Cooking on Vacation by Derrick Schneider

This is part of a series of Q&A’s about cooking on vacation. The complete list of posts in this series is available here.

Derrick Schneider is an Oakland-based programmer, puzzle designer, and writer who created one of the first food blogs ever, An Obsession With Food, which I credit for giving me the blogging bug back in the day. Derrick is a regular contributor to the Art of Eating, among other publications, and his passion for wine has led him to teach wine tasting classes. He’s also developed a meal planning application for the iPhone called Mise en Place.

Here he tells us about
cooking a birthday dinner in Paris, whether or not to travel with your own wine vinegar, and panzanella.

Did you take a vacation this summer, and did you have a chance to cook while there?

We just got back from a road trip to Southern California and Big Sur, but it was all hotels and restaurants. Other than that, alas, we have nothing planned for the summer. 

Are there utensils or ingredients you always take with you when you go on vacation? If so, what are they? If not, what do you unfailingly regret not taking?

My chef’s knife is a frequent stowaway in my luggage, of course, but I also bring a good pair of kitchen tongs. When we stayed with my mom and her husband in Provence for a bit, they were at first a bit amused by the tongs. But once they saw how often I used them, they were so delighted that we bought them their own set as a present.

But I do always end up with one regret: not bringing my own wine vinegar. If an apartment has wine vinegar, it’s the wan, pale commercial stuff. But I always think, “Oh, I can get by with regular vinegar for a bit.” I suppose it’s at least a good reminder of how good my own is!

What is your best vacation cooking memory?

We recently went to Paris to celebrate a big birthday of mine, and we had an apartment. I decided that I really wanted to cook for some friends and family for my birthday. This was an homage to my cooking mentor Tom Dowdy, who used to host forty-person, everything-from-scratch dinner parties for his birthday (which was close to mine).

I couldn’t quite do that in our little kitchen-away-from-home with its small dining table and dearth of chairs, but we did manage to put together a few courses, and it was one of the few times where we’ve hosted a dinner party and I felt like everything worked out right. [Having been one of the lucky guests at that dinner, I can confirm this! --Clotilde.] When people later asked about the best memory from my trip, that was always near the top of my list.

And your worst?

So far I’ve been lucky: No horror stories to report. Even in the worst case, you’re on vacation somewhere wonderful with loved ones nearby. There’s probably wine. Things can’t go too wrong. 

Do you have a tip or saving-grace recipe that makes your kitchen life easier while on vacation?

I really think that if you know some basics on prepping vegetables and cooking meat, you can do a lot with just a little. A panzanella salad, for instance, which is just toasted, stale bread cubes, lots of dressing, and some vegetables and what-not, is always a dish that is simultaneously showy and homey. Vacation food gets extra flavor just because you’re away and somewhere exciting, so dishes you may consider quotidian fare at home get an extra sheen of deliciousness when cooked somewhere else.

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