Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Food and Provisioning Tips


People eat all over the world, so provisioning is a lot more like a monthly trip to the grocery store. Many cruisers arrive in New Zealand after crossing the Pacific with food they bought in the U.S. more than 2 years before. Canned food doesn’t last forever and can rust and explode. We haven’t had any problem with exploding cans but it does happen. We're not picky eaters, but if you are, you may need to plan for carry items you need to satisfy your particular tastes. There aren’t very many items we’ve had a hard time finding, except specialty items. Visit our section on hard to find items to find out what has been challenging for us to find. Not everything is available in every major port, but with a little planning of your needs for about 9 months, you’ll have as much food aboard as you really need to carry unless you visit more remote areas for extended periods. When buying products in more remote locations look for best by dates, since sometimes expired items are shipped on to secondary markets after not moving. (Flour, sugar, rice, and dried milk are available in most major ports and are even subsidized in French Polynesia.) Buying fresh from markets where there is higher turnover can help you avoid bugs. Specialty items and mixes that you may think are rare might be worth buying in extra quantities, but we often find them eventually. Supplies of Chinese ingredients are excellent throughout the Pacific since many of the stores are Chinese owned.

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Food Storage

Food storage is a continual issue, since every time you reprovision, packaging shapes and sizes can be different and therefore alter your storage configuration. Having containers in which you can decant many staples can be invaluable and help you avoid issues with packaging sizes and shapes. Also, avoiding cardboard packaging can prevent a bug problem from developing on your boat. Avoid plastic containers with square lids, since the corners warp, and ones without gaskets since they aren’t airtight. Snapware™ containers are excellent for keeping things airtight since they have gaskets. Crackers and chips stay fresh. Plus they come in many handy shapes and sizes. Snapware™ has an Internet site from which you can order items and have them sent directly to you in the U.S.

Don’t be too quick to throw out plastic containers from the U.S., since the packaging most everywhere else is often of a lower quality. You might want to buy some bottles for oil, vinegar, detergent, etc. that you may buy in packaging that won’t hold up. Buy as many shapes and sizes of freezer grade (thicker) zip top Ziploc bags as you can find. You’ll be unable to find good big ones after you leave the U.S. A 2 gallon size is particularly hard to find, but very handy for all kinds of things, so keep searching. (A hardware store near the library in Sausalito had some and I wish I had bought more of this rare size.) You can wash them (with Simple Green or whatever) and reuse them but they will wear out and need to be replaced. Generally, Ziplocs are not foolproof and decanting items into designated containers is often a better idea than just putting something inside a Ziploc for protection, since the bags are actually porous and can easily puncture. Vacuum packing can be a good way of protecting things that don’t get frequent use (frozen meats, mixes taken out of original packaging with a clipping of the cooking instructions). Double bag everything.

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Living without Refridgeration

Without a fridge, we have survived well and don’t miss the high power demands of the fridge. Although we really do miss cold drinks. People lived for many centuries without refridgeration and the techniques they used for food preservation can still be used today. Canning, drying, pickling, salting and other processing (i.e. making yogurt and cheese) were invented for long term storage and we still eat those foods today, but have grown accustomed to storing them in the fridge when it is not necessary.

Annie Hill’s book “Voyaging on a Small Income” has lots of food storage tips for living without refrigeration. Bluewater Sailing has an excellent article about living with out refrigeration that is well worth reviewing (even if you plan to have it, just in case and because cold space is so tight). Few condiments really need to be refrigerated as indicated on the label (as long as you only use a clean utensil). Cheeses keep a surprisingly long time (vinegar helps keep mold off the surface after opening), although they do get oily. We tend to buy things in smaller packages since once things are open we need to finish them quickly. (In the 3rd world, foods don't seem to come with volume discounts anyway, so it isn't costing us any extra.) We have figured out how much to make for a meal to avoid leftovers, but eat any we might have within 24 hours. Storing leftovers in the pressure cooker with the lid on while warm keeps them sterile.

Instead of stocking up on frozen meats that require keeping the fridge going (a nightmare if it breaks), while in port we buy fresh meat the day we want to cook it or buy it frozen the day before and let it melt. (Frozen whole chickens are available most places and good meat was available in major towns throughout Mexico and the South Pacific). Some countries (New Zealand and Australia) require you to declare fresh meats and sometimes confiscate them, so stocking up may be useless unless one can finish it before arriving in those locations. We buy lunch meats, salami and ham, which will stay good for months until the packaging is opened. Cooked bacon keeps a long time and adds great flavor to dishes. (We hear Costco sells packaged precooked bacon.) We also use canned chicken and beef (hard to get outside the U.S.), boullion and gravy to add flavor to dishes rather than making meals centered around a hunk of meat, which we could easily do once or twice a week when in port with a little planning and a visit to the store. When we catch fish we bottle any that we don't eat immediately for use later in recipes or for a quick snack. Canned (tinned) crab, shrimp, clams work similarly. Canned and dried beans make can also form the centerpiece for a meal as well and we've found lots of tasty recipes. We eat a dhal curry that’s delicious and filling.

