Things I Bring When I’m a Guest for a Weekend (or Week)

A while back, someone posed the question on Twitter, asking it was okay to bring your own knives if you’re a houseguest for the weekend. It’s a question I didn’t think was all that odd, since I do it all the time. Then a friend of mine also noted recently that, like me, he brings red pepper powder with him, when he’s cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. Which got me thinking about the mini-arsenal of equipment and foodstuffs I tote along with me when heading out to the country to stay with friends or family.

I try to be a good guest and bring food to take some of the burden off my hosts. I’ll usually prepare and freeze a few rolls of cookie dough, or maybe a disk of tart dough, which I’ll bring along to make a tart. I might take along a marinated lamb or pork shoulder (or loin) studded with garlic and rubbed with spices, ready to roast off with little fuss. And I always bring a couple of loaves of bread from Paris since it can be a challenge to find good bread in the countryside. (And I don’t like eating baguettes that can be tied in a knot.) And I always arrive with a couple of bottles of wine, because I don’t want to be known as the guest who drank his hosts out of house and home.

So here is a general list of some of the things I bring along so I can pitch in with the cooking and remain a happy camper:

chopping parsley

Cleaver

Years ago when working in an Asian restaurant, chef Martin Yan came into the kitchen and asked me why I wasn’t using one of his cleavers. So I told him to send me one – which he did! And I find a cleaver a great general-purpose knife, and I pack my up to avoid the pleasure (or displeasure) of trying to make dinner with someone’s steak knife that they inherited from their grandmother who got it thirty-five years ago at the bank when they were giving away knives if you opened an account.

With a cleaver, you can slice and chop vegetables, fruits, herbs, garlic and meat easily. I’ve had this one for about twenty years and it’s still almost as sharp as new. Most Asian markets carry very good cleavers that cost relatively little. The heft of such a knife also makes it good in case anyone is giving you a hard time in the kitchen. Raise it high above you, and I can guarantee, that you’ll instantly gain the respect of everyone else in the kitchen. (Although you might not gain an invitation to come back.)

two essential knives

A Good, Cheap Paring Knife and Serrated Knife

I’ve already extolled the virtues of my favorite serrated knife, which is useful for slicing tomatoes, onions, and fruits, and is cheap enough so that if someone pilfers it or runs it through the dishwasher, I won’t flip out. (Well, not too much…) I was recently at a Migros supermarket in Switzerland and they were selling similar knives of good-quality for about $5 – and believe me, I stocked up.

A small, inexpensive paring knife is another must. As an ex-restaurant worker, I dislike hate letting anyone else use any of my knives unless I am 110% certain they will, 1) Bring it back to me when done with it, and 2) Assure me that they will not use my knife to open a jumbo can of olive oil. I don’t let my favorite one out of my sight kitchen because after losing it for ten years, and having a dishwasher at Chez Panisse find it in a silverware rack ten years later (yes, really) – I hold on to it for all it’s worth. And it’s worth a lot more than five dollars.

zip-top bags

Zip-Top Freezer Bags

I stow a few of these amongst my things as they take almost zero room and are great for storing stuff and marinating chicken and meat. At home, I reuse them a zillion times over, but on vacation, I’m sorry to say that I am happy to have one less thing to stand over the sink and wash.

Although I get teased mercilessly for loving zip-top bags, and bringing them back from the states by the suitcase-load…who’s drinking a chilled glass of rosé under the shade of the trees when everyone else is hunched over the sink up to their elbows in soapy water?

rubber spatulas

Silicone Spatulas

I could scream when I go to people’s houses and they have aged, stiff, spatulas whose rubber heads are so petrified they’re good for…well, nothing. (Above, left.) I lower my stress level considerably by bringing my own. My silicone spatulas are heatproof so I don’t have to worry about them getting ruined and I use them for everything. (I kind of am obsessed with the Le Creuset spoon spatulas, in spite of telling me that I need to move on, and give others a try.)

vegetable peeler

Vegetable Peeler

Not 100% essential, since you can make do with a paring knife instead. But there is nothing more frustrating than trying to use a dull, rusty vegetable peeler that you find at the bottom of their long-forgotten utensil drawer. (And in France, everything needs to be peeled. Although I draw the line at tomatoes.) I bring a good one along. And while Europeans seem to like the Y—style peelers better, the sharpness of the Oxo ones can’t be beat. I often leave one behind as a gift, and find that on my next visit, the y-style ones are still in the drawer and everyone is peeling their tomatoes with their shiny new vegetable peeler.

