Cooking while Bicycle Camping and Touring
I do not consider myself by any means a chef; however, I have done most of my own cooking since I was 17, and I do know how to cook delicious and healthy meals. Although I have never baked a cake, that kind of skill is not much needed on a bicycle camping and touring trip. What is needed is the ability to fix a simple and wholesome meal within a short period of time, even when tired.
My mother, although she didn't teach me how to cook, has always been my inspiration. She never began dinner before five and spent little time in the kitchen, yet every item was ready at five-thirty. The meals were always good to eat and inexpensive in cost. By contrast, during my brief years of marriage, my wife would take an hour and a half and become frustrated while preparing a less satisfactory and more expensive meal (she would never let me cook a thing while she was home). Because of my mother, my cooking is centered on simple, easy, and inexpensive meals that do not require constant attention. Thus at home, I can be working on the computer in one room while my meal cooks in the other. On a camping trip, I have to watch a little more closely because I can't turn the heat down as low, but I can set up the tent or perform other light tasks while my food tends to itself. Therefore, even though I am no great cook, I feel I have a useful message to share with others who don't cook or who haven't cooked on tour.
I once made it possible for another cyclist to go on a long touring trip through my cooking instructions, although I didn't recognize it at the time. I stopped by his home one day to talk, and eventually I said I needed to bicycle on home as I hadn't yet prepared my dinner. He asked what I was going to cook, and I replied, "Spaghetti; in fact, I just bought it and the sauce in town." He said, "Why don't you fix it here, and I'll pitch in some drinks and a salad?" That seemed like a reasonable idea, but after that day, he kept wanting me to stop by his place to fix spaghetti. I finally said to him, "Look, I don't want to be cooking spaghetti that often. You've watched me cook it half a dozen times, and you see that there is nothing difficult to it. Just buy some sauce and spaghetti and fix your own." I started working in another town and lost touch with him for a few years. When finally I saw him again, he told me about his touring trip. For food, he carried nothing except spaghetti! At one point, he spent the night with an old couple who were suffering from dementia. So, he stayed there a week, performing chores for them and cooking spaghetti for them every night! I should have taught him how to cook rice too.
At any rate, if you are comfortable cooking for yourself, read no further, as these directions are going to be very basic, although I promise to get beyond spaghetti this time.
Advantages to Cooking Meals on a Bike Tour
You may wonder, "Why should I prepare my own meals on a bicycle camping and touring trip when they are easily purchased?" Although I don't see anything wrong with purchasing meals, there are several advantages to preparing your own meals:
1) The meals you prepare will take less time than restaurant meals.
2) The meals will be much less expensive. You can cook a meal for a couple of dollars that would cost two to four times as much if you purchased it.
3) The meals will contain the desired nutrients. Fast foods and restaurant foods are often high in fats and grease, low in carbohydrates, and deficient in vitamins. See my article on the healthy diet.
4) The meals will be ready when and where you are hungry, and thus you can eat in your camp rather than having to travel somewhere else.
5) Cooking for yourself allows you to take backroads and trips to remote areas, where restaurants are not to be found.
6) Some foods you must cook, such as rice and dried beans, are light-weight and compact allowing you to carry a week's supply of food very easily.
Objectives in Preparing a Meal
My objectives in preparing a meal are as follows: 1) The meal must taste good. Although this may seem less essential than the other objectives, enjoyable food is necessary for a good appetite. Therefore, gustatory pleasure is an necessity. Since I don't carry any spices, I must depend on the taste of the food itself. 2) The meal must be filling and supply the food energy that I need. 3) The food must be healthy for me and should include the essential nutrients. 4) The meal must be simple and easy to prepare, as I don't wish to waste time with food preparation. 5) The meal should not leave a bad mess for me to clean up afterwards. 6) The meals should be low in cost. 7) The ingredients must be readily transportable by bicycle and not easily affected by heat.
Do Meals Always Have to be Cooked?
