For over 30 summers, we rented cabins until we found our own. In those unfamiliar rustic kitchens, I flipped pancakes for 10 on a stove with one working burner, whipped cream by shaking it in a quart jar, and baked blueberry crumble in a cast iron skillet. All this was done with views of sunsets over the lake and the scent of pine mingling with cinnamon and butter. Doing without my kitchen comforts — no food processor, microwave or convection oven — provided a different sort of comfort and joy.
With those dull knives and banged-up pots, I’ve turned out some of our favorite dinners, surprising our guests and even myself. There’s a winsome beauty in meals from a meager kitchen.
Granted, a cabin cook has a few factors that tip the scales: outdoor appetites that rage after a day of hiking, swimming, biking, paddling or even reading a book. No pressure to perform or apologize for stained dish towels, dinged flatware or mismatched plates. Released from deadlines, routines, obligations, we are free to simply hang out in the kitchen to cook. Prep time morphs into cocktail hour(s) while we chop and taste and gab over a beer or glass of wine.
When I’m more relaxed, I’m a more attentive, responsive cook. The whole point of this is to make memories along with a meal, so I try to slow down and enjoy the process. Vacation cooking follows the rhythm of fun, rest, eat, repeat.
Leave the fussy equipment and high expectations behind. Remember that your hands are your best tools, so keep things simple. No matter a website’s promises or the rental agent’s assurances, what you see in the photos may not be what you find in the cabin.
The trick is to stock up without schlepping too much along. Take these suggestions for packing in stride because just getting out of town is a challenge — organizing the gear, the kids, the dog, covering work, holding the mail.
You want to be prepared while allowing room for that local discovery and welcome surprise — the fresh fish, caught by a guest or picked up at a nearby fishery, farmstead cheese from a local dairy, wild mushrooms foraged on a hike, wild berries picked along the shore.
Being bossy, I like to dole out assignments to friends who will be joining me. When I’m a guest, I appreciate our host’s guidance. Especially in these times of food allergies and preferences, it’s gracious to ask, “What can I bring?” and not make assumptions.
I’ll ask friends to tote up the foods for their own breakfasts and lunches and to provide one dinner for the entire group. I’ll fill in with the basics to have on hand — coffee, tea, pantry essentials such as butter, oil, vinegar, spices and herbs. We all bring drinks to share.
It sounds haphazard, but things always work out. It’s good to have some structure as well as time to simply watch those waves dance on the water, follow the moonlight path on the beach, wander through the woods picking daisies and the wild strawberries that hide beneath. Let’s get to the cabin and savor that thin slice of summer.
It’s a good idea to make one or two dishes ahead of time, especially if you’re planning to serve dinner the night you arrive. Here are suggestions for what to prepare ahead and what to bring and make on the fly.
Overnight Veggie Slaw
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: I like to bring sausages and bratwurst for the first night’s meal because they’re easy and cook quickly. Serve them with this overnight coleslaw. No need for buns. This mix of sturdy vegetables will hold up in the refrigerator for several days. It’s safe to pack out for picnics or potlucks. From Beth Dooley.
• 1/3 c. apple cider vinegar
• 1/4 c. honey
• 2 tbsp. coarse Dijon mustard
• 1 1/4 lb. mixed red and green cabbages, thinly sliced
• 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
• 1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
• 1 large carrot, thinly sliced
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a small non-aluminum saucepan, whisk together the vinegar, honey and mustard, and set over medium heat until the honey has thoroughly dissolved. Allow to cool.
In a large bowl, toss together the cabbages, onion, pepper and carrot. Drizzle in the dressing and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate.
Fire and Ice Watermelon Quick Pickle
Makes 2 cups.
Note: Here’s a recipe for a watermelon surplus that serves as a simple condiment for the cheese tray or to accompany grilled steak and fish. It will keep a day or two in a covered container in the refrigerator. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 c. seeded and diced watermelon, cut into 1-in. pieces
• 1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
• Juice of 1 lime
• 1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro
• 1/4 c. chopped red onion
Toss together all of the ingredients and set in the refrigerator to let the flavors mingle, 30 minutes to 3 hours. Serve icy cold.
