Cooking in Small Spaces
square feet. That’s how big our home is. Somehow, somewhere, in a far off galaxy we agreed tomove into a converted Sprinter Van. Adventure lured us, along with promises of seeing the country the way we wanted to before we couldn’t. So off we went.
You can imagine the purejoy and independence we felt when we rolled away from Los Angeles five months ago. Along with realizing that we now lived in a van, we needed to eat. You know, like three times a day, and maybe a snack or two.
Eating out is an option, and we do like to partake in local delicacies, but just like normal home dwellers, you can’t afford to do that everyday, all day. So along with our newfound organizational skills, we have dialed in the (extra) small space cooking and cooking on a budget.
Our kitchen is tiny. To help you visualize it, stand at your kitchen sink. Yep, that’s how big our work space is. We don’t have an oven, we don’t have a built-in stovetop, and our refrigerator is half the size of a dorm room fridge. (We’ve nicknamed it Useless.)
What we do have is a spice cabinet, a JetBoil, a Nomiku SousVide — yeah, we fancy and I will explain what the heck that is later — and an expertly-organized pantry that’s really a drawer but don’t ruin our van dreams. Organization is the key to small kitchens. You become a ninja at utilizing every ingredient, you buy fresh food, and you buy fresh food often.
Believe me, the last thing we want to do is spend all day cooking in a small kitchen/bedroom/living room/driver's seat, so we have a few small space cooking hacks from what to eat to how to make it faster that will translate into any kitchen.
Simple as that. If you find yourself throwing away a lot of rotten produce, you should probably buy less. For us, traveling the country is even more fun when we can swing buy a roadside stand and buy whatever is locally in season. For most people, this isn’t feasible, but it is possible to not buy the Costco-sized bag of spinach and opt for the self-serve mixed greens part of the grocery store. You don’t know what or where that is? For shame.
I love, love, love my immersion blender and my Nomiku Sous Vide machine. That said, you need to be very selective on what tools you buy. The immersion hand blender is small enough to stow away in a drawer and powerful enough to whip up a smoothie, a dressing, chop up herbs, even make a foolproof hollandaise sauce. It made the cut for van life because I use it so much.
The Nomiku is a sous vide machine, which is a fancy French term for simply vacuum sealing food, dropped it in a water bath that’s held at a certain temperature, and left to cook. It’s foolproof and yields expertly-cooked food every. Damn. Time. We can drop in five different bags of food and have meals ready for the week. All you do is sear to finish or do a quick reheat. I highly recommend looking into it. Oh, and the Nomiku is small, easily stored, and you’ll be able to cook the juiciest chicken breast known to man.
I know this isn’t a kitchen hack per se, but it’s a van life necessity. I’m not sure why people hate sandwiches for dinner. Burgers are sandwiches! We eat those at any meal time. Two slices of pizza on top of each other is a sandwich! Ice cream even comes in sandwich form! Okay, now I’m yelling. Seriously though, eating more sandwiches will help use up any random veggies, proteins, and lots of cheese.
Ryan, the other half, has been banned from cooking in the van because he’s terrible at this. (Not sure if the jokes on him or me...) Anyhow, use the spoon, clean the spoon. Use the bowl, clean the bowl. Use bowl again, clean bowl again. With limited space it’s an inevitable cycle.
All day, everyday. We eat a lot of eggs. Usually we are soft boiling them and keeping them to top rice bowls, egg salads, and guacamole (whaaaaa?). You can even use the raw egg whites to make the best margarita you’ve ever experienced and the yolk for scrambling into fried rice.
Huh? Didn’t I just tell you to buy less? I don’t mean buy the 10 pound bag of flour, I mean use the bulk section of the supermarket. I know you’ve walked down that aisle at Whole Foods. You can buy in perfect proportions your spices, oatmeal, flours of any variety, nuts, seeds, quinoa — that is, all things you probably have mucking up your tiny cabinet.
If you aren’t an expert bread maker, than don’t buy a rolling pin. Use a wine bottle to roll out dough. Don’t clutter the kitchen with cookie and biscuit cutters when you can use a can with the top and bottom removed. My herbs count as kitchen decor. They are held in water and at the ready when I need them.
My kitchen knife is stored on a wall mounted magnetic knife block, which also houses the measuring spoons, a spatula, and a wine key.
Are you going to be ravenously hungry for lunch and prepare an actual meal, or are you going to eat half a bag of chips and stare at an apple? I find that once we unload the groceries from cart to van, I have to do some prep work, usually while we are still in the parking lot. I cut or slice up some veggies, wash the fruit, open a can of beans to rinse, and maybe even start marinating some meat.
A great idea is to make more than enough marinade, some for the meat and the leftover for a salad dressing! A quick dressing and marinade recipe is mix some balsamic reduction (you'll find it in the dressing aisle) and with olive oil, salt and pepper, a little red pepper flake or Sriracha, and boom — instant dinner and lunch.
Or, the most challenging challenge of the challenge. You’ve probably seen this term tattooed on the chef at your local hipster restaurant. I know, I’m throwing a lot of French words at you and this being America, I will translate. Mise en place means “everything in its place”. It’s the first thing taught in culinary school, the first thing every professional chef does, and the first thing that will get you fired for from any kitchen if you can’t do it. Usually this is referring to getting all your ingredients out, cut, measured, and at the ready for when you actually start doing the cooking.
I didn’t list it, but it’s important to also have fun with cooking in any space. If you’re the person who sought out a home with no kitchen, then do yourself a favor and keep us chefs in business and go out to eat. [H]
Stephani and Ryan have found a way to combine their love of food, photography, and travel.
They live, cook, travel, and do just about everything else in a van.
You can follow their adventures on Instagram, Facebook, and their blog.
Images © Tinder to Sprinter