I sometimes say "prepare a meal" and sometimes "cook a meal" for variety; however, I want it clearly understood that there is nothing magical about a hot meal, other than the fact that we enjoy it. In fact, eating raw vegetables and fruits is healthier than eating the same foods cooked. In very hot weather, I find cooking nauseating, so I often travel a week or more without cooking anything and without eating at a restaurant either.
What non-cooking options do I have? Well, along with fruit and melons, there's a wide choice of vegetables that don't have to be cooked. I buy and eat raw broccoli, cauliflower, celery, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers. A small amount of salad dressing makes a good dip, or the vegetables can be made into a salad. Some bread and inexpensive luncheon meat can be made into a sandwich using dressing and vegetables. Other good sandwich ingredients are cheese, sandwich spread, peanut butter, jelly, and various canned meats. Also, at most small supermarkets, I can buy cooked meats, deviled eggs, macaroni salad, potato salad, and seafood salad. There are usually three-bean salads and potato salads found with the can foods also. Some canned vegetables are good unheated, especially asparagus; one way to eat them is in a salad. My favorite ready-bought food is fresh, hot bread, which can be purchased in some northern states and in parts of Canada.
I generally avoid snack food because it's usually overpriced, and it's usually not good for me (I decided not to say much about food choices here, but see my article on the healthy diet), but sometimes I get some plain cookies when a store has few options. A better snack, if the store is large enough, is yogurt with fruit, an inexpensive and healthy treat.
Equipment and Supplies Needed for Cooking
The total amount of equipment needed to prepare a meal is small. I carry a knife, fork, and spoon set, a small sharp knife, a gas stove, a pint fuel container, a three-quart pot, and sometimes a frying pan with a spatula. In addition to food, I carry a few leftover Ramen noodle packets (similar to bullion). I sometimes carry a little powered milk, powered cheese, and/or honey. I do not carry salt, pepper, or any other spices or condiments. However, when carrying a frying pan, I will carry a small jar of olive oil. On my last trip, I was able to purchase a dehydrated vegetable mixture, which I found excellent. These choices all reflect my taste in cooking, so feel free to carry whatever items that you know that you will use.
There's a reason for the pot rather than the standard cooking kit: I found out, long ago, that the cooking pots sold for camping were too small to hold the amount of food I need and were more likely to burn food because of their diminutive size. Since I carry only one stove, I can't cook on more than one pot at a time anyway. I don't carry any dishes because I travel alone, and it just saves weight to eat out of the pot. I usually solve the problem of cooking separate foods by cooking them together, but when this is undesirable, I just allot more time to cooking, and cook and eat the first item before beginning the second.
A group of cyclists cooking together should carry more than one stove, more than one pot, and of course separate plates. I recommend the metal plates, as the plastic ones won't clean up as well. I still recommend carrying large pots; in fact, a three-quart pot is on the small size for a group. One advantage of group cooking is a nice price savings, as food items are often more expensive when purchased in small quantities.
I usually carry a Brillo pad for cleaning stubborn spots, but I very rarely have to use it. A touch of dishwashing liquid is usually enough, and if I haven't used any grease or oil, I might not need that. Sometimes I can just clean the pot using a little water and my finger or the fork. I have also used sand or leaves to clean up and then washed the pot off well. Food that sticks to the pot or utensils can be removed by soaking it or by boiling it in water. Boiling water is the ideal remedy for germs. When I am cooking, I'm always certain to put my utensils in the boiling water for a few minutes.
Using a Small Stove
There is a good variety of small stoves which burn gasoline, kerosene, and alcohol. There is even a stove designed to burn small bits of wood. Do not buy a stove which uses jelled alcohol (such as Sterno), as they are designed to heat food, not cook it. I have used a limited number of gasoline and kerosene stoves, but most of them are no longer sold, so I can't recommend specific stoves. Safety is very important when using a stove: gasoline is dangerous, there's a possibility of starting a woods fire, burns from the stove or from hot water can be severe, and the fumes from the stove are noxious. See my article on camping for specific cautions when using a stove, and my article on camping gear for more information about stoves.
