As some of you know from reading my Facebook page, we just returned from a week long beach vacation. Oh, was it fun. Sun, sand, bike rides, reading, and more fruity tropical drinks than I can count. My family has been vacationing on Kiawah Island since I was a kid, and it is without a doubt my favorite place in the world. We have so many great memories there and every year we make more. It is such a blessing that we are all able to carve time out of our busy schedules and enjoy a week of fun and relaxation together. Though vacation is a great time to enjoy eating out and trying new restaurants, feeding 10 very hungry adults plus one kid in a restaurant for every meal would break the bank. Ben and I did enjoy two date nights out, but the other nights I cooked for the whole group. While I was busy in the kitchen, I started thinking that a post about my approach to vacation cooking might be of use to some readers, so here you go.
Plan, plan, plan – I approach vacation menu planning just as I do my normal weekly menu planning. Going in with a game plan saves you valuable time. Instead of wandering grocery store aisles trying to throw together a meal, you already know what you need and what you’re going to do with it, so you can focus your mental efforts on more important things like reading by the pool (yes!) or staying up late doing jigsaw puzzles (yes! I’m a dork, and I love puzzles.)
Meal choice – When choosing the meals I make on vacation, I try to make sure they meet a few criteria. First, they need to be relatively simple, both in time and effort required and the dishes/utensils/equipment you might need. Second, they should be things that everyone will enjoy. As much as I love experimenting with new flavors and techniques, I don’t think vacation with nine others is the time to do it. I rely on tried and true crowd-pleasers. Also be sure to consider any dietary restrictions or preferences of your family and friends. Third, since we have such a large crowd, I make sure to choose recipes that can be easily doubled without too much additional work. I should also note that if it were allowed, I would probably have planned meals on the grill every single night but unfortunately grills are prohibited where we stayed.
Enjoy the local offerings – Another thing to consider when planning your menu is what produce and other ingredients are local specialties in the area you are visiting. Going to the coast means I’m definitely planning at least a few meals involving the fresh local seafood. (If I were visiting Maine, you can bet I’d be making lobster every night.) If you can, find farm stands with local produce. Not only is it cheaper than the grocery store, it tastes much better!
Bring pantry staples - Don’t waste money buying spices and other staples in the often overpriced area grocery stores. Instead, read through the recipes you plan to make and bring the necessary spices, etc. I took all the spices called for in my recipes as well as a few others I cook with most frequently. I also brought garlic, flour, sugar, baking powder, and chocolate bars from my pantry.
Bring a few of your favorite (small) tools - In my experience, you can make do in a rental kitchen as long as you prepare meals that don’t require special tools. That said, the equipment provided is usually not great. (They don’t want you to be tempted to take it home, right?) The knives in particular are usually the thing I find most frustrating but I live with it since I don’t love the idea of traveling with knives. However, a few tools that I wish I had taken and will take in the future are a garlic press, an extra spatula (if you plan on baking), and a pair of scissors. As tempting as it might be to take along a food processor or stand mixer (I seriously considered both), those seem too involved for a casual beach vacation. As a bonus, I appreciated my beloved appliances even more after I returned home :)
Stay flexible and be prepared to improvise – Wait, didn’t I just say planning is great? Yes, I do still think planning is the first step to a stress free vacation cooking experience, but it’s pretty much guaranteed that not everything will go according to plan. The rental kitchen may not have equipment you counted on, the grocery store may have a limited selection of ingredients, you may have already sent your brother to the store twice today and can’t possibly ask him to go again, etc. etc. Just roll with the punches and don’t worry too much. Remember, you’re on vacation!
Share the load - I am perfectly content to spend an hour or two each day making dinner for everyone. I can’t stand the heat and the sun that long anyway. But, if you have other talented cooks in the family you can have everyone split up the work so that different people are responsible for the meals each night. Even if you do decide to tackle the majority of the cooking yourself, don’t be afraid to delegate some small tasks to make things easier. People are usually more than happy to shuck corn, wash or chop veggies, etc. and you can have fun in the kitchen while you work together.
Our menu from this vacation was as follows:
Pasta with shrimp and oven dried tomatoes (recipe to come), salad
Pork tenderloin with peach salsa (recipe to come), corn on the cob, garlic rice pilaf
Shrimp enchiladas, black beans, chips, salsa and bean dip
Classic mac and cheese, salad and corn on the cob
(I also planned one night with chicken parmesan, pasta, and a green veggie but we ended up arriving too late to cook on our first night due to traffic, so this one got nixed.)
Here are a few snapshots from our vacation. We all had a great time, the kids in particular.
As I mentioned, Ben and I had two nights out for dinner. One was at The Atlantic Room on Kiawah. The other was at Magnolias in Charleston, SC. I generally don’t take pictures in restaurants because I find it rude, so I don’t have any shots of my meals, but both were phenomenal and deserve mention here.
I can’t say enough good things about The Atlantic Room. Ben and I always make it a point to dine there when we are on Kiawah. This time I had grilled wahoo with eggplant puree and tomato jam. Ben and I split a side of truffle mac and cheese – ooooohhhh my goodness, loved it. We also split a sticky toffee pudding for dessert. The whole meal was wonderful, and you can’t beat that view!
After a little bit of shopping on King Street, we headed to Magnolias for dinner. I wish we had had more time to try all of the amazing restaurants in Charleston but we only had the time for one. After a lot of research and reading, this was what I decided on and I have to say we were very pleased with the decision. At Magnolias we tried the pimiento cheese and fried green tomato appetizers. Both were great but the tomatoes were definitely my favorite. My brother and I both had the shellfish over grits for dinner and it was one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Ben, my other brother, and his girlfriend all had the buttermilk fried chicken with collard greens, creamed corn and biscuits with gravy. For dessert we had the peach blackberry crisp. I enjoyed it all so much that I ended up buying the cookbook before we left, and I am very excited to try making some of these Southern dishes in my own kitchen.
I hope this post on vacation cooking is helpful to those of you planning trips this year, and in the future!