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Originally published Thursday, July 24, 2014 at 6:03 AM

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Cooking in small spaces, strategically

We’re talking about boats, but the space may be no different in recreational vehicles, lake cabins, a campsite picnic table, even in the “tiny house” movement.


(Minneapolis) Star Tribune

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It sounds weird, but the prospect of spending a week sailing is when I most channel my inner New Yorker.

The city’s tiny apartments are infamous for their even tinier kitchens, which may explain all the restaurants there. But dining out isn’t an option when anchored in a sailboat.

Our galley squeezes stove, sink, fridge and pantry within the span of my arms. We’re talking about boats, but the space may be no different in recreational vehicles, lake cabins, a campsite picnic table, even in the “tiny house” movement.

Wherever you are, a shortage of space shouldn’t lead to compromises on cuisine.

So I strategize. Truth be told, that’s half the fun.

For starters, I plan meals with an eye to making one pan do double or triple duty. Then there’s the matter of keeping prep scraps to a minimum and odors at bay, especially during long stretches without touching the mainland, with its siren song of resupply and ability to offload trash.

Refrigeration helps, but armed with a few basic strategies even someone out for a few days with an ice chest can dine well. This recipe for Presque Bay Primavera shows how to ease the cook’s lot.

I start by prepping all my ingredients so everything is ready before cooking begins.

First step is laying down a paper towel. This is for all of the onion skins, broccoli trimmings, pepper innards and such. Then I just roll up the towel and squish it into a small sealable plastic bag. Mess and odors are now compressed and contained.

Here’s what I prep: half an onion, cut in slices. A couple of garlic cloves, sliced. A half-dozen of those small multicolored peppers, sliced. A cup of sliced mushrooms. Four slices of deli ham, slivered. A cup or so of broccoli florets, along with stems sliced thin. Get out some oil, the pasta, white wine (if we have it), salt and pepper.

Now, I’ll get out a 10-inch saucepan, heat a glug of canola oil over medium heat and cook the onion until it starts to soften. Nudging it to one side makes room for the peppers, which will cook while the onion takes on a golden sheen. In goes the garlic, which should just soften, then I make room for the mushrooms, which cook quickly.

Using a slotted spoon, lift all the vegetables from the pan into a bowl, saving the now-flavorful oil.

In goes the ham, where it frizzles for several minutes until the slivers sear just a bit. Add that to the veggie bowl.

Into the now almost-dry pan, the broccoli gets a quick stir-fry. If I’ve got white wine on board, a splash and a tight lid lets the broccoli steam for a minute. No wine? Water will do. The par-cooked broccoli then joins the ham and veggies. Cover to keep warm.

Now for the pasta, and the beauty part of this routine. I’ve been persuaded that pasta needn’t gambol about in great quantities of boiling water, but cooks well in just enough water to cover, 3 to 4 cups. You need to stir more often, but when you’re on a boat, there’s no laundry to throw into the dryer or phone to answer. Nothing better to do than lean against the stove, perhaps with a glass of wine, and prod pasta every so often.

Besides, when you have a finite amount of water and fuel, no point in wasting it with multiple pans to wash up or long cooking times.

But there’s also a cooking benefit: What little water remains after the pasta has reached its proper al dente now is so starchy that it helps bind everything together, almost like a light sauce.

When the pasta is done, drain any remaining water into a cup, then add the reserved vegetables and ham to the pasta. Sprinkle in some fresh grated Parmesan and let everything heat through once more, stirring in spoonfuls of the reserved water as needed until everything’s heated through. Fill plates from the pan, season, and you have a great dinner with just one pan to wash.

This isn’t rocket science, of course — it’s just different from how I usually cook at home, firing up three burners, or just chucking all the peels into the compost bin.

This sort of cooking inspires a different sort of efficiency, one that’s not focused so much on the clock, but on getting the most from the least.

The process might take a bit longer, but that’s OK, because there’s no place you can be other than where you are.