Problems in Carrying Food while Bike Touring
There are a number of important considerations when carrying food on a bicycle, especially during the summertime. I'll begin with the least serious and proceed to the most dangerous. First, there is the problem of cans, bottles, plastic, and paper. I recommend against carrying glass whenever an alternative is available, as it can always break, leaving a real mess. I also buy fresh produce whenever possible to avoid using cans as much as possible. After cooking, the cans, bottles, plastic, and paper should be repackaged together and carried to the next trash can, not left or even buried in the woods (buried cans, bottles, plastic, and paper will only resurface one day). Second, in hot weather, fresh produce has a short lifespan. Lettuce, especially, will quickly turn to slime within hours. Develop the habit of purchasing small quantities often and consuming them ASAP. Third, some items which usually last at home have a much shorter lifespan in a pannier. Salad dressing, ketchup, spaghetti sauce, lunch meat, butter, and many other items which keep for weeks or months in a refrigerator may spoil within days in the heat. These items can be used unrefrigerated for a while, but use caution! Finally, in hot weather, cooked meat can be dangerous by the next morning, and raw meat can develop poisonous toxins within a few hours.
Cooking Simple Meals
Well, why not begin here? I must confess that I don't cook spaghetti very often when touring any more. Years ago, I could buy dry packets of spaghetti sauce, and spaghetti was a more uniform product. In the mid-70's while cooking at home, I found myself frequently ending up with a slimy mush. The problem, I found out from Consumer's Reports, was with the spaghetti instead of with me. Since then, I have been reluctant to cook spaghetti on a touring trip, where the spaghetti may be both an unknown brand and my only food. Besides, the smallest container of spaghetti sauce is enough for three meals for me. However, I can give directions readily enough.
First, spaghetti needs at least a three-quart pot, and it's best not to add more than 12 ounces of spaghetti to that pot, to prevent burning and sticking. I also recommend thin spaghetti or vermicelli because of their shorter cooking times. I always cook spaghetti in an excess of water, and I get the water boiling strongly before adding it.
In adding the spaghetti to the water, I get a small handful, break it in half, drop both halves into the water, and immediately begin separating it with a fork. Then I add another bunch the same way, separating again, and so on. If spaghetti is not carefully separated, it will all lump together and not cook properly, so I don't leave it until it is done. When the spaghetti has softened to where I can make circles out of it, I pour out most of the water and pour in part of the spaghetti sauce. Under the heat, I mix the sauce, remaining water, and spaghetti. After the mixture begins to boil, I add more sauce and mix again. Adding sauce this way solves three problems: it eliminates the need for heating the sauce separately (more difficult than you would think), it avoids the problems of the spaghetti being too slimy or too dry, and it keeps me from having to use a second pot.
Some extra touches can improve the flavor of the spaghetti. Before adding the spaghetti, I often chop up carrots, onions, celery, and/or bell pepper and let them cook in the water, and after the spaghetti is done, I often sprinkle on some Parmesan or Romano cheese. The cheese will also improve the protein value of the spaghetti.
I sometimes use a white clam sauce on the spaghetti; this sauce is sold in a can either with the spaghetti sauces or with the foreign foods. Recently, after I quit eating chicken, I started adding sardines to the liguid before adding the spaghetti, and that tastes great too. I have cooked chicken with spaghetti in the past.
Pasta (Except Noodles)
I think we each have our own favorite pasta shape; I prefer seashells, as each shell holds a portion of the other foods it's cooked with.
Pasta is less likely to stick together than spaghetti, although it is still necessary to separate it with a fork shortly after adding it to the boiling water, and it never turns slimy, so this is a more forgiving choice than spaghetti. Sixteen ounces is OK in a three quart pot too. The only thing easier to cook than pasta is a hot dog! I just add it to nearly boiling or fully boiling water, separate it once at the beginning, and stir it up if it begins to run out of water towards the end, so all pieces get to cook. When I think it's done, I spear a seashell, blow it off, and eat it to be sure that it's not still too hard. On the other hand, I usually don't want it falling apart. Finally, I drain off the liquid, and it's done.
