The Provisioning Fandango

By Bernadette Bernon
February 2, 2001

During our last few days in the United States, as we prepared to leave for Latin America, the subject of meals, food and provisioning began to play an even more prominent role in our daily conversations than it usually does. Every day that we had access to a town along the Florida Keys — starting with the Cuban markets at Key Biscayne and the tiny Coconut Grove, then funky Marathon, and finally the somewhat gaudy tourist hive of Key West — Douglas would set off with lists of last-minute spare parts and supplies we needed, and I would set off shopping in the local Publix and Winn Dixies with a passion never experienced before.

Photo of apples

We knew we didn't want to rely too heavily on our refrigerator, in case (read: when) it stopped working, so all the while we noodled over such weighty questions as: How much white flour is enough? Whole wheat flour? Garlic? Barley? Mosquito coils? Dried fruit? Risotto? Olive oil? Aleve? Detergent? Tapenade? Wasabi? Toothpaste? How many garbage bags? Rolls of toilet paper? Ziplocks? How many tins of tomatoes, vegetables, fruit? I reread the provisioning chapters in various cruising books, made menus and lists, multiplied and divided, and budgeted until my head was spinning.

Luckily for our pocketbook, and for the refrigeration-challenged such as we are, Douglas and I tend toward a fairly vegetarian diet, augmented by chocolate. We carry no meat and hope to feed ourselves from the sea whenever we can. But, even so, I found myself with trolley after trolley — literally hundreds of dollars — full of food in these markets. Staggering amounts of consumables, really: boxes of evaporated milk, bags of basmati rice, lentils in every color, countless boxes of Earl Grey tea, Grape Nuts, crackers, couscous, pasta, seasonings, coffee — all the staples. The taxi driver who picked me up after this mega-shopping overdose was the same fellow who'd dropped me off at the store three hours before. He couldn't believe his eyes as we filled the entire volume of his trunk, his back seat, and most of his front seat with grocery bags. Then I piled in right beside him in the front seat and put the last couple of bags on my lap. When we got back to the dock, the dear man helped me unload and deal with all the bags and helped me get them to the boat, all the while telling me about his problems with his juvenile-delinquent son. I've noticed, since Douglas and I have moved aboard and I've needed to avail myself of taxi services, that I seem to bring this kind of disclosure out in the drivers.

After bringing all this booty back to Ithaka, Douglas and I labeled each of the cans before storing them in various lockers and in the compartments under the floorboards, and then I took all the dry stores out of their original containers and double bagged them in freezer bags — both to save space and to protect them by adding bay leaves to discourage weevils. Then I had to find a home for everything onboard — a formidable task, made worse by the realization that I'd probably overcompensated with too many canned vegetables we'd never find appetizing enough to eat. Until that week, I hadn't bought a canned vegetable in probably 20 years.

As every available space on Ithaka filled up, I resorted to filling a couple of laundry baskets full of food and wedging them into the guest cabin, which we were by then calling the "gar-room" — a name coined by a dear friend of ours who'd made his garage into his office. Our gar-room was now chockablock full of gear and stuff for which we could find no other place. Meanwhile, Douglas had purchased several more plastic jerry cans – some of which we strapped to a new plank that we eye-bolted to a couple of stanchions. The rest of the new jerries we stored in the lazarettes and below — and by doing so we added 20 more gallons of diesel, 20 more gallons of fresh water, and 10 gallons of gasoline to our existing tankage of 90 gallons of fuel and 120 gallons of water.

I winced as I watched Ithaka's waterline notch up a couple of inches as we transformed her from a sleek and elegant sailing machine into a beast of burden. But I was glad to know we had extra fuel and water, especially as our watermaker, original to our 10-year-old boat, had just gone on the fritz the day before. Naturally there wasn't time to have it serviced, only enough time to buy the complicated-looking servicing kit and hope to God we'd be able to figure out how to implement it ourselves–another damnable thing to add to the always-growing To Do list.

