‘C’mon Gav, finish up those dishes, we’ve got guests.’ A heavily tattooed Nick Cantrell yells over his shoulder to his nine year-old son, Gavin, who has been zooming through the grass at Rain Lily Farm, his dog Wade at his side. Nick stands in front of a makeshift prep table set with all the makings of a feast. Behind him sits his home on four wheels, a white sprinter van, retrofitted to be the ideal man cave.
“I like to be mobile, to travel whenever I want” says Nick as he slices into potatoes with insides closer to purple geodes than common root vegetables. “My lease was up in November, I bought the van, took a long weekend to make it livable and have been building upon it ever since.”
Tonight however, is not about entering the Cantrell men and their modern covered wagon into the Austin Weird Homes show. Instead, on this summer Austin evening, we’re standing around tiki torches and a charcoal grill fit for a pig roast so Nick can impart wisdom about cooking in his kitchen – the great outdoors.
“I’ve always liked to cook, my parents were big fans of microwave meals.” Nick gives a pretend grimace “so I learned to feed myself from a early age.”
When you live in a van with a dorm style fridge and three drawers of storage space there’s no room for an extensive spice collection or a pot of every size. Nick keeps it simple – and this can apply to any cook looking to expand their outdoor repertoire.
- Two large pans
- Lids for containing heat
- Multi purpose tools : knife, spatula, tongs
- Hefty cutting board
- Meat thermometer
- Five primary spices: salt, pepper, curry powder, adobo spice mix, & Mexican seasoning.
- Animal fat: butter, tallow, bacon grease
- Propane for everyday cooking
- A head lamp for nighttime cooking
The bearded dad’s cooking fat of choice is butter “it was the only good thing that came from Paula Dean.” Olive oil is his utilitarian oil that he always keeps on hand, but he prefers a good animal fat for its added flavor.
When cooking for himself or Gavin, Nick sticks to one-pan meals, often topped with an egg. “Nothing can beat a good stainless steel pan as long as you know how to oil it up.” he notes and then adds steel wool to the list of kitchen staples.
Tonight we’re veering away from the one-pan norm and preparing a smorgasbord of grilled potatoes and carrots, banana peppers stuffed with chevré and bright cherry tomatoes. Nick admits that he never washes or peels any of his vegetables and has never gotten sick. “I’m building up my immunity” he laughs. We don’t necessarily recommend it.
The veggies are drizzled in olive oil and covered lovingly in three of Nick’s favored spices. Salt and pepper all around with added sprinklings of curry for the carrots. We take turns tossing them on the grill, losing a few smaller potatoes to the flames. Once they’ve developed a slight char, the veggies are returned to a sheet pan, set atop the grill to continue roasting.
The stars of the show are chicken leg quarters that have been brined in a thai chili brine for a day and sprinkled with a smokey sweet rub.
As he stokes the coals and rotates the quarters over the heat, Nick offers four tips for cooking chicken on a grill.
- Start your grilling journey with chicken thighs, you can’t overcook them and they will always be tender.
- Use a quality rub that you can burn to form a delicious crust on your chicken. We used a Farmhouse Kitchen smoked barbecue pork rub that worked perfectly.
- Always cook your meat bone side down first.
- If you don’t have a meat thermometer, you’ll know the chicken’s ready when the juices on the thickest part run clear.
When you live in a van you have no need for a complete china set so we feast over the grill using the sheet pan as our communal plate. Our hands and faces are sticky with chicken grease and seasoned veggies but our full stomachs take priority.
Clean up is a snap. Nick admits you don’t really have to clean the grill until the next time it’s used and the charcoals will smolder all night.
After an evening full of shared wisdom, Nick leaves us with his motto, what keeps him working on his van and cooking out in nature. “Ignorance is the father of adventure.”
I suppose we won’t know until we try.