Culinary Adventures

As we prepare for a new year, it’s a great time to formulate a plan for culinary adventures. Flight cancellations, staff shortages, and everchanging risk assessments may keep many of us home off-and-on in 2022. Culinary adventures are a great way to counter the monotony that comes with isolation.

For me, exploring new tastes seems like a natural progression of adapting to the past two years. I’m already experiencing changes in what appeals. The clothes I bought just prior to the pandemic suddenly feel wrong. They haven’t changed. Styles haven’t changed that much. But I have changed. That sometimes means changes in meal choices too.

Not only have my preferences shifted, much has changed: the flow of my workday, the price of takeout, and the availability of food favorites. Together these create the perfect environment for exploring something new.

What does a culinary adventure look like?

It will be different for everyone. And that’s the great part! It can be whatever you want it to be. Here are a few possibilities:

A Trip Around the World – Prepare favorite dishes from many countries.

  • This can be a great family activity. Decide how often you’ll prepare one of these meals (once a week, once a month…) and put it on everyone’s calendar.
  • Get a laminated world map and a dry erase marker. Draw a path across the continents, choosing specific countries along the way. Pick enough for 6 months or a year at your chosen interval.
  • Have the kids research the chosen locations. Use this research to determine what dish or dishes you’d like to prepare.
  • Locate recipes and gather the ingredients.
  • Prepare and serve the dish(es).
  • Include the history you’ve learned about your chosen meal in dinnertime conversation.
  • Have a scoring system so you can compare favorites later.

One Pot or Pan Meals – Challenge yourself, or your household, to use leftovers to create a one pot meal each week.

If you are already in the habit of doing this, change things up by buying new spice blends and trying unusual combinations. The Flavor Bible can be a great tool to guide your choices.

You can make this a more specific challenge by creating only soups, only salads, or only sandwiches.

Pasta Pairing – Prepare pasta with many different sauces and toppings.

  • Change up the pasta itself by making it yourself or choose some made from unusual ingredients or in interesting shapes.
  • Explore no sauce, red sauce, cream sauce, cheese sauce, mushroom sauce, etc.
  • Use a variety of meat and/or vegetables in combination with each of the sauces. Try combos you’ve never tried before. A search of restaurant menus or online recipes can help spark ideas.

Featured Ingredient – Choose a specific ingredient and build a dish or menu around it.

This can be something simple that you always eat made or served in new, creative ways. We get in such a habit of cooking things in the same manner, a few simple changes can brighten up the menu.

  • Consider turning peanuts into Pad Thai or peanut butter into Satay Sauce.
  • Stuff red bell peppers with spaghetti and meatballs.
  • Serve cheese all day in ways you don’t normally serve it – baked into a pastry for breakfast, as soup for lunch, in cheesy baked rice for dinner, and in a blintz for dessert.
  • Use chocolate for something other than dessert. Make it part of your appetizers by dipping strawberries in it or adding it to bacon wrapped dates. Make it part of your entrée by making a mole sauce or dusting your steak with cocoa.

Change Your Environment.

Perhaps you don’t even need to change the food to change its impact. Experiment with the environment instead.

  • Serve the very same dish but change the background music. Next time, change the tablecloth or the china. Serve it again outside on paper plates. Add fresh flowers. Change the lighting. Make the room hotter or colder. Then try different combinations of all of these.
  • Make notes after each meal to determine the environmental factors that create the best experience for each person in the family. Ambiance will affect some more than others. This can be a fun experiment for learning about each other.

Any culinary adventure can be tailored to fit your family and the choices are limitless.

Creating culinary adventures can be fun. It can be a great focus for family time. And it can help break the monotony when staying at home.

Creative Connecting

As Omicron looms, we may need creative connecting for Christmas. Some of us had a chance to reconnect with friends and family this year as COVID numbers diminished and vaccinations promised protection. Others were planning reunions this week. But in many areas, experts are now advising the cancellation of in-person gatherings.

Last year, my family set up Zoom calls for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Without access to vaccines, we all agreed that was the safest way to share the holidays. We scheduled around that plan and while it was different, it didn’t feel like any bigger adjustment than those we’d been making most of 2020. This year, we’ve been caught in an environment that is swiftly changing…again.

Keeping elderly, medically fragile, under 5, and other high risk family members safe may mean canceling travel and indoor dinners last minute. It may mean limiting indoor gatherings to short events with high-quality masks that are never removed. As things change daily, it can help to have some creative connecting ideas ready.

