Cooking travails unpacked

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Although I have just returned from a much-needed beach holiday, there is nothing like the feeling of being home again. Sure, the house may still be cluttered with abandoned suitcases and random shoes. The laundry basket is so heavily packed that it is threatening to explode. And there seems to be a light sprinkling of sand everywhere, as if we have been visited by some mischievous beach fairies. But despite facing the unavoidable unpacking fallout and being slightly aware of the stress of returning to work and everyday life that sits in the back of my mind, I can breathe a big sigh of relief. Because there is something unbelievably satisfying about the comfort of returning home, where you can revert back to your customs and how you live your everyday life. 

As you would expect, food comes high on the list of what I miss most when I am away from home, even when I have taken a ‘busman’s holiday’ and cooked. However, shopping for food and preparing meals in a different country and in someone else’s kitchen can be tricky at best. Especially when the many differences add up to a delay in eating! It can be particularly precarious when travelling with 3 teenagers because their patience and moods wane in inverse proportion to their appetites. A trip to the local supermarket that starts with everyone excited and happily filling a trolley with provisions they cannot wait to try will quickly take a turn for the worse if the shopping takes too long. I have been halfway through deciphering cryptic yoghurt labels when I have become aware of World War 3 breaking out in aisle 9 between my children over which ‘beach snacks’ to buy. Reaching a snack agreement between 3 hungry people who refuse to compromise on spiciness can be near impossible but sometimes the threat to leave empty handed is just enough to break the deadlock.

Of course, making it back with your arms full of mostly uneaten groceries is commendable but it is only half the battle. You still need to cook and sometimes the real challenge comes down to the First World problem of cooking with different kit. Although no one would expect to find all of the same conveniences on holiday that they have at home and normally use to cook and prepare meals, different kitchen set-ups bring with them different challenges. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting used to a sheer lack of cooking utensils, equipment or space to prepare meals. But having no choice other than to make one-pot meals, traybakes or stir fries can produce some unusual and even surprisingly good recipes. One of my family’s favourite recipes for pasta sauce is known as ‘the Italian way’ and is the result of cooking with very little kit whilst camping in Italy.

Having to get used to doing things differently can also be a good reminder of how much we rely on modern conveniences to prepare our meals as quickly as possible. This is especially true when we suddenly find ourselves without the kitchen appliances and gadgets we use the most and meals take far longer to prepare. At first, it is an unaccustomed and unnecessary hassle to have to hang around the kitchen while waiting for your food to reheat when there is no microwave there to zap it. However, using that time to see if there is anything else you can add to the meal, and being able to prepare a last-minute side dish, simple salad or just cracking open a jar of olives and slicing up some crusty bread can transform the reheated leftovers into a feast.

But this is not to say that every member of my family is a fan of ‘slow food’ when they are ravenous and just want to eat. On our recent holiday, the absence of a traditional bog-standard toaster which my family normally uses each morning was a great source of breakfast angst. In place of a toaster sat a much used and loved old fashioned toaster oven which looked to be nearing its retirement. In fact, it looked identical to the model that my late Grandmother kept in her kitchen which she used to make my favourite cheese on toast when I was a child. More than once, I had told my children about her famous toaster oven with its toasting magic that used to produce the most scrumptious snacks for me when I visited. In my mind, her toaster oven still sat on a pedestal far above all other inferior toasting riffraff. Therefore, when I laid my eyes upon this familiar old toasting friend once more, I thought we were in for a treat.

Instead at breakfast time I was reminded once more, that the more you build something up, the further it has to fall. The magic in this toaster oven had clearly vanished. As the little oven gradually charged up and worked hard to toast my husband’s bread at a steady snail’s pace, one crumb at a time, my impatient children circled the kitchen like a frenzy of hungry sharks. The hangriest quickly learned to adopt the ‘first towel on the sun lounger’ tactic for the following mornings and managed to sneakily plant their bagel in the oven before fully waking up. I don’t dare mention my Grandmother’s magic toaster oven again…

Once you get used to cooking with different kitchen kit, the last hurdle to overcome is cooking with dissimilar and unfamiliar ingredients. Like many people, when we are away from home, I try to make some of our simple family meals as we settle in. Needless to say, this doesn’t always go according to plan because all of the essential ingredients are going to be slightly different. More than often meals are served with an accompanying explanation of why things look/smell/taste differently. Even so, I also like to take advantage of being somewhere different and enjoy having the chance to experiment and cook with local ingredients, many of them for the first time. Fortunately, my family doesn’t seem to hold this against me and they continue to be willing (or maybe just hungry enough) to keep digging in. Some of the new holiday meals even succeed enough to make it back home and are repeated again. Whereas others…Well, perhaps they deserve a revisit. And what better way to do it than whilst being on another holiday?

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But back to the reality of suitcases, heaps of laundry and lurking home and work commitments, for now I can only dream of jetting off to someone sunny again. At least there’s still time to enjoy the last of the dwindling summer days before the new school term begins. And to stay in the holiday spirit, this time it’s a tropical recipe for Roasted sea bream with Roasted mango and chilli salsa

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