Ben Caplan is an adventurous songwriter and musician, who tours more than just about any musician we know and loves to collaborate and learn from other musicians in a variety of genres. The Halifax-based, big-voiced musician just released a brand new album called Birds with Broken Wings and is already on the road with his band The Casual Smokers. I caught up with the very health-conscious Ben to chat about cooking on the road and keeping his impressive beard tidy when nourishing himself.
Usually I start by asking musicians if they like to cook, but you seem to be on the road so much that I can’t imagine you spend much time in your own kitchen? Are you able to cook at all with your touring schedule or are you only able to enjoy food from the standpoint of a eater?
I really love cooking, but you’re right. With my life style it can be really hard to find the time and resources! Even when I am at home, I am often only at home for so short a time with so much to do that I wind up eating out often. But I used to cook quite a bit and I really love to when I get the chance. On my present tour I brought a little portable kitchen rig with me so that I can eat more nutritious food and do some cooking on the road.
You’ve visited so many places with your music — do you manage to make time to explore local cuisines? What are some of your favourite cities/countries to visit from a food point of view?
It’s so hard to eat well on the road, and nutrition is such an important part of feeling good every day and staying healthy! I always try to search for a good local restaurant to eat dinner at before we roll into town. I am basically always looking for a vegetarian or vegan restaurant because you know you are more likely to find fresh ingredients and healthy options. I used to explore the local cuisine a bit more than I do now. I think the last straw for me on “local cuisine” was in New Orleans on my last US tour. The band and I stopped into a nice looking waterfront restaurant and ordered the “seafood platter” and some gumbo to taste the local flavours. Everything came out greasy and deep fried. I don’t mind a little greasy treat once and a while, but you have to be careful when you live on the road. I find that the local delicacies always tend to be special event kinds of foods. I just can’t have a special event every day. Wish I could though… I do love to treat myself occasionally in the Southern US.
You seem to collaborate and work with a lot of different musicians. Do you find that sharing a meal together helps you to gel with someone creatively?
Sitting down and breaking bread with someone is a really great way to forge a connection! On the new album we didn’t spend a ton of time on that. It was mostly in-and-out with a lot of the guest musicians. But I have good memories of taking breaks to eat bahn mis and falafels from Montreal’s Mile End with the core group. And when we made the first album I was able to have it catered to we could sit and eat nutritious stews in the studio while letting our ideas simmer!
When you are home in Halifax, where are some of your favourite places to eat?
When I am in Halifax, I get to be a real foodie! I love going down to the farmers market to pick out fresh, local, and in season produce direct from the producers. And I love getting prepared foods from the vendors down there. As for restaurants, my favourite is probably The Heartwood. I also love grabbing lunch at Lion and Bright or getting a beautiful vegan dinner at enVie. All amazing spots. If I’m feeling more decadent, I’ll go to The Wooden Monkey, or if I am having a light dinner over drinks, the food at Field Guide is amazing.
What were your favourite foods when you were a kid? Are they still some of your favourites?
I was not such a sophisticated eater when I was young. I remember loving pizza, mac and cheese, and I loved snacking on brownies and a can of coke. One dish I remember fondly that I still make for myself is shephard’s pie. I love me a good shepherds pie.
You sport a very impressive beard. Do you have any tips for other gentleman as to how to keep a substantial beard clear of food?
Never fill a spoon more than half full. Take your time and enjoy every diminutive bite. Cleaning soup out of your beard is a bummer. When eating a large sandwich, there are two steps for each bite. Step one, use the left hand to reach up and stroke backwards and out the way the moustache and beard. Step two, take a bite of sandwich. Gosh… it sounds absurd to me. I guess I’m just used to it. I don’t ever notice.
What is your favourite kind of pie?
The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Or lemon meringue.
Do you have any recipes you’d like to share with us?
Yes! I have a recipe for every touring musician, or anyone on a long multi-day road trip. It’s great in your kitchen too!
These days I’ve been surviving on a one pot meal, based on the indian dish called Kitchari. When we are on tour, we often have to drive 3-5 hours a day or more to get from gig to gig. We used to eat so much fast food. Spinach sandwiches from Subway for days. It’s the only thing available en-route without going into a town and getting lost and delayed by hours just to find some fresh food. Now we try to pick up some fresh vegetables before we head out of town and stop for 30 minutes to cook on a little TV tray topped with a coleman camping stove. Here’s the gist of the recipe we’ve been using. I always measure by eye, and I pre-mix the spices, which I just shake out of a mason jar. I try not to be too precious about it. It means the meal is a little different each day too!
1 cup cup bismati rice
3/4 cup red lentils
3/4 cup mung beans
(sometimes some quinoa too!)
Pre-mix the following spice proportions before you hit the road: (I usually multiply x10 or x20 to have enough on hand)
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp mustard Seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp garam masala
Put some water in a pot. I just eyeball the amount. It means sometimes I have soup, sometimes I have a rice dish. I would guess about 5 cups of water. Or more. Whatever. Throw the mung beans in right while water warms up. They take the longest to cook. You can also pre-soak your mung beans if you think about it ahead of time.
Add the rice and lentils 5-10 or so minutes after the mung beans. Before or after the water boils. Whatever.
As your rice and lentils and mung beans cook and boil (low simmer), cut up whatever vegetables you want. Carrots, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, asparagus, or anything you can find. When it’s chopped, throw it in the pot! Throw in some spice too. A few tablespoons of the mixture above ought to do. If you have any leafy greens like kale, spinach, chard, or whatever, chop that up too. After about 25-30 minutes, or whenever those mung beans are not too hard, take the pot off the heat, and throw in your leafy greens. Let the greens wilt and soften in the heat of the pot for a couple of minutes, and then dig in.
The great thing about this recipe is that you can make it any more or less complicated as circumstances dictate. Use just rice, or any other grain. Add as many grains as you like. Use one vegetable, five different ones, or none at all. Adjust to taste. This little trick will save your poor touring musician’s body. It’s gentle, delicious, and nutritious. Pulling off the highway to get fast food takes at least 20 minutes. Cooking and eating this takes 40-60. Budget the extra time when you leave in the morning. Your body will thank you.