Gliving up the rat race and traveling around the country in a renovated van sounds nice, but how do you cook when you don’t have a proper kitchen?
Enter: the Van Life Cookbook, a handy pocket-sized guide written by chef Danny Jack and his wife Hailee Kukura after they did just that. Looking for meaningful ways to spend their time off in between busy careers, they bought a van in 2018 and two years later completed renovations and set off on an adventure that’s seen them traverse the country and even make it to the US.
Filled with more than 80 campervan-friendly recipes for comforting breakfasts, quick-fix lunches and fireside feasts, it’s a celebration of the unexpected opportunities that modest spaces and smaller budgets can offer.
Here’s just three examples.
Huevos rancheros (or ranch-style eggs as they are known throughout Mexico and the US Southwest) was one of the first meals Hailee made for me and I’ve been in love ever since. This is our shared method for the road, using scrambled instead of fried eggs. The pico de gallo (recipe below) is optional here; store-bought salsa will work just as well instead. Just make sure you don’t forget the hot sauce.
200g/7oz raw rice (any type)
for the beans:
½ red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
½ small bunch of coriander, stalks finely diced, leaves saved for garnish
1 tomato, chopped
2 tbsp ground cumin
2 x 400g/14oz tins black beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
for the rest:
4 large corn tortillas (1 per person)
A knob of butter
8 eggs, whisked together with a fork and a little salt
200g/7oz mature cheddar cheese, grated
Pico de gallo (recipe below) or shop-bought salsa, to taste
1 lime, cut into quarters
Tabasco sauce or similar hot sauce, to taste
4 dollops of soured cream or Greek-style yogurt (optional)
The first step is to make the rice (there’s a recipe on page 12 of our book). Once cooked, keep it warm in the pan. While your rice is simmering, take out a second pot for the beans. Cook the onion and garlic with a pinch of salt in the olive oil over a medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add in the coriander stalks and chopped tomato. Cook for another minute, then add in the cumin and a splash of water and keep stirring for 5 minutes or so.
Add in your black beans, then add about a canful of water to cover them. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a medium heat for 20 minutes until the sauce is reduced and thickened, stirring occasionally. To finish, mash the beans a little with a fork and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce to a little more, if they’re too runny.
Prepare the rest of your ingredients while the beans are cooking and rice is resting.
Take a large, dry, non-stick frying pan and heat until hot. Cook your tortillas, one at a time, over a high heat for about 30 seconds on each side, flipping them over once. Transfer to a plate and cover with a clean tea towel to keep warm. Repeat until they’re all cooked.
Finally, make your scrambled eggs. In the tortilla pan, add in a knob of butter and your eggs. Keep over a low heat, stirring with a spatula and cooking through until the egg comes together with large folds but is still a little runny. Turn the heat off to finish cooking and keep warm.
Now to assemble. Place each tortilla flat on a plate and top with the rice, beans and some scrambled eggs. Sprinkle over the grated cheese, then top with the sauce. Garnish each portion with a wedge of lime, the coriander leaves and some hot sauce. Add a dollop of soured cream or yogurt to the side.
3 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
½ red or white onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced to a paste with a little salt
1 fresh chilli (any variety), finely chopped
A few coriander sprigs, finely chopped (optional)
A pinch of salt
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
2 tbsp olive oil
Make your pico de gallo. Stir the tomatoes, onion, garlic, chilli, coriander (if using) and a pinch of salt together in a small bowl, then stir in the lime zest and juice and the olive oil. Set aside.
date night tagliatelle
This dish has become a firm favorite of ours. It’s a classic combo of smoked fish, cream and dill. Serve with plenty of cracked black pepper and a glass of chilled white wine. You can find smoked trout in a number of farm shops, delis and fishmongers, but you could also use smoked salmon or mackerel, if you prefer.
