Author: Melissa

Tales From France: Days 3 & 4

Tales From France: Days 3 & 4

I have to confess to you, I had delusions of daily mini-travel-journaling this trip to capture the moments. How’s that going? We’re currently on day 13 of our trip, and well, we’re talking today about days 3 and 4. You know what they say about […]

Easy Meals to Cook on Vacation

Easy Meals to Cook on Vacation

Let’s talk about easy meals to cook on vacation! As I’ve been gearing up to take my entire little Krewe to France for a month (still in shock!), I’ve been plotting what meals I can make quickly and easily in our AirBnbs. Cooking in saves so much money, not to mention that at the end of the day with tired toddlers, eating dinner in your lodgings is almost always more enjoyable for all concerned! I think this is true no matter where I’m traveling, or how big or small the trip.

However, this mama’s idea of vacation is not to spend a ton of time grocery shopping and cooking. (I suspect I am hardly alone in this.) If we’re taking a road trip I’m happy to prepare some meals ahead of time to bring with us, but if we fly somewhere that’s not really an option. In that case I have to get creative and work with small, minimally-equipped kitchens. So in order for a recipe to quality as an “easy recipe to make on vacation”, it has to meet five criteria:

Easy Vacation Meal Criteria:

1) It must not require a lot of cooking and/or clean-up time. Nothing too involved, not a lot of dishes to wash. No long lead time (usually) after a day of sight-seeing.

2) It must not need any fancy kitchen gadgets or special tools. Vacation kitchens usually only house the basics. Hence, I could make any of these meals in every AirBnb we’ve stayed in.

3) It must not need a lot of ingredients, or ingredients that are hard to find. I don’t want to wind up throwing food away at the end of our trip, and I don’t want to not be able to find something I need to cook with. (You’ll see below that I’ve given suggestions for how to use up extra ingredients, or use them in two meals. Also, I’ve given a sample grocery list at the end.)

4) Generally, I lean towards meals that are methods rather than exact recipes. You’ll find a couple of exceptions in my list, but generally I find it much easier to just get in the kitchen and start prepping rather than needing to look at a recipe. It makes the process of getting dinner done faster.

5) But most of all, it must be tasty and enjoyable!! This is, after all, a vacation, and meals should feel a little celebratory! (But not gonna lie, easy helps in this regard.)

Here are fourteen easy meals to cook on vacation that meet ALL of those criteria!

1. Baked Potatoes

Throw them in the oven, load them up with your heart’s desires: sour cream, cheese, broccoli, chopped ham, bacon, cottage cheese, butter, chives. . . you know the drill! Plus they’re super cheap. It does take an hour in the oven, so perhaps it’s not the fastest, but it made the list for its ease of cooking. Just plan accordingly.

Pasta Carbonara easy meals to cook on vacation2. Pasta

Cook up some spaghetti noodles/ravioli/whatever other noodle you love, and top them with jarred marinara/pesto/olive oil and cheese. Mac’n’cheese for the kids would also fall into this category. (Or hey, here’s an easy delicious grown-up version, too!) If you run across fresh pasta at a market, bring that home for a meal that’s as fancy as it is easy. Or take an extra couple minutes and make this amazing dish. A little side salad goes with it beautifully.

3. Rotisserie Chicken/Veggies/Salad

So this made it on the easy-meal-to-make-on-vacation-list, because I make this all the time at home and have tested how easy it is! Grab a rotisserie chicken from the store, salad fixings (or a prepackaged salad if you want it to be even easier), and throw some frozen broccoli and/or frozen french fries on to a cookie sheet in the oven to roast them up. BOOM. Only work required is putting a cookie sheet with food on it into the oven. If you don’t want to even fool with putting anything in the oven, add a side of hearty bread or raw cut vegetables with a dip.

4. Loaded Salad

copycat newk's favorite salad

A loaded salad is perfect for using up those rotisserie chicken leftovers; put them on top of salad greens with a bunch of veggies and a bit of cheese. If you want a little inspiration, one of our favorite dinner salads is my copycat Newk’s Favorite Salad . Or go Greek (feta/goat cheese, bell pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, maybe chopped ham). Add a baguette or other crusty bread to round it out elegantly.

