For the most part, choosing to rent a house while on vacation instead of staying in a hotel is a no-brainer for me. I can enjoy plenty of meals at local restaurants, but also have the option to stay in and cook, which gives me an excuse to check out nearby farmers markets, as well as take a break from eating out.
This past year it's also become something of a way of life, as my husband and I have spent about a quarter of the year traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans and back for his job, living in vacation rentals and cooking in vacation rental kitchens for months at a time. Cooking in a temporary, poorly stocked kitchen is never as easy as cooking at home, but I've figured out some ways to make it a little less annoying.
Before You Leave for Your Vacation Rental
Ask about the caffeine situation.
Whether you are a coffee addict or a tea fanatic, if you need your fix in the morning, it is worth it to ask the host what tools they have available. For coffee fans, an Aeropress or small pour over coffee cone doesn't take up much room in a suitcase and means you can enjoy a great cup of coffee in the morning no matter what. And if you love loose-leaf tea, a small infuser or strainer is even easier to pack.
Both Los Angeles and New Orleans have plenty of access to good coffee beans, so my coffee-addicted husband and I never had to worry about bringing beans, but if you are staying somewhere more remote, pack a small supply of the beans or tea leaves you like.
Pay attention to what kitchen tools and equipment you use the most.
In the weeks before your trip, take note of the tools, pots, and pans you use most. Do you make a lot of vinaigrettes and would be lost without your small whisk? Do you make soups and braises in your Dutch oven several nights a week? Are you a pasta fiend who depends on her colander? You can make a mental list, or if you're feeling really organized, write it down so you can refer to it later.
Pack what makes sense.
If you are flying across the country, your All-Clad pots aren't flying with you, obviously. But if you are driving to your destination, it can't hurt to pack a box of a few of the items you use the most or that you just can't do without, such as a good nonstick pan for eggs. And if you are flying and checking a bag, you can bring along a few smaller items, including your favorite knife or small containers of your most-used spices.
After You Arrive at Your Vacation Rental
Take an inventory of the rental kitchen's tools and equipment.
Take a peek inside the cupboards — don't forget the oven and broiler drawer, a popular place to store things! — and compare what you find to your list of most-used items. If your host doesn't have an item, figure out if you can hack a solution using what is available. (My greatest hack: Using a mesh coffee filter to rinse quinoa when I realized the kitchen didn't have a sieve. It was messy, but totally worked.)
Figure out what you can cook with what you have.
If you are renting a poorly stocked kitchen, you never know what you'll have — or more importantly, what you won't have — so when planning menus, it's important to think carefully about what equipment you need to make a recipe from start to finish, and cut any recipes that require tools you don't have.
One-pot meals are a great way to go. If your kitchen has a Dutch oven or a large pasta pot, that might mean recipes like chili or soup; if you have a couple sheet pans, you can do a week of easy sheet pan dinners. A big skillet makes stir-fries a quick meal option, and if there is a grill, doing plenty of dinners on the grill makes the most sense.
The kitchen I am currently using is unfortunately lacking a big skillet (no stir-fries!), large sheet pans (no big batches of roasted vegetables!), and a nonstick pan (no eggs!). But there is a fairly big supply of oven-safe casserole dishes and small sheet pans, so I think I'll be making a lot of casseroles, baked egg dishes, and broiled vegetables and fish.
Check out the pantry.
Take a look at the seasonings, oils, and sweeteners on the shelves, and the condiments in the fridge. Don't hesitate to look for expiration dates, sniff or even taste anything available, and add replacements to your shopping list if you don't like what you find. I almost always buy my own salt and small bottle of decent extra-virgin olive oil — I hate cooking with salt that is an unfamiliar texture or taste, and a good-tasting olive oil makes it easy to turn out simply prepared yet delicious meals.
Go shopping — preferably at a store with bulk bins.
Bulk bins are your best friend when cooking on vacation, since you can buy a variety of ingredients, but just in the amounts you need. This especially comes in handy when buying spices, but you can also buy your morning oatmeal, cocktail-hour nuts, and flour for a quick batch of cookies without having to deal with huge leftover bags when it's time to leave.
If you can't find a store with bulk bins, remember to resist the usual urge to get the best prices while shopping. For the most part, you'll want to buy the smallest bags available, even if that means you are paying more per ounce.
Wait, why did we rent a house instead of staying in a hotel again? Oh yeah, because cooking on vacation can be a lot of fun. (Not to mention a huge money-saver.) Check out farmers markets and farm stands for local produce, buy bread from bakeries in town, and seek out small grocery stores for ingredients that are different from what you usually buy at home.
Do you have any tips for cooking in vacation rentals?