Then, on the last of my four serious provisioning pilgrimages to the supermercado, I stocked up on all the perishables — eggs, veggies, fruit, cheeses, butters — the final precious fresh cargo that I hoped would last us a long, long while. This was a particularly significant visit to the market because, if we stopped in Cuba on the way to Central America, we had to make sure now that we would need to buy nothing while we were there (the U.S. government prohibits American citizens from spending any money in Cuba). That one important mission, at least, I felt we'd accomplished.

Finally, we were done. No, wait! One more dinghy trip for some more fish hooks, fresh olive bread, and mango bran muffins. Ok, finito. No, wait, wait! How about another loaf of that olive bread, and a few of those pecan chocolate-chip cookies for the road? And a couple more zincs. OK, that's it, let's get out of here. We have what we have. What we don't have, we do without. Period.

As far as food goes, as we learn from cruisers who have many more years of experience than we have living aboard in far-off places, I see that what becomes important on a cruising boat isn't so much what you have, it's what imaginative things you do with what you have, to keep the spice in your diet. It's also important, every one says, and now I believe it, not to buy what you don't usually eat at home. Canned corned beef? Forget it, you won't eat it, unless if you already love it. Canned carrots? Well. We've got them, but I bet we use them to trade before we ever resort to eating them ourselves. We'll see. Meanwhile, here are some tried and true recipes from some creative friends of ours, Ester Shapiro and Juan de Boyce, with whom we've sailed along the way. We hope you enjoy them as much as we have.

Mussels Cuban Style, from Ester Shapiro

Our friend Ester, who's a passionate cook with great talent and style, was born in Cuba. After the Cuban revolution 42 years ago, when Fidel Castro came to power after overthrowing President Fulgencio Batista, Ester's family emigrated to Miami. with her husband Alan West, she lives in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, where she's a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. Both she and Alan are distinguished Latin-American scholars. Beginning with her Cuban-Jewish wedding feast in Boston, for which she and her sisters prepared a feast for what seemed like hundreds of people, we've enjoyed wonderful meals from Ester's kitchen. Mussels Cuban Style, which she made at our house for Christmas one year, is my favorite.

Here's all you need:

3 pounds of mussels, soaked and washed
Olive oil 1 green pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped (more if you like garlic)
Chopped chorizo (1/2 pound fresh, or 2 ounces canned)
1 16-oz. can of tomatoes (chopped, crushed, or pureed – whatever you have)
Cuban-style seasonings: 1 bay leaf, 1 teaspoon oregano, 1 teaspoon cumin, black pepper or red pepper flakes to taste.

Coat your pot with olive oil and heat. Add chopped onions and brown slightly, then add the green peppers, then the garlic. Add chopped chorizo to this sofrito mixture, which is the basis for many Cuban dishes. Ester says that canned chorizo is more intense, "so use very little. They come in little slippery links jammed into the can. Use maybe two ounces out of the 6- or 8-ounce can. With fresh chorizo, add as much as a half a pound to the above amount." Now add the tomatoes and the Cuban-style seasonings. Then add the mussels. Serve as an appetizer along with bread, or as a main dish over rice.

Ester has two variations on this mussels theme, in case you don't have all the ingredients above: "The classic recipe for mussels in white wine, which is how I most often make them now, simply requires coating the bottom of a deep pot with olive oil, getting the bottom warm, and throwing in a generous amount of minced garlic — at the very least two cloves per pound of mussels. Immediately, because the garlic gets too brown very quickly, throw in your mussels. Add to the mussels some oregano, basil, marjoram, black pepper or red pepper, and some white wine. I serve these mussels over pasta.

"Recently, I've been favoring pan-roasted mussels, which requires a cast-iron-type pot that can get very hot and still hold your 3- to 6-pounds of mussels. Pan-roasting intensifies both the flavor of the mussels and their brine. You still get a modest amount of natural liquid released, and then you can add the herbs and some wine while they finish opening."

Some Sweet and Savory Tarts, from Juan de Boyce

Photo of Douglas and Juan with our friend Stephen Douglas (center) and Juan (right) with our friend Stephen, enjoyed a dessert-filled evening in Cleveland last fall.

Juan is an artist friend of ours with whom we've spent many warm evenings at our home in Newport, eating and talking and laughing and crying about everything from opera, to dating, to family, to jobs, to dogs, to yard sales, to theater, to — of course! — food! He's a great cook, particularly gifted in the dessert department, and for a few years our holiday feasts have included, along with his fine company, his mouth-wateringly good desserts.