5. Omelettes

This meal would be a great way to use up both baked potato and loaded salad leftovers; fill the omelettes with whatever cheese and veggies are laying around, and maybe make a little side salad too. It feels like a step up from scrambled eggs, but is hardly any more work. You just need a skillet and a bowl! Bonus: those leftover baked potatoes make excellent home fries for a tasty side. Slice the cold potatoes and saute them in butter until golden brown and crispy.

6. Fancy Grilled Cheese

All it takes for next-level grilled cheese (aka for grownups) is good bread and quality cheese. Spread some toothsome, crusty bread with butter, and fill it with whatever quality cheese and veggies strike your fancy before you toast in in a skillet. Cheddar is a classic, but I love smoked gouda for its flavor and how well it melts. Maybe I’ll discover a new favorite cheese in the land of cheese! Caramelized onions, sliced tomatoes, and bacon or ham are all next-level additions that make for a grilled cheese that tastes like anything but a shortcut dinner. (You may also notice that all of these ingredients would also work really deliciously in an omelette. . . no ingredients left behind!)

7. Brats with sauerkraut and mustard

Think of this as the German version of fancy grilled cheese; hot dogs get elevated to a proper meal by quality brats and rolls, as well as whatever fancy mustard tickles your taste buds. Serve it with sauerkraut and maybe a side of sliced fruit. All you’re doing is warming up ingredients; what steps it up is the quality of the ingredients you buy! (Hat tip to Michelle for this idea.)

easy meals to cook on vacation charcuterie board

8. Charcuterie Board

Charcuterie boards (aka antipasta) is having something of a moment on social media, it seems, but if you’re not worried about fancy presentation you couldn’t get an easier meal to cook on vacation (it also makes an excellent picnic). Cold cuts, fruit (we like melon), olives (marinated is best!), a block or two of cheese, some nuts, crusty baguette, sliced sweet peppers, cucumbers, and carrots, and you’re done! It’s not “authentic” but my kids love dipping their veggies in ranch dressing; those veggies get eaten up! Everyone can serve themselves. Plus it’s a really fun excuse to explore local markets and sample local foods.

9. Fish/Fish en Papillote

“Fish en papillote” is French for “fish in paper” — fish and veggies encased in parchment paper, then baked in the oven. It’s almost impossible to overcook the fish this way, so it’s virtually foolproof. The folks at “Dinner: A Love Story” whimsically call these “fish presents”; you can also think of it as a present to yourself to have a nice meal that takes little work. Layer fish of your choice with some veggies and pop into the oven (you can read the full recipe/technique over here.) We usually do tilapia, lemon slices, and green beans,then season. Any of the previous meals’ leftovers (salad, home fries, veggies, pasta) complement the fish well. There are no dishes to do because the meal cooks inside the parchment paper, which gets thrown away!

10. Quesadillas (in the States)tortillas easy meals to cook on vacation

I qualify quesadillas as a state-side meal, because I don’t really know if tortillas are common in France or the rest of Europe! (I’ll let you know. But I’d be willing to bet you could find them in Latin American countries. . . hehe.) My favorite way of making this easy vacation meal grownup-approved is by using raw tortillas from the refrigerated section. They’re SO much tastier than the precooked ones! Cook the tortillas according to the package directions (it takes just a minute), then fill with shredded Mexican cheese, and maybe also sliced apples (surprisingly tasty, and a nice variation), ham or rotisserie chicken, or some of those leftover sauteed veggies from omelette night. Serve with sour cream (leftover from baked potatoes!) and whatever veggies and fruit you’d like. (Are you sensing a pattern here? I’m all about overlapping ingredients for both budget and sanity!)

11. Tacos

In a similar vein, taco night is quick and easy to achieve in a small kitchen! I’d suggest you buy good-quality guacamole already-made for easiest preparation. If your AirBnb has spices available, I season my canned refried beans with cumin and a little chili. You could also season leftover rotisserie chicken to make chicken tacos.

12. French Onion Soup

Has she lost her mind? French onion soup?? Hear me out– all you need to make this luxurious dish is a pot, a cutting board, some (hands-free!) time on the stove, and a few basic ingredients! Really! It’s the perfect dish for a tiny kitchen, and what could be better to make on a rainy day than hot soup, when you’re at home doing laundry anyway, or are hunkered in for a cozy evening? (Close your eyes and imagine a chilly, drizzly evening outside, while inside everyone’s reading next to a fire, or laughing and telling stories, all while being warmed by soup topped in gooey cheese. Tell me that wouldn’t be a heavenly way to spend an evening or what??) Even better if you have slightly stale bread from earlier meals that needs to be used up — the bread’s being put in the soup anyway! I love Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for French Onion Soup. (Yes, I’ve linked a lot to her site. . . what can I say? We’ve gathered a lot of favorite recipes from her in 13+ years of reading her blog!!) If it’s readily available I think adding beef Better Than Bouillon to the recipe is the perfect touch to deepen the flavor. It’s a great meal as-is.

