The unsteady art of cooking at sea

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A happy Pete cooking in kind, calm seas.

Imagine you are in your kitchen preparing a nice little Spaghetti a la Bolognese. You have finely chopped the onions and are softening them off in butter while preparing the celery, carrots and garlic to go in to make your mirepoix.

Just as you are transferring the daintily chopped carrots to the pan, your whole kitchen lurches violently sideways and down sending you and the carrots flying across the room. You gather yourself, and what you can of the carrots, up from the floor and are just giving them a quick rinse to wash off any nasties when another violent lurch sends you falling forwards into the sink, winding you nicely as the carrots once again escape your grip.

Imagine this keeps happening again, and again, and again and you begin to get a good idea of what it can be like trying to cook at sea. It is cooking while being trapped on the world’s worst rollercoaster.

This presents a unique set of challenges which at times have less to do with producing perfect al dente pasta and more to do with just producing something edible without major injury or upset. This, of course, is assuming the sea and wind are not feeling affable.

There are those other times when a gentle sway while chopping and frying is all that is needed to maintain balance but they cannot be depended upon so, with this in mind, here is some friendly advice on cooking at sea:

1) Keep it simple

You are not going to be producing cheese soufflés or roasts with all the trimmings on passage. Sorry. Not in our galley anyway! Wave goodbye to baking and roasting.

Your recipe choices are now limited by the fact you are cooking on an oven which is little more than a gas camping stove on a gimble, with a grill if you are lucky. Frying, grilling and boiling are your new culinary best friends.

Go for one or two pot dishes which enable you to use up whatever bizarre ingredients you have lying around and still taste good – stews, soups, cassoulets, pastas, frittatas, salads and a special take on ratatouille that I like to call ‘vegetable smush’ – the latter works with everything, pasta, bread, fried eggs, meat in any form. Remember, you will be cooking while the floor beneath you is in constant motion and the fewer implements you use the less you have to wash up, which can also be a pain in the arse on a boat and wastes precious water.

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‘Vegetable smush’ with pork medallions marinated in olive oil and chinese five spice then griddled.

2) Think outside the box – or inside the cupboard, as it were

Due to limitations on how much fresh produce you can sensibly take on passage, and how long it will last before being despatched rotting to the depths, you’ll need to get a little creative with what unusual delicacies you have stashed in tins and jars in your cupboards. And of course, work with the local foods available in your location – let these guide your choice of meals.

Forget prescriptive recipes and enjoy ad lib cooking. And if in doubt fall back on some old favourites – those key ingredients that just make everything taste good – passata, pesto, pancetta, tinned tuna, sundried tomatoes, olives, garlic, grated hard cheese etc etc.

In a crusade to use up what was in our fridge, we recently discovered that if you fry mortadella until it goes golden and crispy, it is absolutely delicious. Raw, for me, less so. Or, fry Iberico or serrano ham and you get a very thin version of bacon. Yippee!

Tinned mixed veg can be used to make a super simple, comforting broth on passage if you have some decent veg or chicken stock cubes, with a base of fried onions and garlic.

One of my boat favourites is ‘special eggs’ for breakfast – just fry up some onions until golden, then add whatever other bits and pieces you wish – could be chopped peppers, pancetta, ham, courgette, spinach and any herbs and spices you wish to add into the mix – fry with a lid until all cooked through, then whisk up some eggs, pour them over the lot and scramble them with all the assorted ingredients. Just two eggs suddenly becomes a feast for two, and a healthy one with all that veg.

3) Love your tins and jars

Tinned and jarred goods get a bad rep nowadays in our obsession with fresh produce as the only route to health but, used cleverly to supplement other ingredients, tinned, marinated and pickled foods can bring a dull meal to life and requires little or no preparation.

Stock up on tinned sweetcorn, peas, mixed veg, beans, chickpeas, tuna, mackerel, marinated peppers and olives. They may not look as pretty as the fruit and veg aisle, but you’ll be glad of them later on. Embrace pickled veg of every colour and creed – provided you like vinegar, it will instantly spruce up an otherwise dull salad or sandwich and will keep for months ensuring no risk of scurvy!

4) Work out your cooking stance

When cooking at sea, before you start handling sharp knives or draining boiling water, figure out a position in the galley which has you firmly and safely wedged against the rollicking of the boat. You do not want to lose control when handling a pan of bubbling soup. Most boat’s galleys are pretty tiny so it is not difficult to find a corner or edge to lean firmly against. Whatever your preferred position, work it out and test it before the cooking commences.

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N’Tiana’s galley – where the culinary magic happens.

That is the bare basics.

Since Pete and I are both as obsessed with eating as we are with sailing we will, from now on, start peppering the blog with suggested recipes to try at sea. We like to grade them according to the sea conditions – ie at anchor / light winds and calm seas / downwind run / beating into strong breeze and so on. These boat recipes could equally work well when camper-vanning, camping, staying in a really badly equipped AirBnB or at any other time when your cooking capabilities are more limited than normal. We hope you enjoy our maritime cooking adventures.

Bite, chew, smile!

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