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Prepare for outdoors cooking

Spring break may be coming to a close, but summer vacation isn't far away, which gets me thinking about family getaways in the great outdoors.

Whether you head to the coast or the mountains, nobody wants to be chained to the stove when the sunshine is beckoning. And the best guarantee for getting out there is to think about all the cooking needs before you leave home. Poor planning always translates into extra work, which translates into less recreation time.

In truth, I love cooking in challenging — if not totally primitive — conditions. Expectations are low and appetites usually expanded. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't shoot for the high side of edible, if not downright gourmet. So if you can find out in advance what the kitchen is equipped with in the way of appliances and equipment, you won't have to bring along duplicate essentials — or get stuck without.

Beyond equipment essentials, I've collected a few juicy tips for turning vacation cuisine into a fun and tasty adventure.

Divide and conquer!

Sharing chef duties and prep with fellow cabin dwellers is always easier — and way more fun! — than solo cooking. But there's sharing and then there's SHARING. Consider breaking the group into cooking competition teams Iron Chef-style. Without the weird ingredients, of course! Each team can be responsible for an evening meal. For a little extra motivation, and to establish bragging rights for future vacations, make sure there are prizes to be had on the last day.

Omelette in a baggie

This is a cool, forehead-slapping way to construct multiple omelettes for a crowd. And very fun for kids!

Figure out how many eggs you'll need to feed the number of folks you're feeding. Break the eggs into a bowl and add an appropriate-sized splash of milk or cream, salt and pepper. Whisk thoroughly.

Provide separate bowls of omelette additives, such as diced bacon and/or ham, chopped onions, sweet bell peppers, shredded cheese, sliced mushrooms and black olives.

Fill a large pot about two-thirds full with water and bring to a boil.

Now for the construction: hand each person a quart-sized, Ziploc bag. Into each bag, they will ladle in some of the whisked eggs, then appropriate amounts of whatever omelette extras they like, so each person constructs a very individual and customized omelette. Make sure everyone's bag is thoroughly sealed (I've tested this with the new "zipper" style of recloseable bags and they don't leak).

Drop the bags into the boiling water, cover the pot, and cook 7 to 9 minutes. As the eggs cook they puff a bit and stay quite tender. And the cooked eggs don't stick to the bag, so you don't need oil or butter.

Cook ahead whenever possible

To cut down on dirty dishes and simplify meal preparation, consider the following "before leaving town" tips:

  • Figure out your menu and shop for as many meals as you can so you can factor in leftovers and cut down on shopping while on vacation. To keep cooking stress-free, plan your simplest meals for the days when you know you're going to be getting back to the cabin late in the day.
  • For a speedy breakfast burrito, cook eggs, sausage, bacon, sauteed onions mushrooms (and whatever else you like in your burrito) at home and store it in Ziploc bags. Just heat up the eggs and meat in the skillet, warm the tortillas over a second burner or in the microwave, wrap and enjoy, along with salsa and sour cream, of course.
  • Instead of fretting about transporting a fragile box of fresh eggs, go ahead and crack them open into a clean mason jar prior to your trip. Leave them unwhisked, then pour out as needed.
  • One mess/multiple meals: cook up a 5-pound "family pack" of ground beef, turkey or chicken ahead of time and package it into 3 to 5 Ziploc bags (depending on the number of servings you need). These batches of browned meat are the instant base for any number of simple meals, from tacos to sloppy joes.
  • Before leaving town, marinate and grill a "family pack" of boneless/skinless chicken breasts. Store in a plastic bag to use on vacation in quick dinner salads, sandwiches, stir-fries or wherever chicken would be appreciated.
  • Instead of buying expensive precooked bacon, buy 2 or 3 pounds of thick-cut bacon and cook on a cookie sheet in the oven for 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels and freeze or refrigerate. This "almost-cooked" bacon can be quickly reheated in the microwave or in a nonstick skillet, and there's no messy bacon grease to deal with.
  • Place a piece of flank steak (or other meat of choice, such as tri-tip) in a Ziploc bag, along with your favorite marinade, before leaving town. It can be your first evening meal because it's ready to hit the grill.
  • For a quick chopped cabbage salad, start with bags of shredded cabbage. Add chopped carrots, red peppers, with sunflowers seeds or nuts. Then glug in a mixture of Newman's Own Light Balsamic Vinaigrette and Toby's Chunky Feta Dressing and Dip. I never really measure how much of each, just pour, toss and decide if it needs more or less of each. I buy Newman's at any market and I find Toby's at Fred Meyer.
  • Make a large batch of medium grain rice (such as Cal Rose; long grain rice has a higher amylopectin content and gets brittle after cooling so isn't a good candidate for leftovers) before you go and freeze in smaller batches for stir-fries, rice salads, burritos, casseroles, and simple side-dishes.
  • Pre-shred your cheeses.
  • Pre-cut fresh vegetables into nibble-sized portions for simple appetizer and salad construction.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a cookbook author and columnist in Corvallis. Reach her at janrd@proaxis.com.