Over a lifetime of cooking in spartan rental-house kitchens on summer trips, I’ve baked pie in a skillet, shaken salad greens dry in a pillowcase, and whipped cream in a (clean) coffee can. Once, when we arrived to find the stove broken, I used a charcoal grill to boil a pot of pasta because that’s all we brought for dinner and the nearest supermarket was 20 miles away.
Despite the lack of kitchen luxuries (or maybe because of it), some of the best and most memorable meals I’ve ever made have been with nothing more than a battered skillet, a spoon, and a dull knife.
This isn’t to say I would willingly give up my stocked pantry, or even one of the semi-useful gadgets that crowd my kitchen drawers at home. But cooking on vacation has its own rhythm, one that forces me to pare down and use the most basic techniques possible. I’ve found that training myself to think about meals in the simplest terms can actually be a good thing, helping me distill a dish to its essence.
I also use fewer ingredients. The dance of cooking at a vacation rental is that you don’t want to buy too much once you’re there (you’re not likely to use that entire jar of mustard in three days), but you don’t want to drag along too many supplies from home, especially if your trip involves an airplane. You never know what you can count on being stocked at the house, and even if there are ancient spices in the cabinet, I swear they won’t improve any dish you add them to.
My strategy is to keep the shopping list short and try to use up everything before I leave. All of my vacation meals are ruled by a few lemons, a bottle of olive oil, and some flaky sea salt. With these on hand, I know I can cook and flavor pretty much whatever I’ve got. That even applies to dessert. A pint of vanilla ice cream or lemon sorbet is transformed with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Try it: It’s ridiculously good.
A head of garlic, a hunk of Parmesan, some hot sauce or chili flakes, and perhaps a jar of honey (which can also come in handy at breakfast) round out the offerings. Often that’s nearly all I’ll take in terms of seasonings.
Then I’ll use it all liberally on all the grilled and roasted meats, quick sautés, and vegetable and grain salads that make up the bulk of my main courses. To nibble with drinks, I may put out something store-bought and assembled — anchovies or sardines on buttered crackers, celery stuffed with blue cheese, olives, and the like. Dessert can be purchased ice cream on its own, or maybe atop a sloppy cobbler or an unbaked summer pudding brimming with berries, whether foraged from the woods or the local market.
For at least one meal (often the evening we arrive), I serve sausages. They come seasoned and self-contained, with no need for condiments or sauces. After a long trip, you just throw them on the grill or under a broiler, and serve with a salad on the side. Or, even better, toss them into your salad (in this case, a lightly grilled radicchio salad), letting their fat flavor the leaves along with the lemon juice and good olive oil you also packed.
While some planning is essential, I like to keep what I’m cooking flexible enough to absorb unexpected treasures found along the way. The coarsely ground cornmeal milled in the next town over that I found at the local gas station was baked into skillet cornbread. The quail eggs I picked up at the poultry farm down the road were hard-boiled, dipped in salt and eaten for breakfast. The lilacs I plucked from a neighbor’s garden (with permission) were steeped into custard sauce in lieu of vanilla extract.
So what if the sauce didn’t really taste like flowers? It was the kind of whimsical improvisation I probably never would have thought of at home.
Wild herbs are often just there for the taking. I’ve picked spindly fennel on the road in Northern California, earthy sage in New Mexico, and lush chives in backyards and wooden hikes just about all over the Northeast. It’s only a matter of keeping an eye out.
Then there’s equipment. Even when I rent a house from people who promise that the kitchen is tricked out for a serious cook, I still take my own knives. A microplane zester is very lightweight and will grate cheese and the zest from all those lemons. (The latter can be added to salad dressings, pasta sauces or bowls of fruit, or rubbed on a steak along with garlic, salt and pepper.) If I’m driving somewhere, a large Dutch oven can double as a pasta pot, skillet and bread pan, and you can even put it on the grill should your oven be broken.
But no matter what you love to cook or how you cook it, with a little thought you can turn a few quality ingredients into a meal that celebrates spending time with friends and family and, at least temporarily, enjoying a more relaxed way of living. Which is exactly what a great vacation should be.
Grilled Radicchio and sausages
Light or heat up the grill. Halve radicchios lengthwise through stem end, and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil (or more if you need it to coat) and ¼ teaspoon salt.
Put radicchios, cut side down, and sausages on the grill and cover. Let cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until outer radicchio leaves are dark brown. Transfer to a cutting board and let cool while sausages finish cooking, about 5 minutes.
When cool enough to handle, thinly slice radicchios. The outsides should be charred, and the insides should still be crisp and raw. Combine in a bowl with another 2 tablespoons olive oil and the juice of half a lemon. Taste and correct seasonings, adding more lemon juice, salt and olive oil to taste.
Spread radicchio on a platter and top with grilled sausages. Garnish with basil and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Grilled Garlic Bread with Basil and Parmesan
Light a grill or turn heat to high. Drizzle both sides of bread with olive oil and grill for 2 to 3 minutes without turning, until one side is crisp and beginning to char.
Remove bread from grill and rub grilled side thoroughly with the cut garlic. Evenly distribute Parmesan on the grilled side and return toast to the grill, cheese side up. Close lid and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Transfer to a cutting board, slice each piece of toast in half and serve garnished with basil leaves.
Yield: 6 servings
Berry Summer Pudding
To make the pudding, combine berries, sugar, and 1/3 cup water in a medium saucepan. Simmer over medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved and berries release their juices, 7-10 minutes. Stir in lemon juice. The sauce should be sweet, with a hint of tartness. Adjust with more sugar or lemon juice as needed. Stir in rosewater if using.
Spoon an even layer of berry syrup (not the berries themselves) in the bottom of an 8-inch loaf pan or a medium-size bowl. Line bottom of pan or bowl with a single layer of bread; cut bread into pieces as necessary to make it fit. Spoon 1/3 of the fruit on top of bread, making sure bread is completely coated; top with a layer of bread. Repeat twice more, alternating layers of fruit with layers of bread, ending up with bread as the top layer. Let mixture cool completely, then wrap pan tightly with plastic wrap. Place a light weight on top of the pudding. Refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.
Run a knife around sides of summer pudding, then turn it over onto a plate to unmold. Serve in slices with cream or ice cream on top.
Yield: 8 servings