A culinary capsule wardrobe
Heading off to a holiday house for a week – or weeks – can put pressure on the people who provide meals.
If you’re going somewhere close to supermarkets, farmers’ markets and any other markets, then it is unlikely to be too tricky. Just pack a couple of good cookbooks for inspiration. If your only resources are going to be a small local store and the fish you can catch, it’s a different story. Catering can take even more planning if you’re renting a bach. Who knows, maybe there won’t even be salt and pepper. If this is your situation, prepare a list of essentials that you are quite likely to forget. Oil, ketchup, peanut butter, foil; the works.
If you just want things to be easy once you get there, then approach menu planning just as fashion editors advise you to pack your suitcase: a capsule wardrobe is what you’re after. Take things that all generally work together, in various ways. Go for mainly Mediterranean flavours, taking helpful extras like canned beans, parmesan, olives, capers; or try Middle Eastern and pack spices, couscous, honey, dried apricots, almonds, pistachios. Mix and match principles should see you through any problems such as food boredom or unexpected guests.
Don’t bank on buying special fresh ingredients once you’re there — just plan to use good old, readily available things like eggs, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lettuce, beans. There is a world of good eating within those few items. If you see extras such as rocket, avocados, cos lettuce, grab them but don’t let them be deal-breakers.
Serious foodies might want to take pantry packing to a whole new level of project-based ingredients. Given a kitchen with a decent enough bench space, I’d be taking a jar of our sourdough starter for some relaxing breadmaking sessions. You might be taking your salted casings and sausage attachments for the mixer, or copious amounts of salt and sugar for a bit of heavy meat-curing activity, although I advise against it, if you won’t have a cool, dry place to store the curing items. Clouds of coloured mould can appear with alarming rapidity.
Here’s a list of the best edible things I’ve ever packed
My potted basils: sweet, opal and Thai, all in one narrow trough that sits neatly behind the driver’s seat in the car for safe transportation. Sweet and opal basils made for gorgeous looking — and tasting — salads, pasta on a drizzly night, and tomatoes on toast every morning. Thai basil would have let us make a favourite fried rice recipe one day as a treat if it wasn't for a malicious possum that ate all – and only – the Thai basil.
Fish sauce and limes: I can’t get enough of nuoc cham, the Vietnamese dressing made with a balanced blend of fish sauce, sugar and lime juice. I always add sliced garlic and chilli, and vary it according to the recipe I’m preparing with additions of water/grated lime zest/diced cucumber/fine fine fine slivers of kaffir lime leaf. Nuoc cham is a fantastic dressing for all sorts of salads: seafood and watercres; rare beef; citrus and herb; or rice noodle, for example. It is terrific on fresh oysters, especially with some coriander leaves thrown in. I happily douse a bowl of rice with the stuff for a slacker’s lunch, and if you pour it over sliced cucumber 20 minutes before serving topped with some crushed peanuts and a flurry of mint and coriander leaves, people will think you are a whizz for coming up with something so clever to have with barbecued — well, almost anything: Squid, beef, chicken, pork, scallops, eggplant, prawns, duck or soy-marinated tofu. Stay away from some of the Mediterranean herbs with nuoc cham; it’s not great with rosemary. But use basil and dill freely.
Obviously, the fish sauce can be used elsewhere; I like to marinate meat and fish with a splash of it before panfrying or barbecuing; the result is excellent, very savoury, caramelisation. Limes go in the evening gin. Remember to pack the gin.
Little foil parcels of about 3 tablespoons each of a few Middle Eastern spices: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, paprika, turmeric, chilli powder. These led to very happy meals of spiced lamb shanks, couscous salad the next day, marinated chicken pieces, and on the last day when supplies were low, that super-satisfying Egyptian soup made from little more than water with cumin or coriander seeds, onion, lentils and lemon juice.
How about the dreaded Worst Case Scenario: somehow, the menu supplies were left at home. The shop sells mainly magazines and iceblocks. Your friends may drop in. Well, take heart, because simple food is not a minus for holidays. Filling the family with manufactured foods might not be your idea of healthy vacationing though, so take a good look around whatever the local store has on its shelves, and devise a cunning set of plans.
- Canned tuna makes for A1 summer salads, whether mixed with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes; or potatoes, boiled eggs and green beans; or even canned beans (rinsed), lemon zest and parsely.
- Frozen peas can be a lifesaver: cook with a knob of butter, splash of water and a few basil leaves for a change; or make a salad with crumbled feta, cucumber and with any luck mint leaves.
- Pasta with the simplest tomato sauce – oil, garlic, canned tomatoes – is a perennial hit, and a bit of dried chilli or maybe some chopped bacon makes it tastier.
- Yoghurt is super-versatile: use it for dressings; as sauce with lamb; mix it with cucumber and dill as a dip; strain it to spread on crackers or serve with fruit for dessert.
- Can’t think of a darned thing to make for lunch? In the absence of deli supplies; panfried, butteredon-the-outside, big block cheddar sandwiches are brilliant.
Even your gourmand visitors will love them, I promise.