A lot of us are either in the middle of Spring Break, or planning getaways for the not-too-distant future.
Whether you’re heading to the coast or the mountains, nobody wants to be chained to the stove when the great outdoors are beckoning. And the best guarantee for getting out there is to think about all the cooking needs before you leave home. Poor planning always translates into extra work, which translates into less recreation time.
In truth, I actually love cooking in challenging — if not totally primitive — conditions. Expectations are low and appetites usually expanded. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shoot for the high side of edible, if not downright gourmet. So if you can find out in advance what the kitchen is equipped with in the way of appliances and equipment you won’t have to bring along duplicate essentials or get stuck without.
Beyond equipment essentials, I’ve collected a few good tips for turning vacation cuisine into a fun and tasty adventure.
Divide the work
Sharing chef duties and prep with fellow cabin dwellers is always easier — and way more fun! – than solo cooking. But there’s sharing and then there’s sharing. Consider breaking the group into cooking competition teams Iron Chef-style. Without the weird ingredients, of course! Each team is responsible for an evening meal. For a little extra motivation, and to establish bragging rights for future vacations, make sure there are prizes to be had on the last day.
This is a forehead-slapping cool way to construct multiple omelettes for a crowd. And very fun for kids!
Omelette in a baggie
Figure out how many eggs you’ll need to feed the number of folks; maybe two eggs per person. Break the eggs into a bowl and add an appropriate-sized splash of milk or cream, salt and pepper. Whisk thoroughly.
Provide separate bowls of omelette additives, such as diced bacon and/or ham, chopped onions and sweet bell peppers, shredded cheese, sliced mushrooms and black olives.
Fill a large pot about two-thirds full with water and bring to a boil.
Now for the construction: hand each person a quart-sized sealable bag. To each bag, ladle in some of the whisked eggs, then appropriate amounts of whatever omelette extras they like, so each person constructs a very individual and customized omelette. Make sure everyone’s bag is thoroughly sealed (I’ve tested this with the new “zipper” style of recloseable bags and they don’t leak). Drop the bags into the boiling water, cover the pot, and cook 7 to 9 minutes. As the eggs cook they puff a bit and stay quite tender. And the cooked eggs don’t stick to the bag, so you don’t need oil or butter.
To cut down on dirty dishes and simplify meal preparation consider the following “Before leaving town” tips:
Figure out your menu and shop for as many meals as you can so you can factor in leftovers and cut down on shopping while on vacation. To keep cooking stress-free, plan your simplest meals for the days when you know you’re going to be getting back to the cabin late in the day.
Instead of fretting about transporting a fragile box of fresh eggs, go ahead and crack them open into a container with a tightly fitting lid prior to your trip. Leave them unwhisked, then pour out as needed.
One mess/multiple meals; cook up a 5-pound “family pack” of ground beef or ground chicken ahead of time and package into 3 to 5 sealable bags (depending on the size of your family and the number of servings you need). These batches of browned meat are the instant base for any number of simple meals, from tacos to sloppy joes.
Instead of buying expensive cooked bacon, buy 2 or 3 pounds of thick-cut bacon and cook on a cookie sheet in the oven for 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels and freeze or refrigerate. This “almost-cooked” bacon can be quickly reheated in the microwave or in a non-stick skillet and there’s no messy bacon grease to deal with!
Place a piece of flank steak (or other meat of choice, such as tri-tip) in a sealable bag, along with your favorite marinade before leaving town. It can be your first evening meal because it’s ready to hit the grill.
Make a large batch of medium grain rice (avoid long grain rice, which has a higher amylopectin content and gets brittle after cooling and isn’t a good candidate for leftovers). Then freeze the rice in smaller batches for stir-fries, rice salads, burritos, casseroles and simple side-dishes.
Jan’s amazing vinaigrette base
Make a batch of this wonderful mixture before heading out of town and you’ll have a huge head start on homemade vinaigrette during your cabin stay. You know the biggest problem with homemade vinaigrettes? We store them in the refrigerator to keep all the herbs and garlic fresh, but when you go to use them the olive oil is thick and gunky until it gets up to room temperature. So, I’ve developed this amazing “salad helper.” It’s a vinaigrette base made from red wine vinegar with gobs of minced garlic, lots of fresh-ground peppercorns, salt, and a pinch of sugar. Store this mixture in the refrigerator and keep the olive oil in the pantry at room temperature. Then when you’re ready to toss the evening salad, just glug some of the zesty vinaigrette base over the salad greens with an equal glug of your olive oil and you’ve got a tossed-green in no time.
Makes enough vinaigrette base to create at least 6 cups of vinaigrette (that’s a ratio of 1 part vinaigrette base to 1 part olive oil; some people prefer an oilier vinaigrette, in which case, your vinaigrette base will make considerably more vinaigrette.
3 cups red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic (6 large cloves)
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Whisk together all of the ingredients in a bowl (preferably one with a pouring spout). Select a 3- to 4-cup capacity bottle or jar with a screw-top lid (consider using empty liquor bottle or water bottle; the lids screw on tight so there’s no leaking). Pour the prepared vinegar mixture through a funnel into the bottle and store in the refrigerator.
To finish vinaigrette, whisk together desired amounts of the vinegar base with good quality olive oil. You can either do this right in the salad bowl and toss with the salad ingredients, or you can whisk a small amount in a separate cup then drizzle over your salad before tossing.
Chopped salad with vinaigrette base and fresh pasta
You can prepare this salad at home and bring it on vacation.
Chopped fresh vegetables in desired amounts (the veggies I use are: Carrots, sweet bell peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet onions, and celery)
Jan’s amazing vinaigrette base
Good quality extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh-cooked and chilled rotini pasta (or other fun shape, such as bow-tie)
In a bowl, combine the vegetables. Toss with desired amount of the vinaigrette base and olive oil. When ready to serve, arrange the pasta on a serving platter, then sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the salad, toss again, and spoon over the pasta.
Chopped salad in the vinaigrette can be prepared several days ahead — it only improves in flavor. But be sure and bring it to room temperature before serving.
Jan’s endless meatballs
Make a big batch of these tasty meatballs before your trip, then freeze in a single layer on baking sheets in the freezer and pack into freezer bags to have on hand for any number of spin-off meals
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground chicken or turkey
1 1/2 cups fine, dry bread crumbs
2/3 cup freshly grated good-quality Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup finely minced yellow onion
5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
All purpose flour
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Combine the beef, pork, and chicken in a large mixing bowl. Add the bread crumbs Parmesan cheese, parsley, onion and garlic. In a small bowl, combine the eggs, Worcestershire, salt and black pepper. Pour this mixture over the meat mixture and combine with clean hands until evenly blended (but don’t over-work the mixture). Shape the meat mixture into 1- to 1 1/2 inch balls.
Dredge the meatballs in the flour until lightly but evenly coated. Heat the olive oil and vegetable oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Slip enough meatballs into the skillet to fill the pan without crowding. Fry, turning as necessary, until golden brown on all sides, which will take about 8 or 9 minutes. Remove the meatballs as they brown, adding remaining meatballs to the skillet.
Makes 37 to 40 meatballs.
No-frying, no-mess approach: An alternate cooking method is to bake in the oven. Eliminate the coating in flour step. Arrange them on baking sheets (leave about 1/4 to 1/2-inch space between them) and bake in a 400-degree oven for about 25 to 30 minutes (they will feel firm to the touch). Turn them once mid-way through the cooking to brown evenly.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.