Monday, February 23, 2015

Packing Food on a Skiing Vacation

The written word -- how I've missed you.  What a relief to have a form of communication that doesn't make me panic about lighting, the snowed in windows, the lack of peace and quiet due to school cancellations.  I've been working tirelessly on my videos the last few months getting ready for Boston winter.  I knew there'd be weeks when shooting would be impossible, so I built up a decent pipeline.  But I wasn't prepared for what February brought.  I don't think anyone was.
Those two eggheads are my compost bins

We've had enough of 8-foot snow banks -- there is nowhere to put the snow anymore -- roof shoveling, and home schooling the kids for 2 days each week, so we decided to do the only reasonable thing and go somewhere warm for February school break.  I am not talking about Caribbean.  I am talking about Jackson, NH.  It's hard to believe, but White Mountains had less snow and less brutal temperatures than Boston.  Besides the balmy weather, Jackson also boasts some of the best XC-skiing in New England.  A week of skiing means feeding a lot of hungry people, and I want to share with you a few strategies for cooking on vacation.

We rented a house with our friends and were planning to cook most of our meals, but my days of wanting to spend my vacation at the stove are long gone.  Those days belong to a different era -- the era before kids and before cooking for a living.  I have some vague recollection of going on vacations at one point in my life and spending half a day exploring the food and kitchen stores, then trying to force vacation home kitchens to carry out my gastronomical dreams.  I am much more pragmatic these days.  I want to ski, soak in the tub, read, and watch movies.  Sure, I want good food, but with a few caveats: it can't require any shopping on vacation, it can't require more equipment than what I can comfortably bring with me, it should be easy to scale (we had a group of 9), it can't require more than 30 minutes of prep per meal and minimum attention.  

I am pleased to say that all the hungry skiers were well fed and I still had a real vacation.  Before I tell you what we had, let me explain a few underlying principles of my vacation food planning and packing:
  • Don't cook anything with sensitive doneness (steak, fish, etc).  Scaling that to a large number of people and different doneness preferences is tough especially when you take into account unfamiliar equipment and 4 active kids distracting you.
  • Braises and stews are your friends.  They can be made before vacation and reheated with no hassle.
  • Stove top pressure cooker is a life saver.  It's not a waste of space in the car if you stuff it with food.  If you are a slow cooker person, you can bring that instead, but pressure cooker has many advantages.  1) It is thinner and wastes less space in the car.  2) It doesn't require planning ahead.  If you didn't manage to start dinner in the morning, no worries -- it will be done in no time.  3) It doubles as a regular large pot that is not always available in vacation homes.  
  • Always bring a cutting board, knife, and tongs.  I also bring a spatula and microplane grater.  Depending on what you are cooking, you might not need those.  
  • Basic pantry items: a squeeze bottle of olive oil, salt (they'll probably have some, but almost certainly not the salt you are used to), some acidic ingredients (lemons, dijon mustard, pomegranate molasses are my favorites), black pepper in a grinder, butter.  
  • Ingredients that lose moisture during cooking are best made ahead.  They'll be smaller and easier to transport.  They are also the kinds that require chopping, stirring and paying attention (mirepoix for soups, caramelized onions, braises, roasted vegetables, etc).  
  • Ingredients that cook in water and gain in volume during cooking are best cooked on site (that's your beans, grains, pasta, etc).  They are much more compact when dry.
  • Bring one large teflon pan with lid -- this can be used for reheating braises to cooking veggies, scrambled eggs, etc. 
Here is what we cooked:
  • Grilled cheese with caramelized onions, apples, and pecans
  • Split pea and ham soup
    • carrots, celery, onions, garlic, and thyme were already cooked  
    • Using a pressure cooker, this was a piece of cake.  I had soup for an army with 10 minutes of active time.  
  • Lentils with Bulgur, Caramelized Onions, and Roasted Tomatoes
    • Lentils are lightning fast in a pressure cooker and bulgur just needs to soak for 30 minutes.  I did both on site.
    • Caramelized onions and roasted tomatoes were already cooked
  • Braised pork shoulder with osso buco style sauce, pasta, green beans
    • Pork was already cooked, just needed reheating
    • Pasta and green beans were cooked on site
  • Farro mushroom risotto, roasted cauliflower
    • Onions and mushrooms were already cooked
    • I used a pressure cooker for this, so no stirring
    • Cauliflower was already roasted, just needed reheating
I've noticed that the vegetables cooked ahead seemed to lack salt.  I remember tasting them all in Boston and thinking they were fine, but as they sat in containers the flavor got duller.  You might want to under-salt a bit during cooking and add the final pinch while reheating.  

The only meal I really dislike cooking, particularly on vacation, is breakfast.  But our friends Eric and Audrey came to the rescue and found the Vintage Baking Company.  I had serious doubts about bakeries in rural New Hampshire and the first morning I told Audrey to get me whatever requires least pastry skill -- a muffin?  Good thing she didn't listen and came bake with a box of croissants.  It would be hard to put together a group of croissant snobs to rival ours.  We kept shaking our heads after each buttery bite, looking at each other over the steaming cups of tea and muttering in disbelief, "In Jackson, NH!!!"

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