How to Cook in a Hostel

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Dundee Backpackers in Dundee, Scotland

One of my favorite things about traveling is the food. After picking a destination, and maybe plotting out a few major points of interest, the next thing I do is search for the best restaurants, holes in the wall, and street vendors to visit.

While I love trying local specialties and grabbing meals around a new city, eating out can quickly add up and strain your travel budget. If you’re staying at a hostel, you’ve got the opportunity to cook for yourself and save your hard earned money for other things.

Through my travels, and the various trials and errors they have entailed, I’ve learned a few tricks for making the best of hostel kitchens, no matter how shabby or under stocked:

Take Stock of the Kitchen

Before you ever make a grocery list or plan a time to cook, visit the kitchen and see what you’re working with. Check out what appliances, cookware, and tools are at your disposal. I’ve seen everything from well equipped kitchens featuring several ovens and stovetops, to a hostel that only had a single hot plate. While you’re there, see if your hostel provides a “Free Food” cabinet. Many hostel goers buy too much and leave behind their leftovers. This means you can sometimes find a wealth of staples like rice, pasta, oils, vinegars, and spices for free.

Shop with the Locals

Take notice of where the locals shop. Avoid the convenience stores usually found near tourist districts because of their lack of variety and high prices. Instead visit farmers’ markets and local grocery stores to do your shopping. One of the fun things when visiting another country is seeing all the foreign (to you) foods available. Plus if you’re choosing to cook a local specialty, you’ll have no trouble finding all the ingredients.

Avoid Peak Times

Even during off seasons, hostels can be packed with fellow travelers. This means the kitchen area will likely be full during peak eating hours around lunch and dinner. If you can, try and cook a little before or after regular mealtimes. Though cooking side-by-side with other hostel-goers can be a great way to get a conversation going, you might save yourself some time (and stress) by choosing your timing wisely.

Add Some Spice to Your Life

There’s no better way to quickly improve a meal than by adding a hearty dose of spices. Here are a few simple solutions to avoid overloading your backpack with spice bottles while still creating tasty meals:

  • Base your meal choices around the spices available in your hostel’s free pantry. This can lead to some really creative recipe creation.
  • Buy one or two spice blends (cajun, Italian, lemon-pepper, etc.) to just sprinkle on each meal for a serious flavor boost. This works best if you’re traveling for a week or less, so you don’t get tired of the recurring flavors.
  • If you know you’ll always want certain spices on hand, your best bet is to pack your favorites in a travels spice container like this one.

Keep It Simple

Nobody expects you to make a luxurious five-star meal at your hostel. If that’s your thing, more power to you. But I like to stick with simple “recipes” that require little ingredients. Since I’m usually cooking for myself and Peter, and we don’t mind leftovers, most of the meals I cook makes about four servings. If you’re traveling solo, make sure you only buy how much you need for your stay. Some of my favorite simple hostel recipes include:

  • Creamy Lentil Curry: Cook red lentils in coconut milk, vegetable broth, and curry powder. Top with chopped pineapple and cilantro.
  • Shroom Pasta: Cook pasta. Sauté a chopped onion and a few handfuls of mushroom in olive oil. Toss with pasta and sprinkle with red pepper and nutritional yeast.
  • Hearty Soup: In a large pot sauté a chopped onion in olive oil. Add a can of diced tomatoes and a can of white beans. Add a chopped potato or any desired veggies you have on hand. Pour in enough vegetable broth to cover everything and simmer until veggies are tender.
  • Super Spuds: Poke a few holes in a russet potato. Microwave for 5-7 minutes, or until soft. Top with a handful of spinach and chopped green onions. Dollop on salsa and guacamole before serving.

Tex Mex Stew

My in-laws gave me the awesome birthday gift of a spice grinder. This gave me the perfect excuse to use Aldi’s whole dried guajillo chiles that I’ve been eyeing for a while now. As soon as I got that spice grinder I knew what I wanted to make, chili!

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I ground up the whole chile (minus the stem) and some cumin seeds I bought at the Asian grocery store. Nothing quite compares to the smell of freshly ground cumin.The base of fresh vegetables makes a fairly light “stew” and the mild flavor of the chile blend makes it safe for the non-spice lovers in our household. Feel free to change it up with different pepper varieties or vegetables (I bet corn would be good in this). This is a very basic dish that’s waiting for some creative additions!

Tex Mex Stew

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes (about 4 medium tomatoes)
  • 3 jalapeños, deseeded and diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 (15 oz.) cans pinto beans
  • 1 whole guajillo chile, ground
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds, ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Directions:

  1. In a large pot, bring the olive oil to medium-high heat. Add the onion, tomatoes, jalapeños, and garlic. Sauté until the onions are translucent and tender.
  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer over medium heat for 10-15 minutes for flavors to meld. Serve with a side of cornbread or crackers.

Nutrition per serving:
Calories: 247 Fat: 8.4g Saturated Fat: 1g Protein: 11g Carbohydrates: 35g Sugars: 5.5g

Outlaw Stew (Vegan MoFo #7)

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Not to be biased, but I think Robin Hood is the best Disney movie. Ever. Case closed. If you or your children haven’t seen it, please go watch it now.

I was surprised to learn a few years ago that it was one of the lowest costing Disney films ever made because they reused drawings from other Disney movies ranging from the Aristocats to Snow White. Nonetheless, it’s still an amazing movie with a play on the classic Robin Hood story, but with adorable animals.

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From the dashing Robin Hood, lumbering Little John, loyal Friar Tuck, and beautiful Maid Marrion, to the thumb sucking King John, conniving Sheriff, and sneaky Hiss — all the characters are well-rounded, the plot is hilarious, and the movie boasts an awesome soundtrack.

little johnImages property of Disney Enterprises, Inc. 

Being an outlaw is a tough life though, which means it’s no surprise Robin and Little John’s dinner consists of a simple veggie stew cooked in their woodland hide-out. For my take on it I used whatever was sitting in my veggie drawer or pantry and at the point of expiration. The stew ended up containing potatoes, onions, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, garlic, and barley. I love barley in stews because it adds a chewy texture while also thickening the broth. Delicious!

outlaw stew

Sally’s Soup (Vegan MoFo #4)

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Although Disney originally wanted some distance from it, I still consider Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas a staple Disney film. With the amazing animation, addicting soundtrack, and quirky character lineup, Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorite movies of all. Although I do have a hard time figuring out whether I should watch it around the Halloween or Christmas season… So I just don’t worry about it and watch it several times a year.

One of my favorite scenes from the film (which Youtube sadly has no clip of) is when Sally makes some frog’s breath soup laced with deadly nightshade for her “creator”, Dr. Finkelstein. The bright green soup causes him to pass out, and allows for Sally to sneak out and go looking for her love, Jack Skellington.

nightmarebfchristmassoupImage property of Disney Enterprises, Inc.

My imitation of the soup was a base of kale and russet potatoes. I sauteed a few garlic cloves and an onion, then added in veggie broth and the vegetables. I seasoned it with basil, rosemary, and thyme. After everything was thoroughly cooked, I added a splash of coconut milk and pureed it down to a smooth texture. It was a bit thinner than most soups I would normally make, but it was great paired with some crusty bread.

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