Less Plate, Less Pot, Eat Less

One of the interesting things I have learnt during lock-down was that I could be happy with much smaller portions of food than I was accustomed to.
Before lock-down, I had already stopped including pasta, potatoes or rice in my meals. Meals at home would be just meat and vegetables. During lock-down many meals became just a portion of meat or fish (battered fish bakes very nicely in a halogen oven!). Other nights dinner might just be a bowl of sweetcorn with a dash of Tabasco. The roast potatoes I had left after Christmas dinner formed a couple of nights' dinners on their own.
While individually, many of these meals were not balanced, things seemed to even out nutritionally over a week or more. Generally, these relatively modest portions satisfied me. If I felt peckish later on, I would eat some fruit. If a fancied some desert, this would often be fruit. Some nights, when I did not feel hungry, dinner might just be fruit. Typically I only ate twice a day. Breakfast/ brunch was usually a serving of porridge with a few sultanas.

Less Plate, More Satisfaction?

I am reminded of this since recently I heard someone comment “People eat too much because plates are too big! Use smaller plates and they will eat less.” Often when eating my modestly sized meals I have used the small 21cm diameter side plates rather than the full-sized dinner plates. When food does not need cutting up I usually use a 16cm/ 500ml bowl. My small meals had satisfied me both physically and psychologically. Enough really is as good as a feast!
I did a little research, and the idea of using smaller plates has some support. I also came across the suggestion that plate colour may also have an effect on satisfaction. My small plates and bowls are black, which is a good colour for contrast. Red is apparently even better.
There seems to be something to all this. The “first bite is always with the eye”, so there seems to be some logic that the presentation of a meal has some effect on psychological satisfaction with portion size. If you want to drop a little weight, a few red bowls and small plates may be a useful investment. I would advise getting those that can be used within a microwave oven.
After you eat, it is a good idea to drink a glass of tap-water and clean your teeth.

Smaller Pots

To the above, I have an additional suggestion. If you cook your own meals, try using smaller cooking vessels. It is all too easy to increase the quantity you are cooking if you use large capacity pots. And once the food is cooked, it would be sinful to let it go to waste! Instead it goes to waist.
I have put my large pans back in the cupboard and dug out a couple of small saucepans, each about one-litre capacity and around 17cm diameter. For meals for a single person these should be quite adequate for anything you need a saucepan for. I have an even smaller “milk pan”, but this is in daily use cooking my porridge. Also milk pans generally do not come with lids, and a lid is often needed for more efficient cooking.
A smaller pan may mean you have to cook on a smaller hob than you usually used. I have also noticed I need a slightly lower flame setting to prevent flames wastefully lapping up the sides of the pot. Thus using a smaller pot is saving me some fuel and money. Smaller capacity saves both time and water.
And if further incentive were needed, mastering cooking with small pots is good training for when you may have to cook in just a canteen cup.

Canteen (cup) Coffee.

I have been using the past few months productively. I may not be able to go out much, so why not use the time to finally get around to all those little jobs that stack up? I have washed my down jacket, replaced the zips in two jackets and the cuffs in another.
It is also a good time for various experiments! I love my coffee, and I do mean coffee, not the horrible instant chemicals that masquerade under the name. It seems a great shame that our young men and women risk their lives serving their country and the last thing they may drink is such crap.
While researching how to made a decent cup of coffee in the field, I came across this interesting website. How you go about making coffee (or tea, for that matter) can have a considerable influence on the taste. Relatively recently my coffee machine broke down and I went back to using a cafetiere (aka “French Press”). The first few cups I made were unimpressive. It makes all the difference if you wet the grounds with a small volume of boiling water and let them “bloom” for 30 seconds. This is probably a good technique to try with coffee bags.
Coffee bags seem to finally be becoming more widely available. Your brew kit probably already includes tea bags, so there is not reason not to carry coffee bags instead of sachets of foul smelling instant muck. But what if you cannot get coffee bags?
This page has a very useful description of five ways to “Make coffee without a maker”. This includes ways to improvise filters and coffee bags. Adding a piece of cloth to your brew kit is worth considering.
Many of these methods work best if you have one vessel for boiling water and another for drinking or brewing in. Let us assume you have listened to all my advice on saving weight and just have a canteen cup.

