New Zealand Day 0: Hagley Park perambulation & restaurant revelations

It has been stated and re-stated on this blog that I am not an energetic traveler. For this reason, after a red eye or overnight flight, I consider my first day in a far off locale as a recovery day. I have no goal beyond arriving in one piece and finding my lodgings, perhaps unpacking for good measure.

If I can manage to stay awake until “local bedtime” or something like it, I consider it a journey well completed.

It goes without saying that the voyage to New Zealand is a long one from almost anywhere else. This trip, in particular, found me inclined to give myself a break on “day zero.” Even DH, who usually hits the ground running* gave himself the afternoon off for mental and physical recuperation.

Our most gracious hosts at the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch let us check in early. Read my more thorough review of this well located, comfortable lodging here.

It was mid-morning when we arrived from the airport, but I wasn’t competent enough in the moment to note the precise hour. DH’s colleague was kind enough to pick us up from baggage claim. It was a quick 15 minute or so drive into town.

After dropping our bags—and taking one of those glorious post-red eye flight showers that heals body and spirit—I stretched out to rest my grumpy joints while DH did the manly provider thing and went in search of sustenance.

Without a rental car at this stage of the journey, he set out on foot. Happily, a natural foods store was our nearest grocery, and it was only a block or two away. He picked up convenience foods we could enjoy if hunger hit at odd hours due to the inevitable jetlag. Almonds, cherry tomatoes, bananas, and fizzy water topped my list.

Oh yes, and some local New Zealand wine. It was research so I could share with you, of course! DH opted for a few more exotic fruits for himself. I know there were figs because I ended up spilling them all over the floor of our eventual rental car.

We also needed to stock up on non-perishable, portable snack foods for our upcoming journey across the Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine train. Reviews warn that the cafe car on board sometimes runs out of food, though more often on the return journey from Greymouth. I’ll add a link when I eventually review that trip.

After this much refreshment, we took advantage of visiting the Southern Hemisphere in February and went for a walk in the park.

NZ trip Hagley Park sign - 1Ah, summer in February! It was a breezy but beautiful 70º F day in Christchurch, and we were staying just a few blocks from Hagley Park. As any New Englander can tell you, February usually means bundling up and shoveling snow, not short sleeves and outdoor pursuits.

Like cricket!

We did indeed spy folks playing cricket in a designated section of the park. It looked like a casual game to me, which is to say no one was wearing a spiffy white outfit. As I’m wildly unclear about the details of the game of cricket, including the usual costume, take all of this with a grain of salt.

For all I know, they were doing something else entirely, but the signs did say it was a cricket… field? Court? Ground? One of those things they were holding might have been a wicket. I’m probably the wrong source to be reporting on this particular topic.

Terminology aside, it added local color to my experience of the park.

NZ Hagley Park me walking

Summer day in Hagley Park; notice my big hat for sun protection

On what I believe was Victoria Lake, there were people sailing beautiful little toy boats. Terminology again: I suspect I’m supposed to call them “model” boats instead of toys because the skippers were older men, not children, and they were lovely ships. Probably they’re also “ships” not mere “boats,” too. Anyone know?

Again, charming, and the sort of thing I delight in seeing. I have a very soft spot for miniature models of almost anything.

Naturally, I failed to get photographs of any of this.

Luckily, DH snapped a few sunny park shots, including the one above where you can appreciate my enormous, sun-protective CoolibarBeach Hat. Its internal cord was absolutely vital to keep it on my head with the stiff breeze that kept blowing, and sun protection is a necessity in this part of the world.

Here’s my complete New Zealand summer capsule wardrobe overview.

There were loads of young people partaking in the usual sunny afternoon pastimes. Joggers, frisbee golfers, and cyclists abounded. Ladies strolled arm in arm with heads together. Fitness buffs followed a marked cardio circuit. All of this was a scene very like I would have seen on a summer day at home, but probably not in February.

It was easy to see what a central role this park has held since it was set aside as green space by Christchurch’s early settlers in 1855, though. It showed great foresight about the value of nature and open space to city dwellers, even if the park mirroring the Canterbury region overall is dominated by imported plants that better reflect European species than those native to New Zealand.

Hagley Park offered yet another sort of refuge after a devastating earthquake struck the city in 2011. Immediately adjacent to the Central Business District—much of which was cordoned off for up to 859 days! for repairs—the open space of the park made an ideal escape in the immediate aftermath of destruction, and must still figure in survivors’ minds as a place of safety should flight God forbid! become necessary again. At least one memorial to that quake was held here, as are many more joyous public events.

NZ Hagley Park bird flying away

When I was in the park, I first noticed both the abundance and variety of the birds** in New Zealand. I’m not even a casual bird-watcher, nor do I have any special skill or knowledge in that pursuit, though I did enjoy that Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson comedy, The Big Year, which made bird watching seem pretty compelling. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a couple of hours.