Almost anything can be done with pasta. It can be cooked with spaghetti sauce. Some like to cool it off and eat it mixed with vegetables as a salad. Most common is with cheese, but I don't like the choices of the macaroni and cheese packages, so I usually leave in a little water at the end, add powered milk and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Another combination I like is to add sardines and chopped vegetables to the shells. Recently, I have been cooking Brussels sprouts in with them. Pasta can also be used in place of noodles, below.
Chicken and Noodles
Noodles are the same as pasta except they have some egg added to them. My grandmother used to make her own homemade noodles, so everything store-bought seems second rate! Noodles are a little bulkier than other forms of pasta, and they break very easily, so I don't usually eat them on tour. They can be used in the same way as the other kinds of pasta, and I even like them plain, with just a touch of butter.
The advantage of noodles is that they don't fall apart when cooking something soupy that takes a long time to cook. The most famous noodle dish is chicken with noodles, so I'll describe how to make that.
NOTE: Because of the danger of carrying raw chicken on a hot day, cook this dish only when the meal is a short distance from the store. One solution is to cook at a town's park for the lunch break and then eat a cold meal for dinner.
I begin by boiling water while chopping up some onions and celery. The onions and celery are added to the water ASAP, and then I get the chicken ready. A three quart pot will hold only three small pieces or one large piece of chicken. I remove most of the fat and skin from the chicken, and then I add the chicken to the water, even if the water isn't boiling yet. It will take about thirty minutes for the chicken to cook, and it's probably better for the water to boil slowly. There's no particular time to add the noodles, but I add them after about fifteen minutes.
Chicken can't be cooked too long, as it will just gradually turn into chicken soup; however, undercooking is an easy mistake. Thirty minutes boiling time is a good minimum.
Rice is my favorite food, even though I don't like the taste (as a boy, I used to get rice with a pat of butter on it, and the taste still repulses me). How do I eat it? Rice has a very weak flavor which is overpowered by whatever it is cooked with. I always cook rice with vegetables, meat, eggs, or (if nothing else) at least some bullion. Once rice is saturated with these other flavors, it tastes delicious to me. In fact, its lack of a noticeable flavor is an advantage, as that means the delicious flavors of the other foods predominate.
I cook rice somewhat differently from pasta. First, it's OK to add rice to the water before it boils. Add no more than half a pound to three quarts of water. It is important to remember that rice absorbs a lot of water and swells terrifically. In one of the Captain Hornblower episodes, a ship is slowly split open because there is a leak into the cargo of rice. A pot that doesn't look as if it has much rice in it will soon be full, as rice absorbs much more water than pasta. The rice has to be stirred once to keep it from sticking together, but once is usually enough. Over the years, I have gotten so good at boiling away all the liquid without burning the pot, that I will work on a computer in another room while the rice cooks down.
The best way to tell if rice is cooked is by putting a few grains on a spoon, looking at them, and then sampling them. An uncooked grain is small and hard, and the grains will remain like that until the rice is half cooked. A cooked grain is several times the size of the uncooked grain and is very soft in texture. It can be smushed with the finger. Finally, a partially cooked grain will be somewhat crunchy. There have been times when I have thought the rice was done (due to improper sampling) when it was crunchy, and I ate it anyway, as crunchy rice is not the end of the world. If rice is cooked with too little water, it will never fluff up and get soft. Adding extra water at the last minute just doesn't produce as soft a rice as adding more than enough to begin with. A small amount of excess water is no problem anyway.
I was amused when listening to a chef talking to Terry Gross recently because he said that vegetables should never be cooked in water because the flavor is lost when the liquid is thrown out. I never throw out any liquid! The liquid along with the flavor of the vegetables is absorbed by the rice.
When to add vegetables depends on the vegetables. I like to cook carrots, onions, and celery a long time, while I always add broccoli flowerlets in the last five minutes. Rice works with any vegetable because of its mild flavor.
Meat is added according to the same logic. Raw meat gets a head start before the rice is added, while I add canned meat after the rice has partially cooked. I have tried many kinds of canned meat with rice, and the only one I didn't like was crab meat -- because the flavor of the rice was stronger than the flavor of the crab.
