Cooking might be the last thing you want to do while on holiday, but there’s a lot to be said for self-catering holidays.
- You get more room for your money on self-catering holidays than you do from all-inclusive.
- You set the schedule – with young kids, this makes keeping to routine a lot easier.
- You’re more in control of the menu on self-catering holidays.
- You eat what you want when you want on self-catering holidays.
- Makes managing dietary restrictions easier.
But I know the idea of having to cook (and wash up) makes it sound less holiday-like and more like just moving the housekeeping to a new location. But cooking doesn’t mean it must be done in the same way as you always do. Take a holiday approach to cooking: take some shortcuts, mix things up, relax your rules.
All you need to adopt a holiday approach to cooking is a bit of planning and a willingness to do things a tad differently. I have some thoughts on prepping for self-catering holidays which I’ve shared on the ‘Greater Gotham Going Global’ travel blog, and now I’ve got some tips more specifically about preparing for the catering part of self-catering.
Data Gathering: Holiday meal planning begins, as do so many things, with reconnaissance and information gathering. You need some idea of what resources you will have and some idea of how will utilize those resources.
Local Info: Give some thought to what the local specialties might be. No one expects you to become expert on local cuisine overnight, but you may find some similarities to dishes you already cook or ways to incorporate popular local ingredients not normally available to you.
Onsite Equipment: Our sites provide the kitchen basics – dishes, bowls, cutlery, kettle, mugs, glasses, frying pan, saucepan or two, a roasting tin, measuring jug, strainer, knives, serving utensils, and cutting board. The knives are, by and large, crap so we bring our own anyway. Just one or two – ModParlPhotos favourite all around knife and a breadknife. It’s France. Bread knives are key. We also bring a corkscrew and tin opener because they are supposed to have them and may – but again, pretty much useless. Your accommodation will vary so check before you go so you know what you need to bring with you or what you can cook given what you will have on hand.
Recipes: A new approach means new ideas so it’s time for new recipes. Grab a folder and a handful of summer food magazines (they are everywhere and, I have to say, the Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose monthly mags are great for this sort of thing). If something looks interesting, tear it out and stick it in the folder. Don’t over think at this point. Do the same thing online – browse your favourite foodie websites, print ideas off. Ask friends to email you suggestions, especially friends who have been to the part of the world you are heading for. Here are a few sites to get started with:
- Food Network
- The Kitchn
- NYT’s Cooking
- BBC Food
- BBC’s Good Food Magazine
- uktv’s Good Food Channel
Culinary Packing: There will be things you need that are not provided by your self-catering accommodation. You’ll have to decide what the ‘must-haves’ are, what you have room to pack and what you might be able to live without. There is no right or wrong here. I know people that bring their slow cooker with them. That seems madness to me but it works for them. If you’re going somewhere without a grill or BBQ available, you won’t need a click lighter or matches. Our sites have BBQs available so we always bring both.
I always bring a few Tupperware type containers and a handful of zip-lock bags are also useful but the key for me when it comes to storage is aluminium foil. It is an absolute must for rental or self-catering kitchens, a real workhorse.
- Line trays and roasting dishes with it to save on clean up (after all, less time at the sink means more time with a glass of wine on the deck)
- Create cooking packets for potatoes and other veggies suitable for oven or BBQ
- Cover dishes of leftovers before popping them in the fridge, to keep rest of the food from absorbing odours from particularly pungent fridge-mates.
- If you get the heavy-duty stuff, you can even make baking trays out of it. I’ve been known to make DIY mini-roasting pans as well.
We also pack a certain amount of food in the car. We stock up more fully once we’re onsite – and I love a good French hypermarket -but we always have a few things because ‘stuff happens’ when you are on the road. Traffic, accidents, sudden hunger pangs. And because you never know what delays you might encounter, you don’t know for sure what will be open or how everyone will feel once you finally make it to your site. For all those reasons, I try to have enough supplies to provide not only snacks on the way but some dinner and even a bit of breakfast the next day. Some potentially useful stuff to take in the car with you:
- Pretzels, raisins, biscuits in single serving size packets. Crisps tend to create more crumbs in the car so we avoid those during car trips.
- Bottled water (smallish ones) and bottled juice. We pick up sodas on the road if we want and both bottled water and juice come in handy during the drive and onsite.
- Small boxes of cereal and a pint of long life milk.
- Some tinned fruit, veg, and tuna – mostly just in case of late arrivals since popping tins open on the road isn’t really the easiest way to eat on the move.
- Package of pasta, chopped tomatoes, jarred sauce.
- Basic spices – salt, pepper, onion power, garlic powder, chili flakes (this very much a ModParlPhotos’ specific spice list. Your mileage may vary).
OK. You’ve collected your data, you’ve packed your equipment and you’ve arrived. It’s time to talk about how you’re going to get everyone fed.
The Fabulous Foodie Holiday Approach to Cooking.
Take Some Shortcuts. ‘Quick’ and ‘easy’ are my watchwords for self-catering holidays and shortcuts are the key to both.
- Embrace the ready-made & ready-prepped. I don’t mean the plastic-covered, microwaveable ready-meals. I mean, grab a rotisserie chicken during your swing round the market (grab two, roast chicken is a major time saver in the kitchen – at home or on holiday). Slide a quiche into your basket. Don’t hesitate to grab salad in the bag, pre-cut carrots or diced/cubed meats for grilled skewers. If you don’t buy that sort of thing on a regular basis it may strike you as silly. But if it saves even a little time and clean up effort (and gets you to the relaxing stage of the day faster), isn’t it worth – just for a week or so?