Many of New Zealand’s birds seemed visibly different to me. There was a bit of a tendency in shape that caught my eye, and there seemed to be a difference in movement patterns in some of them, too. I mean, I recognized some that are either imports (swans) or probable commuters (ducks and geese) from the less distant world, but there were also quite obviousothers.

NZ me with moa silhouette annotatedI think it is so cool when you can see highlighted before you the difference between Here and There as you travel. That’s at least some of what I’m hoping for when I venture far out into the world.

Christchurch itself presents rather fewer immediately obvious differences from places I’ve experienced before and elsewhere, and that’s somewhat by design. It is known as “the Most English of Cities” in New Zealand. (I may be getting that motto slightly wrong, but that’s the gist of it.)

This is a place that English people and others chose to settle and begin new lives, not a site of penal transportation, like the American and Australian colonies. I was told by DH’s hosts from the University that skilled builders and craftspeople, in particular, were encouraged and invited to come to Christchurch by leaders of the new city, and that one still sees evidence of the same tradition of excellence when getting work done on a home today.

Though the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake is still plainly visible around this small, approachable city—cranes and construction fences pop up every few blocks—the desire to re-create a certain kind of “Home” is writ large here. Christchurch is a city that celebrates its British heritage.

In spite of that pride, there’s nothing forced or Disney-esque in the implementation. As is common around New Zealand, one of the strongest themes I experienced here was that of a sensible, measured approach to making life function smoothly.

Homes and buildings appear to be built and maintained to a high standard. Public services seem to be well managed and placed thoughtfully throughout communities. The needs of travelers are seen to, with roads well marked and attractions highlighted in a clear but unobtrusive way.

Facilities*ahem* toilets, even public ones in far flung locales, are generally present where wanted and kept to a high standard of hygiene when compared to similar American ones.

DH hates to travel, but he liked New Zealand. It’s an easy place to appreciate.once you’ve recovered from the long flight.

We spied several restaurants as we meandered back to the hotel, but, in our exhaustion, were more inclined to squabble than make sensible decisions about where we wanted to eat. The glory of the internet is that menus can be found for almost everywhere, and we settled on an early dinner at Trevino’s, in large part because it didn’t require crossing the busy street out front that had increasing traffic as rush hour loomed.

Also, they offered a plain and simple steak for DH, and he declared it good.

As usual, I confronted the difficulty of ordering something I knew I’d like, or something more daring that might prove too exotic for me to actually eat. I dared to order the Moroccan Spiced Meatballs from the Small Bites menu, and they were fantastic. I added a side salad and had the perfect size meal for my appetite.

This was also when I discovered that nearly every dish served in New Zealand comes with large pats of butter. This made sense with my sliced bread at dinner, but surprised me alongside an order of nothing but chocolate cake at a roadside cafe. Is that a bit odd to anyone else?

The restaurant service we received in New Zealand tended to be friendly, competent, but not overly quick. It also seemed usual to step up to the counter to pay even in sit down mid-range restaurants with table service, but whether that was due to our mismatched sense of urgency with staff or actual policy, I’ll probably never know.

We didn’t try fine dining even once on this trip, so I can’t offer a comparison.

Food served was almost universally good to very good, especially with regard to quality of ingredients. DH found it fairly easy to order the simple, fresh foods he prefers. I had no trouble finding something interesting—but approachable to my various sensitivities and picky preferences—wherever we went.

It was common to encounter “different” spice combinations from what would typically be seen on equivalent American menus, but also easy to order a relatable dish for a finicky eater. Along the same lines, one could eat “the usual” to an American beef or chicken almost everywhere, but lamb and unknown to me species of fish were also widely available.

Menus almost always indicated items suitable for a variety of special diets. It was common, though not universal, to see Vegan, Gluten Free, and Dairy Free choices marked. Servers always knew, or were willing to find out, about common allergens and frequently avoided ingredients.

Overall, food in New Zealand reminded me most of America’s Pacific Northwest, at least in the foodie oriented and health conscious venues I’m likely to frequent. Beets are very popular these days in both places.

Specifically, I’d liken it to the farm to table ethos prevalent on the San Juan Islands off the Washington Coast where lots of stuff is fresh and local, in part because it’s sometimes easier to grow your own on an island rather than trucking boating stuff in. As with New Zealand, they’re lucky enough to boast an awesome climate for growing temperate food crops. It turns out to be much easier to “eat locally” when you live in an area of agricultural abundance.

Excellent coffee was almost universal, and I had to fight my baser nature to avoid sleepless, hyper caffeinated nights. McDonald’s ads and gas stations touted their “barista made coffee,” though I didn’t test quality in either of these to share an opinion.

nz-petrol-gas-station-espresso-barista-coffee-1.jpg

Another frequent sight in the cafes I visited was a self serve counter or tray for tap water drinkers. Unlike most other places I’ve been, this usually included small bottles or pitchers to make table side refills super convenient. Aside from discouraging the sale of wasteful disposable bottled water, and encouraging a healthy level of calorie free hydration, this is ideal for groups with a lot of water drinkers or moms with kids’ cups to refill. Constantly. Because kids can be a real pain, especially when you travel alone with them.