The fridge is useful for dry storage, but moisture does get trapped in there since it sits under our drain board. We air it out each evening by hanging or propping the door open to prevent mold from growing in there.

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Cooking and eating in the heat of the tropics

In the tropics, the heat changes the way you want to eat. Cooking outside on a BBQ or in a pressure cooker to reduce cooking time can help reduce the heat of the kitchen. Fixing meals that are cool to eat and don’t require heating up the galley become more common, like salads (usually without lettuce or spinach but rather various combinations of carrots, peppers, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes), sandwiches and snacks. Clean raw veggies well with soap before eating, especially lettuce and spinach (on the rare occasion when you get it). Jello, applesauce, yogurt, jerky, dried and fresh fruit are great snacks that are cool and refreshing in the heat. Many people make their own. Bread with humous and Baba Ghanoush, tabouleh salad, salads with beans and meats (crab, shrimp and clams) make for filling meals without much cooking. Instant mashed potatoes are quick to make without heating up the galley and they taste quite authentic with butter and milk added. We often top the potatoes with warmed meat in gravy from a can. Couscous is another quick cool meal that requires only heating water to prepare. We add garlic, sundried tomatoes, and dried mushrooms to flesh it out. Instant refried bean flakes and black bean flakes are the base for another quick meal, which we toast a tortilla and serve with cheese, tomatoes, and salsa. Avocadoes available in Mexico, vanuatu and the solomons were a base for great salads. We often have cheese and crackers with sardines, smoked mussels, oysters or clams. Popcorn is quick to prepare, cools quickly and can be topped with many interesting toppings.

I have enjoyed cooking more than I had time for at home so really am getting a lot of use out of the recipe books I carry – Choose wisely which to bring along. We see many fruits and vegetables that aren’t as common at home, so a wide variety of options makes it easier to work with what’s available in the more remote areas (taro, cassava, squash, papaya, coconut). Someone suggested a cookbook called “Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables” although I haven’t seen it. I have enjoyed “Hot and Spicy” and “100+ Vegetarian Pasta Recipes” both by Marlena Spieler have been great ones. “Joy of Cooking” is an old standby that can explain measurement conversions, substitutions and recipe adaptations, as well as menu suggestions for a wide variety of ingredients.

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Hard to find items

Some notable items we’ve had trouble finding more frequently are canned chicken (only available in North America) and canned beef of any other type besides corned and meat with gravy, canned seafood (besides canned mackeral) and good quality canned ham. Baking items like dark brown sugar, molasses, corn syrup, tapioca, shortening, baking spices, baking powder and baking soda, corn meal and corn flour, powdered eggs (handy for baking when you run out of fresh) are often hard to find. Specialty items like dried wild mushrooms (like morels and chanterelles, although Shiitake are available in the many Asian groceries throughout the Pacific, along with many other Asian food ingredients), fancy condiments like pine nuts or pesto and salsa sauces. Just add water pancake mix and just add water cake and other mixes are very handy when we're out of fresh items (like milk, cheese or eggs) but can be hard to find. Cheeses besides cheddar are basically unavailable as well as many dairy items like cream, ricotta cheese and sour cream. Herbal tea is also hard to find in most places. Fine coffee beans were rare, although instant coffee was available most places. The availability of candy besides hard candy was variable at best and is great for passage treats.

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Things to stock up on

It’s best to buy in quantity only when the market looks like it has high turnover and watch expiration dates so food is as fresh as possible. Paper products, aluminum foil, plastic bags, food storage containers and cleaning products are often a lower quality outside the U.S. and so are the Ziploc plastic bags so we'd suggest stocking up on these items. Shrink wrapping toilet paper, napkins and paper towels can protect them for longer term storage. Film and batteries don't tend to be as fresh in remote countries, so we tend to stock up on these in major markets, although they'll only last so long in the heat. Ziploc bags and sponges are other household goods we make sure to have in abundance.

