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Have knife, will travel

The bare essentials of travel: clothes, knife, salt.

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Whenever I stay at someone else’s house, I offer to cook a meal. Not just because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it keeps me occupied and I suppose it gives me a sense of purpose in an unfamiliar place. It’s not always easy, though; cooking in a strange kitchen is a little disorienting, and the element of surprise looms large. Still, I’ve managed to get it down to a science, which I exercised a couple of weeks ago at the house of new friends in San Diego. Here are some of my tricks:

  • Bring your own knife. I have a decent amount of faith in humanity, but I have no faith when it comes to other peoples’ knives. It’s truly shocking how many people suffer with dull paring knives, and nothing else. So I expect the worst and bring my own sharp chef’s knife. If traveling by air, this means I have to check a bag, but it’s a small price to pay when I consider the alternative.
  • Bring your own salt. Friends (so dear that I will keep them anonymous) once assured me they had plenty of kosher salt. When I got to their house, they dug out a tiny 1 oz. jar of sea salt…not even enough to season the pasta cooking water! Now I just dump some kosher salt into a baggie so I don’t have to worry about depleting anyone’s supply. 
  • Don’t plan anything until you see the setup. I’ve come to realize that it’s really a waste of time to even think about a menu before you know what equipment and facilities you have to work with. I look for a baking dish before I decide to roast a chicken, and check out the fridge space before I plan a chilled soup (and remember that beverages always take priority in there).
  • Keep it simple. As with many things in life, the best way to ensure success is to keep things manageable. Resist the urge to make it extravagant; just make it good. That’s more than enough.
  • Go heavy on make-ahead dishes. I’m always happier to knock a dish out, check it off the list, and not have to worry about it until serving time. On the same token, I limit myself to one truly last-minute dish (like finishing a pasta sauce) to minimize the frenzy.
  • Give yourself way too much time; you’ll need it. I am always amazed at how much time I spend looking for stuff in a foreign kitchen. It feels like an endless game of “Where was that colander? I know I just saw it…” It’s no fun to race against the clock (especially when people are hungry!) so it’s key to have an ample buffer of time.

I keep these in mind every time I cook in a new place, and every time I discover a new thing to add to the list. What strategies do you use? What am I missing?

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  • User avater
    Tyler_M | 08/13/2009

    It's better than bringing your dutch oven or mortar and pestle.

  • Teheru | 08/13/2009

    I loved your knife post--another idea for next time, if you want to leave the knife at home, do what my brother does--bring along your sharpening stone. That way you can do your host a much needed favor (usually a favor, assuming the knives can be sharpened!) and not have to worry about the TSA confiscating precious and favorite "blades."
    Now, I even collect different stones when I travel. It is true, a great knife makes all the difference.

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