NZ restaurant tap water glass free availableMy father routinely asks servers in the USA to please “leave a pitcher” of ice water on our table, but sometimes gets told the restaurant doesn’t have enough extra vessels to oblige. New Zealand offered the smartest solution to this situation that I’ve ever seen: not just glasses, but pitchers for sharing, too.

Is there nothing the Kiwis can’t do better than the rest of the world?

Right, yes: allowing pedestrians to cross safely is not their forte. But, come on, no country is perfect. New Zealand just comes really close.

*i.e., hits the hotel room’s most comfortable piece of furniture with laptop humming

**Some of the birds shown here were photographed elsewhere, or by DH, but all images were captured in New Zealand. My pictures aren’t really organized enough for me to recall the difference, but I’ll try to specify if anyone is curious about any particular one. Let me know in the comments!

A digression on public toilets in New Zealand:

I actually took a fair number of photos of public toilets on this trip. Not because I’m a crazy potty pervert, but because, in New Zealand, even off the beaten path, the facilities were almost always clean, well-maintained, and appropriately suppliedwith the necessary paper, soap, etc. As a tourist, that’s something I’d like to know about a place, but it doesn’t feel very delicate to inquire.

I feel comfortable posting photos of the worst public restrooms I used in New Zealand, because they weren’t very bad at all.

There was a paper toilet roll on the floor and it didn’t offer soap. The floor had a bit of tracked in dirt because the parking area wasn’t paved, but it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for hours, not weeks. That’s it.

The primitive toilet along a trail had some rubbish on the floor, but it was mostly clean, dry looking paper. The graphics on the instructional poster suggest they get a lot of visitors from non-Western nations who use squat toilets, so perhaps that was “seat covering” paper that ladies often use when something like footprints decorate the rim? Even here, with no running water, there was hand sanitizer on offer, and the dispenser was full. The building itself was sound; insects were successfully excluded unlike most similar facilities I’ve used in the USA.

Even the public washrooms in a Christchurch Metro bus station were something I would use without being in physical pain from need. I think most American women who’ve used big city facilities will understand why I choose to comment on the fact!

Barcelona 2017: B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, Spain review

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Foodie fantasy outside the city of Barcelona

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: I’ve avoided driving in any nation except my ownokay, I’m ignoring Canada. Forgive me, neighbor to the north! But your roads are so similar to my own, and I can bring my own trusted car. It doesn’t count.

On this, my most recent trip to Europe, I faced a conundrum. Hire a rental car, or give up a much anticipated trip?

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking car Renault Espace - 1

Renault Espace, felt like the largest car in  Spain

I rented a car. I hated almost every minute of driving the lovely but oversized Renault Espace in even small cities like Vilafranca del Penedès and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, but it did provide me with the means to reach a really sublime rural experience: a mother and son private cooking class with the owner at B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona.

Background: civil unrest in Catalunya & a nervous husband

Barcelona 2017 Vilafranca Catalan flag - 1

Monument in Vilafranca with Catalan flag flying proud, NOT the national flag of Spain

My husband, whom we might politely describe as “travel averse,” was trying to dissuade me from joining him in Barcelona with DS2 at all. DH was near to canceling his own appearance at a really interesting conference. Why? The Catalan independence movement, and media depictions of dissent and violence that were widespread in the months leading up to our trip.

Back in the spring, when I found a reasonable* coach airfare to join DH on this jaunt to Spain, I immediately invited my children to come along. Shocking no one, my little guy opted to miss a week of school and join us; to my chagrin, my punk teen decided he would rather stick to his usual academic routine at home and demurred.

Though I find myself pondering whether someone could have switched DS1 at birth** for my rightful child, I do sort of understand the teenager’s desire to assert his independence by doing something—anything!—different from what his parent suggests.

Beyond the city limits: choosing an experience

So there were three of us headed to Spain in the early winter of 2017. We would be staying in the heart of Barcelona for the four nights of the conference. After that, DH booked his ticket home at the earliest possible moment. To save over $1000 each, DS2 and I needed to stay over until Saturday.

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking outside flowers

Spain flowers even in winter

Originally, I’d booked accommodations in the medieval center of Girona for the parent-child short break. Girona is about an hour north/northwest of Barcelona. Trains, while available, aren’t super convenient to that village, however. There is no city-traffic-avoiding route back to BCN Barcelona International Airport during morning rush hour without a private car. Parking in old Girona is also not known to be convenient.

While I was keen to visit this ancient town due to its beautifully preserved Jewish quarter and its being the setting for a great series of medieval mysteries, it turns out that the world has discovered Girona because Game of Thrones has filmed there. That’s a little too much pop popularity for me to visit El Call right now.

DH, fearing he would leave and then a transit strike—or worse, total civil unrest!—would leave his wife and child at the mercy of a rioting mass of Catalan separatists, wanted me to make a plan better suited to last minute changes and further removed from the politicized masses.

