Summer holidays: what to pack in your food suitcase
Organic farmer and caravanner Kate Ulman with some of her pantry staples. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
We know your type. You probably scouted the closest farmers' markets, farmgate stalls and cafes before you even thought about booking the holiday accommodation.
But whether you're pitching a tent in the great outdoors, hitting the highway in a caravan or staying in a luxurious beachside rental home, there are some food and equipment essentials that will prevent your holiday turning out like National Lampoon's Vacation.
IN A TENT
New Zealand-born Sydney chef Jared Ingersoll has enjoyed camping since he was a child and is now introducing his own boys, aged 7 and 11, to the pleasures of life under canvas. While they're young, the former owner of Waterloo's Danks Street Depot sticks to campsites with amenities nearby but he's promised his sons that next year, they'll "go bush".
"We just eat really simple. If you spend the day splashing around at the beach or in a river, when it comes time for dinner, you just want to cook it and get it down them as fast as possible."
You won't find exotic spices or truffles in Ingersoll's backpack. "If you're talking proper camping with a bag on your back and you're carrying everything in, it's got to be functional."
Ingersoll packs two knives in his backpack: a serrated bread knife and a chopping knife, along with one knife, fork and spoon for each camper.
"When I go away camping, it's not like I'm going to spend three hours braising something," says Ingersoll. He doesn't take a lid – it's just one more thing to carry.
Ingersoll uses this 24-centimetre Oigen cast-iron frying pan with a detachable handle to cook pancakes, french toast, bacon and sausages over a campfire. It's a bit weighty, he admits, but really practical. "It's awesome because you can just chuck it in the fire and it doesn't break. It also makes a really good lid for a saucepan."
Food for camping needs to be lightweight and versatile, says Ingersoll. He tries to take as much fresh stuff as he can – including a nice piece of fish or meat to eat the first night and bacon, which will be OK at ambient temperature the next day. "I try to keep it simple. You want to make sure that they're eating proper food."
Nevertheless, there are a few camping basics Ingersoll can't resist.
Sweetened condensed milk and teabags
"When I take the boys out, we always start with campfire tea."
Dehydrated peas and instant mashed potatoes
"Cook your sausages on the [frying] pan, then make an instant mash in the saucepan and chuck your peas in that so you've got sausages, mash and peas using two pots."
Robust vegetables and fruit
"I take a couple of heads of broccoli and hard fruit like apples and pears – stuff that's not going to get too squashed." says Ingersoll.
IN A CARAVAN
In 2011, Kate Ulman, partner Brendon and their three young daughters waved goodbye to their organic farm in central Victoria and hit the road for a six-month adventure in Frankie Blue, their 1970s caravan. The day they set off was the first time they'd road-tested their freshly restored home on wheels.
"We had no idea how to pack a caravan, so we drove off on our first day and stopped after an hour to have a look inside and see how it was travelling," says Ulman. "A one-kilo glass jar had fallen out and smashed and our brand new caravan was covered in flour. To this day you can still find flour in the cracks and under the lino."
Ulman, who writes the food, gardening and craft blog Foxs Lane, shares her hard-won caravanning knowledge in Vantastic: Retro Caravan Holidays in the Modern World (Hardie Grant Explore), which is packed with tips on itinerary planning, packing, crafts and children's activities.
Among her caravan kitchen basics, Ulman lists knives, forks and spoons; plates, bowls, cups and mugs; sharp knives and a bread knife; tongs, spatula and skewers; salad and mixing bowls, bottle opener; a cake tin and a pizza tray. These are some less obvious essentials.
Airtight ant-proof containers
"More important than any advice I can impart on what foodstuffs to pack is how to pack them," Ulman writes. She swears by ziplock bags and stackable lidded glass containers with removable rubber seals, available at department stores.
Old-school jaffle iron
"All leftovers chucked into toasted sandwiches aren't a snack any more. They're a meal."
"We had this whole conversation before we left about giving up coffee [while we were away]," says Ulman. "Then the last day before we left we realised we had a little corner of the caravan free, so we bolted the coffee machine and the grinder to the caravan and took it along. It was the best thing we did, although I think if we went now we'd just take a stovetop espresso maker."
After planning their itinerary, they mail-ordered coffee and had it delivered to post offices enroute.
"The one rule when you're going camping or caravanning is to pre-make your first night's meal at home," advises Ulman. "I usually just make a lasagne and all you have to do is heat it up."
Caravan pantry basics include sugar, pasta, canned fruit and tomatoes, spices such as black pepper, paprika, cumin and cinnamon, olive oil, vinegar and nuts.
They packed loads of honey but had to surrender it at the border. Check Quarantine Domestic, quarantinedomestic.gov.au, for what you're allowed to carry – quarantine laws aim to prevent pests, diseases and weeds being spread from one part of Australia to another.
Buying fresh produce in some parts of Australia is tricky, Ulman found. "We'd drive completely out of our way to go to a farm that was open."
Google and Twitter became essential tools. They'd drive into a town and send out a message on Twitter seeking local knowledge: "Hello Gisborne, where's the best coffee? Where can you buy bananas? #WhereCanIBuy".
