Our kitchen isn’t like most home cooks’ kitchens. Our refrigerator is almost never stocked with fresh produce. Our oven isn’t connected to a main city gas line or an AC power cord. Our cupboards hold only a few key pots and pans, three knives, two bowls, four plates, and an inordinate amount of canned goods. Our kitchen isn’t like other kitchens because our kitchen isn’t on land; it’s on a boat. Which I guess means I should technically refer to it as a galley, but old habits die hard.
Neither my husband nor myself had ever lived on a boat before we made the decision to live on one. But as we each inched closer and closer to thirty — the age marker that seems to, at least culturally, come with the expectation of settling down — we found ourselves, somewhat inexplicably, dreaming of unsettling ourselves. We dreamed of salt-stained skin and bright blue waters and a vessel that could carry us through it all with just a little help from the wind. We read sailing blogs and sailing books. We took navigation courses, mapped out potential routes, and practiced our knot-tying skills on the legs of our living room sofa at night. Roughly two years after the initial dream began, we found ourselves living on a forty-foot sailboat, La, in a sleepy little bayou roughly sixty miles north of our hometown of New Orleans, readying our boat to cruise the Caribbean.
As a professional food blogger and photographer, I’d given a lot of thought in particular to how I was going to cook once we officially moved on board. I’d convinced myself that it would be just like cooking in a Manhattan apartment, even though I’ve never actually lived in Manhattan. And in some ways, particularly when it comes to storage and counter space, I think it probably is. But it didn’t take long, perhaps a single meal, for me to understand that boat-based cooking comes with a very specific set of rules. Don’t consume too much power; don’t consume too much potable water; don’t consume too much compressed natural gas, the difficult to find high-pressure fuel that our range runs on. Always open hatches when cooking, unless you’re fond of the hair-raising smoke detector screech, and secure all cutlery and breakables when underway. Or, better yet, have no breakables on board at all. (Try telling that to a food photographer!)
Toward the end of our stay in Louisiana, just a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to set sail and leave the brown bayou behind in search of clearer waters, we decided to take an afternoon off for a lunch date on deck. Our first, as it was, and also one of the first multipart meals I’d cook on our boat. The menu was hearty yet elegant and nothing short of being very Louisianian.
To start, crab boulettes. A cajun country staple, boulettes are similar to hushpuppies in shape and crab cakes in flavor. They’re crisp on the outside, light on the inside, and though they could easily become a main dish by serving them on top of big bowl of leafy greens, I find they make mouths water as the start of a meal. Louisianians serve boulettes stuffed with seafood — usually crawfish, fish, or crab — alongside either a rémoulade or a tartar sauce, but for our lunch, I serve them with a sauce gribiche. I enjoy the juxtaposition of this elegant, herbaceous French sauce against the deep-fried golden balls of bayou-caught crab. Plus, making it allowed me to take advantage of all the herbs growing in our galley, something I do despite my husband’s reservations — old sailor superstitions claim plants on boats are bad luck.
As I worked through the menu planning for our date, I realized quickly that if the starter is more involved, the main courses would need to be simple. Our small range top can only accommodate one large dish at a time, so things that I could make in advance and tuck into our refrigerator until we were near ready to head to the deck were going to be key. A jar of olive salad, the star of the classic New Orleans muffuletta, caught my eye.
A muffuletta is a hold-it-with-two-hands sandwich that’s well known and much loved here in Louisiana, brought by Italian immigrants to the state in the early twentieth century. I’ve been making muffulettas in various forms frequently since we moved on board the boat because the components store well and can be mixed and matched with what I have on hand, as long as I have some kind of deli meat, mild semifirm sliced cheese, and of course, the chunky, salty olive salad. To round out our menu of rich, salty dishes I planned a simple summer salad. Soft, hand-torn butter lettuce and creole tomatoes tossed in tarragon buttermilk dressing — another chance to use my on-deck plants. Creole tomatoes, characterized by the rich alluvial soil they grow in are another Louisiana specialty. They’re meaty in texture and rich in flavor, similar to the large heirloom varieties. They can be eaten straight from the vine with a simple flaked salt or tossed in with a mixture of bright greens and other summer bounty.
We might not have homemade pastas and pies in our near future, and bountiful organic farmers’ markets may be, for now, a thing of our past. But finding inspiration in a place and finding place wherever we are is what we’re after. It’s a journey that started with a simple lunch date on deck and, quite literally, will lead us wherever the wind blows.
Photos by Brooke Bass