Which is the sort of thought you think while on a boat in the summer.

PRESQUE BAY PRIMAVERA

Serves 2.

Note: Amounts of each ingredient are highly adjustable, depending on what you have on hand.

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ medium onion, sliced thin

6 small sweet peppers, sliced in thin rings

2 garlic cloves, sliced thin

Several mushrooms, sliced thin

4 slices of deli ham, or other meat, sliced into thin strips

Broccoli cut into small florets, about 1 cup

¼ cup white wine or water

1½ cup pasta, preferably a smaller shape

4 cups water

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook until it starts to soften. Nudge onions to one side to make room for the peppers, and continue cooking until the onion takes on a golden sheen. Add the garlic to the onion, and make room for the mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms are soft.

2. Using a slotted spoon, lift all the vegetables from the pan into a bowl, keeping any remaining oil in the pan.

3. Add ham to the pan, and sauté for several minutes until the slivers sear just a bit. Add ham to vegetables in bowl.

4. Into the now almost-dry pan, stir-fry broccoli for a minute. Add white wine or water, then cover to steam for another minute. Add to ham and vegetables. Cover to keep warm.

5. Pour pasta into the saucepan and cover with 4 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a steady simmer, stirring occasionally. When pasta is done, carefully drain any remaining water into a cup. Add the reserved vegetables and meat, along with the cheese, and heat through, adding pasta water as needed to prevent sticking. Season to taste and serve at once.

STORAGE STRATEGIES

Each summer, we try to do a two-week stretch on the boat without resupply. It’s not a macho test of will, just a yearning to get away from the world for as long as possible. Yet eating well is a priority.

Planning begins with a list of proteins that form the backbone of the menus. For the two of us over 13 nights, that could be two rib-eye steaks, a pork tenderloin, four lamb chops, two hamburger patties, two chicken breasts, a can of crab meat, bacon, 10 large shrimp and four fish fillets.

Then the strategy begins: The steaks, pork and chicken each provide two meals (six nights), so I keep them from being back-to-back dinners. We may eat half of the tenderloin Wednesday, then the rest in quesadillas Friday.

Produce gains admission by how much room it takes in the refrigerator, and how long it stays fresh — what I call the size-to-succulence ratio. Green beans are great, along with a bag of small multicolored peppers.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that bays, with their brisk water temperature, means our hull doubles as a root cellar, so I stash apples, potatoes, onions, carrots, lemons and limes in a bin under the forward berth.

That leaves the refrigerator to hold cheeses, butter, yogurt, milk, eggs, bacon, vegetables and sandwich meats. Salads admittedly get short shrift, with a package of sturdy shredded cabbage for coleslaw for the first few meals. Tomatoes last well for a week in a cubby.

Granted, for the first few days, the boat is packed to the gills, making me pay extra attention to where something resides, so it can be returned to that exact same spot.

The meats and shrimp are vacuum-packed and frozen before we leave home. We pick up fish fillets in packages of two each.

First item into the galley freezer is one of the fish packages, then I’ll layer, squeeze and cajole the rest of the frozen goods to fit, topping it off with the remaining package of fish, which we’ll eat that night.

The goal is to dine on 13 different meals over a trip. No, we don’t have to do this.

But why not?

5 KEY KEEPERS

Here are five ingredients I find essential to have on board for great meals.

• A kit of seasonings in small bags or plastic containers, gathered in a larger sealable bag. Easy to reach for and easy to store.

• Red wine vinegar or lemons; a splash just before serving boosts the flavors and makes everything taste more “outdoorsy.”

• Good-quality turkey bacon; it fries with far less spatter to ease cleanup, yet adds that bacon flavor to pasta dishes and sandwiches.

•Liter box of white wine; keeps well, adds flavor and doesn’t break.

• Garlic. Lots of garlic. Tiny bulbs of flavor.

• OK, there are six essentials: Bags of mini-candy bars — because dessert is good and by that time, I’m done cooking.



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