Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Catering for a crew

January 3-14, 2012
As Michael has already hinted, I've been away on an epic adventure in science. Over the past few months, designing a field experiment has taken up an increasing proportion of my time and mental space. I barely took a break over Christmas; slinking off to a quiet corner with my laptop for hours at a time (not nice guest-like or host-like behaviour, and I was both), heading into a deserted office for a day or two, writing list upon list upon list, and even mobilising friends to help.

It all culminated in a ten-day trip to Falls Creek with more than a dozen of my colleagues, a talented team of supervisors, co-workers, assistants, students and volunteers. And not only was I supposed to order them about the field, making observations and taking measurements: I needed to feed them.

This is what $600 worth of groceries 
(and the Moody Noodles' torsos) look like

My plan unfolded, thus:

1. Taking stock of dietary requirements. At our peak we were fourteen adults, with two pescetarians and two fully-fledged vegetarians; one gluten- and oat-avoider, one gluten- and onion-intolerant. I aimed mostly for this lowest common denominator, offering requirement-friendly adaptations on a few meals.

2. Starting with starches. On Limes & Lycopene, I recently wrote about centring my meals on fresh produce. Anxious to keep fourteen field workers full, I actually flipped my meal plan around and started with starches. Rice, polenta, and potatoes are all gluten-free; bread and pasta can be adapted occasionally.

Preparing plots

3. Following up with protein. I kept the meat minimal and optional, making sure there were tofu, lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans and/or cheese in most meals.

4. Packing in some flavour. At home Michael and I have a huge condiment collection, but I imagined it'd be much easier to rely on single-use flavour packages out of town. These ranged from home-prepared blends (lila masala and a onion-free adaptation of this taco seasoning) through packages I know and love (Maesri curry paste, gluten-free hoisin sauce, sambal oelek) to bottles I'd never usually consider buying (this red wine and garlic sauce).

On Wednesday it snowed. No new data for us.

Breakfasts and lunches were a mix of cereal and toast, fruit, sandwiches (with meaty and gluten-free options), tea, coffee and juice. I had enormous quantities of water, trail mix and jelly lollies on hand to sustain people throughout the day and a few chocolate blocks for evenings spent playing cards and Scrabble.

For dinners we ate:
  • lentil tacos (no onion, home-made seasoning, flour and corn-based tortillas)
  • pan-fried haloumi with lemon-parsley potatoes and a garden salad
  • char koay teow-inspired rice noodle stir-fry
  • risotto with mushrooms, peas and white beans
  • Thai red curry with rice and cashews
  • broccoli pesto pasta (with a separate gluten-free batch)
  • red wine lentils and sausages on polenta (with packet mix sauce, meaty and vege sausages)
  • marinated mushrooms with Jos' famous potato gratin and a garden salad
  • spiced chickpeas on rice with lime pickle and mango chutney
  • Mexi-style beans with leftover rice, baked polenta, tortillas, guacamole and more salad.
Restoring plots in the frost early on Thursday morning.

Other things that helped make it happen:
  • Michael, K & Toby generously helped me shop and transport all the non-perishables a few days before departure.
  • I bought only the first few days of fresh stuff to start with. Later-arriving team members helped out with top-ups as the week went on.
  • On most mornings, I'd take 10 minutes to scrawl down the dinner plan and set the right pantry ingredients on the bench. Usually the last one to arrive home from the field, I'd often find several people already in the kitchen chopping vegetables and selecting pots.
  • A bit of flexibility. While 80% of meals were served exactly as planned having garlic, stock cubes, canned tomatoes and cheese on hand allowed for some improvisation with the fresh stuff that needed finishing, such as Jos' potato gratin and Kate and Sacha's Mexi-bean mush.
Notice the pattern? Help, help, help. People are happy to pitch in, once given a couple of pointers. What works in the field goes double in the kitchen.

Friday was stunning, reminding us all why we volunteered to work here.


  1. Well done on the catering, sounds like it was successful even among the omnis. We really didn't help out much, love the 'Moody noodles' name :-)

    1. Thanks again K - it really did help! Fortunately most of the omnis were quite veg-friendly. :-)

  2. Ah, Andy is getting ready for another field trip and each person has to come up with & cook 4 meals. He's been in the field heaps before but always struggles to come up with ideas, so I'll give him your list and see if he's inspired by any.

    1. Send Andy a 'good luck' from me! It would be cool if he finds anything here handy. We were blessed with a large kitchen full of the usual equipment - if Andy's not he may be seeking simpler options.

  3. sounds like a huge achievement - I wish I could go on a field trip like that just for the food - I got a laugh at the moody noodles and I was amazed to see snow - you couldn't have planned for that in january!

    1. No, I certainly didn't plan for snow! It feels like a huge achievement, though today I was thinking how much more huge our friend Lisa's festival-directing achievements are each year.

  4. That is some seriously impressive planning on the cooking front and the diversity of your meals sounds great. I love those lentil tacos but my boys weren't as keen on them as me. The moody noodles nickname is hilarious and I love the photos too! :D

    1. Thanks Mel! Looks like the Moody Noodles nickname is likely to stick. :-D