Cooking on Vacation by Molly Wizenberg

Photography by Molly Wizenberg.

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.

Molly Wizenberg is the author of the blog Orangette, which glows with her unique writing voice. She has published a best-selling memoir called A Homemade Life, and she and her husband Brandon Pettit have created a well-loved pizza place in Seattle called Delancey, where I hope to dine some day. Molly co-hosts a weekly podcast called Spilled Milk with partner-in-crime Matthew Amster-Burton, and as if all of this wasn’t keeping her busy enough, she is now working on her second book.

Here she tells us about mish-mash lunches, cooking in Saint-Emilion, and a special kind of meatball.

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

I took a trip to Italy with my mom in late June. Brandon and I had been invited to a friend’s wedding near Urbino, in the Marche, but he needed to stay home to look after our restaurant, and I didn’t want to go by myself, so I brought my mom into the plan. We wound up flying into Rome, driving to Urbino, spending four nights there and doing day trips all around the area, and then driving down the Adriatic coast to Puglia, where we spent four nights near Ostuni. We didn’t do any cooking – we were in a hotel in Urbino and then a masseria in Puglia – but we did a LOT of eating: fava puree with wild chicories, fried zucchini blossoms, loads of olive oil, capocollo, fresh green figs as big as my fist. Incredible.

In what way do you feel your vacation cooking style differs from your everyday cooking style?

My Italy trip was an exception to the norm, because what I really love is to rent an apartment, cook a lot, and save most of our money for a couple of nice nights out. I love the feeling of cooking on vacation. I’ll find some ingredient that I can’t get in Seattle, and that always gets my juices going. In general, it’s an issue of time: when we’re on vacation, there’s just more of it. There’s more time to daydream about what we might make or eat. Even if we’re not really cooking per se – just collecting items for a picnic or a lazy mish-mash lunch – I feel particularly engaged by food on vacation. I feel more awake to flavors and smells and new ideas. I feel like I even taste things differently.

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?

If we’re traveling by car, a couple of good knives are a must. It’s a real buzzkill to get to a picnic site or a friend’s cabin and have only dull knives to work with! But if we’re traveling by plane, we just cross our fingers and wing it.

What is your best vacation cooking memory? And your worst (gruesome details welcome)?

My best vacation cooking memory is from a few years ago. I had an assignment to do a travel story on Bordeaux – !!!!, right? – and we bought a ticket for Brandon to come with me. Our plane landed in Bordeaux late at night, and we picked up a car (which reeked inexplicably of weed; not the highlight of the trip, to say the least) and drove to Saint-Emilion, where we were to stay in a vacation rental. We got lost, and in the end, we only found the place because the rental manager noticed us repeatedly circling a roundabout near the house and came out to get us in his Jeep. But it turned out to be a beautiful home, very modern, and the kitchen was well equipped.

We’d traveled for the better part of 24 hours, and we were out of our minds and starving, so Brandon made us a quick pot of pasta before bed. I think it was just canned tomatoes, capers, and maybe some chile flakes – maybe on fusilli? I can’t even remember. But I remember that it tasted so good to me, and that it made me feel grounded again, and that I felt so adult somehow – traveling with my then-still-quite-new husband on my first travel assignment, staying in a beautiful place, scared to death about the interviews I had scheduled for the next morning, and very, very excited.

The worst memory is from a two-night trip we took in May of 2010 to a friend’s parents’ house on the coast of Whidbey Island (about two hours by car from Seattle, where we live). It was just the two of us and our dog, and we decided to bring a cooler of food with us, so that we could just hang out at the house, enjoy the view, and not have to go anywhere to eat. I decided to make spaghetti and meatballs for our first night, and it was going to be Brandon’s first time eating meatballs. (He grew up a vegetarian and only started eating meat about four years ago.) So I made dinner, and we sat down to eat, and Brandon loved it.

But when we got up to put away the leftovers – we’d barely made a dent in the food – I noticed some white, rice-shaped flecks on one of the meatballs in the pot. I leaned in to look more closely, and there was a fly there, on the side of the meatball, and it was a gutsy thing, because I had to swat at it three times before it flew away. And then I leaned in again, and THE WHITE FLECKS MOVED! Maggots! While we were eating our meatballs, a fly had the audacity to lay eggs on our leftovers! Needless to say, we threw the whole thing out. To this day, we try not to talk about that night, and Brandon sometimes has a tough time with meatballs.

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

This might sound like a cop out, but: don’t sweat it. For as much as I might get excited about cooking on vacation, I also like to keep it very, very simple. Spaghetti and meatballs is about as time-consuming a recipe as I’m willing to tackle. I’m a big fan of picnicky meals: bread, cheese, some cured meat, a salad, a chocolate bar or fruit. Heck, even just the bread and the cheese and the chocolate. Fine by me.

  • That story about the maggots is pretty grose! And poor Brandon.

    I agree though, best to keep vacation cooking simple.

  • What a great guest post! That meatball experience sounds slightly horrific! :) Great idea about bringing a good knife with you on vacation, it really does make life easier.

  • Clotilde, what a terrific theme for for guest blogs — cooking on vacation. I enjoyed reading about Molly’s low-key vacation meals, minus the maggots of course! Loved A Homemade Life and this post definitely added another dimension to Molly’s food stories. Thanks for sharing.

  • That story about the maggots – wow! It’s amazing her husband continued to eat meat at all after a traumatizing re-entry like that!

  • That meatball thing had me wondering now if I’ll ever have some again! ;-)

    Agree, cooking on vacation must be simple – grilling is a good option, with the added advantage of less pots to clean. We did that a lot once while in Hawaii, we rented a tiny place with an outside grill… great memories!

    NIce post, loved reading it!

  • Hannah

    One time I was cooking a fish, and was getting ready to turn it over when I noticed something moving – it was a worm escaping because of the heat. It was very thin, about 3″ long.

    BTW – I’ve been reading Orangette since I discovered you a few months ago. Love you (and C&Z)!

  • StevyD

    In foreign cities, I love traipsing through the food markets. They show so much about the culture, it’s a great way to get a feel for the country. Usually without a kitchen, I rely on non-perishables like salumi, cheese, charcuterie, bread, fruit, vegetables and wine; my little lunchtime picnics being a refreshing and required part of budget travel. A pocket knife (with cork puller), fresh handkerchief and collapsible cup are tools enough. Oh, and how have I forgotten the chocolate? Next trip for certain.

  • I’m glad I had finished my breakfast before reading about the worms – yuk!!! Although it’s not really vacation here in Aix en Provence, since we have a home here, shopping at the daily markets is such a pleasure that we look forward to determining what we’ll make for lunch and dinner each day – happy to cook at home rather than going out. Start with a warm fougasse aux olives from Farinoman (one of your faves, right?) and go from there!

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