We like to have a good stock of canned chicken, canned ham, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, mushrooms, artichokes, olives, red peppers (dried or canned) and sun dried tomatoes, and dried mushrooms, so that we have meat and vegetables when out of fresh stuff. Pastas and pizzas are good with these items and are surprisingly good even without any cheese. Cheeses besides cheddar are basically unavailable so I like to load up on these (especially parmesan and Romano) and salamis. I like to stockup on ready to eat meals for passages. It helps to taste things before stcking up to avoid getting stuck with stuff you don’t like. (For example we’ve found that tomato sauce and ketchup as well as mayonnaise in New Zealand to be incredibly sweet to the point of being inedible. Peanuts in New Zealand were usually stale when we bought them there.) We try to have a lot of instant hummos, baba ghanoush and tabouleh salad mixes since they can be quickly made and are cool items in the heat of the tropics. And also canned (tinned) crab, shrimp, mussels, sardines, salmon and clams which are great centerpieces for cool, hearty salads. Whenever we can get tortillas, we stock up on them since they usually last a long time and make for lots of quick meals. We make sure we have lots of just add water pancake mix, cream of wheat and oatmeal since it is handy for breakfasts when we’re out of almost everything. We carry a bit of smoked salmon from home. We also buy a bunch of flavor packets like Thai,Indian and Chinese seasoning for easily prepared meals. Instant mashed potatoes, canned stir fry vegetables, dehydrated vegetables, spaghetti and sauce are other favorites. UHT box style juice concentrate, canned fruit, several long life breads and crackers are other staple items. We buy a number of instant soup mixes in packets since they are light and stow well and can be enhanced with fresh items to make a more hearty meal. Chinese instant noodle dishes are handy for quick meals.

Specialty items we stock up on are pine nuts, olive paste, often used herbs like oregano, cilantro/coriander, Thyme, Basil, cayenne, minced ginger and garlic in jars, anchovy paste for a few examples. We like to have lots of nuts on board for recipes and snacking and availability is unreliable. Dried fruit is also nice to have in quantity for recipes and snacking and is often hard to find, but does not last longer than 9 months. We stock up on beef and fish jerky for snacking.

Good duty free ports were Mexico, Rarotonga, New Zealand, and Vanuatu, as well as Hong Kong and various places in Japan.

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Passage Meals

For passages, we often make ready to eat food in advance, like bread, a bacon cheese quiche, a pot pie, chili or dahl that we can enjoy the first day or two (we keep it in the cool oven, using the oven much like a breadbox or keep it in the pressure cooker and reheat.) Instant foods like mashed potatoes, bean flakes are quick and easy to make as well as filling as a meal base. Rice is a staple on passage. Precooked pasta, which you can make or buy, is handy when you want pasta to avoid sloshing hot water under way. We always have beef jerky and fish jerky on hand to munch on. We also make sure we have lots of canned meals at the ready. We found the packaged meals we could buy in French influenced areas, while expensive, to be delicious, especially the cassoulet.

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Miscelleneous tips for the galley

  • People sometimes microwave flour and any baking mixes to minimize the possibility of bugs growing for longer life storage. Bay leaves or peppers in flour are rumored to chase away bugs.
  • Can openers bought in the U.S. may not work well on international cans. We often had to use our Swiss Army knife to open certain kinds of cans.
  • Pressure cookers are handy to use underway because they feature a locking lid. They can reduce cooking time to a third of the original cooking time. Do not overfill since they will explode if the vent gets blocked.
  • Sometimes it is difficult to find appropriate places to dispose of garbage so we end up carrying it longer that we might normally expect. Separate food scraps from the rest of the garbage and dispose overboard when appropriate. We'd suggest washing food residue out of cans, bags and plastic containers so that the garbage doesn't stink if you are unable to dispose of it for extended periods. (Simple green can remove even the odor of fish and other items from plastic containers.) Flatten boxes and crush cans for compact storage. Separate bottles, cans and paper from plastic garbage. Sometimes bottles are useful to locals for bailers or food storage containers. See if you can recycle.
  • Baskets are handy for holding vegetables and snack foods away from other items to avoid crushing.
  • In the tropics, the heat will melt rubber bands and cheap plastic bags and sometimes distort cheap plastic: Also the markings on grocery bags, bread bags, etc will rub off onto other things, so watch where they are sitting.
  • We found making ginger beer to be easy and fun, and we sure enjoyed consuming our refreshing product. Making drinks, including beer and wine can allow you to have these items without having to buy, transport and store these heavy items before you're ready to drink them. Kits are available in the U.S. and New Zealand and we met lots of cruisers making them. And it's duty free.