Best Ever Double Streusel Coffee Cake
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: Here’s the easiest, most satisfying coffee cake. Put it together first thing in the morning when the house is quiet, before everyone wakes up. Then steal a little time for yourself to sip coffee, watch the mist rise from the lake or go for a walk. The scent of cinnamon and brown sugar will draw everyone to the kitchen, then out to the porch. You don’t have to say this coffee cake comes from a mix. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 c. baking or biscuit mix (such as Wholesome Mill’s, Bob’s Red Mill, or Bisquick, etc.)
• 1 c. brown sugar
• 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
• 1/4 c. cold butter, cut into chunks
• 2 c. baking mix
• 1/2 c. milk
• 2 tsp. vanilla
• 1 c. berries (blueberries, raspberries, etc.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper.
To make the streusel: In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 cup baking mix, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cut in the butter using 2 knives or your fingers.
To make the coffee cake: In a medium bowl, stir together 2 cups baking mix, milk and vanilla. Then fold in the berries. Spread the batter in the pan. Sprinkle the streusel over all.
Bake until golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to set before serving about 10 minutes.
Cool Cucumber Dip With Soup Variation
Makes about 2 cups dipping sauce or 4 cups soup.
Note: This recipe for dip can double as a soup with the addition of more yogurt or buttermilk. For extra creaminess, toss in a chopped avocado, though it’s not necessary. Serve it icy cold with toasted pita chips or raw vegetables, or use as a sauce for grilled pork, steak, chicken, lamb or fish. This will keep up to 3 days in the refrigerator. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• Generous pinch coarse salt
• 2 small cucumbers
• 2 c. plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
• 1 to 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, to taste
• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 to 2 tbsp. finely chopped mint, to taste
• Generous pinch red pepper flakes
• Generous pinch freshly ground black pepper
Smash the garlic and scrape into a medium bowl. Add the salt and work into a paste. Halve the cucumbers and remove the seeds. Grate the cucumbers into the bowl with the salt and garlic.
Stir in the yogurt, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, olive oil, mint, red pepper flakes and black pepper. Taste and adjust with more lemon juice or other seasonings, if needed. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes or overnight before serving.
Cold soup variation: Stir into the dip just enough plain yogurt, buttermilk or whole milk to give the dip the consistency of soup. Serve icy cold.
Serves 10 to 12 (or two meals for 4 to 6).
Note: This very simple pork roast makes a fabulous dinner with glorious leftovers for hearty sandwiches later in the week. It’s great at room temperature or warm and terrific with boiled new potatoes and a fresh garden salad. Next day, turn leftover potatoes into potato salad and serve the pork on crusty rolls. You can make this roast a day or two ahead to bring along with you to serve later in the week. The roast cooks for a long time, so plan.
• 2 tbsp. fennel seed
• 1 c. chopped fresh parsley
• 2 tbsp. fresh rosemary leaves
• 2 fresh sage leaves
• 10 garlic cloves
• Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 1 (6- to 8-lb.) boneless pork shoulder roast
• 2 heads fresh fennel bulbs, sliced 1/2-in. thick
• 2 onions, sliced 1/2-in. thick
• 1 c. dry white wine or water
Put the fennel seed, parsley, rosemary, sage, garlic and a generous pinch of salt and pepper into a food processor and process until smooth. Spread the paste over the pork and wrap the pork in foil to rest for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Scatter the fresh fennel and onions over the bottom of a roasting pan and add the wine, then set the pork on top of the vegetables. Roast for about 1 hour; the meat should be brown at this point.
Cover the roast with foil, lower the heat to 325 degrees and continue roasting until the meat is very, very tender, about 4 to 5 hours. Remove; shred the meat. Serve with the meat juices.
The terrific leftovers can be enjoyed in many ways, including these:
Italian sandwiches: Layer the meat with provolone cheese on hard rolls and warm in the oven until the cheese is melted.
BBQ sandwiches: Season the pulled pork with your favorite barbecue sauce, warm it all and serve over buns (soft or potato style).
Pork with beans: Warm the leftover pork and pair with baked beans.
Tacos and nachos: Layer the pork with spiced black beans and shredded Cheddar cheese, blast in a hot oven until the cheese is bubbly and serve with salsa.