Fieldwork foraging

Though I find food itself a pleasure, even during my everyday life I often find it a hassle to feed myself. All too often it’s 11pm and all I’ve eaten that day is beige food with dangerous levels of fat and salt. Add into the mix minimal cooking facilities, even less time, low light levels & driving rain and cooking on fieldwork is tremendously tiresome.

In case anyone else is heading out on fieldwork (and camping whilst doing it) I thought I’d share my experience of ‘hot-water cooking’. I can’t promise that the food won’t be beige, but it might be a starting point.

(NB: some of the same tips can be used for surviving whilst away on conferences and cooking from a travel kettle.)

If you want flavour, there are ways. Some foods are worth particular mention:

1. Nice oil – I don’t like carrying oil on fieldwork – it’s heavy and tends to force itself on everything else in your sustenance supply until all cardboard is pliable and greasy. HOWEVER, a small bottle of specialty oil lifts nondescript dishes immeasurably. I’m working my way through walnut oil and I can also recommend sesame or avocado oils. Drizzle onto salad (what? no! feel free to eat it from the bag) or over pasta/mashed potato/bread to make life that little bit more bearable. Also survives at higher temperatures and requires no knife.

2. Chorizo – the wonder of this little beauty is that not only can it survive at normal temperatures (in the UK) without developing a personality, or that it makes anything it’s added to taste fantastic, but that as soon as you’ve got chorizo, you’ve enough fat to fry veg, potato (we’ll get on to this), bread, eggs etc without ending up with a blackened nightmare.

3. Tabasco – stuck in frozen wastelands? Coming down with the flu? Bored of tasteless food? Tabasco, other hot sauces also available, contains admirable quantities of chilli and spices up anything. Why not add spoonfuls and convince yourself that the heat is the reason you can’t taste the subtle blend of flavours?

4. Rice pudding – November temperatures on the Wiltshire-Gloucestershire border are not severe, hovering around 8 degrees Celsius. When it mizzles all day, however, a stodgy pudding goes a surprising way to improving the atmosphere. Best eaten warm (suspend pot in hot water) but OK cold. Available in both fresh (requires refrigeration) and store-cupboard varieties in the UK. Add dried fruit and mixed spice and it counts as cooking!

5. Bit of a curved ball this one but baby food – it’s safe to be eaten without heating (though you can heat it directly or by placing the container in hot water), contains a few of your five-a-day and can be a welcome break after the high salt loads found in much packet food.

6. Hot chocolate powder – when I’m cold and everything around me is cold, I tend to find that chocolate tastes pretty disappointing; even good dark chocolate becomes chalky. Hot chocolate on the other hand, with sufficiently generous measures, can taste good even when made with water.

Hot water meals

1. Cheesy, herby mash

Add pre-grated (I know, I know, but it still has some flavour) Parmesan cheese to dessicated mashed potato, add a sprinkle of dried thyme and mix gently. Add a drizzle of walnut (or similar) oil then boiled water as directed on packet. Mix like crazy, cursing the flakes of potato that fly out of the bowl and swirl around you. Suitable for making in a mug. If you’ve had the foresight to bring them along, add salt and pepper to taste. Good served with tinned tuna and tinned sweetcorn.

2. Noodles

Often noodles require additional microwave time but there are cheats: a) use vermicelli noodles – these fine noodles soften nicely in boiled water; b) make in a thermos mug – add flavouring and boiling water to noodles then seal and wait 10-20 minutes.

3. Spiced couscous

Couscous is a controversial choice here since I find that it absorbs flavouring whilst remaining bland, bland, bland. Therefore, don’t hold back. By adding flavouring after flavouring (I recommend a Moroccan or Mexican spice blend) and a drizzle of oil, olives, Tabasco, chorizo, it’s palatable. For bonus points, eat with salad and houmous.

4. Porridge (peasant-style)

The old thermos mug trick: add hot water to oats and seal for at least 25 minutes. I’m not a big milk fan but presumably this would also work using hot milk. You could try milk powder and hot water but I’m pretty sure that’s a hiding to nowhere.

I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting menus. Remember the context – these are recommendations on food options when the alternatives are crackers or takeaway.

Other options:

Bananas – they don’t need washing and you can eat them without touching the fruit with grubby hands

Bean salad – intended to be eaten cold, it comes in a vinaigrette and can be a couple of your five-a-day

Cereal – yup, dry cereal’s how I roll

Coffee – decent coffee (e.g. disposable filter cups) are about as green as breeding Godzillas… but I’d do worse for delicious coffee

Crackers – bring variety to your life with a selection pack!

Juice – hydration and nutrition in a tetrapak

Mandarins – another ‘no need to wash’ fruit, they’re abundant in winter and delicious floating in their own juice in a can in summer

Marmite – combines stock base, hot drink and salt substitute

Olives – fairly cheap, flavoursome, tidy and a decent survivor of preservation in brine or oil

Pre-cooked potato – an aberration to purists, but it’s possible to buy pre-cooked vacuum-packed potato discs that fry quickly over a Primus. As anyone who’s eaten good fried potatoes when hungry will tell you, they’re incredible.

Salad – assuming you brought a knife and enough water it really isn’t that much of a hassle to chop peppers, carrot and cucumber. No, really.

Sweetcorn – because sweetcorn is one of the few things that survives canning

Tuna – pure protein punch

the ‘Look what we found‘ range – essentially an adult version of existing baby food. Hearty meals that are well-packaged to minimise wasted space and that can be heated by placing the container in hot water. They premiered with a variety of nauseating couples on the front and twee back-stories for each dish about the commitment of the producer. They’re expensive for the serving size but, well, pretty good so if you’ve the budget then it’s an option. If you can get past the dreadful name. I’m already fairly middle class so I don’t need that sort of baggage…

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