Making Greek/Turkish coffee is a little involved, so the method of choice for canteen cup brewing is “cowboy coffee”.
How I did it was thus: Fill your (metal!) canteen cup to about a centimetre above the second mark. I am using a Crusader 2 and each mark is equivalent to about a mug-full. Try this at home in the kitchen. Put your canteen cup on to boil. I will assume you are only using your canteen cup. If you boil up the water in a more efficient vessel the volume you add to the cup will need to be less.
Wait for your water to boil. If you think a watched kettle takes ages, a watched canteen cup takes longer! Wait for a “rolling boil”. This is the point where the surface of the water gets stirred up by bubbles. Remove your cup from the heat and dump in about two and three-quarter tablespoons of coffee. Some say wait 30 secs before adding the coffee. Good coffee needs water at about 90-95 centigrade rather than full boil. Give each spoon of coffee a good stir so the spoon/ spork comes out clean each time. Cover your canteen cup and let it sit for about four minutes. It needs time to brew and it will be too hot to drink yet, anyway.
And it is ready! Ideally you can decant the coffee into another cup for drinking, but in our canteen cup scenario that may not be possible. Most of the grounds will have settled out. They will not be a problem unless you try and drain the cup to the bottom. In some westerns they mention settling the grounds by adding crushed eggshell to the coffee. Good luck finding one of those out in the field! “Jack Knife Cookery” also suggests you can use “spotlessly clean gravel” to settle the grounds. More practically, a dash of cold water will settle the ground and cool the coffee to drinking temperature. I don’t usually bother, but you may feel different if you have to drink direct from the hot canteen cup. Remember, a little bit of foil over the cup edge can save burnt lips.
“Jack Knife Cookery” gives a slightly different method for making coffee. Take a fistful of coffee for each individual and add cold water. Allow to sit for a while. Then bring your coffee just to the boil. Remove from heat and place the pot at a distance from the fire so that it is just simmering.
A couple of tricks inspired by Greek/ Turkish coffee are worth mentioning. This coffee is often made with coffee ground to very fine powder. This seems to help the grounds settle at the bottom. If you like your coffee sweet, add the sugar to the water before you make the coffee, like the Turks and Greeks do. Stirring and coffee grounds do not mix, or rather, it does!
The Scout Handbook of 1911 gives an alternate method for campfire coffee:
“For every cup of water allow a tablespoonful of ground coffee, then add one extra. Have water come to boiling point first, add coffee, hold it just below boiling point for five minutes, and settle with one fourth of a cup of cold water. Serve. Some prefer to put the coffee in a small muslin bag loosely tied.”

Optimizing Canteen Cups.