For a completely different taste using the same vegetables and meat, the rice can be cooked by itself and put to one side, the meat can be cooked in a frying pan, with the vegetables added towards the end to fry in the juices, then most of the grease can be drained off and the meat and vegetables added to the rice (I prefer to mix them together). Or the rice can be added to the frying pan at the end to reheat.
In my early years of cooking, I tried making rice pudding and was never quite successful, but I did develop a similar dish which I like very well. I cook the rice until it is nearly done, but making sure I have some liquid left. Then I mix powdered milk in with the hot rice and water very quickly, and then I break and drop in two to four raw eggs, and stir well. I finally cover the pot and wait about ten minutes. The eggs cook in the hot rice. If done just right, the liquid has been absorbed into the rice, and the whole thing has turned into a solid mass. However, one final step remains: I pour honey into the pot, and break up the mass, allowing the honey to mix it, as the rice-egg-milk mixture needs both the favor and the sweetness of the honey.
Brown Rice and Lentils
My mother never cooked any beans that I enjoyed (except string beans), so I am indebted to my ex-wife for my enjoyment of lentils. They are good by themselves, simmered a long time with some celery and onions. However, they also go great with brown rice, which has a stronger flavor than white rice and therefore may need something stronger to cover it up.
Both lentils and brown rice are slow cookers, taking at least 45 minutes, so to speed up the process, I add a handful of each to cold water in the pot before I even get the stove out. I then heat up the pot of water, and the lentils and brown rice begin to soften before the water boils. While the water is heating, I like to add in carrots, onions, and celery. With most rice mixtures, I like to cook away the water, but with brown rice and lentils, for the benefit of the lentils, I like to keep in a little liquid and to cook past the point where the rice is done.
By accident, I bought some split green peas recently and found that they can be cooked just like the lentils (it was an accident because I have never liked canned peas; these tasted fine).
I think mashed potatoes must rank as the easiest food for anyone to make, if you start with potato flakes. All you have to do is to boil water, take it off the heat, drop in the appropriate amount of potato flakes, and stir with a fork. You dropped in too many? Add a little more water. Cold water is OK as long as you don't have to add too much. You didn't have enough flakes to absorb the liquid? Well, now you have potato soup, albeit lacking some onion flavor.
Many people purchase frozen fried potatoes; I can't figure out why. All that is necessary to have good fried potatoes is to take a potato, cut it into slices, and fry it in oil. For better vitamin content, leave the skin on. The shape of the slices will affect flavor somewhat, with thinner slices frying crisper. One can choose how long to fry them as well. I like to slice up an onion and cook it with the potato. Since the potato takes longer to fry, I get it partially cooked before I add the onion. Since potatoes and onions are short in protein, I like to cook eggs in the same pan.
Eggs are good boiled, fried sunny side up, scrambled, in an omlet, in French toast, or in a nest. They are a good ingredient to add to other foods. Mashed up with a small amount of minced pickles and juice plus either mayonnaise or salad dressing, they make a great sandwich spread.
When I boil eggs, I usually drop them into water that I'm boiling to make something else. Often I don't take them out until the other item is finished cooking. This helps solve a problem, as I don't know how long it takes eggs to boil! Basically, for soft-boiled eggs, just leave them in a couple of minutes, and for hard-boiled eggs, leave them in there until you get hungry. Wondering how long it takes eggs to boil caused me to look for a cookbook, and it was then that I finally acknowledged to myself that I have never owned one!
Eggs sunny side up don't turn out too great on a thin camping fry pan. The heat needs to be fairly low, compared to most foods, so the bottom of the eggs don't scorch, and yet the heat must radiate from the pan for the eggs to cook well. If you get them just right, they're white on the bottom without the white being runny on the top but with the yolks liquid. Second best, they're brown on the bottom and not runny on top, and the yolks are partially solid. You've blown it when they're black on the bottom, if the whites are runny on the top, or if the yolks are cooked solid, but they're still good to eat anyway. When I'm in the mood for eggs sunny side up, but I see that they're not cooking well, I often decide on scrambled eggs instead.
