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:
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.)
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 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?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.