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Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Vacation Rental Blues

It just can't be... I thought to myself as I rummaged through cabinet after cabinet in the "rustic" kitchen of our Yosemite rental cottage last weekend.  Not a single saucepan in sight.  Nothing that could even stand in for a saucepan.  There was a bizarrely huge Pyrex measuring cup.  Three coffee grinders. (Really?  Three?  Why three?!) Two sad-looking little skillets.  A turkey shaped platter.  But no saucepan.  I sighed.  Typical vacation rental odds-and-ends.  Some improvising was going to be in order.

They say you can cook an entire meal with a single cast-iron skillet...and in my experience, this is indeed what one ends up doing when renting a vacation house with a "fully-equipped" kitchen.

Vacation rental kitchens pose serious challenges for someone like me. 
Yours truly  is a bit gadget-and-fancy-pans obsessed and the various vacation homes we have passed through with friends and family have consistently been a bit odd when it comes to the batterie de cuisine.

It never can always expect to find a trusty cast iron skillet.  That's a given.  And, then, a battered old enameled lobster pot regardless of how far one actually is from any ocean.  I've been in rental cottages in Wisconsin, where there's not even a remote possibility that one will be preparing a lobster for dinner, and yet, ha...there, lurking in a lower cabinet... the giant, blue-and-white speckled pot, a burnt patch permanently etched into the bottom.  Potato peelers are usually circa 1945.  You know the kind.  They're a bit rusty and hurt your hand when you use them.  Rubber spatulas are kind of icky and never totally clean.  Oh, and let's not forget the Corningware!  The ubiquitous Corningware baking dish with its cheerful blue flowers etched on the side and matching clear lid. Sometimes there will be a crusty, non-stick pan (an oxymoron, I know) and, until this past weekend, I've always encountered a 2- or 3-quart saucepan. 

But we all know it doesn't matter really because it's vacation, and you're relaxed and happy.   I've prepared some of the most memorable meals ever in the humblest of kitchens.  A grilled swordfish cooked in the rain on a tiny hibachi on Martha's Vineyard.  A hearty lentil soup for my extended family on a cold autumn night in Door County, Wisconsin.  Rabbit in Mustard Sauce on Christmas in a tiny Paris apartment.  (Note:  I have never come across a wacky lobster pot in a Parisian vacation's a uniquely American thing.)

So, there I was, last Saturday in Yosemite, without a saucepan.  It was our turn to cook dinner and I'd planned to make a simple risotto bianco with some grilled sausages on the side followed by a crisp tre colore salad (endive, arugula and radicchio tossed in a bright vinaigrette). 

Risotto is one of a handful of recipes I know by heart which is invaluable when one is vacation cooking.  It gives you a delightful blank canvas adaptable to any location.  Exhausted from a winter day skiing?   Plain risotto with cheese and a handful of herbs is the perfect warming welcome at the end of the day.  Or, maybe it's summer, and you're just down the road from a farm stand?  Risotto welcomes any handful of summer bounty you throw at it:  blanched fresh peas... asparagus... sweet corn...fresh herbs... tomatoes.  Perhaps you would never have guessed it, but risotto is the ideal vacation cooking item.

All you need is a some onion, chicken stock, a splash of white wine, a couple pats of butter, grated parmesan and the rice.  The best rice for risotto is a fat, short-grain known as arborio or the medium-grain carnaroli, and I keep a canister-full in the pantry at all times.  (A plastic bag of rice travels exceedingly well.)  The rice is sauteed with the onion in the butter, and then hot chicken stock is added, one ladle at a time, slowly over the course of about thirty minutes of cooking, so it's gradually absorbed by the creamy grains of rice.  The easy stirring during the cooking is simple to do while you're sipping wine and catching up with friends or family and there's always someone to hand the spoon off to while you grill up the sausage, or wash the lettuce.  My frozen container of chicken stock even acted as an ice pack in the cooler of food we brought along with us. 

Last weekend we improvised and heated the chicken stock in the giant Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave and the risotto turned out beautifully.  Extra tasty, in many vacation meals seem to be.   Magnificent surroundings and a happy group at the table are really all you need.

Risotto Bianco
adapted from Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food
serves 4  (easily doubles to serve 8)

2 + 1 tablespoons of butter
1 small onion, diced fine
1 1/2 cups risotto rice
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Optional:  a couple tablespoons of minced fresh herbs like thyme, parsley, chives
Note:  for additions see below

1.  Melt butter in a heavy saucepan...or dutch oven...or enameled cast iron pot over medium heat.
Saute the onion until soft and translucent.

Meanwhile, bring the chicken broth to a boil in a separate pan and then turn off the heat.

2.  Add the rice and cook, stirring now and then about 4 minutes.  Do not let the rice brown.

3.  Pour the white wine over the rice and continue stirring until all the wine is absorbed.

4.  Add 1 cup of the warm chicken broth and cook at a vigorous simmer, stirring occasionally.  When the rice starts to get thick, pour in another 1/2 cup of the broth and add a pinch of salt (if you're using store-bought chicken stock, whick is already pretty salty) or a teaspoon of salt (if you're using homemade stock).

5.  Keep adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time, every time the rice thickens.  Do not let the rice dry out.
After fifteen minutes, start tasting the rice, for doneness as well as seasoning. 

6.  Cook until the rice is tender but still has  firmness, 20 to 30 minutes.  If you find yourself running low on chicken stock, just continue by adding water.  You'll be adding less and less as you get closer to finishing the risotto.  You don't want it to be soupy.

7.  When the rice is done stir in 1 tablespoon of butter and the Parmesan cheese and herbs, if using, turn off the heat and let the risotto sit for 2 minutes and serve.

Miscellaneous additions:
A handful of frozen peas is a great addition to risotto, as are fresh shrimp.  Add these about halfway into the cooking.
Fresh corn sliced off the cob or chopped fresh summer tomatoes are also fantastic and can be added about ten minutes before finishing.
Mushrooms can be sauteed and added both at the beginning and at the end.