Gjumping on the hamster wheel and traveling across the country in a converted van sounds nice, but how do you cook when you don’t have a proper kitchen?
Enter: the Vanlife 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 free time between busy careers, they bought a van in 2018, completed renovations two years later and embarked on an adventure that saw them cross the country and even make it to the US.
Filled with more than 80 RV-friendly recipes for comforting breakfasts, quick lunches, and fireside feasts, it’s a celebration of the unexpected possibilities that modest spaces and smaller budgets can offer.
Here are just three examples.
Huevos rancheros (or ranch-style eggs as they’re known throughout Mexico and the American Southwest) was one of the first meals Hailee made for me, and I’ve been in love ever since. This is our shared on-the-go method, with scrambled eggs instead of fried eggs. The pico de gallo (recipe below) is optional here; Store-bought salsa works just as well instead. Just make sure you don’t forget the hot sauce.
200 g raw rice (any kind)
For the beans:
½ red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
½ small bunch coriander, stalks finely diced, leaves reserved for garnish
1 tomato, chopped
2 tbsp ground cumin
2 x 400g/14 oz cans black beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the rest:
4 large corn tortillas (1 per person)
A stick of butter
8 eggs, beaten with a fork and a pinch of salt
200g mature cheddar cheese, grated
Pico de gallo (recipe below) or store-bought salsa to taste
1 lime, cut into quarters
Tabasco sauce or similar hot sauce to taste
4 dollops sour cream or Greek yogurt (optional)
The first step is to prepare the rice (you can find a recipe on page 12 of our book). Keep warm in pan after cooking. While your rice is simmering, take out a second pot for the beans. Sauté the onion and garlic with a pinch of salt in the olive oil over a medium heat for about 5 minutes until translucent.
Add the coriander stalks and chopped tomato. Cook for an additional minute, then add the cumin and a splash of water and continue to stir, about 5 minutes.
Add your black beans, then add about a can of water to cover. Bring to a boil, then simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes, until sauce has reduced and thickened, stirring occasionally. Finally, mash the beans with a fork and season with salt and pepper. Reduce a little more if they are too runny.
While the beans are cooking and the rice is resting, prepare the remaining ingredients.
Take a large, dry, nonstick skillet and heat until hot. Fry your tortillas one at a time over high heat for about 30 seconds on each side, turning once. Transfer to a plate and cover with a clean tea towel to keep warm. Repeat until they are all cooked.
Finally, make your scrambled eggs. In the tortilla pan, add a stick of butter and your eggs. Keep on low heat, stir with a spatula and cook through until the egg comes together with large wrinkles but is still slightly runny. Turn off the heat to finish cooking and keep warm.
Now to assemble. Lay each tortilla flat on a plate and top with rice, beans, and some scrambled eggs. Sprinkle the shredded cheese on top and garnish with the salsa. Garnish each serving with a wedge of lime, the coriander leaves and some hot sauce. Add a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.
Pico de Gallo
3 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
½ red or white onion, finely diced
1 clove of garlic, crushed to a paste with a little salt
1 fresh chilli (any kind), finely chopped
A few sprigs of coriander, finely chopped (optional)
A pinch of salt
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
2 tbsp olive oil
Do your pico de gallo. In a small bowl, stir together the tomatoes, onion, garlic, chili, coriander (if using) and a pinch of salt, then stir in the lime zest and juice and the olive oil. Put aside.
Date night tagliatelle
This dish has become a firm favorite of ours. It’s a classic combination of smoked fish, cream and dill. Serve with plenty of ground black pepper and a glass of chilled white wine. You can find smoked trout in many farm shops, delis and fishmongers, but you can also use smoked salmon or mackerel if you prefer.
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus an extra splash
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ banana shallot or small onion, thinly sliced
250 g dried tagliatelle, spaghetti or fettuccine
50ml white wine (optional)
300 ml/10 fl oz double cream (dairy or plant-based)
½ a small bunch of dill, stalks finely chopped and leaves chopped
300g/10½ Ounces of 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)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta and add 2 teaspoons of salt.
Prepare your zucchini by slicing them in half widthwise, then slicing or peeling them into thin noodle-like strips to mimic the noodles, using either a mandolin or vegetable peeler if you have one. Put aside.
Now take out a second saucepan, put on 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 without for 5 minutes to color. Add a splash of water to the pan when it starts to color.
Meanwhile, add a drizzle of olive oil and your pasta to the pot of boiling salted water and cook al dente according to package directions.
While the pasta is finishing cooking, turn the heat of your onion and garlic back down to medium and add the white wine, if using. Reduce by half, then add the cream, otherwise add just the cream and bring to the boil. Drain the cooked pasta, reserving a cup of the pasta water.
Now add the dill (stalks and leaves), zucchini and fish flakes to the larger pot along with the cream sauce and pasta. Bring to the boil again, stir with tongs and adjust the consistency with the reserved pasta water.
Season with salt and plenty of pepper.
Divide the pasta between two bowls and garnish with a little parmesan or nutritional yeast, if you like.
Isle of Wight fish stew
One of our all-time favorites for the van, this dish has been refined for a small, one-pot kitchen. We decided to cook this on a camp stove on the Isle of Wight for a year when we couldn’t find anything open apart from a fishmonger and supermarket. Since then it has been referred to as the Isle of Wight stew. The original recipe comes from my time at The Dogs in Edinburgh and was taught to me by chef Jamie Ross, who now runs a seafood truck in Inverness. See him when you’re up there.
For the stew:
A dash of olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 onion, cut into large cubes
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 leek, washed and cut into pieces
2 carrots, washed and cut into pieces
2 stalks of celery, cut into chunks
1 tsp tomato puree
50 ml white wine
2 x 400g canned 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 cubes
500g fresh shelled mussels, de-bearded and rinsed well under cold water (discard any that won’t close when tapped vigorously)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To finish and serve:
A small handful of chopped soft herbs, such as parsley, dill, chervil, cilantro, chives
Soft white bread or baguette and butter (optional)
In a large saucepan, combine a large drizzle of olive oil with the onion, garlic, leeks, carrots, celery, and a large pinch of salt and sauté over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are gently mashed with your spoon, 20 minutes.
Add the tomato puree and cook, stirring, for another minute. Pour in the white wine and reduce by half. Next add the tomatoes, the bay leaves and 200 ml of water. Bring to the boil again, then reduce the heat, cover with a lid or plate and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Season the fish cubes generously with salt and pepper. Add the fish to the pot, cover and cook for another 5 minutes, then add all the mussels to the same pot and cover again. Shake the pan well from side to side, then let it simmer for about 5 minutes. Stir gently, making sure all the clams have opened. If necessary, cook a little longer. Turn off the heat and discard any mussels that remain closed. Fish out the bay leaves.
Finish with the chopped herbs and stir once, being careful not to break up the fish. Season 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).