Summertime = happytime! It's the season of vacay, of road trips and beach stays, amusement parks and unabashed tourism. And if you're an avid cook, chances are you'll want to play around in your rental kitchen and whip up a good meal or two. You can usually count on some solid basics in a vacation rental—dishes, glassware, flatware, some standard cookware, maybe some steak knives. But if you bring with you a few things from home, your vacay cooking can get that much more enjoyable.
Of course, unless you are in a remote location, you can buy whatever you need. But I don't like spending money that I don't have to spend, and I'm not willing to pay for another set of premium tools that I already have at home. So I pack a little kit whenever I'm traveling to a place where I'll be doing some cooking.
First off, I try to pack only what, to me, are necessities. I don't need to bring a corkscrew (I'll just buy screw-top bottles) or an arsenal of exotic spices and ingredients (every grocery store now carries decent olive oil, smoked paprika, and the like). Of course, if you're flying, you should put this kit in your checked baggage. Here's what I recommend:• Swivel or Y-shape vegetable peeler: Not just for peeling taters, this tool helps you make food pretty. You can shave zucchini or cucumber into lovely ribbons, or shave beets into super-thin disks.• Chef's knife: Indispensable workhorse tool that needs no justification. I don't own a knife sleeve, so I either secure the blade in cardboard that I've cut and taped to the right size, or I wrap it in a thick kitchen towel.• Serrated paring knife: This is a semi-optional item, as the chef's knife can handle all cutting tasks. But I bring one along because I'll usually be in the kitchen cooking and playing with someone else, and it's nice to be able to both work at the same time.• Microplane grater: This might seem a little frivolous, but it's a great tool for simple cooking. Grate citrus zest for salad dressing, grate garlic into a paste and use in a spice rub for meat or fish, or turn shallots into a smooth pulp for that salad dressing.• Medium-sized cutting board: Your rental will probably provide a cutting board, but I bring one along because, as mentioned above, I won't be the only cook in the kitchen.• Specialty salts: This may seem to contradict my "you can buy most things at the grocery store" rule, but I'm a good-salt fiend and don't want to leave the selection up to chance. I like to tote along a little tin of sel gris or other crunchy sea salt, some pretty salt for the ooh-ahh effect, and some delicate flake salt. Not every grocery store stocks these.
Armed with my little kit, which fits inside a large zip-top plastic bag, my best friend and I whipped up this nice dinner recently in an Orlando Residence Inn hotel. The salmon was rubbed with lemon zest, grated garlic, smoked paprika, and that pretty red Hawaiian sea salt; the potatoes were peeled with my swivel peeler and chopped on the extra cutting board with the chef's knife, the salad was dressed with a citrus and shallot-pulp dressing and tossed with serrated-knife-extracted orange sections and swivel-peeler-shaved beets. Not bad for a hotel meal!