Part of the fun of cooking in a rented beach cottage is to walk into a strange house, fling open the cupboards, and see how great the challenge is going to be. One year, nearly every item in the cupboard was hammered aluminum, even the drinking glasses. But the year nobody in our family will forget is what we call "the year the refrigerator ran away."
There was only one problem with the kitchen that year at Nags Head, N.C. The refrigerator door stuck and the only way to get it open was to pry it open with a screwdriver. We called it the screwdriver diet because it was too much trouble to open the refrigerator to snack.
We phoned the rental agent. No problem, we were told. It will be fixed. That was Friday. Weekend guests were expected. So, we loaded up the refrigerator (three chickens ready to be grilled, potato salad marinating, wine chilling) and headed for the beach.
Back in the kitchen for lunch, we reached for the screwdriver and headed for our ailing refrigerator. In its place was a brand new refrigerator. Wow. The latest model, ice crystals already forming in the trays. And otherwise completely empty. The chickens? Five pounds of potato salad? The wine? The butter?
The rental agent was cheerful. Lucky you, she said, we gave you a new refrigerator. Very nice, but our old refrigerator (and our dinner party) had gone, she said, to its reward, a used-furniture store in Manteo, N.C., 25 miles away.
So, we restocked for our party with hot dogs and beer. What the heck. This was a vacation.
"Cooking," murmur many friends, "is not my idea of a vacation." Nor mine, I would echo. But we certainly don't give up eating, which should be a vacation joy.
Cooking or not cooking? Each has its advantages. While the soul may be on vacation, the stomach goes right on sending out signals. Not everyone can afford to eat out every day, and you may enjoy your own cooking more than restaurant fare.
And it's not all economics. Even the Rockefellers like to drag out the big iron pot when they go to their place in Maine, build a fire and toss in the lobsters.
That's the clue. Take the cooking out of eating and turn it all into a game. Give yourselves a treat, try something new, and enjoy the local fare -- the farm markets and the seashore markets. Feast on a luxury you hesitate to buy at home -- shrimp, soft-shell crabs, lobsters, stuff yourself with the local corn, tomatoes and peaches. Compared to the cost of eating out, it will seem downright thrifty.
This is a time to play, not work, in the kitchen. Get acquainted with something new -- stuff a squid, learn to roll sushi, learn to bake bread (go ahead, try puff pastry).
The most important thing is to keep yourself out of the grocery store when you're on vacation. You may feel silly stocking up the car trunk with basics you know you can get at the beach, but nothing destroys the vacation mood quicker than having to go to the grocery store. Furthermore, what you buy at home will undoubtedly be vastly cheaper than at a resort market.
Vacations are places where simple family traditions can evolve. We never eat grits at home. This is a revered beach treat. We pack a box every time we head for the shore. Poached eggs and grits. It's our beach thing.
Another tradition is lasagna. We leave home with an ice chest stocked with the cold groceries. It also contains a big frozen lasagna casserole, a tossed salad, and buttered Italian bread. When we arrive after our six-hour drive, there are sheets to go on beds and unpacking to be done. Everyone is tired, but dinner is ready. All we have to do is put the lasagna in the oven, uncork the wine, toast the sea and watch the moon rise.
It doesn't have to be lasagna. Just make it a family favorite. A good spaghetti sauce, a big brick of frozen chili, a pan of moussaka. Something you all like that can be made ahead and frozen, so your final hours can be devoted to packing, not cooking. One of our favorites is bouillabaisse, which we simplify by bringing a frozen tomato base from home and adding fresh-caught fish.
When you think about beach meals, keep one other thing going in your mind like a mantra -- eating doesn't necessarily mean serious cooking. Use raw fruits and vegetables. Big filling salads are quick and easy. All you have to add are rolls, a cold blender soup or a melon half with ice cream or sherbet.
Improvise. Create. Cope. It makes life (and meals) more interesting. If you don't have white wine for the bluefish marinade, try a little vodka or vermouth.