I booked a rental car from BCN for the morning of DH’s departure. This option provided us with freedom of movement in the face of taxi strikes or to flee more serious unrest in that unlikely event. I then found an intriguing bed and breakfast outside the city in which DS2 and I would spend our final two nights in Spain.

As an aside, I never felt unsafe in Barcelona or the surrounding region. Except possibly while negotiating the narrow, winding exit from the airport parking garage in an SUV the size of a semi, but you can’t blame that on politics.

Catalunya: experiencing hearth & home

One of the ideas I’d entertained for making the trip to Spain a pleasure for both myself and my younger son was a cooking class.

barcelona-2017-b-and-b-wine-cooking-class-mom-with-kid-e1517158098792.jpg

We (helped Marta while she) made that paella!

Yes, it’s true, any regular reader knows that I’m not typically an enthusiastic cook.

That said, I am an enthusiastic student of what makes other people—and other cultures—tick, and it is hard to place a finger on the pulse of Catalunya without discussing food. These are people who love to eat, who know how food really ought to be, and who seem to enjoy sharing all of the same.

I’d entertained the notion of this class in Barcelona, but the timing wasn’t working out quite right. Plus, if I’m honest, I would rather visit a nice, dusty history museum any day, whereas my son was hoping to stay in the hotel watching his favorite cartoons in various languages.

What did pop up when I started researching lodgings outside the city of Barcelona, but within a radius of about one hour, were farm- and winery- based experiences.

Penedès, if I’m getting this right, is the heart of the grape growing region that produces some the world’s best sparkling wines, or cava, as it’s known locally. At least one person with whom I spoke implied that champagne is basically just a French knock off of Catalan cava!

I won’t take a position in the subjective argument of “best” or the historical question of “first,” but I can tell you that it is easy for a non- aficionado to learn about and experience great sparkling wines in Penedès, even with a child in tow.

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking street sign

Signpost guides the way. Take the narrow dirt track to the right around the cluster of houses.

So I booked the B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès and hoped for the best. It had good reviews on Trip Advisor, but was mostly an unknown. I chose to use Hotels.com for booking, just in case any of it was less than legit, but, in the end, have nothing but good experiences to report from Penedès.

BandB WineandCooking Cava welcome - 1If I return, next time I will book directly with the B&B. When you do, they guarantee you the lowest room rate and give you a free bottle of cava as a welcome gift.

B&B Wine & Cooking, El Pla del Penedès

This bed and breakfast is family friendly. I’ll start there, because so many B&Bs in the USA are fussy establishments that seek to insulate their guests from such inconveniences as children and telecommunications. This is not that. Continue reading

Go camping with less commitment: 3 steps to get started without spending a fortune

Let’s say you’ve heard of this camping thing, but you haven’t tried it. Perhaps your family camped when you were young, but you didn’t take notes while your parents pitched the tent, and didn’t their stuff fill half the garage? Maybe you’re interested in the benefits of forest bathing, but you don’t have any gear.

Do you have to spend a month’s salary at REI to make a foray into the wilderness experience?

No.

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Tent

Here’s some really simple advice for taking a relatively comfortable first camping trip.

Begin with the basics:

  • Shelter,

  • sleep,

  • food.

You’ll be miserable if you miss any of these big three, but they needn’t be complicated or expensive to manage.

Find a campground that will serve your needs

Before anything else, choose the season and location where you like nature best. If you can’t get enough of hot weather, go at summer’s peak to a sunny site; if you prefer shade and moderate temperatures, aim for a wooded site early or late in the camping season.

You already know what kind of climate you prefer. Let that information inform your decisions about when and where to camp.

If you’ve never camped before, you may be surprised to learn that there exist very rustic campgrounds with almost no facilities at all. That means pit toilets or burying (or carrying out!) your own human waste, and bringing every drop of water you’ll require with you from civilization (or treating water you find on site to sterilize it.)

On the other hand, some may be equally surprised to realize that many campgrounds provide amenities like electrical power, water, and cable TV right at individual sites for compatible trailers and RVs.

It is relatively easy to find campgrounds with hot running water in the communal bath houses. Note that you may have to insert quarters every few minutes for a hot shower.

Most public and commercial campgrounds have shared (cold) water spigots and basic toilet facilities, all within an easy walk of your picnic table. Almost all sell firewood on site since this prevents the spread of woodborne insects that infest local trees. Some have a convenience store or a coffee shop.

It pays to carefully read the description of your chosen campground’s amenities. Most have a ranger or manager who will be happy to talk to you about what to expect before you make your first reservation. Make use of this free resource, because these are usually people who love camping and can’t wait to share the great outdoors with a newbie.

You don’t have to hike for miles carrying everything on your back in order to enjoy nature. That’s a great experience to try, but not one I’d recommend undertaking alone or without some practice car camping.

Car camping means driving right to your campground—and often into your own dedicated campsite—with your own vehicle hauling as much as you want of your own stuff.

Shelter

If you’ve never camped before, I’d advise looking into state campgrounds that offer rustic shelters in addition to tent sites. Some private campgrounds may have these, too, but my experience veers toward public lands.