Ulman packed loads of citrus fruit for their travels. "We eat lemons in everything."
Dried and tinned legumes
Beans, lentils and chickpeas are caravanning staples. Tinned brown lentils mixed with onion, garlic, herbs and canned tomatoes become bolognaise sauce.
"Flour was a big one for us because we tried to make our own bread, flatbread, cakes and cookies along the way to save money," says Ulman. A dough made with a cup of flour and a cup of yoghurt, rolled out paper-thin, could be fashioned into gozleme, stuffed with haloumi, spinach and herbs. Thicker and it could become calzone. They also made yeast-based pizza dough, one of the family's favourite meals on the road.
IN A HOLIDAY HOUSE
In winter, modern-day hunter-gatherer Rohan Anderson can often be found hunting deer, sleeping in a swag and cooking over an open fire. But come summer, the blogger and author of Whole Larder Love (Viking, $30) heads to the coast with his partner and four girls to holiday in a caravan firmly parked at Apollo Bay.
The summer break gives the family a chance to swim, fish and forage. "We have a bit of an adventure. Or rather, I drag the kids along on a bit of a food adventure."
Strictly speaking, it's not a house, but because he's in a fixed spot, Anderson has a kitchen, ready access to fresh supplies from the local farmers' market, and can bring cooking equipment too heavy for diehard campers.
Hand-held knife sharpener
Anderson always packs at least one sharp knife for chopping vegetables. But more important is his Victorinox hand-held sharpener. "If you've got that and you lose your knife, you can always go to an op-shop and buy an old knife and put a really good edge on it. They're about $30 and super-easy to use. You just put it in your glovebox and it doesn't matter what caravan park or holiday house you go to and how crap the knives are, if take that, it will save you big time."
Two-litre enamel pot
Even during a summer heatwave, Anderson hauls out his heavy Le Creuset pot. "While you're having a swim at the beach, there's a slow-cooking dish bubbling away and by the time you get back, you've got a nice little dish," he says. "You can also do a risotto or a soup in it."
Cast-iron frypan "that isn't non-stick"
Anderson cooks eggs, simmers beans or passata, fries fish and makes stew in his trusty old frypan. "My grandfather gave that frypan to Mum and when I moved out of home, Mum gave it to me. I never really thought much of it; in fact, for many years it sat in the bottom of the cupboard because I used fancy ones, but now it's one of my prized kitchen possessions."
Before setting off for the beach, Anderson raids his vegetable garden in central Victoria for zucchini, tomatoes and whatever else is ready. The inveterate DIY-er also packs staples such as home-dried beans and his own passato.
Every autumn, Anderson makes a big batch of tomato passata, enough to last the year, which he stores in beer bottles. It's a weekly staple he uses in soups, stews and pasta sauces.
Fresh and smoked chillies (pimenton)
Anderson eats chillies with almost everything, including freshly caught fish. "A sprinkle of pimenton, a squeeze of lemon and some fresh chilli is a nice way to eat fish."
Home-cured chorizo is an Anderson staple. "You can make a lot of stuff with a cured sausage, from really basic ingredients. Cook down some onions for about 20 minutes, chuck some chorizo in there and some garlic and passata and you've got a nice little pasta sauce. Then if you go down to the beach and get some mussels and put some mussels in that sauce, it's delicious."
By Kate Ulman
Pizza is fun to make and one of those rare meals that every member of the family loves, says Kate Ulman. "We like to chop up loads of toppings and let the kids create their own: olives, mushrooms, broccoli or cauliflower florets, peas, beans, diced tomato, capsicum, pineapple, garlic, onion, potato, asparagus, zucchini (courgette), artichokes, meat, jalapenos, chilli, spinach, fennel, coriander, parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, sage, pine nuts, feta, mozzarella or pesto."
2 teaspoons active dried yeast
250ml (1 cup) lukewarm water
500g (3 ⅓ cups) plain flour, plus extra for kneading
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
chopped fresh vegetables
freshly picked herbs
1. Preheat the oven to 240C (475F/Gas 8).
2. To make the pizza dough, combine the yeast and water in a large bowl and set aside for 5 minutes until the yeast activates. Add 250g (1 ⅔ cups) of the flour and mix well. Add the oil, salt and remaining flour and stir until a sticky but workable dough forms.
3. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface. Dust your hands with flour and knead until soft and elastic for about 5 minutes.
4. Push the dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a tea towel. Set aside in a warm place to rise. It should take about 1 hour to double in size.
5. Divide the dough into four or five even-sized portions. Place a ball of dough in the middle of a lightly oiled tray and stretch it evenly to fit the tray.
6. Cover the base with tomato paste and layer over your favourite topping ingredients and grated cheese. Bake your pizzas in the oven for about 10 minutes each, or until the topping is cooked and the cheese has melted. You can further test the readiness by sliding a spatula under the pizza and checking it has browned.
Makes 5 medium or 4 large pizza bases
From Vantastic by Kate Ulman, Hardie Grant Explore, $29.95.