The Joy of Cooking on Mars

Earlier in the mission I described a small cooking disappointment.  But in general, we eat like royalty on sMars.  Before the mission, I was particularly excited to have some intergalactic culinary adventures.  I was already a hobbyist cook, but spent as much time sitting on my couch watching The Great British Bake-Off as I did chopping, broiling and sautéing in the kitchen.  I was excited for a chance to cook from scratch regularly and without the crutch of going to the store for any extra ingredients.  There’s a certain amount of pressure I enjoy working under and knowing that we have to make do with the ingredients in the habitat was exciting to me.  We only have access to shelf stable foods, so my typical cooking style with fresh ingredients was going to need some modification.

Luckily, most freeze dried food is awesome.  Typical dried fruits like raisins are freely available on sMars, but freeze dried fruits are a whole different ball game.  Take a freeze dried strawberry slice for example.  The water is so effectively removed that you are left with a weightless red sliver bursting with the full flavor of a strawberry.  When it hits your tongue, you can feel the moisture leaving your mouth as it’s sucked into the dried strawberry sponge.  That might sound unpleasant, but it’s a sensation like eating a strawberry Cheeto.  Freeze dried veggies are similarly delicious, although I generally prefer to rehydrate them before eating.  The freeze dried cheese is probably our favorite ingredient, but freeze dried meat is more hit or miss.  The beef crumbles rehydrate back to something nearly identical to ground beef, but the roast beef chunks are more like wet dog food than I prefer.  The freeze dried salmon smells like something my pet turtle would eat when you first open the can, but once you rehydrate it, the flavor and texture are delicious.  Cooking on sMars with freeze dried ingredients takes a bit of patience, ingenuity and inspiration from Irma S. Rombauer.

I’ve spent a lot of time flipping through our worn copy of the Joy of Cooking.  Without easy access to the internet, our cookbooks are one of our most important resources on a daily basis, and it’s obvious this particular book is well loved.  Dried splatters on pages indicate what may be a particularly delicious idea.  But we can’t blindly follow the recipes in the book.  For starters, we don’t have fresh ingredients, so substitution and flexibility are key to using what we have on hand.  We are also living on the side of a volcano at around 8,000 ft elevation, so baking recipes need extra care for high altitude adjustments.  I grew up in a mountain town around 5,500 ft and am no stranger to high altitude recipes, but there can be a lot of guesswork the first time you make a new recipe with how much leavening to put in or how to adjust moisture and sugar to prevent drying or burning.

Cooking is a daily task and we generally cook dinner in pairs and eat together as an entire crew.  It’s a great way to end a long day.  Many days I will feel tired and uninspired when dinner rolls around, but as soon as I look at The Joy of Cooking, the gears start turning in my head.  I can flip the through the recipes and feel what is most delicious.  After a few months practice, it’s second nature to read through a recipe and start to modify and substitute in my head.  Sometimes I work the opposite way and scroll through the inventory we keep of all our food and pick out ingredients to incorporate into tonight’s menu.  This is how tamale casserole was invented last week because we have a surplus of corn flour and I had a lack of patience to steam real tamales.

Cooking for six adults is much harder than cooking for a couple at home.  We rely mostly on big batch meals like casseroles, pasta and stir fries.  But no one is resting on their laurels yet, and whether it’s a matter of pride or personal interest, the crew continually ups their game in the kitchen.  If one person wants to make a savory pie, another wants to make deep dish pizza (complete with homemade ricotta cheese).  If we bake brownies one weekend, it’s banana bread the next.  sMars may be a small and under stimulating environment sometimes, but it sure tastes good!

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