Minimalist Kit for the Traveling Cook

I am going to be traveling these next few weeks, doing some simple cooking in a couple of rented kitchens, and I’ve had enough hair-pulling experiences with crappy, dull knives and flimsy plastic spatulas to be stashing a few key utensils in my luggage this time.

Because I am also traveling with a toddler and a baby who need their own minimalist traveling kit — including such essentials as toy diggers, special blankets, and stuffed monkeys — I really need to make my kit as trim as possible, and have elected to bring along:

~ My paring knife, freshly sharpened: rented kitchens are notoriously lacking in this regard, and since half of cooking is cutting, trimming, slicing, dicing, chopping, and paring, this qualifies as an absolute must-bring. I will be following this tip on how to wrap knives for traveling.

~ My vegetable peeler because, again, anything that’s supposed to be sharp is going to be dull in a rented house, and a dull vegetable peeler is worse than no vegetable peeler at all. Also, a good vegetable peeler allows you to cut vegetables into tagliatelle and papardelle to make all kinds of pretty summer salads such as this zucchini noodle salad.

~ A pair of locking tongs because it’s rare (especially in France) to find it in a home cook’s utensil drawer, yet I rely on it heavily for handling ingredients, for stovetop cooking, and for grilling. As a bonus, it doubles up as a toy for the toddler, who uses it to catch imaginary fish.

~ My Earlywood scraper made of bloodwood, sturdy and smooth with a thin and sharp edge, and a fantastic multipurpose tool that can be used for stirring, cutting, lifting, and scraping. I have written about Brad Bernhart’s handcrafted utensils before, and they’ve become cherished items in my kitchen that get used every single day (including his latest creation, the adorable coffee scoop, which I use daily to serve my paleo granola).

~ My pepper grinder, replenished with black peppercorns, because good-quality, freshly ground pepper, transforms the simplest dishes, which is exactly what I plan to cook while I’m away.

~ A small supply of unrefined grey sea salt, because ordinary supermarkets only carry stripped-to-nothingness salt I hate to cook with.

~ Extra virgin olive oil, in a small container I saved from a tasting sample I once received, and simply refill every time I need it. In the house we’ll be renting with friends for a whole week it will make sense to buy a whole bottle of olive oil, but for those one- and two-night stays, I don’t want to lug around a whole bottle, yet good olive oil is all you need to dress a few crudités from the local market. Plus, with the above salt and pepper, you have the simplest, most delectable snack at your fingertips.

~ My current favorite pocket knife (pictured below), a vintage Crosman Blades from 1981 I fell hard for at Native Delicatessen, a new micro-shop and art gallery that’s otherwise devoted to indigenous foods and cultures. This one will stay in my purse most of the time (I’ll have motive enough to make that legal) but it can also come to the rescue if two of us need a sharp blade in the kitchen at the same time.

My 1981 Crosman Blades Pocket Knife

My 1981 Crosman Blades Pocket Knife

And here’s what I considered bringing, but decided against because of space/weight limitations:

~ My beloved chef’s knife, which makes vegetable and herb prepping such a cinch. But the one I own is too heavy and also too dear to me to travel this time, so I will make do with my pairing knife for my slicing and chopping needs.

~ My mandoline slicer, which I use daily at home, especially during the summer. But I figure a minimalist kit can’t have utensils with redundant functions, and since this can’t do anything my knife can’t, I opted not to bring it. (But with a heavy heart.) (Can you tell I’m still on the fence about this one?)

~ A cutting board, because I know the kind of tiny, warped, scratched plastic junk we are likely to find, but the kind of spacious, hard wood board I like to use is much too heavy to be a realistic inclusion in this kit.

~ A measuring jug marked with weight measurements for different ingredients (flour, sugar, etc.) to bake without a scale, but the two I own — both coming from my late grandmother’s kitchen — are glass, so they’re out. I’ll just wing it with ordinary drinking glasses.

~ A silicone baking mat and/or silicone muffin cups to do some basic baking, but the rented house is likely to offer at least one cake or loaf pan, so we’ll do fine with that.

Join the conversation!

Do you bring utensils and ingredients with you when you travel? What does your minimalist kit contain? And what about your dream, weight-is-no-object kit?

More tips!

A few summers ago I ran a series of Q&A’s about cooking on vacation and asked each of my guests, among many other fun things, what ingredients and utensils they liked to bring with them when they traveled. Check the series to see their inspiring answers.

Note: The tools above are pictured on a literary kitchen towel by artist Stéphanie Radenac, a gift from my longtime blog friend Pierre Pozzi, who is himself a talented paper and cardboard artist.

A version of this post was first published on August 6, 2014.

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