These vary from log cabins to semi-permanent tents, but they do almost guarantee protection from sun and rain.

Don’t expect a bathroom or kitchen or any running water at your site. More often, you’re reserving a glorified tent, possibly one with rustic bunk beds. Read the site description carefully so you aren’t surprised, and expect to do your cooking outdoors and your toileting and bathing in communal facilities nearby.

You may (or may not?) be surprised to learn that reservations are made much like those for hotels or flights. These days, that means online as well as by phone. Check out Reserve America to see what’s available in your area. Some states may use their own proprietary reservation systems; if you’re interested in a particular park, find its website and follow the links.

Costs are higher to reserve a shelter instead of a nearly empty tent site with just a picnic table and a fire pit, but you will still spend much less than you would for hotel rooms. A yurt at one Oregon state campground costs $44 per night; a tent site is $21 per night. At a Vermont state park, a lean-to starts at $25 per night while a tent site is $18+.

Erecting a shelter that will stand up to wind or rain is probably the trickiest step involved in camping. Skip it entirely for your first trip, and you can get a good sense of whether you enjoy the basic experience, especially if mother nature throws any “interesting” weather your way. You also won’t have the expense—or storage issue—of a bulky tent you might not use again.

I think there’s value in learning new things, but there are others you can concentrate on right out of the gate. Properly siting a tent involves evaluating the ground, remembering a number of steps, and tying clever knots. If you’re willing to invest your time in these skills, renting a tent is an affordable option.

Sleep, don’t suffer

Some people will sleep undisturbed on the bare ground with a simple bedroll; most of us won’t!

It’s absolutely possible to bring regular bedding camping, but sleeping bags are the gold standard for a few reasons. They are compact and easy to re-roll and pack. They keep you warmer because they your body heat gets trapped within their enclosed confines. They are sold with easy to compare temperature ratings printed right on the tags giving you a vital clue as to which one best suits your trip.

Borrow, buy, or rent an appropriate sleeping bag for your climate. It is unwise to skimp on this vital piece of kit. Err on the side of a somewhat warmer (lower printed temperature rating) bag because you can unzip it if you get too warm, but getting too cold in the wilderness is a real safety threat.

The threat is less in a campground with facilities, your vehicle, and many people nearby, but it’s best to respect nature’s power from the get go. Never leave civilization unprepared for keeping yourself warm in the given climate! Maintaining your body temperature can be a matter of life or death.

This is another time to know thyself. If you tend turn off the heat at night in winter and sleep with your feet sticking out, you may want a less insulated sleeping bag. If you’re the one who puts freezing cold footsicles on your partner in July, buy a warmer one.

In addition to one sleeping bag per person, bring a sleeping pad or air mattress for everyone, too. You might be the rare soul who doesn’t feel the rocks and twigs. Go ahead and try stretching out on the ground one night, but have at least a little cushioning available in case you want it.

If you’re over forty, consider investing in a “deluxe” level of padding. Many people prefer a softer nest as their joints age.

For car camping, where bulk and weight don’t matter too much, I always include at least one extra foam pad with my camping supplies, even when we intend to use self-inflating or standard air mattresses. Air mattresses spring leaks at the most inopportune moments. Without a backup mat, I would probably choose sleeping in my car over directly on the ground. Foam mats are cheap, often less than $10. I can’t think of a single serious downside to layering an extra piece of foam beneath any and all other mattresses.

Bring at least one old blanket (or a new one that’s sturdy, thick, and washable.) Wool is the classic material; fleece is a cheaper, less allergenic modern equivalent in all ways except flame resistance. Layer it under you if the ground is too hard, over you if your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough, and fold it to cushion the picnic table bench if you get tired of rustic seating. Curl up in it while you stargaze around the fire after dark.

If you enjoy a throw blanket on the couch at home, you’ll absolutely adore it when the temps drop at night in your campsite.

Eating—and cooking and washing up—alfresco

A camp kitchen can be extraordinarily elaborate, or incredibly simple.

Chuck box deployed state with equipmentS

My camp kitchen gear, assembled over more than a decade of trial & error

For a first timer, even one who loves to cook at home, I would recommend starting with a minimal investment in specialty gear.

If you’re bringing perishable food, you will require a cooler. Hard-sided coolers keep ice longer than soft-sided. Larger coolers are more efficient than small ones. If you can buy ice locally near your campground, these concerns are less vital.

One good tip is to eat your most perishable foods at the beginning of the trip. Food poisoning will ruin any experience. If you’re unsure how to keep fresh food at a safe temperature, bring only commercially packaged, shelf-stable items. There are plenty of options.

Consider pre-packaged backpacking meals that are reconstituted with boiling water, or dead simple preparations like meat cooked directly over the campfire. Baked potatoes wrapped in foil are a great accompaniment, can be eaten right from their wrappers, and need very little clean up. All campsites I’ve visited have had at least a fire ring, and most of those also included a grate for cooking or supporting a (fire safe, such as cast iron) pot over the fire.