Pick-Up Progressive Porch Dinner

Our weather forecast predicts 70-degree temps on Christmas day. That means we can move dinner outdoors. But if some are not comfortable even removing their mask outside, there’s the option of a Pick-Up Progressive Porch Dinner.

This works great when everyone lives close together. If your family events get canceled, get the neighbors together to participate.

For a progressive dinner, assign appetizers to one household, entrée to the second, vegetables to the next two, bread to another, and dessert to one or two. Package portions individually and place them on the porch with a ribbon and nametag. If you were planning to use paper place cards, they’ll easily convert to nametags.

Each household travels from porch to porch collecting portions of dinner to be put together at home. Presents can be collected at the same time. Video calls will allow everyone to eat together.

Another option is to have a single stop at a host’s porch to pick up dinner and/or presents.

Santa Visit

This is a great option when you have teenage children who can drive. Have the kids decorate your vehicle then let them drive around delivering food and gifts to the rest of the family.

Include a gift of connection for each person – a list of qualities you admire, your favorite memory with that person, a family recipe, an old photograph, or trip memorabilia with the story attached. These personal touches are great conversation starters for a video call. If you live far apart, many of these gifts of connection can be emailed, texted, or posted.

Light Gazing Parade

Get each household to decorate their cars. Meet at a specified place and then follow each other on a predetermined route to see the best Christmas light displays. Enjoy hot chocolate, eggnog, and Christmas cookies along the way.

Online Competition

For years, we played Trivial Pursuit and Boggle at Christmas. If your family loves competition, playing online games is an option for enjoying time together when apart.

You can easily find scavenger hunts, BINGO, Jeopardy, Pictionary, and Scattergories. There are even online escape rooms, murder mysteries, and charades as well as card games and jigsaw puzzles.

Genealogy Exploration

If any of you have submitted DNA to a website, it can be fun to see how many relatives you can identify. Be prepared, second cousins are just as confusing online as they are in person.

My son and I play this game off and on. The exploration often brings up unexpected family memories that are fun to share.

This week may end up looking a lot different than you had hoped. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to connect, it just means you may need some creative connecting.

Hopefully, these ideas will help!

Happy holidays!

Here We Go Again!

Soda shops are expanding – here we go again! There’s a part of me that wants to laugh at the trend of soda shops that sell “dirty” soda and any reporter who fails to recognize this isn’t exactly a new idea. After all, I grew up on cherry Dr. Pepper and vanilla Coke.

I guess it’s new to call soda with syrup or fruit added to it dirty. And maybe that increases the appeal, not that you have to increase the appeal of a treat during the holiday season. Most of us allow ourselves an inordinate number of sweets this time of year.

While the appeal of soda escapes me at this point, I do understand the draw of pebble ice and drinking something other than water. And I understand the comfort of walking into an intimate setting with a refreshingly limited menu. Soda shops appeal in the same way as Starbucks – a fact recognized by Kevin Auernig, an owner of Sodalicious.

After a couple of decades of declining soda sales and removal of many vending machines from schools, it seemed like we might be refining our tastes in a healthier direction. But that’s only if you overlook sweetened, flavored coffee drinks. The 50% increase in Starbucks cold beverage sales since 2013 could be filling the gap.

I love exciting and new. And I love innovative ways of mixing and matching flavors. I just feel disheartened by the frequency with which we choose sugar and artificial flavors over naturally sweet, naturally flavored fruit. Wave after wave after wave, we opt for the newest treat filled with sugar and sodium.

The processed food industry is powerful. Food subsidies often exclude fresh items. We are fighting a huge battle to create healthier eaters. Like anything worthwhile, this will take time, energy, and perseverance as well as beating back trend after trend.

A return to better eating boundaries can be a good start:

Order from restaurants less often (other than family-style items) and have the whole family eat the same thing for each at home meal to make custom meals a treat rather than an expectation. This sets the stage for introducing new foods rather than catering to existing preferences.

Reduce or eliminate boxed cereal, breakfast bars, and frozen breakfast items to help curb the consumption of flavor enhancers and sugar.

Choose unsweetened, unflavored yogurt and add fresh fruit, dried fruit, or nuts to make yogurt snacks healthier.

Limit treats to make them more special and less a way of life.

Experimenting with food can help the journey along:

Grow a vegetable in a pot to take some of the mystery out of fresh food.

Explore a single food prepared in multiple ways to expand knowledge and preferences.

Do flavor experiments that are fun for the whole family – pair bananas and strawberries, salt and chocolate, raisins and peanut butter, carrots and hummus, cranberries and oranges – to learn who likes what. Blindfold each other and see who can identify the most foods by taste or smell. Take pictures of each other eating a lemon or hot pepper and post them on a bravery wall.