Yesterday I happened across this webpage. This is a concept that I have encountered before: that the optimum proportions for a cylinder are to have it at a height equal to its diameter. The non-calculus explanation for this goes something like “a sphere has the lowest ratio of surface area to volume and a cylinder of equal diameter and height is closest that a cylinder can get to a sphere”. Optimum use of materials means less weight to carry. You would think there would be a special name for such a cylinder, but if there is I have yet to encounter it.
This concept can be applied to the design of hiking and survival gear. Yesterday I wrote a little about canteen cups and muckets. In a previous post I mentioned a idea that a good size for an eating vessel was around half a litre.
If you have to travel light, your main, probably only, cooking vessel will be a canteen cup, and this will also serve as your bowl and your mug. Most of us have to make do with whatever we can get, which is usually a military design. Perhaps our most important, most likely cooking vessel deserves greater consideration? Let us imagine we are designing a better canteen cup. The above concepts may play a part.
The typical military canteen cup has a kidney-shaped cross-section. They are designed with the assumption that they will be carried with a water-bottle, and that that bottle may be worn on the belt. Assumptions are always dangerous beasties, and should occasionally be tested to discover if they have gone rogue! (Military water bottles of kidney or oval section date to at least the 18th century and therefore predate their being worn in belt pouches!)
Obviously, carrying a supply of water on your person is prudent. Depending on situation and other factors this may be anywhere between 500mls to 2 litres. Larger volumes should be considered a pack item. Your typical military water-bottle is not the best way to carry water on your belt. If you land on it when falling or taking cover, it can hurt or bruise you. If it is only partially filled noises of water sloshing may betray you. Many designs have a cup that fits over the top of the bottle, meaning you have to remove this and keep it safe every time you want to drink from the bottle. That snap-link I told you to attach to your webbing can prove useful here, but this can still be a hassle when you are half-way up a windy hillside and trying not to drop your rifle or lose sight of your mates. For the above reasons a lot of soldiers and outdoorsmen now prefer bladders with drinking tubes such as Camelback and Platypus.
Does the cup need to fit outside a water-bottle? That interior space can be put to use for lots of other useful items. A hank of cord, fuel tablets and/or tube of alcohol fuel paste, small medical kit, sewing kit, spare lighter, tea and coffee bags, instant soup, OXO cubes and so on.
Does the cup need to be on your belt? Generations of British soldiers will probably disagree with me here, but usually a hot cuppa is not life and death. Your survival gear should be at skin level and your belt/webbing reserved for immediate items: ammo, a good knife, a couple of litres of water, IFAK trauma kit. Your canteen cup should be a pack item, preferably in a readily accessible side-pocket.
What is the ideal shape for a canteen cup? A spherical vessel is not really practical for a number of reasons. A hemispherical bowl of around 500mls capacity will be about 12 cm/ 5" across and 6 cm/ 2.5" deep. Such a bowl can be used for both eating and drinking from but may not be the best shape for a cooking vessel. Woks generally need to be wider. A cube of around 500mls capacity has 8 cm sides. The corners may be difficult to get clean with a vessel of this width. Another space-efficient option is a half-cube, 10 cm square and 5 cm deep. This has potential. This might resemble a smaller, square-section version of the familiar British Army mess-tin. Plenty of tea has been drunk from these, but it is not the best shape for a mug. This brings us to a cylinder of equal diameter to height, or thereabouts. For a capacity of about 500ml, height and diameter will need to be around 9 cm/ 3.5". This seems wide enough to eat out of and keep clean, deep enough for cooking and drinking. On the other hand, this shape may be too wide for easy carriage in a back-pack side-pocket.
This suggests that our canteen cup should be flattened in cross-section, and if we take this route we might as well give it a kidney-shaped cross-section. Realistically, most end-users will probably not buy a canteen cup unless it is this shape! There is probably an optimum ratio of height to end-size for a kidney-section vessel, but the calculus is beyond me.
The above figures are based on another assumption: that we want a volume of around 500mls. Looking at four of the metal canteen cups I own there is a notable difference in sizes. The British Crusader Mk1 is noticeably bigger than the US cup and the upper cup from the Bundeswehr M59 canteen. This may partially be so the Crusader can fit over the bottom of the Osprey waterbottle. The Osprey has a plastic mug that fits over the top (!). Theoretically you can carry both this mug and the metal Crusader around the same bottle. In practice you are better leaving the plastic mug for kit inspections. Also notable is that the Crusader Mk2 has a larger capacity than the Mk1.
A quick exercise with a measuring jug and some water yielded the following approximate volumes:
  • German M59 upper cup: 450ml
  • Dutch canteen cup: 500ml
  • Crusader Mk1: 650ml
  • Crusader Mk2: 800ml
The Dutch cup appears closest to our theoretical ideal. This is about 13 x 8 cm across and 9.5 cm deep. I don’t know if that is optimal, but the basic shape has not changed since 1910! The Dutch cup is a sound choice for your emergency kit, but the British cups are ahead on features such as non-stick coatings, measuring marks and accessories. 

Even more interesting was weighing the cups. The Dutch cup was 9.4oz/ 266gm, the Crusader Mk 1 was 9.7oz/ 275gm yet the larger volume Mk 2 only 6.9 oz/ 195 gm.
What this boils down to (pun intended) is that most of the commonly available choices are fairly sound, but there is room for improvement. While issues such as lids and bail handles need addressing, optimizing proportions could save additional weight. A smaller version of the Crusader Mk2 would be an attractive product.