1 tbsp olive oil, plus an extra splash
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ banana shallot or small onion, thinly sliced
250g/9oz dried tagliatelle, spaghetti or fettuccine
50ml/2fl oz white wine (optional)
300ml/10fl oz double cream (dairy or plant-based)
½ a small bunch of dill, stalks finely chopped and leaves chopped
300g/10½ oz skinless hot or cold smoked trout or salmon fillets, flaked
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast, to finish (optional)
Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta and add 2 teaspoons of salt.
Prepare your courgette by cutting it in half widthways then slicing or peeling it into thin pasta-like strips to mimic the pasta, either using a mandoline or a vegetable peeler, if available. Set aside.
Now, take out a second pot, place it over a medium heat, add your olive oil, garlic and a pinch of salt and cook for 1 minute, then add the shallot or onion and cook gently for 5 minutes without colouring. Add a splash of water to the pan if it starts to colour.
Meanwhile, add the splash of olive oil and your paste to the pot of salted boiling water and cook according to the packet instructions until al dente.
While the pasta finishes cooking, turn the heat on your onion and garlic back up to medium and add the white wine, if using. Reduce it by half, then add the cream, otherwise, just add the cream and bring to the boil. Drain the cooked pasta, saving a cupful of the pasta water.
Now, add the dill (stalks and leaves), courgette and flaked fish to the larger pot along with the cream sauce and the pasta. Bring back to a simmer, stirring with some tongs, and adjust the consistency using the reserved pasta water.
Season with salt and a generous amount of pepper.
Divide the pasta between two bowls and finish with some Parmesan or nutritional yeast, if you like.
Isle of Wight fish stew
This dish is one of our all-time favorites for the van and has been honed for a small kitchen, using only one pot. We decided to cook this on the Isle of Wight one year on a camp stove when we couldn’t find anything open except a fishmonger and a convenience store. It has been dubbed the Isle of Wight stew ever since. The original recipe hails from my time at The Dogs in Edinburgh and was taught to me by the head chef, Jamie Ross, who now runs a seafood truck in Inverness. Seek him out if you’re up that way.
for the steward:
A glug of olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 onion, cut into large says
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 leek, washed and chopped into chunks
2 carrots, washed and chopped into chunks
2 celery sticks, chopped into chunks
1 tsp tomato puree
50ml/2fl oz white wine
2 x 400g/14oz cans tomatoes
2 bay leaves
400g/14oz mixed skinless white fish fillets (ideally from a small day boat or choose the most sustainable options available), such as hake and monkfish, cut into even dice
500g/1lb 2oz fresh mussels in shell, de-bearded and rinsed well under cold water (discard any that don’t close when tapped sharply)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To finish and serve:
A small handful of chopped soft herbs, such as parsley, dill, chervil, coriander, chives
Soft white bread or baguette and butter (optional)
In a large pot, add a big glug of olive oil with the onion, garlic, leek, carrots, celery and a big pinch of salt and sweat down over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes until you can gently squish the carrots with your spoon.
Add the tomato puree and cook for another minute, stirring. Pour in the white wine and reduce by half. Next, add the tomatoes, bay leaves and 200ml/7fl oz of water. Bring back to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover with a lid or plate on top and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Season the diced fish generously with salt and pepper. Add the fish to the pot, cover and cook for another 5 minutes, then add all your mussels to the same pot and cover again. Give the pan a good shake from side to side, then simmer for 5 minutes or so. Stir through carefully and make sure the mussels have all opened up. Cook for a little longer, if needed. Turn off the heat and discard any mussels that remain closed. Fish out the bay leaves.
Finish with the chopped herbs and stir them through once, being careful not to break up the fish. Season to taste with salt and a drizzle of olive oil and enjoy with some soft white bread or baguette and butter, if you like.
‘Van Life Cookbook: Resourceful recipes for life on the road: from small spaces to the great outdoors’ by Danny Jack and Hailee Kukura (published by Pavilion Books; photography by Holly Farrier).