Stir Crazy: Cooking on vacation is a lesson in using less to get more

July 15, 2013 

Growing up, my family spent a lot of time renting summer cottages or cabins on lakes. Every July, my grandparents spent several weeks in Sawyer, Mich., and I got to go with them. The woodsy resort had cottages with big screened-in porches, water views, a community fire pit and a wooden glider my grandma and I snuggled in a lot.

We didn't think about eating out as part of vacation; there wasn't the money for that.

But, I didn't feel deprived. I got homecooked meals with a rustic edge to them. Often, there wasn't an oven in our cabin, just a stove top with two burners we could use. An ancient outdoor grill came with each unit, so Grandma made use of that, too.

The refrigerator was always very small and didn't have a freezer. The power went out often and my grandmother would yell at us kids to not go in and out of the fridge so much to try and keep stuff inside cold. That's probably why we stored a giant red ice chest outside in the shade for soda pop and that day's ice cream.

Plates and cups were mismatched melamine, and with no air-conditioning, the sugar on the counter got hard and the milk was never very cold. But, our cabin always had a giant dented metal pot for boiling water.

I thought it all very adventurous. I wore my damp swimsuit all day and ate whatever was put in front of me because I got to sit down at a table outside under a big tree.

In order to feed the three of us, and then later my parents and siblings when they arrived, my grandma was a real culinary strategist: She never left home without a good knife or two, spatula, kitchen shears, butter, maple syrup and a cast-iron skillet. Dry goods included cereal, Bisquick and coffee. She'd haul a sack of potatoes with us in the car. We bought lots of fresh blueberries and other fruit for dessert, as well as corn on the cob (when that big pot came in handy). Meat had to be purchased every other day or so. Grandma cooked a lot of bacon, fried chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs.

Some years ago, I stayed in a cabin in Arkansas and lamented that there wasn't a coffeemaker or a microwave. Grandma would have rolled up her sleeves, put the coffee pot on the stove and made a cobbler in her cast-iron skillet.

These two recipes are from Melissa Clark, a food writer for the New York Times. They were included in her story about cooking in summer rentals, which got me thinking about my summer experiences. Who knew white bread could be so wonderful?

BERRY SUMMER PUDDING

1 3/4 pounds mixed berries (about 6 cups)

1/2 cup sugar, or to taste

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or to taste

Few drops of rosewater (optional)

10 to 12 slices soft white bread, crusts removed

Heavy cream or ice cream, for serving

1. To make the pudding, combine berries, sugar and 1/3 cup water in a medium saucepan. Simmer over medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved and berries release their juices, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in lemon juice. The sauce should be sweet, with a hint of tartness. Adjust with more sugar or lemon juice as needed. Stir in rosewater if using.

2. Spoon an even layer of berry syrup (not the berries themselves) in the bottom of an 8-inch loaf pan or a medium-size bowl. Line bottom of pan or bowl with a single layer of bread; cut bread into pieces as necessary to make it fit. Spoon 1/3 of the fruit on top of bread, making sure bread is completely coated; top with a layer of bread. Repeat twice more, alternating layers of fruit with layers of bread, ending up with bread as the top layer. Let mixture cool completely, then wrap pan tightly with plastic wrap. Place a light weight on top of the pudding. Refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

3. Run a knife around sides of summer pudding, then turn it over onto a plate to unmold. Serve in slices with cream or ice cream on top. Yield: 8 servings.

GRILLED GARLIC BREAD WITH BASIL AND PARMESAN

6 slices rustic, crusty country bread, 3/4-inch thick

Olive oil, for drizzling

2 large garlic cloves, halved lengthwise

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Basil leaves, for serving

1. Light a grill or turn heat to high. Drizzle both sides of bread with olive oil and grill for 2 to 3 minutes without turning, until one side is crisp and beginning to char.

2. Remove bread from grill and rub grilled side thoroughly with the cut garlic. Evenly distribute Parmesan on the grilled side and return toast to the grill, cheese side up. Close lid and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Transfer to a cutting board, slice each piece of toast in half and serve garnished with basil leaves. Yield: 6 servings.

Here's how to reach me: Phone, 239-2664; e-mail, sboyle@bnd.com; or write, Suzanne Boyle, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427.

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