Middle Eastern Grocery Shopping and Cold Weather Camping

Some black angus cows near Morley, Iowa.

Hello and welcome to the blog today.  Monday night was spent camping.   Oh, it was cold – perhaps the coldest night I’ve slept in the van – but it was plenty warm and downright toasty inside!  Monday’s activity was to search for various Middle Eastern food items.  Be forewarned — there will be plenty of food references in this post!

Goat. lamb, beef, fish, poultry … all humanely slaughtered by the Halal butcher. This shop is in south Iowa City.

The early part of the day was spent in search of “ras el hanout” – a Middle Eastern blend of spices.  Ras el hanout is used in Moroccan cooking as well as other north African countries such as Algeria.  The cuisines of west Africa were influenced by French colonization and differ somewhat with foods from the African countries farther east.  Ras el Hanout is said to contain 12 ingredients (according to some purists) but variations abound.  Unfortunately, I was not successful in finding the spice blend desired and will need to buy it online… but it was possible to buy some leg of goat from a Mali butcher.

Let me back up for a second.  The desire to try new foods has continued since the last trip.  Sis sent an Algerian cookbook and I tried one of the recipes.  It was for fish cakes which were somewhat similar to salmon cakes but called for white fish;  I used some baked trout from the last trip.  The recipe included a bit of cloves and cinnamon as well as olive oil.  Cooked on the Pizza Pizzazz machine, these fish cakes were wonderful.  I’ll make them on a camping trip this summer over a warm fire.  Just an interesting side note… The recipe calls for a tomato sauce accompaniment but I used a container of McDonald’s “signature sauce” (a tomato / garlic / mayo type sauce).  The combination was very tasty!

Fish cakes cooked on the Pizza Pizzazz machine!

While shopping in the Iowa City area, I enjoyed visiting several other Middle Eastern grocery stores and one American health food co-op.  One of the finds was a piece of za’atar bread.  Sadly, it was eaten before a picture was taken.  Imagine a very soft pita with lots of olive oil and a thick spread of ground spices: dried oregano, thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt.  It was heavenly!

In addition to some healthy kombucha drinks (fermented fruit juice / tea / healthy bacteria), I bought a treat for Jen-Jen at the healthy co-op.  She is getting a can of organic turkey cat food.  It was expensive so hopefully she won’t sniff it and scuff her paw on the floor as if it was sh*t she was burying!  (You can’t always have Fancy Feast treats!) Even my own cooking gets the “sniff test” which can be insulting at times!

This is really good stuff!

While diving around, another grocery outlet that intrigued me was the new Trader Joe’s.  One just opened here at the first of the year.  There is a T.J.s in Des Moines but it’s too far from home.  We’ve really been missing out!  They have a lot of cool stuff.  This no-sodium spice blend is pretty tasty (the boss at work had some on a breakfast burrito) and contains no salt.  I’m excited to grill a burger with it tonight (and add some SALT – about the only thing the doc will let me enjoy!).

Trader Joe’s is SO neat!

After leaving Iowa City, I headed east on slippery Interstate 80.  Near West Branch I watched an overturned ambulance being pulled upright by a truck with a cable.  (Sunday night one overturned; the patient and two paramedics had minor injuries)  Numerous cars littered the ditch.  A white foreign coupe passed everyone at warp speed (probably 80 MPH or so).  A few miles later everyone was slamming on his/her brakes.  A Walmart truck and I both had to go off onto the shoulder to avoid hitting cars.  Sure enough, the little white coupe had spun out and nearly caused a pile-up.  Thank goodness for close calls instead of accidents.  Close calls don’t count!

Supper in the van — courtesy of the Pizza Pizzazz machine

The evening meal last night was tasty.  The base was an Italian herb / olive oil crust.  It was topped with pepperoni, fresh mushrooms, mozzarella cheese, and slices of goat cheese.  The crust was actually a bread machine mix that was doctored to have 1/3C olive oil and 2/3 cup warm water.  It was heavenly in the cold weather!  What is unusual is that I’d made the crust at home on Sunday night, crisped it in the machine, cooled it and added the toppings, and wrapped the whole pizza –  metal turntable and all – with Saran Wrap.  Upon arriving at the campground, I just unwrapped the pizza and turntable and let the Pizzazz do its thing.  Talk about convenient!  It really hit the spot!

A contractor’s extension cord from Mendards. It is rated to -58 degrees.

