Editor’s note: Corbin Shouse, our son Nate’s college roommate and now a dear friend of ours, is the guest blogger today, discussing the amazing soup he made us when he visited. He also roasted coffee and made me a cup every morning (heaven). And he invented the famous campfire-toasted peeps, which shall live in infamy. Enjoy!
By Corbin Shouse
Back in April, I had the great pleasure of dropping in to the redwood forest to see Tom and Judy, a.k.a. the New American Nomads, for a 10-day stay. I brought my little Runaway camper and set up in the “front yard” of their spacious campsite to weather the mists and rain with a couple of my favorite people in one of the most amazing places on Earth.
As Judy has already written about on this site, we had some fantastic dinners by the campfire, reminisced about life over excellent beer, and generally had a grand time in the Epic Van and around the North Coast.
Tom, ever the mobile gourmet, prepared a number of astoundingly delicious and complex meals in the small kitchen of the Roadtrek, much to my amazement. We also had bratwurst and grilled veggies from the campfire, along with the now famous Roasted Peeps with Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs.
As the amount of hospitality shown to me by the Nichols grew and grew, I wanted to offer a small token of appreciation in return, and it came to me instantly: my great grandmother’s Mexican Hat Soup.
Family lore has it that the recipe was conceived in the Depression as a means of utilizing the foodstuffs on hand, and the soup combines a variety of disparate canned ingredients into a medley of vegetables, legumes, spicy Mexican-influenced flavor, and Little Smokies sausages.
Also called Wastebasket Soup as a nod to its origins, the dish has a deeply intimate place in my childhood, occupying a recurrent space at the dinner table from my earliest memories. And it can be prepared with little effort and fanfare, making it perfect for the minimalist kitchen of the Epic Van.
We drove to the market in Arcata, and I picked up the requisite ingredients, mostly in cans, returning with them to our quiet sanctuary among the tallest trees on this planet.
Combining the ingredients in a large soup pot, we waited patiently by the fire as the soup simmered for the required one hour period. Finally, we topped it with Monterey Jack cheese and a sprinkling of tortilla chips and sat down to eat.
I must admit, it filled me with profound joy and gratitude to be eating such a cherished dish in a locale so far from my birthplace in Central Texas with people that I couldn’t imagine my life without.
Tom and Judy seemed to enjoy the soup immensely, and I felt I had done a reasonably good job in replicating the dish that my mother and grandmother made so skillfully on so many occasions. Our bellies full, we continued our wide-ranging discourse on the state of the world, and life was good in the Epic Van.
Recipe for Mexican Hat Soup
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 can Rotel tomatoes with Green Chilies
1 can chopped green chilies
1 small can Spicy V-8
2 cans pinto beans
1 can whole kernel corn
1 can small lima beans
1 small can sliced black olives
2 lbs. Oscar Meyer Little Smokies (cut in bite size pieces) – can substitute any similar sausage
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
½ teaspoon of onion powder
Salt to taste
Monterrey Jack cheese
1. Sauté onion and celery.
2. Combine all ingredients except cheese and chips and simmer for one hour.
3. Serve with chips and cheese.
They probably should make you show your passport to get into New Orleans. It’s so wonderfully unique that it should have its own national borders: The French Quarter, the music, the food, the cocktails, the streetcars, the Gulf, the swamps, the Cajun culture, all overlaid with the bittersweet sense of the fleeting nature of life, losses, survival and renewal after Hurricane Katrina, now more than a decade ago.
Our guides here were Dave and Judy Walker, longtime friends and former colleagues at The Arizona Republic, NOLA citizens since 2000, and until recently, journalists at the Times-Picayune. Dave was the television writer, former president of the national Television Critics Association, and has written for TV Guide and other outlets. Judy covered homes and gardens, then food, and has written several cookbooks, including Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans (with columnist Marcelle Bienvenu), a work of love envisioned after readers lost all their clipped recipes in the storm. Judy still writes her food column at NOLA.com and Dave has a new gig at the famed National World War II Museum. We hadn’t seen them for maybe 15 years, and were excited for the reunion.