There is no better way to cook a fresh fish than broiled with a little lemon and butter. The only reason to try anything else is to add variety to your life. Often any cooking that just has to be done can be polished off in the morning so the day can be spent on the beach. Potatoes can be boiled; ribs can be cooked to be finished quickly in the evening on the grill. Fish is wonderful on a grill. A blender doesn't take up much space in the car trunk and it can do speedy drinks, cold soups and milk shakes.
Many cottages are equipped with charcoal grills. If yours isn't (ask your rental agent), take one.
The best dinners are always those that are tied to the day -- an afternoon crabbing and then the evening spent cracking crabs. A day spent fishing, clamming or peeling shrimp -- then experiencing it again with the dinner you earned. VEGETABLE-SESAME SALAD (8 servings)
If your vacation style is to go to the carryout and bring back a mess of ribs or chicken, that's fine, too. But what you need to go with them is a great salad. This is it.
Make a swing by an oriental market before you leave home to buy sesame seeds. They are usually cheaper there and sometimes you can buy them really cheaply in bulk. Once you have a supply of seeds, think of adding a few to hash brown potatoes or in marinades for grilled fish, chicken or steak. (See recipe below for grilled fish with sesame.)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon sesame oil, or salad oil
3 cucumbers, peeled (if waxed) and thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled, sliced thinly on the diagonal
1/2 cup pitted black olives
4 cups napa or Chinese cabbage (slice cabbage very thinly from both ends to have a mix of shredded leaves and crescents of white leaf rib)
FOR THE DRESSING:
4 scallions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup rice or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup safflower or salad oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
In a skillet, toast sesame seeds in oil until seeds are light brown. Cool slightly.
In a salad bowl toss together cucumbers, carrots, olives and cabbage. Add sesame seeds. Combine in a jar the dressing ingredients, shake and add just enough to the salad to give a light sheen to the vegetables. SEAFOOD TOSTADOS (4 servings)
Instead of tacos this year, let your houseful of people build their own tostados. Better still, make them crack the crabs first and save enough crab meat for their dinner.
4 corn tortillas
Shortening or salad oil for frying
16-ounce can refried beans, warmed
1 small head iceberg lettuce, sliced into a fine shred
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/4 pound monterey jack or cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 pound cooked crab meat, or small shrimp
1 cup guacamole or sour cream
3 scallions, chopped
1/2 cup black olives, pitted
Mexican rice for serving (see below)
Fry tortillas in about 1/2 inch of very hot oil, one at a time, until crisp and puffy. Drain on paper towels. Spoon warm refried beans on tortillas. Serve with bowls of lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, crab meat, guacamole or sour cream, scallions and olives. Accompany with Mexican rice. (Recipe follows). Adapted from "Fish Cookery International" by Lou Pappas (101 Productions), San Francisco, Ca. MEXICAN RICE (4 servings)
This is another recipe that can be put together in the morning and baked at dinner time.
(Consider making extra cooked rice and use the excess another day to do a rice salad tossed with shrimp and scallops, scallions, green peppers, artichoke hearts and Italian dressing.)
3 cups cooked rice
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese (divided)
1/2 cup grated monterey jack cheese
4-ounce can green chili peppers, chopped
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Salt and pepper
Butter for casserole dish
Combine rice, 1/4 cup cheddar cheese, monterey jack cheese, chilies, sour cream, yogurt, salt and pepper. Pour into buttered 2-quart casserole dish. Top with 1/4 cup cheddar cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. (If casserole has been refrigerated, allow to return to room temperature or allow extra time for heating.) LACE CORNBREAD (4 servings)
A deep-south specialty is a pioneer dish that evolved when there were no ovens, only campfires and griddles. It is perfect with fish, and is a quick and easy substitute for hush puppies.
It is incredibly easy, but there are tricks. Don't add salt (or they will stick to the fry pan). These are at their best when freshly made. Make them when you are ready to eat.