green lentils

Green Lentils

I tote along a bag or box of green lentils since no matter how well-equipped, or badly equipped, the kitchen is, you can simmer a pot of lentils in 25 minutes, toss them with some peeled and diced carrots and onions that you’ve simmered with the lentils, season ‘em up with salt and vinaigrette, and have a salad that’s good with anything – either on its own, or with crumbled blue cheese in it.

moka pot

Moka Pot

This is probably the most important thing for me. If I wake up and can’t have coffee, I am a deranged, unpleasant substitute for a human being the rest of the day. And if there’s anything more irksome than waking up and trying to figure out how to make coffee in an unfamiliar kitchen while everyone else is still snoozing away the morning, can someone please tell me what it is? Okay, there are a few worse things, but let me tell you; morning is no time to mess with me until I’ve had my coffee.

(And please don’t take it personally if I don’t want to talk to you before I’ve had my morning coffee. But I do appreciate it when people shut up until I’ve had my first sip.)

I’ve fiddled with everyone’s fancy-schmancy espresso makers or tried to figure out those idiotic electric coffee makers with fifteen buttons to program it to do seemingly everything – except make a simple cup of coffee. While my hosts are dozing the morning away, I’m turning into a ball of frustration, which isn’t exactly the way I want to start my day.

Bialetti moka pot

I love my moka pot; you simply fill it with water, add coffee, and heat it up on the stovetop. But I am always sure to ask the night before how to turn on the stove, because another pet peeve of mine is complicated ovens and stoves. Why can’t they all just be on/off models, with simple knobs you turn? And what’s up with those electronic touch pads that require you to read the instruction booklet? Note: Stoves require, 1) On/Off switches, 2) Temperature adjustment knobs. And that’s it.

gingersnaps cookies

Insulated Baking Sheets

Cookie dough is one of the easiest things to bring when you’re a houseguest, and who doesn’t love cookies? Well, they’re hard to love when they’re burnt on the bottom. Many home ovens have irregular heating patterns. And even the best ovens have quirks. So I slide a cookie sheets with an insulated bottom (those with a cushion of air sandwiched between the pan and the heat of the oven) to gently diffuse and moderate the heat, so your cookies are always tops. (With no burnt backsides.)

harissa

Harissa

A tube of spicy harissa, North African hot sauce, makes a great base for a fast marinade mixed with white wine or olive oil, and perhaps some mustard, garlic, or herbs. Harissa enlivens braises when a generous dab is added to the cooking liquid. And it can used to make an instant pasta sauce – albeit rather spicy – as well as a simple appetizer, mixed up with brined or cured olives.

sardines and mackerel

Tinned Sardines or Mackerel

Another quick appetizer is to open a can of sardines or mackerel, remove any bones, and mash the cute little fishies up with a bit of soft butter, salt and pepper, a squirt of lemon juice, and some chopped capers. It’s a very tasty (and healthy) spread on crackers or bread. And it’ll keep for a few days, too.

ancho chile powder

Red Pepper Powder

I don’t mean to complain, again, but did you ever get to someone’s house and find that their ground pepper was purchased at least ten years ago? I know it’s hard to keep up with expiration dates on pepper, but I don’t think anyone should be deprived of the pleasures of freshly ground black pepper. Nor have to eat pre-ground black pepper, no matter how new – or old – it is.

black pepper

I’m a fan of ancho, chipotle, cayenne, piment d’Espelette, and Korean pepper (called Gochugaru), and always arrive with a little jar for seasoning soups, stews, or even a simple plate of hard-cooked eggs with anchovies draped over them, which can be made in any kitchen.

salt

Salt

Aside from bittersweet chocolate, coconut ice cream, toasted pecans, tortilla chips, späetzle, Boston cream pie, fried chicken, patty melts, espresso in Italy, duck confit, French fries with spicy peanut sauce, and the hot corned beef grinders they used to serve at the probably long-gone Dino’s pizza in Connecticut*, I am crazy about salt. I bring two kinds. One is a large grain sea salt, for cooking, and the other is a finishing salt, such as Maldon or Fleur de sel de Guérande, which is best dusted over salads and other foods right before eating.

