Who hasn’t stood under a fast food awning, mouth agape, trying to pick out the burger, fried chicken, or salad option that will destroy her sense of health and well-being the least?
There’s nothing wrong with fast fixes for hunger pangs, of course—you know your cravings best—but for me, this scenario happens too often on road trips. I am annoyed with no one more than myself when I am stuck with a flat, unsatisfying hamburger patty instead of something I made at home.
Although it’s fine to have a stash of fruit, protein bars, turkey sandwiches, and other classic road trip grub, when it comes to hiking and long drives, I’m always happy when I’ve upped my game the tiniest bit. That’s the difference between actually eating what I brought and swerving off the highway in order to hit a Friendly’s. Also, it makes it feel more worthwhile to do the advance prep and shopping when you’re tucking into something really delicious. And, of course, this way you’re more likely to eat whole, non-pre-processed foods.
One general tip: To keep food cold, I put bottles of water in the freezer the night before the trip, then press food against them either in a proper cold pack or a plastic bag. If you’re hiking, it’s nice to do the latter—less weight—and by the end of your hike, your frozen bottles should be at least partly melted, so you can use them to hydrate.
Here are some ideas to get you rolling.
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Pasta salad loaded up with bright, acidic ingredients such as olives and capers, grilled veggies and feta, or cherry tomatoes and basil is the sort of dish that just gets better as it sits. You can enjoy it at room temperature so long as you skip super-perishable ingredients like mayonnaise.
Chicken Liver Mousse with Baguette
If you haven’t yet taught yourself to love chicken livers, give the Julia Child chicken liver mousse recipe a whirl. Unscrewing the jar that contains this unctuous mix of Cognac, cream, butter, thyme, and seared chicken livers and slathering it on a bit of baguette while looking out at mountains—whether on I-10 headed west through Texas, overlooking the Catskills, or anywhere else in the world—is a beautiful thing to do for yourself. A tiny jar of the stuff is very portable.
Sometimes a trip sneaks up on you so fast that you barely have your hair combed before piling into the car, but if time is flexible, consider hand pies. Kids flip for them, adults love them, and they’re relatively tidy to eat. Portland chef Jenn Louis, in her gorgeous veggie-forward cookbook The Book of Greens, has a neat recipe for radicchio hand pies with quince paste and blue cheese, but you could also go the straightforward route: beef hand pies and peach hand pies for dessert, for example.
Close cousin to the hand pie is the empanada. You can use shortcut wrappers made of frozen puff pastry or even wontons, and there’s no need to deep-fry if you prefer to bake them. Consider, too, that you can pack them full of beans and sweet potatoes rather than meat for something a bit lighter.
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Another Louis cookbook idea is to bake a sturdy, sliceable “cake” comprising the elements of a traditional square meal: veggies, starch, and meat. They all come together in the loaf in very satisfying fashion. Picnic cake is an English tradition—Brits adore a picnic—and it’s yummy at room temperature.
Prosciutto and Butter Sandwich
High-quality prosciutto and room temperature butter on a split baguette. That’s it. Delicious. Press the whole thing together, wrap it tightly, and marvel at how good it is after an hour or two. This is a nod to the European tradition of ham and butter on bread. There’s a reason they so love it.
New Orleans fans know the city produces the very best thing to bring on an airplane: muffuletta. Specifically, the sandwich at Central Grocery, a layered extravaganza of ham, Provolone, salami, pickled veggies, and an “olive salad.” Because there’s vinegar in the mix, these ingredients—when stacked inside a round sesame loaf—marinate over the course of a couple of hours. At room temperature, marinated, there are few better foods in the world. Fortunately, you can also make your own at home.
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Very popular in Southern France, pan bagnat is a picnic and al fresco dining standby. It’s composed of a large, split loaf filled with olives, green pepper slices, anchovies or tuna, hard-cooked egg, tomato, onion, olive oil, and vinaigrette. Similar to the muffuletta, it gets better as it sits. Here’s an excellent riff on it.
Vegan Green-Pea Samosas
Samosas don’t need to be packed with meat or cheese, and they’re lovely warm or at room temperature. Consider these vegan samosas, packed with peas, cilantro, jalapeño and cayenne.
Sure, you could do PB&J, but if you have a few extra minutes, could whip up spicy peanut noodles. There are various ways to make them—some including Chinese egg noodles, and others with shortcut spaghetti—but they are packed with protein and quite satisfying. We wouldn’t recommend them for hikes, but for sitting in the passenger’s seat for an hour, swirling chilly, spicy, satisfyingly nutty noodles around a fork, these are hard to beat. Executed properly, they’re so good they might even make you forget the traffic. Almost.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.
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