Van Life

Cooking & Cleaning in a Van: Kitchen Basics

By on July 24, 2016

I think that the main thinking of many people we’ve met on the road is that living in a van means eating sandwich stuffs and cold food. It’s funny how many times, when we showed our van, starting from the kitchen and the fridge, they went ‘Wow!’ in surprise.

Living in a van does not mean that you have to sacrifice your nice meals and recipes. It’s simply a matter of getting creative, and, of course, being able to at least cook a little.

There’s only one thing missing in our van: an oven. Yep, there’s just no space for it. We really miss some dishes we love, like lasagna or casseroles, which we’re not able to do in the van. We haven’t completely gone without. Sometimes when we’re visiting friends, we took over their kitchen and prepared some amazing baked dishes.

Anyway, except for the oven, everything else is right there and ready to use. Let’s start from the beginning.

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How Does the Kitchen Work?

We have a gas stove that runs with a 3Kg ‘Campingaz’ gas bottle. We actually have 2, so we’re ready when one is empty. In visiting different European countries, we had to adopt different approaches/solutions on how and where to buy a new one. You might have to give back your empty canister for a full one.

In many of the countries, you can find them in campervan or RV specialized stores; sometimes you can find them in campgrounds or in DIY stores.  Other countries like Portugal and Spain, you can find them at a normal hardware shop.

Outside of the EU (we spent 3 months in Morocco and 3 months in Istanbul), you can find gas bottles in pretty much every corner shop. They aren’t really the same bottle, but they are the same size and luckily for us- they worked.

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In Istanbul we had to get a bit creative, and actually buy a metal saw. There was a metal ring around the top of the bottle, which make it impossible to fit.

We ended up buying a small metal saw and taking out a chunk, just enough to be perfect for use. We also bought some super glue, so when we had to exchange the empty for a new one, we glued the metal part back. Clever and funny stuffs. Ha.

Now that you’ve found a bottle for your van, take a look at these pics to see how to install it and check it works:

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How long does a 3Kg bottle last? For us, it’s usually around 3+ weeks, and we use it every day, starting from our (much needed-!) morning coffee and at least a full meal a day.

How much does it cost? In the EU, the price is around 15-20 Euros for the exchange. It’s more expensive if you’re buying a new one, around 50 Euros.

You can also find some places that will directly re-fill your bottle. It’s not actually not allowed to do it at the gas stations, but on our journey we found specialized places where they did it.

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Groceries and Such

Now that your van kitchen is functional, what do you need? Food. We want to share the way we do our groceries and manage not to waste food. It’ll keep your life easier while traveling.

First of all, the van is a confined space, so we usually buy groceries 3 times per week. We can buy fresh stuff; organize the next 3 days; and decide what we want to eat short-term.

We don’t use the fridge all day long, because it sucks heaps of battery power. But we also don’t like to open it and get blasted by the smell of rotten food (which has happened, in our early days- ew).

Buying small portions (even if the bigger ones are on sale) ensures you won’t waste any food later. Of course, we also do some basic shopping, maybe twice a month. This is when we buy the products that we use daily: olive oil; vinegar; salt; sugar; coffee; spices; and sometimes canned goods, like green beans or tomato sauce.

We also do daily groceries, depending the country we’re in. For example, in Morocco, we used to buy bread every day. Not only was it really tasty when just comes out from the oven, but there wasn’t much choice in the way of ‘things to eat.’ In France, croissants.

Generally, our advice is not to overload yourself (and the van) with too much food, especially the fresh. Keep it simple and try to plan a bit ahead. Think about what you’re in the mood to eat the next few days. And don’t forget to keep a good balance, with both health and money.

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Cleaning Your Van’s Kitchen

It’s kind of really important to clean after cooking. Wash-up stuff so you don’t have them scenting your sleep and you can actually use (in our case) the kitchen fold down as extra space. We use it to watch movies on the Mac before going to bed.

You’ll need to take a look, from time to time, at the stovetop and do an intensive clean. All the fumes, smoke and especially grease piles up in the edges, not just the surface. You can find good anti-grease products (environmentally friendly, even) for deep cleaning. If you’re not into cleaning, leaving it makes a nice flytrap. Grin.

