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On the road

21 July 2022
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Much-loved Kiwi chef Nici Wickes on the magic of ‘home cooking’ on holiday. Words Nici Wickes Photos Todd Eyre

I love to travel but one of the downsides is I’m often without a kitchen for the time away. It only takes
about five days before I’m yearning to handle food again, to chop and peel and gently fry something. Airbnb and being able to stay in an actual home solves this to some extent, as does booking in for cooking classes or tours of food markets.

In Catania, Sicily, I stayed in the most delicious little apartment, three floors up in the old quarter and just
around the corner from the famous seafood market. I had such a gorgeous time that when my allocated week was up, I texted the owner to extend my stay by a few more days, then a few more, and then some more. I couldn’t tear myself away from my new-found neighbourhood and the fantasy that I was a local.

One day I attended a cooking class where it was just me and another woman, a New Zealander who lived in Australia and who was travelling Sicily on her own, living her fantasy. We swapped details and the following day I invited her over for lunch. It was such fun to be able to host while away.

Another time, in Bali, I lived for two weeks in a sweet little bamboo house on the edge of some terraced,
iridescent green rice paddies. The kitchen, in fact the whole house, was open to the element s so I could
cook as I gazed out and breathed in the sweet aroma of frangipani. I loved being able to actually shop at the early-morning food market, as opposed to just looking at the glorious array without the opportunity to utilise any of it.

Just before the pandemic struck, I travelled to Byron Bay in Australia with my niece and while we stayed at a beautiful rainforest retreat for the first few days and ate like queens, we also loved it when we moved into our own apartment by the beach and cooked for ourselves. A trip to the famed Byron Farmers Market (incredible!) meant a dinner of creamy wild mushroom pasta, and mock pina coladas made with fresh pineapple.

With world travel restricted, or at least not nearly as straightforward as it was prior to 2020, I’ve been
exploring my own country more and I recently satisfied a life-long curiosity… for campervanning!

Hiring a campervan had always been beyond my reach (waaay too pricey), but when tourism plummeted due to international travel restrictions, suddenly the poor rental companies had to set about offering attractive deals to domestic tourists (like me!) to get their fleet back on the road. The first trip I booked was for three nights and I asked my eighty-something-year-old parents if they’d like to join me. What a trip we had! It was so much fun.

We headed to where my parents had first met sixty years prior – the campground right on Mt Maunganui beach – where we soaked in hot pools, strolled in the sunset and I went for early morning plunges in the ocean.

Mum and I had agreed before we left that heat-and-eat dinners would be the go, so she produced her famed steak and kidney stew and I made a gorgeous coq au vin to take on the road with us. Both had excess gravy to have on buttery toast for brekky – a family favourite.

On that first night after I’d climbed the ladder, inelegantly, and tucked myself into the bed ‘upstairs’, with the whole camper rocking with my effort and too much hilarity from my camper mates downstairs, I went online and booked four more trips because I was already smitten with this mode of travelling.

Why? You guessed it – I get to travel with a kitchen onboard! It’s like camping but without the soggy chilly bin and tiny gas cooker to hold you back. I loved getting creative and whipping up steamed puddings in empty tomato tins, fritters galore and snappy little snacks.

In all I took six campervan trips that year, mostly alone and I loved every minute of them. Here are some recipes from my time ‘on the road’ – they work in home kitchens, too!

Budget salmon spaghetti dinner

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SERVES 1

Yum diddily yum. Easy to make with limited supplies and equipment.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 portion dried spaghetti
    (about 65–80g)
  • oil for frying
  • ½ red capsicum, sliced
  • 1 spring onion, finely chopped
  • a few florets of broccoli
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • salt and pepper
  • a squeeze of lemon juice
  • 1 x 210g can red salmon
  • a handful of basil or Italian parsley, roughly chopped

Crumb topping

  • butter for frying
  • ½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • a pinch of chilli flakes
  • salt and pepper

METHOD

  1. To make the crumb topping, in a frying pan, melt enoughn butter to fry all the ingredients to golden brown. Season and place to one side.
  2. Cook the spaghetti in well-salted boiling water until al dente, usually 12–13 minutes. Drain, keeping back ½ cup of the starchy water.
  3. Heat oil in a frying pan and sauté the capsicum, spring onion and broccoli for 3–5 minutes. Add the reserved pasta water and sour cream. Bring to a simmer letting the pan bubble until the sauce starts to thicken. Season and add a squeeze of lemon juice.
  4. Add the cooked spaghetti and the salmon. Gently toss together and heat through.
  5. Serve topped with the crumbs and chopped herbs.

Coq au vin (aka chicken in wine)

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SERVES 4-6

Can you imagine how good it was to tuck into this while sitting in our campervan overlooking the beach? We were in heaven!

INGREDIENTS

  • 20g butter
  • 3 rashers smoky bacon, diced
  • 2 medium onions, quartered
  • 2 stalks celery (leave whole)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces, excess fat removed (or use 6–8 chicken pieces)
  • 1 cup red or white wine
  • 1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 cup small brown button mushrooms
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon flour + water to thicken gravy (optional)
  • chopped parsley to garnish
  • crusty bread to serve

METHOD

  1. For this dish, use a large pot or flame/ovenproof casserole dish (Le Creuset or similar) that has a lid. Melt the butter in the pot and add the bacon, onions and celery stalks. Sauté until golden, remove and set aside.
  2. Add the oil to the pot and brown the chicken. If necessary, do this in 2–3 batches so as not to
    overcrowd the pot.
  3. Once finished browning, return the chicken, bacon, onions and celery to the pot. Add the wine and bring to a rapid simmer for 2 minutes – this allows the alcohol to cook off. Add the stock, bay leaves and thyme.
  4. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour (or cover and cook in a preheated oven at 160°C for 1½ hours), until the chicken is very tender and falling away from the bone. Halfway through the cooking, add the mushrooms and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Just before serving you may choose to thicken the gravy slightly with flour mixed with a little water. Pour it into the pot and cook for a further 10 minutes. You want a sauce that is not too thick, not too thin, just right!
  6. Serve with crusty bread.

Note: Without a doubt, this dish is better made the day before, cooled, then reheated. It just deepens
the flavours.

Travelling tamarillo steamed pudding

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MAKES TWO PUDDINGS

Steamed pudding in a campervan! After a few trips, I got used to taking some of the baking basics – flour, butter, sugar – so that I could make pancakes, dumplings and these lovely little steamed puddings, using the empty tomatoes tins that I inevitably had.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 tamarillos, flesh removed and chopped
  • a drizzle of maple syrup
  • 1½ tablespoons softened butter
  • 1½ tablespoons caster sugar
  • 1 small egg
  • ½ cup self-raising flour
  • 75–100ml milk

METHOD

  1. Grease two ramekins, teacups or tin cans. Line the bottoms with a square of baking paper. Place the chopped fruit and a drizzle of maple syrup in the base of each.
  2. In a small bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy-ish. Whisk in the egg and stir in the flour with a few splashes of milk to combine. The mixture should be a dropping consistency.
  3. Spoon the pudding batter over the fruit, allowing room for the pudding to rise. Cover with baking paper and then a layer of foil, and tie firmly.
  4. Place in a saucepan with 5cm of water. Cover and simmer for 20–30 minutes. Turn out and eat!

Note: If tamarillos aren’t in season, use another soft-fleshed fruit such as peaches, feijoas or berries. Even a few tablespoons of jam or golden syrup will do the trick!

Extract, recipes and photos from A Quiet Kitchen by Nici Wickes, published by Bateman Books, $45

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