So how does one stay warm in weather this frigid?  On Monday afternoon it was about 10 degrees outside.  By nightfall it was below zero and the “feel like” temp was around -23.  I used both the infra-red cabinet heater as well as the semi-retired ceramic heater (used last year).  One was at each end of the van.  The Chevy Express was parked sideways in order to use two pedestals and pull power from each.  The result was something like a dry sauna.  It was so warm I had to strip down to the skivvies for the night.  Talk about a heavenly night’s sleep!  Even though the infra-red heater timed out and shut off, the other one keep things maintained.  It was around 80-82 all night.

Cedar Valley Camground 10 miles south of Mechanicsville (Cedar County)

By the way, the yellow cord shown above was a Christmas present.  This morning the air temperature was -4 and the cord remained very flexible.  The old blue cable (also in use last night) was very difficult to bend.  I recommend this yellow one for cold weather camping; it’s well worth the extra money!

Cedar River. Cedar Valley Campground is to the right of the clump of trees in the river.

A typical cold, snowy morning in eastern Iowa on the way home.



On this little trip there was no fishing.  Everything in the area is frozen over.  But it was still possible – and a great deal of fun – to ignore Mother Nature and the newscasters who were lamenting over the cold weather.  What do they know?

So what’s next?  My boss’ dad wants to go trout fishing next week.  One of the younger sons is eager to go as well.  We’ll have to see what happens with the weather.  There will be some kind of outdoor adventure.

Take care and thanks for visiting!  Safe and happy travels and camping!

Brad and Jenny
Jones County, Iowa

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About VanTrekker

I am a former vandweller in Eastern Iowa who, for several years (off and on), lived in a 2007 Chevy cargo van. I still travel around Iowa with my tortoise shell cat, Jennifer Stefanie. Our favorite place to explore is the Country Heritage Community, the four far northeastern counties of Iowa (Clayton, Winneshiek, Allamakee, and Fayette). Ride along as we fish in pristine trout streams, enjoy fine home cooked camping meals, and meet new people. It's all possible on a shoestring budget. Happy travels always! --- Brad, the "Van Trekker"

6 Responses to Middle Eastern Grocery Shopping and Cold Weather Camping

  1. my_vantasy says:

    I love how you go out to do stuff, just to go out and do stuff! That pizza looks super delicious. You use your pizza pizzazz a lot–do you like it better than the toaster oven? I don’t think I could fit both in, so I wondered if you thought one was more versatile than the other. Our weather is crazy cold and snowy. Two more snow days here. Spring can’t come soon enough!

    • VanTrekker says:

      Good evening! I decided to try camping in colder weather because the old guys in the coffee drinking group said it was nuts, too cold, etc. I wanted to see if it was possible and it turned out to be very pleasant! (except going outside to go pee in the middle of the night!) I do use the Pizzazz a great deal but mostly in the homebase. It’s got some great advantages but it’s kind of a pain in terms of portability… although this time making the pizza ready-to-bake and wrapping it with the turntable worked very well.

      If I had to use one or the other, I’d say the toaster oven might be easier to transport. (It’s still under the bed from the last trip!). The only thing with the pizza was I made up a full sized one and ate on the leftovers for breakfast and lunch today. The toaster oven is limited to a little personal size type thing.

      I hear you about crazy cold. We’re looking at the possibility of snow over the weekend. Take care! 🙂 V.T.

  2. Jo says:

    I love your adventuresome way. That is some pretty cold weather. I love Trader Joe’s but they are all so far from where I live, we also have Sprout’s which also are to far away. Sprouts has much better prices and their produce is great. I really need to take a picture of my little toaster oven I bought when I had the MH. But that pizza pizzazz is a pretty cool machine. I just don’t have anymore room in my house for storing things like that. The fish cakes look soooo good and so does the pizza.

    • VanTrekker says:

      Hi Jo! I have not heard about Sprout’s before but that sounds really cool! I love the little toaster oven in the van. The Pizzazz is great for in the house but just isn’t that easy to transport in a little van. The toaster oven does so much more! I would like to see wht kind of toaster oven you use. Take care! It’s -4 right now and I got kind of cold in the trailer overnight. It was nice in the van outside! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. Kathy says:

    Glad to hear you’re over the flu and getting out again. I’ve been hiding inside in this weather. You paint such a beautiful and adventurous picture it makes me want to get out and go.

    • VanTrekker says:

      Hi Kathy! Thanks for the note! The flu is long gone… Thanks for the kind words! Definitely, it’s always a good thing to go out and enjoy the outdoors. Take good care! — VT