Remember that if you are bringing reusable dishes or utensils, you will also require a basin in which to wash them and a means of heating a large quantity of water. That’s fine, but it may not be obvious when you’re used to hot and cold running water. You should also make sure the dish soap you plan to use is biodegradable so it doesn’t damage the natural environment you’ve come to enjoy.

A brief camping trip may be the time to be less environmentally conscious and use some disposable items. I like a balance of washable items where they count (sturdy flatware and sporks, plus rigid handled mugs for hot drinks) with paper plates for eating sticky or greasy meals (going into the fire as tinder the next day.)

I’m lazy, so I try to wash dishes only once per day while camping. Carrying and heating water can be a really big chore. Don’t underestimate the effort required for this one.

On the flip side of this issue, never leave dirty dishes or food outside overnight. You’ll wake up to a huge mess made by the nocturnal creatures who enjoyed the “buffet.” Pack food and garbage away in your car overnight (or into provided receptacles if so advised by the campground.) This is both a hygiene and safety issue. It’s also harmful to wildlife.

Esbit stove in front of fire - 1

Esbit stove with folding-handle cup heating water

I wouldn’t plan more than a few hours in the wild without at least the means to boil water. My most basic method is a very inexpensive folding stove that takes small cubes of fuel ($11 on Amazon today, or $13 at REI.) This would fit in any backpack, and many pockets. I bought this and the folding-handle metal cup (~$10) before I had a family to feed, but I still use it to boil the water for my morning cup of tea if I’m the first person awake at a campsite.

There are many other small, simple backpacking and car camping stoves for sale with various learning curves, features, and downsides. I begin with the Esbit because I think it is foolproof and a bargain. I also own and like a JetBoil backpacking model (around $100) that uses fuel cans, and a Kelly “Storm” Kettle (~$90) that burns twigs and locally sourced brush. The Kelly Kettle is my favorite to use when multiple adults want hot beverages and there’s no call for a full campfire.

Taking the plunge ~ how many nights in camp?

The final consideration is how many nights to spend on your first outdoor overnight. Though I advocate moderation in most things, I would recommend at least a weekend (2 nights😉 a three day weekend (preferably not on a holiday) is even better.

Arrive relaxed on a weekday—or by midday Friday. This is much, much better than setting up camp while tired with the sun going down.

Give yourself the benefit of lots of time, energy, and daylight to prepare your first campsite. This holds even more true for families with kids!

Don’t arrive starving unless you picked up a prepared meal to go. If you plan to cook over a fire, it will need time to burn down from high flames to useful, glowing coals.

Even a simple campsite can feel like it requires a lot of setup. New equipment requires a learning curve, adding to the perceived effort.

I’ve heard this from friends, and I feel the same myself: you might as well set up camp for a week as for a weekend. It’s the same amount of work. You just bring more food.

If you manage a successful and enjoyable camping weekend, try a longer trip the next time. You’ll probably agree that the rewards for the effort feel much more substantial.

Don’t forget to invite your friends. Sitting around a campfire in great company under the stars is one of my greatest pleasures. I hope you find the same to be true for you.

Camping friends - 1

Sharing much-adapted recipes while giving credit where it is due

Since I'm a rather reluctant cook—producing meals because I or my family need to eat, not from a sense of creative purpose—I have a lopsided relationship to recipes, whether found in a cookbook or online.

Those few recipes that hit the sweet spot of "easy to prepare" yet "delicious to eat" while simultaneously "nutritious and healthful" are, almost literally, treasures. I cherish them. I wouldn't want to live without them.

If I share a recipe on this blog, it's because I find it life altering in its perfection for these needs/wants. I probably won't do this very often.

cookbooks-on-shelf-1.jpg

On the other hand, the search for appropriate recipes is a frustration to a non-cook like me who's just trying to get a meal on the table.

"Easy" and "simple" are often slapped upon a series of steps that I find arduous (lots of chopping), painful (washing lots of vegetables under cold water), disgusting (slimy hands-on handling of meat), or terrifying (flaming cooktop vs. the safety of my nicely enclosed slow cooker or oven.)*

Even seemingly more straightforward tags like "gluten free" are often attached to recipes that abound in other taboo ingredients or inclusions I can't conscientiously allow in my family's diet.

As a parent whose kids have always benefited digestively by avoiding dairy, the addition of a celiac diagnosis for another much-loved family member has compounded the difficulty of satisfying everyone without almost literally poisoning someone else.

Which is to say, I almost never find a recipe that doesn't require a little modification for my purposes. More often, recipes require a lot of changes before I can even attempt them.

All of which brings me, at long last, to my point today.

Bear with me. Really, I'm getting there.

There's a fair amount of angst amongst internet recipe creators about ownership and giving credit where credit is due.

I get it. Attribution is important. It's a laudable goal. I completely support the rights of those who create content to be acknowledged for, and compensated for, their work. I don't steal music. I only post my own mediocre photos (or my husband's much better ones) to this blog.

