Eating out is one of my favorite things to do on the road. Trying local foods is a great way to experience a culture, and the sights, smells and tastes of these meals are among my most vivid travel memories. From cockles in England to cevapi in Bosnia to pastel de nata in Portugal, we've had some interesting food experiences that I will detail in a future post.
When you are a full-time budget traveler, however, eating out is something you do sparingly. It is simply not sustainable from both a financial and health perspective.
So, doing your own cooking becomes imperative, and while it is something I usually enjoy, there are times on the road when it really sucks. The challenges are numerous, including inadequate cooking facilities/equipment, trying to find certain ingredients, and deciphering instructions in a foreign language.
At the beginning of our trip, I fell down with cooking more times than I care to remember. In the year leading up to our departure, we only ate in and I began to develop ninja-like cooking skills, including mastering Pho. So you can imagine my disappointment that I went from such culinary highs to serving bags of frozen veg with a jar of curry sauce. Poor Perry, he always ate it up without complaint.
As time went on, I started to get my kitchen mojo back and picked up a few tips and tricks along the way. I'm going to drop that knowledge and a few recipes on you, so strap in kiddies, here we go.
Ok, I get that salad doesn't provide much inspiration or imagination, but I wanted to ease into things. We've seriously reduced our meat consumption as it's expensive and often a pain to prepare, but that's not to say our salads are completely vegan and lacking in protein. I often use cheese, eggs and beans in my salads, and my favorite is one I picked up in Bulgaria: the Shopska.
Shopska Salad contains chopped tomato, cucumber and bell pepper. It is topped with a simple lemon vinaigrette and parsley, but what makes it really special is the brined (salty) cheese mixed in with the veg. In Bulgaria, it is similar to feta but more solid so it can be shredded as well as chunked. A huge bowl of Shopksa and a skewer of chicken was pretty much my evening meal every night I was in Bulgaria.
Not all of our salads are meatless, however. While we have cut way back, I've found the selective use of meat adds big time flavor, transforming a boring salad into something delightful.
Cured pork is my go-to, and luckily every country (except Bosnia) had some derivation I could use. From bacon to sausage and lardons to chorizo, a quick fry up with a little onion tossed over a plain salad makes all the difference in the world.
In Portugal and Spain, my favorite dinner was to fry up chorizo with onion and red pepper, then dump it over a bed of greens with cucumber, tomatoes and avocado. Finished with a squeeze of lemon, salt/pepper and then served up with a big glass of Albarino or Rioja, I was one happy traveler.
A wintertime favorite, soup is a frugal cook's best friend. As long as I have chicken or veggie broth cubes, I have the power to transform humble ingredients into a savory and satisfying bowl of goodness.
Lately, I've been baking up a squash and then cutting half of it into chunks while mashing the other half into a quasi-puree. I add this to sautéed onions and leeks, although you could also use diced carrots, celery and even potatoes. Pour chicken stock over the lot and simmer. If you have an immersion blender (I've only come across 2 in the 27 Airbnb's I stayed in, so not an everyday device, unfortunately) and prefer a more uniform texture, you can puree until smooth.
Another favorite is Red Thai Curry soup. Saute onion and garlic and cilantro (coriander) stalks a few minutes. Fresh ginger, too, if you have it. Toss in chicken now if you want meat. Add chopped bell pepper, carrot and broccoli and stir fry until slightly softened. Add a couple tablespoons of red curry paste, a can of coconut milk and 3-4 cups of broth. Top with cilantro leaves and a squeeze of lime.
My favorite soup, however, is all about the lentils. First, fry up onion and garlic until lightly brown, then add some carrots and celery or even bell pepper. If you are a meat eater, now is a good time to involve bacon, lardons or pancetta. Add your broth and lentils and simmer until the lentils are cooked. Finally, throw in a can of tomatoes and a bag of spinach or other leafy green. I usually finish it off with some parmesan, parsley and lemon. If I'm lucky enough to have Mediterranean herbs such as oregano or basil, even better! Super easy, with ingredients you can find anywhere.
I'm a huge egg person and they are my preferred morning food to keep hunger at bay during long walks after breakfast.
But I also use eggs for evening meals as well. I make omelettes and frittatas fairly regularly, as they take kindly to a multitude of ingredients from veggies (zucchini, leeks, onion, bell peppers, mushrooms) to meat (ham, bacon, sausage) to cheese (parmesan, cheddar, gruyere, swiss).
However, my newest culinary secret weapon is Spanish Tortilla.
Spanish Tortilla has nothing to do with the flour or corn tortillas you see in the US and Mexico. The Spanish version is like a big, fluffy omelette, and typically served as part of tapas or Pinxtos where a small slice is placed on bread and topped with roasted red peppers or tomatoes. I prefer to eat it for dinner and then serve the leftovers for breakfast.
Start by frying up onions, potatoes and garlic. Feel free to add ham or chorizo, if you like. Then, add the beaten eggs and then place a cover over the pan. The trick is to cook gently over a lower heat than you might use for regular scrambled eggs. The toughest part is to flip it over (using a plate) once it has just a slight wobble in the middle. Don't worry if you break it, it will still taste great. Season with salt/pepper and garnish with parsley. Serve with baguette and drizzled olive oil.
We don't always have an oven in the apartments we rent, but when we do, I'm a big fan of roasting vegetables. In fact, we are on a huge roasted veggies kick right now and the thought of our next big batch of broccoli, cauliflower, parsnips, carrots and brussels sprouts browned to perfection fills me with giddy excitement.
