I consider myself a confident and competent cook, seasoned with years of stovetop failures and the occasional burnt eyebrow. So I was surprised at how much anxiety I felt about grocery shopping when planning a remote work getaway to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The house was about 45 minutes from the nearest supermarket, and I wanted to cook at least four dinners, so it made more sense to pack most of our groceries before our long drive. This scenario comes up every time I rent a cabana or beach house with friends, which makes up most of the vacations I took in my late 20s and early 30s.
A week of dishes to make in your vacation rental this summer
After a few days of worry, I decided to make a plan. With a little extra research, prep work, and help from YouTube, I put together a meal menu that turned out to be exciting yet manageable. I’ve put what I’ve learned over a decade of group travel to help you avoid stress in the heart of the summer rental season.
Here are six tips for planning a cooking week on vacation.
BYO spices and seasonings
Don’t assume your host’s cupboard has anything more to offer than a generic set of salt and pepper or an open bag of sugar cubes. You could hit the jackpot with a full spice rack, but if you’re betting on smoked Spanish paprika or garam masala to round out a recipe, you better bring them from home.
Bottles of ketchup, mustard or olive oil might be on hand when you arrive, but how do you think they got there? The last sap left them after buying a new bottle when they only needed a quarter cup. I’m less nervous than most – in my family expiration dates were seen as suggestions, not rules – but if it’s stable it’ll probably survive a long car trip, even with mayonnaise. When in doubt, use your nose.
Here’s how long these condiments in your fridge and pantry are supposed to last
Fill up on carbohydrates and starches
Dry goods are an obvious staple for the traveling cook. If you’re in a group, boiling a pot of pasta with a simple tomato sauce is also a no-brainer. I’ve made a giant batch of spaghetti on so many of these trips that my friends now expect of me. Just because I’m splurging on San Marzano tomatoes and packets of ground beef, pork, and veal doesn’t mean you should. Dump a jar of your favorite marinara into the jar and call it a day. I like Newman’s own Sockarooni sauce; it’s packed with sweet and sour vegetables (plus, it’s fun to say Sockarooni).
You’ll also want sliced bread for an ubiquitous deli lunch; cereal or oatmeal for breakfast; and a baguette, Italian bread, or ciabatta that you’ll use to make garlic bread, winning the affections of your housemates with very little extra effort.
Recipe: Triple Garlic Bread
Plan around hardy vegetables
I’ve never come across a tomato that I haven’t accidentally bruised, but crucifers can take a good deal of the hustle and bustle on the journey from the store to the car to the rental. While I consider group travel an open season on eating potato chips, it’s nice to add cucumbers, baby carrots, and celery to add nutritional value to your pasture.
On my trip to the Outer Banks, I turned to broccolini, a soft and sweet star that I grilled for a chunky sandwich recipe that I pulled from YouTube. Grocery store hummus or artichoke dip would make any creation more interesting. I made a homemade spread of confit garlic and Calabrian peppers ahead of time, following the instructions for layering sliced salami, pickled banana peppers, mayonnaise and American cheese – a swap I made for heaps of ricotta, because I knew it would go easier on my dairy-sensitive partner.
I can be a snob about beans; I will go with effort on convenience almost every time, soaking and simmering for hours. But you’re on vacation to have fun, not to deal with the beans. Accepting a shortcut will allow you to hang out with the people you came to see. Avoiding long-cooked meals will save you from insulting each other in the dark outside while you try to barbecue while your friends inside are too nice to ask why dinner isn’t ready by 10 p.m. .
While in North Carolina, I gave myself permission to buy pre-made packets of the Maiya Kamal brand daily dal, saving me the trouble of preparing lentils. Tossing the sachet into a small saucepan gave me an instant addition to a batch of aloo ko achar – a quick-marinated Nepalese salad that incorporates stewed potatoes, cucumber, Sichuan pepper and toasted sesame seeds and ground.
Salad Niçoise is another option that lets the preserved ingredients do the heavy lifting. I like to buy jars of tuna fillets in olive oil from brands like Tonnino or Ortiz and then hit the olive bar hard. Capers are also a welcome addition here.
Recipe: Niçoise salad with mango vinaigrette
Choose an ambitious dish to prepare
It was a vacation, of sorts, mixing up our routine for the week with lots of new scenery, so I wanted one of my dinners at home to feel special. Enter “Italian American,” a cookbook full of red sauce dishes from Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli, owners of Don Angie in Manhattan’s West Village.
Before I left, I made a batch of scarpariello, a sweet and sour spicy braise of chicken thighs and ground Italian sausage that you roll into easy, bite-sized meatballs. Poblano peppers, rice vinegar and sriracha reflected the perspective of the book tradition. Spicing the sauce with cherry chili brine taught me a new culinary trick.
Refrigerating the sauce overnight before storing it in Pyrex for travel allowed it to develop a depth of flavor, and serving it with boiled penne a la minute was a breeze. The same effect would apply to any braise – say an easy pot roast, or a batch of cabbage that you might pair with a box of cornbread mix.
Recipe: Spicy Chicken and Sausage
…because the group that left before you probably didn’t, and your new habitat could get very smoky – or downright dangerous – if you don’t. I think of a cabin trip when I proudly packed steaks from the Farmer’s Daughter in Capon Bridge, W.Va., which alone is worth a stop for the world-class cheeseburger. I paid a premium for the meat and had the trouble of dry brining steaks overnight in the fridge then quickly charring them inside a 3 foot fireball that s was triggered when I briefly left the grease-laden gas grill unattended.