On the other hand, I also totally get why recipes are not protected by copyright law in the same manner as many other written works.

Here is a really nice explanation of how US copyright law applies to recipes.

A list of ingredients and the basic steps to combine them are too far removed from the tangible reality of what a recipe really is. It's like protecting the rights to a complete assembly instruction manual vs. declaring you own the act of rotating a screwdriver to drive in a screw…

When I use a recipe, it ends up looking like this after a few attempts:

recipe Waffle Gluten Free

Gluten Free Waffle frozen - 1

Resulting waffles, frozen, because I hear people like to look at pictures of food

If I find a recipe online that I'm going to try, I print it out. I'll use it "as is" if it will print on one page. If I'm using a cookbook from the library, I photocopy the required pages for a given recipe.

I need a print out to use while cooking—I've come far too close to destroying my iPad trying to skip this step and use a virtual recipe in the actual kitchen. I've tried for decades to switch to a digital recipe collection, and failed completely at every attempt. I would never subject a library book to my kitchen shenanigans.

Cookbook binder - 1

If I use a recipe and like it, or if it's going to print out on multiple pages or with multiple photos illuminating nothing confusing, I cut and paste the text into an editor.

I'm bound and determined to create a document that formats a recipe how I like to read it.

I'm very text-oriented. I only want a photo if it clarifies a step. Best example: bread dough stages.I find photos of completed dishes superfluous, not inspirational. For my use, pictures are routinely discarded.

I also strip away narrative content because it's a distraction. It might have led me to try a recipe, but I don't need to read that again. I've already been convinced to make the dish. If something seems important, I might move it to the end and add an Author's Note section.

For the past year or so, I've started appending the link to my document when I find a recipe online. It never occurred to me to do that even a few years ago. I wasn't publishing anything, and I'm not the friend people ask for culinary inspiration.

Odds are, if a recipe becomes a part of my life, I'll never want to reference the original source again. Eventually, I will have the essentials of the original recipe as text in my computer, and I will have added many notes, and adjusted many ingredients. I will have made the dish dozens of times, optimizing the process for my skills in my kitchen.

It's a tricky thing to say when the recipe stopped being "the originator's" and became "mine," but I believe that does happen eventually. How would you quantify that shift? Any change at all? 10% changed? 25%? Or in years that have passed? Or oceans and continents crossed?

If I'm this free and loose with a recipe, I can't imagine how much more innovation is introduced by serious cooks.

All of which is to say, excluding acts of outright theft perpetrated by scoundrels who copy and paste content wholesale to their own sites, I think there is room for interpretation about where your content ends and another's begins.

If I post a recipe here, I will make every attempt to accurately state its origins, but I may make mistakes. I may not remember my own source, but I might recall the story of how a dish grew to prominence in my own humble kitchen.

My personal stake in this subject is simply feeding my family nourishing food at a level of effort I can afford to undertake, and keeping track of how I did it.

Sharing a recipe represents my sincere wish to save another person a little effort, perhaps making his or her life better in that moment.

I'm curious to know how this topic resonates with others. Is there more that should be said? Am I wrong if I share a recipe whose origin I don't know?

 

*We can talk about my weird fear of the stove top some other time. My husband assumes I was burned at the stake in a former life. But, seriously, the gas stove is ON FIRE, INSIDE MY HOUSE. How can that be right? Someone should EXTINGUISH that!

Quickest whole grain breakfast cooked in a Thermos insulated jar

Breakfast? We don’t need no stinkin’ breakfast!*

Oh, wait… Yes, we do!

Breakfast Thermos cereal preppedYou’ll find many better resources for recipes and cooking all over the internet, but I have one time saving breakfast solution that I want to share.

All of the (very minimal) preparation can be done in advance. The only work you must do in the morning is boil water. For those of us who start the day with a cup of hot tea, this means zero extra time or effort at the busiest part of the day.

Remember that Thermos food jar that I recommended so strongly when I wrote a post with suggestions for packing a waste free lunch?

Here’s another use for that Thermos: a quick and easy hot cereal for a hurry-up-and-wait kind of morning.

Breakfast Thermos cereal ingredientsIn my case, there’s one day every week when I have to get up extra early and rush out the door to take my son to his violin lesson. The lesson starts at 7:45 am, and it’s 20 minutes away. Yawn!

I was getting my son up, fed, and there on time, but I was having trouble fitting in my own breakfast. This simple Thermos hot cereal solves that problem.

During the winter, I often prep several insulated jars at a time. Family members can grab one, top off with hot water from our always on (Japanese style) kettle, and eat according to his own schedule.

I also bring a thermos and containers of pre-measured ingredients when I travel. You can make this simple, filling breakfast with a hotel room kettle or coffee machine, too.

Simple steps:

I hesitate to even call this a recipe.

