Beans, Umami, and Crunch: Tips for Eating Well Underway

Passages that last more than a week are the pinnacle of long-distance sailing. Some of the worst, scariest times can occur during a passage and these times can go on for days. Some of the most sublimely beautiful and peaceful days also belong to passages. These days and weeks without sight of land are really WHY we go sailing on Phoenix. We love those days away from any made-up demands where we only have reality, right here, right now to respond to.

Night falls mid-oceanBut that doesn’t mean we are willing to compromise on our food during these passages. Yes, in squalls or storms it can be all a sailor can do to keep the boat safe and stuff calories in the easiest way possible, but those days are really rare for most of us. Lin Pardey (Storm Tactics Handbook) calculates 30 hours a year of stormy weather when sailing all year, so that might be a dinner or two a year that have to be hastily made and more hastily consumed. Otherwise we have no excuses for not eating well underway.

What is eating well about? I think a tasty, nutritious meal feeds us body and soul. I think it tells us life is worth living. I think it celebrates our bodies and thanks them for what they do for us. I think we feel appreciated when we are fed a good meal, even if, maybe especially if we did the cooking. A good dinner gives a focal point for the day. For a couple sailing alone together it may be the most dependable time of the day when both are awake. If I’m in the most beautiful place in the world – and mid-ocean is that to me – why mar it by consuming dusty calories that were put in a box or a can in some factory? In a reverse from Anna Karenina we can say that “all happy home-cooked meals are very different in themselves; unhappy prepared meals are all-too-much alike”.

Not to mention that I’m more likely to yearn for empty calories when I don’t have a tasty meal to look forward to.

The Problem of Cooking Underway

I get a new angle on cooking while sailing to windward the first few days.

Myth: “It’s too hard to make good meals at sea”.

This is what we tell ourselves because the process of cooking on passages and the ingredients we have available have limitations that we are not used to from our land lives. But, I tell myself back, every location has “limitations” if you’re trying to cook the same old way. If you’re enjoying where you are those limitations are opportunities. Does the chef transported to Thailand complain she can’t get cheese? Or does she revel in the vegetables and flavorings that are available? What do we have at sea that can make cooking exciting and eating enjoyable?

First, for foods that cannot be kept at sea there are substitutions we can make – the trick is to know which ones leave us with full flavor and which, generally through over-processing, cheat us of that. Second, we can take full advantage of the ingredients that do make sense at sea: the foods that last in ship-board conditions and the ingredients we can produce at sea. We will make a virtue of necessity; we will revel in the foods that make sense at sea. Third, it’s just sensible to simplify processes when ever possible – fewer steps, fewer prep bowls. I’ve found that frequently the spices can all be mixed together and added at once. One-bowl meals are fabulous at sea and there are great recipes from all over the world.

The lessons we learn on passages are just as valuable at anchor. We will have more choices, we can get more fresh foods, we will have easier conditions for cooking, but the basic palette of ingredients can and should be quite similar so that we don’t have two pantries – one for underway and one for staying put. Life at anchor should be one of extending and amplifying what we cook underway.

Substitutions for Eating Well Underway

You may have refrigeration on passage, or you may not. Certainly a freezer and / or refrigerator, should you choose to use the power, will give you more choices. But even imagining unlimited power usage, you are unlikely to have room for three or four weeks of fresh and frozen foods that you might use at home. There just isn’t room in the fridge on most boats. So by assuming no refrigeration you can create a basic set of meals and it will be “natural” to spruce these up with fresh meats or tender veggies while you have them underway, just as it is when at anchor near stores.

Foods that are hard to keep without refrigeration and their natural substitutes:

  • lettuce –> cabbage; sprouts that you grow onboard
  • zucchini –> winter squash such as butternut
  • milk –> coconut milk (powdered milk or canned / UHT milk are also possible to get closer to milk taste, but these are not very tasty choices)
  • butter –> for cooking: ghee, coconut oil, olive oil; for spreads: mustard, hummus, earth balance coconut or other flavor spreads (decant to jar in warm weather as they tend to liquify)
  • sour cream –> yogurt that you make on-board or crema
  • meat proteins –> beans, tofu, fish you catch, eggs
  • cheese –> hummus, vegan cheeses you make (nutritional yeast and cashews), hard cheeses (which last a little better than softer cheeses)

sproutsFresh ingredients that are long lasting and “easy” to have access to include:

  • cabbage
  • onions, garlic, ginger
  • sweet potatoes and potatoes
  • carrots and celery
  • beets, winter squash
  • eggs (buy fresh, unrefrigerated if possible; turn over carton each day)

Long-life products that still have flavor:

  • canned corn, peas, string beans, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste
  • canned butter, coconut milk
  • canned fruit in juice not sugar water
  • beans – canned or dried
  • tofu – boxed is not too bad – it is “made” right in the box
  • grains of all kinds

Replacing Meats and Dairy

Nothing is going to replace steak, or a juicy hamburger, or a char-grilled chicken, or a hunk of Brie. However many of the meals we make with meat we enjoy because of the depth of flavor that meat adds. By emphasizing “deep flavor” we get much of the enjoyment of meat without the storage hassles. Canned meat can replace it, but generally I find this a poor substitute. The flavor of canned meat is empty and dead. It is over-processed, cooked until the flavor is gone.