Now he's living in Cleveland, Ohio, which at first was sad for us, as we missed him so much. But now that we're cruising, it's wonderful that we can visit him whenever we visit Douglas's mother, who also lives there. When we went to Cleveland last November on our farewell family tour, we went over to Juan's one evening for what we thought was going to be a casual hangout of dessert and coffee. When we arrived, we found his dining room table set with champagne glasses, the light of many candles, and four stunning desserts he'd made for us. The man has style. Here are two of my favorite sweets from that night, including some substitutions to make them easier to assemble on a boat.

Walnut Tart

Here's what you'll need for the dough:

2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature (or you can substitute Crisco or the shortening of your choice)
2 cups flour
6 ounces of cream cheese at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using your hands, thoroughly mix the three ingredients in a large bowl. Press dough into a large (10-inch) tart pan; one that has a removable bottom (or a spring-form pan) works best, but use what you have. Just make sure there's at least 1 inch of dough up the side of the pan, and that you can get the tart out after cooking. If possible, place in fridge to cool.

For the filling, you'll need:

4 eggs 1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup (You can substitute honey, molasses, or maple syrup.)
1/2 teaspoon ginger (ground, or, better yet, freshly grated)
1 cup walnut pieces

Beat eggs together with brown sugar, corn syrup, and ginger. Pour into prepared dough crust. Sprinkle walnut pieces into mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour or until the dough is a nice golden brown. Allow to cool before serving. Top with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, and prepare for an immediate angioplasty.

"This recipe is very adaptable," says Juan. "If you don't like walnuts, use pecans or almonds. Or substitute shredded coconut for the nuts altogether."

Savory Variations

Photo of walnut tart Walnut tart.

"The dough in the Walnut Tart has no sugar in it, so it can also be used to make a savory dinner specialty," says Juan. "I use it to make an Onion Tart. Just chop up 3 large onions, and brown them in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until they're translucent. Add lots of finely chopped garlic to taste, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg. While the onions are cooking, beat together 3 eggs and 1/4 cup of milk. Spread the onions into the prepared crust, and carefully pour the egg/milk mixture over them. Bake until a knife inserted in the tart comes out clean, about 60 minutes. If you like, add some cubed ham, chicken, or turkey to the onion mixture. If you don't like onion, substitute spinach–fresh if you have it, frozen and drained, or canned and drained. Sometimes I combine two large onions with spinach to make an onion/spinach tart. It's especially delicious topped with bacon bits."

Italian Plum Tart

You'll need these ingredients for the dough:

2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature (or Crisco or the shortening of your choice)
3/4 cup sugar
3 whole large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/3 cups flour

For the topping, you'll need 12 Italian plums, halved and pitted (or substitute other fruits) 1/2 cup sugar, to which you add 1 tablespoon cinnamon

Photo of blueberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees while preparing dough. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time and beat well after each addition. Add vanilla. Add dry ingredients and mix well, but do not over beat. Spread into 9- or 10-inch pan. Top with Italian plums, skin side down. Sprinkle sugar/cinnamon mixture liberally on plums and dough. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 50 minutes or until knife comes out clean. Allow to cool on rack. Sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar. Italian plums are somewhat tart, so I like to serve this tart topped with whipped cream to which I've added 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon."

"I know, you're thinking 'Italian plums! I'm on a boat and this is too complicated!'" says Juan, "but, don't worry, this recipe is very adaptable. Just substitute any fruit for the Italian plums. I've used sliced peaches, blueberries, apricots, apples, and pineapple. Use whatever is readily available. Canned fruit is fine also; just drain it first. Canned sour cherries are dynamite! If you use any of these fruits, top the tart with 1/2 cup chopped or sliced nuts (walnuts or almonds are particularly good) and about 2 tablespoons of sugar. Once I had no walnuts handy, so I used shredded coconut instead, and that gave the tart an exotic touch. No matter what fruit you use, this tart is delicious. Guten Appetit and safe sailing!"

So Jaine, that's the kind of thing I do all day. God help me when we add a language barrier.