So I love pizza. And we live in a van. And we have two pans, a pot and a frying pan. And we hardly ever “plug in” to an electrical source or run our generator, so we can’t often use our microwave/convection oven. And I have celiac disease. You might say, “Hell, just give up and eat Campbell’s Soup out of a can.” But not me. Like Matt Damon in The Martian, “I’m just going to have to science the shit out of this.” As my pal, Matt, says, you have to solve one problem, then the next, then the next.
So, first was the crust. The solution: Pre-packaged gluten-free pizza crusts the exact diameter of my frying pan. They must have made them just for me. I toast them on one side in some olive oil, then flip them over,
Next, the ingredients. The solution: Pre-cook them, so they only need to heat through.
Last, the final assembly and heating. The solution: Put a lid on the frying pan, lower the flame underneath and let sit until the crust is browned and the ingredients hot and bubbly.
I recently made two versions, one with thinly sliced potatoes, reminiscent of the one I had from a street vendor in Paris years ago (Yes, I am that sophisticated.), and another with red peppers and goat cheese, which I will put on ANYTHING. You could use pepperoni, grated mozzarella, eggplant, anything you like.
And trust me, if Matt had this on Mars, he might not have worked so hard to get home.
Gluten-free Van Pizza
Pre-packaged gluten-free pizza crusts to fit your pan
Pizza sauce (commercial or your own)
Your favorite pre-cooked ingredients
1 – Thinly sliced potatoes, sautéed in olive oil, salt and pepper until brown and crispy
2 – Diced red peppers, sautéed, and goat cheese
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in the frying pan.
Cook crust until browned on one side.
Top with ingredients.
Cover and cook until crust is toasted brown on the bottom and ingredients are hot and bubbly.
Everyone who knows us knows that Tom is the real cook in the family. But that doesn’t mean I’m a total food failure. I can put together something to eat once in awhile. And, if I do say so myself, sometimes it’s pretty good.
One of the things I’ve made in the one-pot cooking world of The Epic Van is a version of a recipe my mother always makes for the vegetarians in our family. (The garbanzo beans are my addition. You’re welcome.) I’m not sure where the original recipe came from, but I’ll call it Sweet Potato Hash. It can be scaled to feed any number. And it’s the kind of no-rules recipe I like: Put in as much of each ingredient as you like.
One of the highlights of our annual summer visits to Tom’s childhood home in Rantoul, Illinois, was the fresh-from-the-field corn, purchased from Mr. Zander’s produce stand and boiled, just three minutes, but long enough to create a sauna in the July heat and humidity of the tiny house on Englewood Drive.
The yellow and white ears were piled in a towering pyramid in the center of the table, each of us grabbing an ear, juggling to avoid burned fingers, chomping into the kernels as butter dripped down our chins and sweat gathered on our foreheads.
It really didn’t matter what else was for dinner. Corn was always the main course, and I once watched Tom eat five ears in a row.
By Tom Nichols
On our way through Hatch, N.M., in 2015, I bought some some mild-green-chili powder for myself and Jeannine Dahl, my dear mother in law and cooking partner. We’ve shared many good times in her Arizona kitchen, trading ideas on how to tweak traditional American classics. This is a mellow Southwestern twist on Mac and Cheddar, with portions reduced to accommodate our four-quart pasta pot (sauce pan) in The Epic Van.
By Tom Nichols
When Judy and I began shopping for a Class B RV, we quickly decided that openness in our “house” was more important than the capacity of our refrigerator.
We chose the Roadtrek RS Adventurous, with nearly 360-degree windows. There was another model, the CS Adventurous, that had a much larger refrigerator that stood all the way to the roof, but it eliminated some windows. We opted for light.
Six months of full-time living in The Epic Van, and our choice has been validated.
The flat beans were the biggest surprise here. They were huge, some nearly a foot long. They steamed up as a sweet side dish for our evening feast.
Other favorites: Gluten-free cinnamon rolls and Rosemary Sea Salt Focaccia from Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery. I sliced them up and stashed them in the freezer for a treat along the road. And GF pasta from Pappardelle’s. Also on board for a future dinner on the road.
We also picked up some wild Alaskan salmon, some gluteny bread for Tom, and roasted peppers that filled BAM’s car trunk with an amazing smoky aroma.
And Bam and I had some fresh coffee to ward off the rainy cold Saturday morning air.