capers

Capers

Capers are great. And even the supermarket brands, like the one shown that I picked up in a mini-mart out in the countryside, are just fine for most uses. They add a little pickled je ne sais quoi to everything from dips to tomato-based pasta sauces. For a quick sauce, heat some in hot olive oil (watch out since they may sputter!), add slices of fresh garlic and cook until the garlic starts to brown gently. Remove from heat and toss hot pasta and salt in it. Add a knob of butter or a bit more olive oil if you want to at the last-minute, and top with lots of grated Parmesan cheese (that you brought, too), and freshly ground pepper, that you also were kind enough to bring as well. (That’s not on my list, but sometimes I’ll toss in a pepper mill as well. However I tend to use more red pepper powder theses days than black pepper, though.)

All Clad pan

A Good All-Purpose Pan

Grrrr! As a restaurant cook for most of my life, there is nothing that makes me happier than having a good pan to cook with. Flimsy cookware sucks and the people who make it deserve whatever fate is doled out to those who intentionally inflict misery on others. I got this All-Clad pan many moons ago (which goes by the fancy name, a saucier), which a friend of mine who worked at the company gave me to try out, and I fell in love with it. It holds about 3 qts (3l), can be used for anything, from jam-making to frying up some scrambled eggs to surprise your hosts when they finally wake up and find you drinking a good cup of coffee in their kitchen, along with toast made from good, Parisian bread. It cleans up easily and is hard to ruin. So I’ve started bringing it with me when I take trips away. But unlike all the other things I tote along, it’s the one thing that I make sure comes back with me.


A few other things I often bring with me; a bag of crisp topping to make an impromptu dessert, an ice cream scoop (and if I’m not going far, I’ll bring ice cream), a measuring cup or scale, garlic and shallots, unscented laundry detergent (the highly perfumed French stuff overpowers me and makes my eyes look like goji berries), a rasp-style cheese grater, ground coffee (always appreciated by hosts, especially those with guests who are big coffee drinkers), some homemade jam as a gift (also appreciated by hosts, especially French ones), a loaf of bread or two, and some decent olive oil and butter.

What do you bring?


*I found that the restaurant does still exist, but in a different location. And corned beef grinders, sadly, are no longer are on the menu.

249 comments

  • Wine! And cookies, since they won’t fall apart in transit if wrapped carefully. I try to avoid other people’s kitchens when travelling, since it’s inevitably an exercise in frustration to use someone else’s equipment, especially if they don’t cook!

  • You are a hero! Great article.

  • Great pasta recipe you included — it is similar to one I use except mine has a generous amount of parsley in it(old NYTimes cookbook Craig Claiborne recipe) I never thought about including capers in it — thanks! Also interesting to hear about harissa — must try it :)

  • I’m so grateful for this post. My birthday is imminent, and you’ve given me a lovely long list of things to suggest as gifts. Honestly how have I survived since my beloved moka pot disappeared into the Erwigkeit?

  • Awesome!
    You can be a guest at our house anytime

  • Wow I want to see you suitcase! I bet you get all sweaty when you have to leave for the airport and realise you can’t take your knives and some of the foods with you…
    I really make my suitcase look like hand luggage. I usually carry beer, as I’m from Belgium, I used to carry chocolate but found most countries have better chocolate now, I always carry Maldon sea salt. During the winter I will also bring Belgian cheese as well.

  • Please come as my guest in Horse Country Virginia or for Thanksgiving in Rome !

  • I bring a small carry-on bag so no room for extras. I hate staying with people & hate cooking in their kitchens due to dull knives, incorrect pans etc. But if I do stay with someone I bring a gift (from Martha Stewart suggestions) & try to not let it be about me and instead adapt to the house. It might mean no coffee or the wrong kind of bread but it’s only for a moment.

  • Moka pot, yes!! I’ve been toting one near and far for 25 years. Absolutely necessary, especially after a night drinking the wine I bring to share. If in close quarters, I recommend grinding your coffee at night while gathering up those empty wine bottles. It just may extend your own quiet coffee time in the morning.