I realize that sounds a bit overly rapturous for discussing vegetables, but I'm telling you, it's the little things in life! My cooking mantra is definitely Roast or GTFH.
In addition to tasting freaking fabulous, root vegetables tend to be less costly, so they are also a budget travel hack. As well as the ones mentioned above, squash and sweet potatoes are a couple more of our fave veggies to roast. It's just so easy- take bite sized veggies, toss in olive oil and salt/pepper and roast at 190-200C/375-400F until slightly browned. Sometimes, I throw in a handful of pancetta or lardons if we need to use them up, but really they don't need it.
A sprinkle of parmesan and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar would also be a divine serving finish.
If you want to get fancy, experiment with spices. I love to roast colorful carrots seasoned with cumin and serve with a sauce of tahini, lemon, oil, salt and (more) cumin. That is, if I'm lucky enough to find tahini which has only happened once, in France!
Ah, yes, my favorite protein alternative to meat. So healthy, so cost effective and SO delicious, legumes are a staple of the budget traveler! Be it chickpeas, lentils or navy beans, I throw them in everything- salads, soups, etc. but my favorite recipes below allow them to take center stage.
One I love starts with a jar of lentils, for ease (in France, available everywhere!) but a bag of dry lentils takes about 10-15 minutes to cook, so either way, no biggie. Fry up onion, garlic and your fave chopped/cured pork (bacon, lardons, pancetta, chorizo, etc). If you are lucky enough to find thyme or herbs de provence, toss it in! Add the cooked lentils and a handful of spinach or leafy green. Finish with salt/pepper and lemon or balsamic vinegar. The perfect side dish to serve with meat for a substantial meal or with bread (and wine) for a light supper.
Chili is something you can easily make just about anywhere, but I'm partial to a soup/stew hybrid of White Chicken Chili. Fry up chunks of chicken with onion, garlic and a green chili pepper if you can find one. Yellow bell pepper is good if you have one. Add chicken stock (more for soup/less for stew) and two cans of white beans. Season with oregano and cumin if you have it or find a packet of gyro seasoning packet (a great hack at just .95 euro cents) and add half of it. Simmer for a bit and top with fresh cilantro (coriander) or parsley or a squeeze of lime.
I also picked up a new recipe courtesy of my friend Sara in Switzerland. Mix canned white beans and canned tuna with lemon, oil, salt/pepper and parsley. Served with a baguette, it makes the perfect light lunch.
It is a testament to the delicious popularity of Asian food, that my final staple is surprisingly easy to put together anywhere.
Stir frying veggies and serving with rice is super easy as long as you have some soy or teriyaki sauce, ginger and chili. Anytime I can get my hands on sesame seeds, I brown them in the pan and finish off my stir fries with an extra hit of flavor.
Curry is another favorite and is vegetarian friendly, although you could easily add chicken. My favorite recipe involves chickpea, sweet potato and spinach.
Start by frying up onion and garlic, then add diced sweet potatoes and cauliflower. Once softened, add coconut milk, curry powder (or a combo or cumin, coriander, turmeric, mustard and cayenne) and chickpeas. Right before serving, add two big handfuls of spinach. Sometimes I add a can of tomatoes or peas, or you could substitute broccoli for the cauliflower. If coconut milk and curry powder are not available, I will use a jar of curry sauce. Whatever it takes to jazz up those veggies.
Fake It Til You Make It
When it comes to flavor, I've had to hack my way to deliciousness. As a traveler, my days of simmering bone broth, developing layered flavors and a fully stocked spice rack are long gone.
But I've picked up a few cheats.
Citrus. I'm a HUGE fan of using citrus in cooking. I've discovered a squeeze of lemon or lime over a soup, stir fry, or curry before serving is the secret to happiness. It doesn't just taste of lemon or lime, it adds a dimension of complexity that makes such a difference. Balsamic vinegar (or any vinegar) does something similar. Give it a try... and a light touch... I promise your family will think you brought it home from a restaurant.
Fresh Herbs and Ground Salt/Pepper. Another flavor hero is to grind fresh salt and pepper right before serving. I don't always have it, but when I do, I make sure I finish off my seasoning at the table in the way. This works similarly with fresh herbs. Toss a few bits of parsley, cilantro (coriander) or basil over your dish and your taste buds will sing. Especially effective when combined with a dash of citrus.
Seasoning Packets. As a traveler, I've been pleasantly surprised by seasoning packets and the flavor magic they can work. I didn't use seasoning packets very often in my previous life as I found them too salty and I preferred to customize my flavor. However, on the road and without access to a full spice rack, these little babies can be very handy and cost effective. I think the Maggi brand does a great job with not just the Gyro (mentioned earlier), but the Singapore Curry Noodle and Oriental 3 Spice are excellent in stir fries. I plan to experiment with these more in the future.
Lunch Hack. Not just a flavor hack, but a really great idea picked up from our friends and fellow travelers, Sarah and Adam from Discovery Awaits.
Take Wasa crackers, spread cream cheese and top with smoked salmon. Salt/pepper, a squeeze of lemon and a leafy herb would take this to a heavenly new level. Cue the singing angels.
Now that you have a few ideas to whet your on-the-road cooking creativity, next time I'll map out some strategies for maximizing limited kitchen facilities and equipment, as well as a few tips for grocery shopping. I'll even share my own shopping list.
A guaranteed barn-burner, eh?
Thanks for reading!
Next time on Gobsmacked- Eating Well on the Road Part II: Kitchen & Shopping Tips for the Budget Traveler