- Get roasted. No rotisserie chickens available? Roast a chicken yourself. No, I’m not crazy. Roasting a chicken is easy, straightforward and having one sitting in the refrigerator means less work overall. I’ve known people to roast two at a time for the express purpose of have a fridge chicken available for snacking, sandwiches, salads and quick pasta toppings.
- The joys of one pot wonders. While you are in ‘data gathering’ mode, keep an eye out for one pot meals or tray bakes. Cuts down on prep time and clean up. Also, easy to scale up or down as needed. There’s no reason you can’t make twice the amount you need so you can have it again a couple of days later.
Mix Things Up. Make some swaps – even small ones just to set this time away apart from every day life. Try a variation on an old favourite. Do you have ham and cheese omelettes at home? How about using a new cheese or adding some mushrooms?
- Try breakfast for dinner. Eggs and sausage make a great dinner when served with some good bread and a bit of cheese, maybe a side of fruit or salad. I also find breakfast for dinner useful on very hot days since when it is especially hot or humid out, no one is interested in a big meal late in the day. Breakfast for dinner lets us scale it down easily. Eggs or beans on toast followed by a cooling dessert such as fruit salad (so easy to throw together using either fresh or tinned fruit), ice cream or lollies.
- Try some quick versions of old (but time-consuming) favourites. For example, your family loves pasta and tomato sauce but your usual recipe involves an all-day simmer and a laundry list of ingredients. Hunt around for a quick and easy version that’s been tried and tested by a site you trust. Recipes with lots of feedback can give you a sense of how it works and how it might work for you. Take a look at Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce. This is one of the most well-known and well-loved sauce recipes in the world today. 3 ingredients, almost no prep, an occasional stir and 45 minutes on a low simmer. Divine, simple, and easy to make extra for later in the week.
- New varieties and textures of bread. We don’t bother with sliced white on holiday and as we’re in France for summer holidays, this is super easy because the French rarely bother with it either. We just send Sprog to the shop every morning to get the day’s bread. He loves doing it and judging by the flocks of children coming and going while balancing baguettes first thing in the morning, we’re not the only ones who have entrusted this job to the kids. We find most bread needs can be met by having a crusty style and a flat style on hand.
Relax the Rules. Left on his own, Sprog would eat absolute crap all day and (curse his metabolism), never put on an ounce. As responsible adults, we don’t let him go wild on crisps and sweets as a rule. But things are a bit more relaxed when we’re on holiday. After all, he’s on holiday too and he is fully aware that holiday eating is not about to become the new normal.
He’s also madly active during the day – often gone at kids’ clubs from 10-1 and again from 2-5. As long as he drinks plenty of water and juice (one rule that we do NOT relax, especially in sunny climes), we tend to say ‘yes’ more often than not to requests for crisps or sweets and we don’t try too hard to dissuade him from afternoon ice creams (which I rather enjoy myself).
Minimal Effort Cooking. I’m a big believer in not adding to the summer heat by turning on the oven or stove. This is true whether I am on holiday or not. Sandwiches are the obvious choice here and that’s fair enough. But it’s a holiday so maybe refer back to the ‘mix it up’ section.
- Picnic anyone? While shopping, grab some items from the deli counter to create a ‘grazing table’ for lunch. Load up on chunks of cheese, olives, cold cuts, pies and quiche from the prepared foods counters. Crusty breads, focaccia, and anything else interesting from the bakery section. Cut up fruit, as well as grapes and berries. To be honest, this kind of thing became our default for lunch almost the whole week we were at Domaine des Ormes and everyone enjoyed it. No cooking meant there was very little to clean up and made snacking easy since it means we had lots of ‘grab and go’ stuff on hand.
- Entree salads are great for lunch or dinner. Chopped hard-boiled eggs and/or shredded deli meats can turn a side salad into a main which can be bulked up with chopped veg and a variety of greens.
- Chicken a million ways. I told you that extra chicken would come in handy and oh boy, does it ever. Chicken salad is a breeze when you’ve got cooked chicken on hand; so is shredding some of that roasted chicken, sautéing it quickly with a bit of garlic and onions and throwing it over pasta; mixing it in with a bit of spiced-up tomato sauce and wrapped in a flatbread; tossed into eggs with some shredded cheese to make a chicken and cheese omelette.
- Couscous is the very definition of quick. Add boiling water and let stand for 5 minutes. Boom! It’s done and you have a blank canvas that goes with an impressive array of additions. Boost the flavour by cooking it with boiling chicken stock instead of plain water. Or herb it up with coriander and cumin. Go wild and do both. Give it a slightly sweeter edge by adding dried fruits and nuts then sprinkling in some mint. Boost the protein level by adding chickpeas, or any cooked meats you have sitting around. If you prefer giant couscous, that takes about 5 minutes longer but still offers a lot of flexibility. I love giant couscous, as I may have mentioned back in Couscous for a Crowd. And I’ve been experimenting with ‘cacio e pepe couscous’ using the giant couscous that is coming along beautifully! More on that soon.
So that is how we approach self-catering holiday meal times. and I hope it’s given you food for thought (see what I did there?) and some ideas you can use to de-emphasize the catering part and focus more on the holiday.