Don’t forget to give some TLC to your fridge, at least weekly. It’s worth the short time it takes to make sure your food tastes the way it sh

A tip: throw all the food residue/cooking water (like from pasta) either into the garbage or outside. It’s not a good idea to throw them in the sink, since you can get build-up and quite a stench.

Use a specialized sink cleaner regularly and go to a place where you can get rid of the gray water. It’ll keep the gray water tank clean and keep it smelling like roses.

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Cooking Tools & Utensils

What do we actually use to cook our daily meals? Well, again it’s a matter of space- so we’ve always tried to keep only the essentials. This is actually a list of accessories we have right now in the kitchen cupboards and drawer:

1 frying pan

1 pot and detachable lid, with holes on one side (for pasta and rice draining)

1 small grill pan

1 coffee tin

1 foldable fire grill, for outdoor fires

Wooden spoons; one sharp knife; a bread knife; silverware

That’s it! That’s all we actually need in order to create some amazing home-cooked meals. We also have plates and cups (some special ones from our sponsor, Gowesty, that are pretty great- you can find them online) and some small to medium-sized Tupperware, if we want to keep leftovers for the next day or for picnics.

You should now have all you need to start being creative and going crazy in your van kitchen.

Here two recipes that we love to have once in a while on our table: Mel’s Irish Stew, great for cold and rainy days. It is good for several meals (i.e. lunch and dinner).  Armando’s including a recipe his Sicilian grandad used to cook for him, a nice pasta with fried eggplant. Dig in!

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WDN Recipes

Here two nice recipes that we do often inside Mork. One is from Armando (his Sicilian legacy) and one from Mel

Pasta with Fried Eggplant

1 round eggplant

bread crumbs

3 eggs

200 g flour

20 g of grated Parmesan cheese

1 bunch of parsley

sunflower oil for frying

salt

your favorite pasta with tomato

How to cook it?

First, cut the eggplant into slices not too thick, about 1 cm. Take out three dishes: one for flour, one beaten eggs and the last is for chopped parsley/Parmesan cheese/bread crumbs mixed well.

Take the slices of eggplant and coat it in flour, then egg and finally in the breadcrumb mix. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and when it reaches the right temperature (around 180 ° C- if you don’t have a thermometer, do the toothpick test: immerse it in oil and if there are bubbles around it, it’s the perfect temp).

Dip the coated eggplant in the oil, cooking until golden and gently turn them till golden on both sides. Place the fried eggplant on paper towels layered on a plate, salt and finally serve hot over your favorite pasta.

Irish Stew

2 Cups pork (can be loin, chops, etc.) cubed

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2-3 potatoes

2-3 tomatoes

1 onion

2-3 garlic cloves

2 carrots

1 Cup stock or broth

2-3 bay leaves

1 tsp. each of: black pepper, oregano, basil, thyme

A shot of Worcester sauce

A shot of Tabasco

Salt to taste

Fill a pot to the halfway mark with water, add the stock, add the bay leaves and get it on the boil. While it’s heating, chop up all of your veg. Carrots in ½ inch slices; potatoes cubed; tomatoes and onions chopped; and garlic diced. Once the water is bubbling, add the carrots. Then the potatoes. Keep it at a low boil (enough to cook, not enough to froth over).

Heat the oil in a pan and add the onions. Cook them halfway to transparency and add the pork, browning the outside. About 2 minutes, stirring the whole time. Add some of the garlic the last minute. Put the mixture into the pot.

Add all of the spices, the rest of the garlic, the tomatoes and stir well. Turn the heat to low, with a loose lid on. Now you can clean up, relax and let it simmer. Check on it once in a while, stirring to mix and adding water, if needed. It should be ready in about 45 minutes, though an easy test is if the potatoes are soft.

Extras: It’s a malleable stew. If you don’t like carrots, add the veg of your choice and account for cooking time, for example You can substitute bouillon cubes for the broth, or canned tomatoes for fresh. The spices are also up to you- just taste as you go.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our tips and ideas on cooking and cleaning in your van’s kitchen. What about you, are there any tips you’d add? For either cooking or cleaning? Favorite van recipes? Let us know in the comments below!

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