  • After a mental debate my obsessive nature won out and have to include this: I love my mocha pot too… bought one the first time I was in france (at a large supermarket) after searching for an eternity and pointlessly for one in SA. I noticed that yours is aluminium and as having a bit of OCD when it comes to aluminium, can I suggest switching to stainless steel? I know you’ll lose all the flavour of the old one… but your brain will thank you! I noticed one of your posts suggested aluminium free baking powder and I loved that you pointed it out. I always wondered what gave that bitter taste to baking powder. Aluminium is quite reactive, so I always figure in a coffee pot where there’s high water pressure and heat is probably one of the best ways to increase your aluminium intake… which might not be a great idea. :-)

  • What a great article! I’m so glad I’ve finally subscribed, I love reading these every morning with my breakfast.

    I bring my moka maker too. Olive oil and lemons. Smoked black pepper.

  • Wonderful post! I would add a decent cutting board (I particularly hate the tempered glass ones or flimsy plastic) and a microplane to the list! Have a lovely weekend :)

  • … and a partridge in a pear tree!

  • Occasionally I bring my Kitchen Aid mixer, a set of good knives, a spring-form pan, a loose bottom tarte pan & my marble rolling pin. Oh… & my baking stone. Thank goodness for milk crate to tote all this stuff to my favorite home-away-from-home.

  • I love this post, David! Reminded me of the favorite thing I’ve ever seen anyone bring to someone else’s house, which was several years ago when a bunch of friends gathered at a rented house in Provence, and one from LA showed up with three Tetrapaks of chicken stock that she’d actually packed inside of her luggage, a risky move unless you have hard-sided bags, and even then…. But her impulse was good, so I often bring a few cubes of organic beef, chicken and vegetable bouillon with me, since I’d be at a loss without stock, even from cubes. Sure, you could make it on the spot, but I find that you (understandably) wear out your welcome in the kitchens of even the most gastronomically enlightened friends, since they want to host or hostess.

  • We bring along our wine glasses (Riedel Vinum Extreme Pinot Noir & Chardonnay). For some reason Riedel have not been successful in convincing restaurants (even 3 star restaurants) to buy them.

  • 1. The Moka, I’ve been living in Italy for 3 years. The Moka comes with me and the Italian espresso too.
    2. Wine. For the same reasons you listed.
    3. assorted spices likely to serve up grilled meats and tossed veggies with flavor
    and for something different

    though it’s not something I bring, I set the table with linens and whatever random flatware and dishes I can find. I often find myself in houses where dinner together is not the norm. So, if I am the reason for a dinner, I make the dinner inviting in both taste and atmosphere. Love your post David, really apropos!

  • a good whisk. once i was invited to a friend`s house to make some simple cream desserts like panna-cotta and company, and at the very last minute was told that there was no whisk in the house. i mean: hooooow and whyyyyyy?!!!!!

  • I bring my own bath towel, haha. But I do tend to leave things behind, like frozen waffles or pancakes after a huge brunch, or frozen pasta or pizza dough. You’ve sort of broadened my horizons, though! Your hosts must love your visits.

  • Mon cher David,

    I very much enjoy your blog. Can you please expand on how you make your coffee with the Moka pot? i.e. what kind of coffees you use, what grind, how you go about it etc.

    I have read how others use it but I am only interested in how you use it!

    Merci.

    Armand

  • For recent lake getaway I found these to be essential:
    French press
    Ground coffee
    Smoked paprika, dried rosemary, dried cilantro
    Foil.
    I missed my knives deeply! Never again doing a similar vacation without them!

  • i’ve been developing a cabin / car camping kitchen list that’s somewhat like yours and includes:

    – cutting board
    – knife
    – salt in a jar & small pepper mill
    – twine
    – tongs
    – tea towel/s
    – lighter

    food can be procured near the campsite, and everything else falls into ‘mess kit, bring your own’, but this is the stuff that inevitably no one else remembers.

  • I’m known to bring fresh fruits & veggies. I’m considering adding a box of teaposy as a gift for our hosts.

    • A mini stove-top espresso maker and small amount of good balsamic vinegar and some small glass parfait glasses. Then I make a dessert for my host and hostess: Affogato – and – if I’m there long enough: ice cream with good balsamic vinegar (tastes like creme brulee’ if you use the right/small amount)

  • PS I gift the host and hostess with the nice parfait glasses, too!