I hate other people's scrambled eggs, but I love my own, as most people's scrambled eggs are runny, but mine are not. I cook them quite differently. Rather than beginning by scrambling the eggs, I begin as if I were going to make eggs sunny side up. When the eggs have partially cooked, I chop them up, and let them run together and cook some more, before I chop them up the third time. I end up with dry, textured eggs, with streaks of yellow and white. In addition, before beginning to fry the eggs, I love to fry some onions and green peppers before adding them. In fact, bits of meat and vegetables of all kind can be fried for a while before adding the eggs.
I also cook omlets a little differently. In this case, I scramble the eggs with a little milk (usually made from powered milk) but I also add some honey or a little sugar to make the omlet slightly sweet. This really improves its attactiveness to children. Omlets are also great for mixing in other foods. A skilled omlet maker covers the omlet while it's cooking, as this helps it to puff up and cook on bottom and top at the same time. Because of the milk in an omlet, you have to be careful to avoid burning, so a reduced heat is essential.
French toast uses the same egg-milk mixture as an omlet. Here, you soak the bread in the egg-milk mixture and then fry it in your pan. On my 1966 trip, a boy was going to give me the food left over from his dad's camping trip, but all he could find was some stale bread and a dozen eggs, so he was disappointed. But I was in hog heaven. I turned that whole large loaf of bread into the best French toast and ate like a king. Honey is the best sirup to use on French toast or pancakes, in my opinion.
Eggs in a nest are a trick I learned in my scout days. Begin with a piece of bread and tear a round hole in it. Butter it on both sides and drop it into the frying pan. When one side has browned, turn it over and immediately crack an egg into it. You can either let the egg finish like that (it will usually be soft in that case) or you can flip it one more time, cooking the egg more completely. In either case, the egg partially penetrates the bread, adding a touch of flavor similar to French toast.
I haven't been carrying a frying pan on recent trips, but on my y2k trip, I carried one, and I was presented with two large, uncooked trout to eat, so I was able to have a feast. It seems that one could just carry an ultra-light rod and reel and catch all the necessary protein along the way, but it doesn't work out that well. First, successful fishing requires learning the stream or lake plus being at the right spot at the right time, which means a lot of invested time per fish. Second, in many areas, fish can't be eaten due to the dumping of PBC's or mercury in the water. Third, out-of-state fishing licenses are usually quite expensive, and the fishing areas are patroled.
If you catch your own fish, and sometimes when you buy it, it is necessary to clean it. There are three ways of getting the scales off of a fish: scrape them off, skin the fish, or fillet it. Which method is best depends on the size and type of fish, with large fish with tougher skin being better for filleting or skinning. To remove the scales by scraping, place the tail of the fish away from you and scrap under the scales with the knife towards you. Be sure to remove the small scales as well as the large ones and to remove all the scales. Ability to scrap the fish will improve with time. Skinning the fish, done after the fish has been cleaned, involves grabbing hold of the skin at a cut place and tearing it off. A pair of pliers can be used to grasp the skin. Filleting involves cutting the fish along the edges of the fins and bones, thus separating the flesh from the bone. The skin is then cut off of the fillet in the same fashion. When a fish is scrapped or skinned, it is also necessary to clean its interior. To remove the head, place a sharp knife behind the forehead and slice downward behind the gill slits. A second cut is necessary from the front bottom of the fish to the anus. All the visera must be removed and the cavity cleaned.
Cooking fish is different from cooking red meat or chicken. When cooking beef or pork, one can chose to leave it rare or cook it well-done. Chicken, on the other hand, can't be overcooked, but it can be undercooked. Fish when fried, in contrast, has to be cooked exactly the right amount of time. However, it is easy to tell when fried fish is done, if it hasn't been breaded. The flesh will be clear before cooking, but it will gradually turn cloudy. When the flesh has turned white and is no long opaque, it is done. I prefer not to bread fish, as some of the delicate flavor is lost.
This is all very simple cooking, just one step above boiling hot dogs or heating a can of beans but, with a little experimentation, it will provide some satisfying meals.