The cornmeal batter will continue to absorb water and will thicken. You will have to keep adding water to be sure the batter is thin and watery and immediately spreads when it hits the griddle. Use shortening and not oil for frying. The result will be crisp, golden, thin and fragile, lacey corn cakes. Drain them well on paper towels, and, if you are a true southerner who has forgotten about diets, serve with real butter.
1 cup water
1 cup yellow stone-ground cornmeal
Shortening for frying
In a mixing bowl, add water to cornmeal until the batter is the consistency of a thin gruel. Heat griddle or large cast-iron skillet with about a 1/4 inch of melted shortening. When hot, use a large spoon to drop the thin batter to make 1 or 2 corn cakes at a time. Fry until the edge begins to brown. Turn carefully using two spatulas, one under and one over. Cook briefly on the second side until golden and crisp. Lift out with the 2 spatulas and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately with butter. THAILAND HOT AND SOUR SHRIMP SALAD (4 servings)
Experiment with a new "country" while you're cooking at the beach. Stop at an oriental market before you leave home and buy a bunch of coriander (also called cilantro) and get acquainted with an authentic flavor that does marvelous things for both oriental and Mexican dishes.
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 tablespoon lemon balm leaves (optional)
1 tablespoon red onion, very thin slices
1 tablespoon nam pla fish sauce* (optional)
2 tablespoons lime (or lemon) juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon chopped scallion
1 tablespoon coriander leaves*, chopped
Place shrimp in a single layer on a sheet of heavy aluminum foil, fold and seal. Place on gas burner and cook for 2 minutes on each side.
Unwrap and place shrimp and accumulated juices in a bowl. Add remaining ingredients. Toss to coat shrimp. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or more.
If you should have mint, garnish with a few leaves.
*Fresh coriander bunches are found in some supermarkets and often in oriental food stores. Nam pla is a basic ingredient of many Thai recipes and found in oriental markets. Adapted from "Embassy Fare" (Barclay-Ramsey Associates) BLUES A L'ORANGE (4 servings)
No matter where you go on the East Coast this summer, from Cape Cod to Hilton Head, you're bound to run into bluefish. This simple recipe adapts to any fish fillets or is equally good for chicken.
4 bluefish fillets (or enough for 4 servings)
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup melted butter
Baste fillets with juice, soy sauce and butter. Place skin side down on broiler pan. Grill about 15 minutes, or until fish flakes easily; baste occasionally with sauce. Adapted from "The Bluefish Cookbook," by Greta Jacobs and Jane Alexander, Globe/Pequot Press CREOLE BOUILLABAISSE (6 to 8 servings)
"Quand c,a commence a bouillir -- baisse!"
Translated that means: When it starts to boil -- lower the heat. The New Orleans version of this dish is an interesting variation on the Mediterranean classic and a great beach house party dish. They may jeer when you pack the dutch oven, but they will kiss your sandy feet when you produce this at the beach.
1 pound red drum fillets, or other fish
1 pound sea trout fillets, or other fish
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup flour
1 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
5 cups water (or fish stock)
16-ounce can tomatoes, cut up, with juice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon saffron (optional)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pint oysters, fresh or frozen (optional)
6 ounces crab meat, picked over for shell
Remove skin and bones from fish. Cut fillets into neat chunks. In a 4-or 5-quart dutch oven or heavy casserole pan, melt butter. Add olive oil and blend in flour. Cook, stirring constantly, until light brown in color. Add onion, celery and garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, until vegetables begin to brown. Gradually stir in water or stock. Add tomatoes, wine, parsley, lemon juice, bay leaf, salt, saffron, cayenne pepper, and about 1/4 of the fish chunks. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer 20 minutes. Add remaining fish and cook 5 to 8 minutes longer. Add shrimp, oyster and crab meat. Cook another 3 or 5 minutes longer or until all seafood is done.