All of this may sound like a lot of trouble, but it will pay off in the long run with better health. That’s a trend that’s worth repeating.

Kitchen Conservation

Living in an RV automatically leads to kitchen conservation. When you have a limited amount of water, waste storage, and heat sources, you can’t take anything for granted. Usage and replenishment take center stage.

When I live in my regular home, I have no idea how much water I use, how many weeks of food are in the pantry, or how high my gas bill will be until I receive it. I am lucky. I have the luxury of not worrying about those things.

Now that Cooking2Thrive is on a road trip, I’m living in an RV. That’s a whole different ballgame. I know exactly how much water I use. I can easily gauge with a quick glance how many days of food I have. And I know how often I must empty my waste tanks.

I’m learning how to anticipate the lead time needed to replenish supplies without having to create new storage areas in seats and leg spaces. And I recognize how little laundry I can generate and groceries I need when I’m thoughtful.

That’s the key. When you have less space, you have to be more thoughtful about every choice.

While I’m not limited to my two-burner propane cooktop and microwave, to keep in the mindset, it’s sometimes fun to plan meals as if I am. Small amounts, fewer pots, and simple prep are principles to guide the planning.

For example, single serving microwavable brown rice makes more sense in this environment than a bag. Frozen vegetables are fine but must be used right away because I don’t have a freezer. One pot dishes containing protein, vegetables, and starch are winners every time. They allow me to conserve dishwater and can be stored in a single container.

I currently have a container of ham, potatoes, and asparagus in my refrigerator. These flavors pair well together seasoned with just salt, pepper, and garlic powder. To keep the prep simple, I buy ham that’s already diced. Potatoes can be microwaved until almost done, then easily peeled and diced. And asparagus can be steamed in a skillet or the microwave, then chopped. I combine all three in a microwave-safe storage container so I can reheat and eat for several meals. 

For even less waste, I can leave the peeling on the potatoes. Or I can make this a pantry generated meal by using canned, diced potatoes, and canned asparagus.

My RV pantry always contains salt, pepper, garlic powder, and olive oil spray; canisters of coffee and almonds mixed with raisins; coconut milk; single serving peanut butter, gluten-free instant oatmeal, microwavable brown rice, gluten-free pretzels or crackers, canned black beans, canned potatoes, and a canned green vegetable. There’s usually a sweet potato or potato in the cabinet, and some kind of fresh fruit and plain unsweetened yogurt in the refrigerator.

When there’s room, I add a jar of salsa or my favorite jam to the pantry selections. I also like having a stash of mini Kind bars handy. Single serve containers of mandarin oranges, olives, and condiments can be useful. The goal is to keep it as simple as possible while having enough to throw a tasty meal together in a pinch.

Last week, I ate brown rice and black beans plus mandarin oranges for dinner on a night my original plan was not workable. The remaining beans and rice became a side dish when groceries arrived.

Once a meal is finished, I wipe down all of the dishes so no crumbs, bits, or film remain on the surface. This means I can conserve soap and water when I wash them. When it’s just me eating two to three meals, I can wash dishes in 32 – 48 oz of water per day. I’d call that decent conservation.

I find it makes the most sense to buy salads from restaurants. All of the ingredients are there in a single container and they’re already clean. That means the only waste is the container in which they arrive (and sometimes that is reusable). Most entrée salads will last several meals when used as a side salad.

If I were preparing salad in the RV myself, I’d use triple washed spinach as the base and most likely include raisins and almonds from the pantry in the toppings. The spinach can be easily wilted to eat alone or added to an entrée if I get tired of salad.

Using portable cotton hypoallergenic washcloths creates some waste, but means less laundry and fewer wet things cluttering my space. I use these to wash dishes, prevent coffee grounds from going down the drain, and to wash my face. I’ve also used them to wipe down countertops and dust TVs.

Right now, I’m drinking coffee I rewarmed from yesterday’s batch. I’d like a little more, but I’m considering whether it’s better to conserve water and time by drinking a cup once I arrive at the office. Conservation will most likely win out. It usually does when living in 100 sq ft.

Will I carry any of my new kitchen conservation habits home?

I can’t really predict whether they’ll stick, but I’ve added a whole level of awareness that I believe will serve me well in many environments. That’s a real benefit of shaking things up. Your point-of-view changes with each increase in knowledge.

Kitchen conservation and simplicity increasingly seem intertwined and I love both.