Tara Austen Weaver, a.k.a. Tea, is the Seattle-based author of the blog Tea & Cookies, on which she discusses cooking, gardening, traveling, reading, and writing, weaving stories into it all with a gentleness and honesty that set her apart. She is the author of the memoir The Butcher and the Vegetarian, and she has just released an e-book of stories and recipes from Japan as a fundraiser for disaster relief.
Here she tells us about food so fresh you don’t want to do much to it, her traveling tool kit, and her special “berry pot.”
Are you taking a vacation this summer? Will you have a chance to cook while there?
I try to get away a couple of times during the summer. Hopefully there is a camping or backpacking trip at some point. This year I am going to a farm for a few days to learn how to make goat cheese. And I almost always spend part of August at my family’s cabin on a small island off the coast of Canada. There are great farms on the island and the produce is gorgeous, but the kitchen is very basic. I’m usually improvising and making do. I think of it as “adventure cooking.”
In what way do you feel your vacation cooking style differs from your everyday cooking style?
Vacation cooking takes my summer cooking philosophy to the extreme. Usually the food is so fresh and lovely that I don’t do much to it. Tomatoes get a little roasting to bring out their flavor. Salads or noodles get handfuls of fresh herbs. Flavors are bright and fresh, without fussy elements that take time. Who wants to spend all day in the kitchen when the beach is calling?
Also, conditions may not support fancy cooking. Camping certainly does not, and kitchens in cabins or rental vacation houses may be basic. Though I sometimes tackle larger cooking projects while on vacation (baking something fun, or making jam or ice cream), for the most part I go for simple, easy, fresh, delicious.
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?
I’ve recently written about the kitchen supplies I think you should take to a summer house/cabin. The basics I try to remember (though do not always succeed) are: a Microplane grater, a pair of tongs, a good kitchen knife, and some general spices/herbs, olive oil, vinegar. Any spices that live in seasonal cabins or rental houses are usually so old and sad. I also find a container of frozen pesto very helpful. It can be tossed into pasta, spread on pizza, used to perk up scrambled eggs or a frittata, or be served with vegetables — raw or grilled. Also, it just tastes of summer.
What is your best vacation cooking memory, as a child or adult? And your worst (gruesome details welcome)?
At my family’s cabin there is an old Le Creuset pot I’ve used so often to bake berry crisps that the white coating has turned purple. We call it “the berry pot.” I love that my nieces may grow up with summer memories of using “the berry pot” to turn whatever berries we pick into an easy crisp. That makes me happy.
On the other side of the spectrum, I used to work as a summer wilderness guide when I was younger. I have plenty of stories of backpacking trips where key ingredients were forgotten or eaten by animals, and how sweaty and greasy and gross cheese becomes after several days in a backpack (you don’t want to know). There was also the time when the camping stove malfunctioned, the plastic controls melted and flames went shooting everywhere. They set the dry pine needles under the stove on fire and we nearly burnt down the forest.
Do you have a tip or saving-grace recipe that makes your kitchen life easier while on vacation?
I use a mandoline a lot in the summer, to julienne or thinly slice vegetables. This is a trick I picked up when I lived in Japan. These zucchini noodles are a good example of something I might do on vacation. It takes only a few minutes, uses produce that is plentiful at the market or in the garden, and both tastes really good and is good for you.
Another thing I often do is cook some things ahead of time to take with us. When I go camping I sometime make a Thai curry and bring it already prepared in a cooler, then just cook fresh rice. Other things I like to make are frittatas and this sorrel tart that is one of my favorite things. I make it before we leave and we can slice it up for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, with some fruit and a salad on the side.