We rang in a chilly New Year at McDowell Mountain Regional Park with our Yellow Pine, Idaho, pals, Jeff and Ann. We ate Tom’s Hoppin’ John around the picnic table wrapped in winter coats and blankets, toasted with champagne, then broke out our bourbon with Christmas cookies. When the alcohol no longer kept the cold at bay, at 8:30 p.m., we retreated into our respective vans. The only thing howling at midnight was the coyotes.
Looking backward, it felt like 2020 fell into a black hole of despair. We lost friends and family members to COVID. We feared for our own safety and that of everyone we love. We donated to food banks, heartbroken by the long lines of hungry people.
Our travels were severely curtailed with parks, campgrounds, museums, and historic sites closed. And we hunkered down for long stretches in Scottsdale with my sister, Nancy, and our 90-year-old mother, grateful that they remain well.
We found joy, hanging out with our son, Nate, taking short looping camping trips to southern Arizona, Utah and even up to Idaho, where Jeff and Ann installed a new bed in The Epic Van. We cooked a lot, read a lot, and put together a lot of puzzles.
On New Year’s Day, we got up with the crows, literally. They glide around McDowell Mountain Regional Park in pairs, looking for peanuts that Jeff puts out and monitoring the comings and goings of hikers, bikers, and horseback riders, all hitting the trails that head into the foothills just steps from our campsite.
Tom took off on a 10-mile New Year hike, while Jeff and Ann, volunteering at the park, manned and womanned the front kiosk, checking in campers and day users, sharing their expertise about the many mountain bike trails and the competitive track. They also ride the trails, checking for problems, picking up trash and monitoring visitors. And they cooked us delicious meals, like stuffed peppers topped with egg.
I took the slow roll, having coffee in our new bed, then unfurling my yoga mat in the sun, like a lizard, getting in an hour session (on my iPad) with a view of Four Peaks, gathering strength for 2021.
By Tom Nichols
With the Nichols family, stuffed bell peppers were one of the Big 10 recipes on our meal rotation.
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.
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.