Beans and soy (tofu) are, protein-wise, a good substitute for meats, but on their own lack the full flavor of meat so can be disappointing for those used to a meat diet. However the way we prepare these foods, the additional ingredients we use, can deepen the flavor and provide a most satisfying (and probably more nutritious) meal.

Likewise with milk products. Evaporated milk, powdered milk, and uht milk are highly processed and have flavors that we can get used to but are not fresh tasting.  I find coconut milk a much livelier taste and have used it successfully in every dish except coffee and tea. Canned butter is pretty fresh tasting, far better than powdered butters or butter substitutes. One exception I’ve found are the Earth Balance line of “spreads”, although they may be difficult to get out of the US. Their coconut spread is particularly tasty and if stored in a jar (it does tend to liquify at tropical temps) stores adequately, too.

The trick with cooking with full flavor, I believe, is to pay attention to the fifth flavor (besides the better-known salt, sweet, bitter, and sour) called umami. The typical American / European diet includes meats and cheeses which provide this depth of flavor, but how do we get it when we substitute with beans and soy? Here are some ingredients that are very high in umami and all of which are relatively easy to keep on board:

  • Tomato paste in a tube lasts well and adds umami flavortomatoes (canned)
  • tomato paste (a high-quality tomato paste in a tube lasts well without fridge)
  • anchovies (canned)
  • Worcestershire sauce (add to soups, sauces for rich flavor)
  • Dried Mushrooms are easy to store and add umami flavorparmesan (block, oiled, wrapped in wax paper and then in tin foil and keep as cool as possible)
  • mushrooms (can get wonderful varieties dried that retain their flavor, try an Asian market or bulk dried mushrooms)
  • fish sauce
  • soy sauce or tamari
  • marmite
  • Orrington Farms or Better Than Bouillon brands of paste style bouillon are highly recommended for flavorbouillon
  • dashi, miso, kombu (kelp)

Some of the range of bean-based dishes that replace the deep flavor of meat include dal (from India), curries (from Asia or India), African stews and soups, miso soups, and our own black bean soup and chili. Beans are eaten all over the world so there are tons of recipes. I don’t say they mimic meat, but I do think they give us a similar depth of taste and comfort level.

Spicing to Maximize Flavor and Variety

Are you in a rut with your favorite herbs and spices: cinnamon, oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme? The world is full of cuisines and to borrow from their flavors is to introduce another dimension to your cooking. And best of all – spices don’t take up much room (although related condiments and sauces can eat up cabinet space!). Most of us have brought in curry, chili, cayenne, paprika and peppers, but there are so many more. Here are a few of my favorites that are slightly less well-known but still easy to find:

India and Middle Eastern: cumin, coriander, hing (Asafoetida), garam masala, curry, turmeric, curry leaves, ginger

Nigella SeedsMiddle Eastern: nigella seeds, mint

Ethiopian: paprika, fenugreek, chili, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cayenne, cardamom, nigella, basil

Chinese: five-spice, star anise, garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, sesame seeds

Thai: tamarind, fish sauce, thai basil, Galangal, lemon grass

Caribbean: nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger, garlic, peppers, coconut, molasses, turmeric

And chili sauces, though not exactly spices do spice up your meals with distinctive regional flavors: adobo, sriracha, harissa, Sambal oelek to name just a few. Adobo comes in cans and the others survive quite well without refrigeration.

Citrus juices also give an out-sized bang for the buck. Lemon juice figures heavily in middle-eastern and mediterranean dishes, and lime in Caribbean, but experiment with both.

Don’t be afraid to try recipes that use these ingredients before you leave – and if your local grocery store doesn’t have them try Amazon or WorldSpice.com or a dozen others. If you like the flavors, stock it for sailing!

Condiments for Variety and Crunch

Another simple way to add flavor or crunch or visual punch, all of which help our meals excite the palate, is our choice of condiments. We all use ketchup, mustard, mayo, but raise the bar with spicy Indian ketchup, really good mustards, or cremas instead of mayo. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Roasted pumpkin seeds dusted with salt and cayenne
  • Peanuts and raisins and citrus, especially for curries
  • Chutney, Hummus or Cashew Crema for sandwiches and wraps
  • Sprouts on almost anything
  • Celery or fennel root, while they last, provide welcome crunch and bursts of flavor
  • Flavored yogurts (cumin, peppers, cinnamon, honey etc)
  • Side snacks – nuts, crackers, tortillas, biscuits all add enjoyment

Eating Well For Health and Happiness

You went voyaging to live better, so why compromise on your body’s fuel and the most social thing you do each day, every day? Choose foods that keep well and are good for you, cook them with delicious flavors, and try something new from time to time. And then when you just want to heat up soup out of can, maybe add some Worcestershire sauce for umami, and enjoy that simplicity too.

Share your thoughts