Now one of my dearest and closest friends, @tammois and I met on the twitterz and have since cemented our friendship around many tables and fires, cookbooks, meals and bottles of wine. Tammi and the rest of her brood, The Jonai, are at present on a magnificent three month Rebel Farm Tour of her homeland, the USA, in the world’s coolest RockVan.
A question food folk love to both ask and answer – ‘what can’t you live without in the kitchen?’ – is one that most of us rarely have cause to put to the test. But flying across the Pacific with nothing but a suitcase of clothes to drive across America in a ’77 GMC motorhome provides the perfect opportunity.
I knew there’d have to be cast iron, a good knife, a wooden chopping board and either a mortar & pestle or a hand blender. The hand blender won in deference to space considerations (I can hardly claim it was the weight given all the cast iron…). A mixing bowl or two, a large-ish pot, some wooden spoons and a whisk pretty much rounds out the essentials.
We picked up a cast iron griddle and a frypan for a song at the thrift shops of Front Royal, Virginia, where I also scored a hand blender for $5, and complete sets of utensils, cups and plates for a few dollars. Due to the small stove, I leaped at a narrow, tall stainless steel pot on sale for $15 new at Target, and a large, new, wooden chopping board with a non-slip mat underneath from Camping World that’s designed to sit atop RV stoves to save space and stop the rings from clattering on the road.
A good knife eluded me for over a week – we’d bought a Wüsthof paring knife at Bed, Bath & Beyond hoping it would tide us over until I found a quality Japanese high-carbon steel chef’s knife. I quickly lost patience and knuckles chopping garlic with this woefully inadequate tool, but we’d scoured all the ‘home’ or ‘kitchen’ shops we could find, all of which were of the large, generic franchise sort, and found only Wusthofs and Globals and something branded by one of those ‘pretty women who cook on tv’ whose names I can never remember. And then we stumbled across Country Knives.
We were just past Intercourse, Pennsylvania on a tiny byway (340) after exploring Amish country when the sign appeared. There was no town nearby, and the sign appeared to be at the front of somebody’s home. I figured there would be a charming but useless collection of ‘country craft’ knives – perhaps with carefully whittled handles for the grey-nomad types to admire and purchase only to continue to despair at cooking as they’ve never known the joys of a good knife. I was utterly mistaken.
Inside was a wonderland of knives – some 8000 the owner told us – everything from hunting knives and throwing stars to high-quality chef’s knives. Bingo. The beautifully curved 10” Shun Classic twinkled at me from behind the glass. Just to be circumspect, I handled three or four, but it was love at first sight, and it was with intense pleasure that I handed over my credit card to make the Shun mine. It hasn’t disappointed, as I’ve chopped my way down the Appalachians, rhythmically maintaining an otherwise scattered sense of self from Pennsylvania to Mississippi.
A secondhand 4-quart cast iron pot with a lid was even more difficult to secure, and without it, there’s no hope of making bread in the RockVan’s small oven whose designer clearly mistook ‘distribute’ heat for ‘localise intensely at the bottom middle’. We picked up a simple heat dissipator for a few cents at one of the many Habitat for Humanity’s Restores we’ve frequented, which should make basic baking more successful, but bread’s a fussier beast, so cast iron was required.
Yet again, patience paid off, and I found what I needed at a Lodge Cast Iron factory outlet outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Since the recession, Lodge made a decision to put pots and pans with minor defects out on ‘seconds’ shelves rather than re-melting them for another attempt at perfection. Thanks to this reportedly popular new policy, I scored my pot for $26 rather than the usual $60, all because it has two nearly invisible little concave bubbles in the bottom.
So now that I’ve waxed fetishistically on about knives and cast iron, surely you’re wondering what I’ve cooked with it?
Those who know my penchant for making sourdough damper when we camp might have wondered whether I’ve baked yet. For one, I miss Fran, my sourdough starter whose daughters I left with family in Oz in hopes of returning to her in September. Next, there is the issue of the small oven that seems to think it’s an inverse griller. Finally, it’s been so freaking hot there’s no way I wanted to put the oven on! However, having found my cast iron pot and lid finally, I’ll make my first RockVan loaves soon … whether in the oven or on the stovetop will depend on the mercury.
The ready availability of quality tortillas and dearth of decent bread across small-town America has resulted rather logically in a surfeit of Mexican cooking in the RockVan. Of course it’s ‘Tex-Mex’, and frequently inspired by what we’re finding in the taquerías to be found in even the most seemingly ‘white bread’ towns. It’s also inspired by the brilliant variety of chilies found everywhere (even – gasp – in Walmart!), anaheims, poblanos, jalapeños, habaneros, and serranos to name some of the most common. And don’t be fooled by some of their capsicum-like appearance – most are very bloody hot – as I discovered during an out-of-mind experience three bites into ‘testing’ the hotness of one type.
And so burritos de frijoles negros, tacos de carne asada, quesadillas, enchiladas de pollo, and many bastardisations of all of the above have been our lunch and dinner staples, plus the odd breakfast burrito here and there.
Still, it turns out even the bean-lovin’ Jonai cannot survive on tortillas alone, and so I’ve experimented with drop biscuits both on the griddle and in the oven. It’s surprising how well they work on the griddle, though it’s tricky to keep them from burning on the outside while ensuring the middle isn’t doughy. Then having learned about hoecakes, which are a sort of cornmeal pancake/biscuit, I’ve been working on a technique with thinner biscuits for the stovetop. I’ve also rather enjoyed making these southern staples for my aunts and uncles, all of whom grew up on them, but are pleasantly surprised to find that their ‘Australian’ niece makes them ‘like Mama did’, even though they themselves now make pop-out biscuits.
Free-range eggs are often found for sale along the roadside – usually for $2 or $3 a dozen – and so eggs, biscuits and gravy are a popular brekky. I broke in the hand blender with a classic ‘tammindaise’ the day we did happen to have bakery bread and after planting our little herb garden in the kitchen window.
The ever-present truck-wheel fire ring grill at all the state parks has meant some barbecuing as well – ‘grass-fed beef’ is pretty easy to come by, as is free-range chicken. Vegetarian options range from the black-bean Mexican favourites to tofu burgers and an old standby, a Sri Lankan style mustard eggplant curry. We even made a Limburger and avocado pasta one night, and although the stinky-socks smell of the cheese challenged the brood, they gobbled it all up.
One night, just for a lark, we cooked some turkey dogs for the kids, and Stuart even taught the kids the ‘bend the can’ trick to cook some creamed corn on the grill, which they universally despised, I’m happy to report.
When Oscar spiked a fever, it was roast capsicum and garlic soup on the menu, and when he recovered and requested fried chicken, I proved it’s possible even in the little RockVan.
When I stumbled across fresh pita breads at the Central Markets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we had to have kebabs, and here in the South, we seem to have coleslaw with nearly every meal.
The opportunity to cook in ‘real’ kitchens while visiting family and friends has been a lovely respite from the RockVan’s confines and a great way to say ‘thanks for having us’. I’m surprised that nobody has blinked an eye as I stride in with not just ingredients but my kick-arse knife as well.
Texas lies ahead, so our Mexican fetish should crank up a few notches when I pick up tortilla presses for me and the wonderful Zoe, our gracious host here on PDP. But first, we’ll be traveling through Cajun country in southern Louisiana, where I hope to learn the mysteries of Gumbo, Jambalaya and crawfish étouffée. If you want to see how that goes, be sure to tune back in for the next instalment of Motorhome Mama Cookin’. ;-)