boiled eggs.

It was only in the morning that the rationale behind the secret desire to have a shovel accompany us on this journey was revealed. Apparently, the Safari Cookbook available in the local book shop highlighted a recipe for fried eggs via shovel for true campfire fun. Perhaps that is a trick we will remember for next time.

If you are interested in more camping culinary tricks, Heidi features a soup recipe that doubled as a block of ice when packed frozen in a plastic container and cooler for the first day of their adventure.
She also proves that with a little advance planning, a noodle-based gourmet meal is possible even in the most remote of settings.


Photo Credit:

Campfire: Rob Pettit

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