  1. Start with a clean, dry Thermos. (I fill multiple jars at once, on the weekend.)
  2. Add measured quantities of dry ingredients, to taste. (I’ll specify one blend shortly.)
  3. 30+ minutes before you plan to eat, fill Thermos with boiling water and stir.
  4. Cap the Thermos and take it with you on your commute.
  5. Open and eat!

The longer you wait to eat, the softer the cereal grains will become. My husband likes oatmeal cooked much longer and with more water than I do. Vary according to your tastes.

Rolled oats are edible in about 15 minutes. I prefer a 30-40 cooking time for oatmeal blends. I usually include steel cut oats, and I appreciate that they retain a firm texture at 30 minutes.

Ingredients:

Here are the specific quantities I used to make the hot cereal for my photos today. I want to stress, though, that I don’t normally bother to measure my ingredients at all. This is a forgiving recipe!

  • 50 g Oats, rolled (1/4 cup)
  • 20 g Oats, steel cut (1/8 cup)
  • 10 g Buckwheat cereal (∼1 Tbsp)
  • 10 g Coconut milk powder (1 Tbsp)
  • Brown sugar, maple sugar, salt & raisins to taste
  • 125 mL Boiling water (enough to fill the Thermos, leaving a little space to stir)

I didn’t weigh or measure my toppings, but if you really want guidance, try one spoonful each of raisins and sugar and a tiny pinch of salt.

I never measure out my boiling water. I just dispense it until the Thermos is full. I used the scale today just to provide a guideline for anyone who’s unfamiliar with cooking hot cereal from scratch.

Breakfast Thermos cereal water 125 mL

127mL of hot water topped up my Thermos jar

Some people argue that oats aren’t healthy due to high levels of phytates. This is controversial. I love oatmeal and I think the nutritional benefits they provide outweigh these risks, but I have adopted the routine of including some buckwheat grains in every bowl.

I don’t like buckwheat cereal on its own, but I don’t even notice its flavor blended in with other grains.

You can read more about how adding buckwheat might be helpful here. Sometimes, I do soak my oats overnight in an acidic liquid according to this philosophy. Frankly, however, I don’t enjoy the taste of the resulting oatmeal as much, even when I rinse it before cooking.

Barley is another grain that works well when prepared by this Thermos cooking method. I like it combined with oats in roughly equal proportions.

I missed lunch because I was busy preparing this blog post, so I took the completed Thermos full of ingredients with me to after school pick up. I ate the hot cereal about 40 minutes after preparation, and it was just the way I like it: slightly chewy, but definitely, thoroughly cooked.

You can purchase ready made steel cut oats to eat on the go. Amazon’s price for Pacific Steel-Cut Oatmeal is $2.41 per serving when you buy them by the dozen, and this product is packaging intensive.

I calculated my cost per serving using my Thermos method by finding prices for all organic and gluten free ingredients from Amazon.com. $1.31 per serving for Thermos oatmeal is probably on the high side, but I wanted to provide a cost estimate.

My absolute favorite hot cereal is steel cut oats, brought to a boil the night before then left to sit at back of the stove overnight. Re-heated in the morning, these are soft and delicious, but retain the chewy goodness of Scottish oats. Making these requires forethought, and spending a specific amount of time both the night before—and the morning of—the breakfast.

Thermos cooked hot cereal, on the other hand, tastes pretty darn good. It can be made with any whole grains you wish at an affordable price. The minimal time you spend prepping can be done as far as days before you want to eat; the only step that is time dependent is adding the hot water.

I feel strongly that some fat is essential at breakfast if I want sustained energy to get me through my morning. This is why I always include the coconut milk powder in my blend. Powdered (dairy) milk is readily available, and costs less (even for organic) on Amazon than my brand of Coconut Milk.

If you add the boiling water to your Thermos jar first thing, say, before getting dressed, you could just pour in a liquid dose of your preferred milk straight from the fridge after giving the cereal time to cook. Dairy, soy, coconut, or almond milk—add whatever you like.

A personal trainer I know likes to use chia seeds in his hot cereal. I eat chia, but I don’t like that particular crunch in my oatmeal. Try this for added protein and fiber if you like the idea.

Nuts are another great add-in option for extra nutrition, but, if you grind or chop them for this recipe, remember that they will oxidize (become rancid and unhealthy) faster once broken, so don’t cut them up too far ahead of time. If you must prep them early, consider storing your filled Thermos in the fridge until ready to use it.

Storing a prepped Thermos jar in the fridge might add to the time needed between adding boiling water and eating your cereal. I haven’t tried it. Allow extra time if you try this, and let me know the results if you do!

This recipe will work any time you can boil water, then wait half an hour to eat. Just don’t forget to pack a spoon! I keep a Light My Fire spork packed in a silicone “popsicle mold” in my car for just such occasions.

Let’s not talk about how many times I’ve found myself waiting outside the kids’ schools or activities with my meal packed, but no utensils. I’d like to retain a shred of dignity.

Bon appétit!

Breakfast Thermos cereal spoon

*Just couldn’t resist the reference. I had no idea this popularly quoted phrase from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre took its most common form on the TV show The Monkees! Did you?