An easy route to vacation cooking

Trips: Clever planning can take the hassle out of putting dinner on the table when you're away from home.

August 18, 1999|By Marge Perry | Marge Perry,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Summer vacation -- whether at a mountain house or a seaside cottage -- is the time to take a break from grocery shopping and the rigors of getting a weeknight meal on the table.

But one must still eat, and there are nights that the full day of sunshine and breezes make even going out for dinner seem like a task too arduous to consider.

With clever planning (conducted before you leave and while your brain is fully functional), throwing together a couple of meals can be a simple, nontaxing and even pleasant task. Smart packing helps avoid trips to the grocery store for everything but the perishable items.

I for one do not want to spend my vacation wheeling carts down supermarket aisles. And because grocery stores in vacation towns tend to be overpriced, I bear in mind that I'm willing to pay top dollar for some items and not others. I'd rather spend my vacation money on an extra meal out than on cold cereal that is half the price at home.

Ideal vacation fare to cook requires a minimal number of pots and utensils (who knows what the rental kitchen is stocked with?). You want to eat food that is hearty enough to satisfy the appetite you built while constructing sand castles or strolling through town, yet with the bright, lively flavors we crave in hot weather.

The key to the foods you pack is that they be useful in a variety of ways. Each item should give you options for several different dishes. Granola, for example, can be eaten as cereal for breakfast, as an ice cream topper or baked on top of sliced fruit from the local farmers' market for a short-cut fruit crisp.

Peanut butter is obvious as a sandwich spread, but can be used with soy sauce and ginger for an Asian pasta dish.

Tuna can appear in a sandwich or tossed with pasta, and canned diced tomatoes are indispensable for pasta dinners as well as myriad sauces for grilled chicken.

Raisins may be packed as a snack in lunches or heated with broth for a delicious couscous dish. Likewise, garbanzo beans (chickpeas) may be tossed with couscous for a vegetarian dinner, pureed with garlic and olive oil for a quick and healthful dip or spread, or added to a salad.

Mayonnaise may appear in a tuna salad, or as part of a cool and creamy sauce for grilled fish or chicken.

There are also a few items that you can bring for a single use. I can't live without a good cup of coffee in the morning, and pancakes are a breakfast treat during vacation.

Snack foods, such as pretzels and popcorn, are just as easy to bring (and far less expensive at home). Vacation-area shops usually offer fun specialty salsas (albeit at a premium price) that we use in the afternoons with pretzels, baked chips and veggies, or for dinner with grilled meat and fish.

I pack these items in "banana boxes" -- the cardboard boxes with handles -- available from my grocery store. If you have room in your car for two banana boxes, packing will be a breeze. If not, transfer items to smaller containers. For example, you won't use more than two cups of oil in the course of the week, so buy a small bottle or pour some into a smaller jar.

Cereal boxes take up a lot of room; discard the cardboard and place the liner bag inside a stockpot. Or, place jars of herbs and spices in a plastic bag and pack it inside the cereal box. And it's always useful to have a couple of plastic containers with tight-fitting lids, so pack smaller items inside them.

While most rental homes come with somewhat equipped kitch-ens, it has been my experience that none has all the most basic equipment. After all, everyone defines necessities differently.

These are the items I have found, after many years of summer rental, that make my life easier:

Large stockpot with steamer insert (which doubles as a colander), plastic bags with a zip lock (large and small), trash bags, wooden spoon, metal spatula, tongs, a large knife, a paring knife, a large nonstick pan, flat grater and steam basket or tray.

Now that you're organized and stocked, here's an easy pasta recipe to use while on vacation.

Pasta With White Clam Sauce

Serves 8

24 ounces linguine

8 cloves garlic, sliced

1/3 cup olive oil

3 (8-ounce) bottles clam juice

1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

3 (10-ounce) cans baby clams, drained

1/2 cup lemon juice

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1 cup parsley leaves, chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Cook pasta in lightly salted water according to package directions. Drain but do not rinse.

Saute garlic in olive oil in saucepan over medium heat 4 to 5 minutes until garlic turns golden. Add clam juice, basil, red pepper flakes and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 3 minutes. Add clams and lemon juice and cook 1 minute until clams are heated through.

Toss sauce with pasta, lemon zest, parsley, salt and pepper. There will be a lot of broth in bottom of bowl, which will be absorbed by the pasta as it stands. Be sure to ladle some sauce on top of each serving.

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