13. Ham/Cheese/Egg Crêpes

Tender crêpes are wrapped around oozy cheese and savoury ham; there’s a reason that this is another easy dinner staple at our house. The kids love them too, and they’re something a little different that the usual. I’ll grant you that this is a variation of the eggs and cheese theme, but what better way to make ingredients do double-duty? You can read the full recipe and technique over here. (Though note: I find it much easier to put the egg on the crêpe already slightly beaten.) This is another meal that’s nice with a salad, too. Bonus: extra crêpe batter may or may not be amazing with Nutella and bananas. . .dinner AND dessert from one dish!

14. Bodacious Sandwiches/BLTs

Am I the only one who “cheats” and makes a really great sandwich for dinner, only to ask myself why we don’t make them more often?? Make a classic BLT, or load up a long loaf of bread with lots of meats (ham/turkey/chicken/bacon), greens (sprouts, crispy lettuce, thin-sliced cucumbers), tomatoes, cheese, special mayo/mustard, avocado, olive spread for an easy low-prep dinner. . . your imagination is the limit, and we find such sandwiches so satisfying to eat. Also great for picnic dinners/lunches on the go!

Sample Grocery List(s)

So you’re about to get a glimpse of my love of lists. Here’s how I make sure these meals are actually easy to make once I’m on vacation. Pick say, three of these meals, and list all the ingredients you need to make them. You can make this list in the car/plane ride over, or the week before, so all you have to do is walk into a grocery store and follow your list. Lists are good when you’re jet-lagged and/or hangry. If ingredients overlap, I put a “x2” next to it so I know I need enough for two meals. (I didn’t put quantities on these lists, because that depends on how many of you there are.) Here are two examples:

European Café Vibe: Omelettes/Onion Soup/Antipasta: eggs, charcuterie meat, onions (an extra one to cook for omelettes), bell pepper, olives, crusty bread x2, cheese x3 (two to four varieties, your call–soup, omelette, antipasta), fruit/melon, beef broth, white wine (to cook with, you lushes), butter, side salad if desired.

Kid Favorites: Grilled Cheese/Baked Potatoes/Quesadillas: good sandwich bread, potatoes, cheese x3 (cheddar/gouda), sour cream x2, onions (saute), chives, bacon x2, tortillas, butter, apples (inside quesadillas and/or grilled cheese sides), broccoli (ok, maybe not a kid favorite but we can try ;). Optional: Ranch and veggies for dipping.

You’ll notice that these grocery lists wind up being pretty short — easy for shopping and storing, and everything should mostly get used up! As I’ve tried to note above, most of these meals repeat ingredients, so you can mix and match a week’s worth of menus easily.

So those are my fourteen easy meals to cook on vacation that I’ll be making on repeat on my trip! (Or, um, at home. . .) What easy meals do YOU make on vacation?

Copycat Newk’s Favorite Salad Recipe

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International Trip Checklist: What You Need To Do

International Trip Checklist: What You Need To Do

So you’ve got your tickets booked for an exciting international trip! Now what? This international trip checklist is the fancy way of saying “here’s what runs through my head in the run-up to a trip”. Most of the bullet points listed below are truly 5 minute tasks, maybe 15 minutes maximum. (Unless you need to actually apply for or renew a passport, which if you plan ahead you can apply for on your own timetable and not in a last-minute panic!) I’d much rather deal with these little things bit by bit than all at once in a frenzy; I keep a running list on my phone so I (hopefully) don’t drop the ball on anything. Plus when it’s written down ahead of time it clears mental space and reduces stress. So here is my international trip checklist, aka, “stuff you want to do before you leave”!

6 months out

Or at least, as soon as you book tickets:

  • Check passports: they don’t just need to be valid for your return flight, some countries require that they be valid for a certain number of months past your return date. For example, Germany requires 6 months validity after your return date, and France requires 3 months. Check the State Department page of the country you’re visiting (here’s France’s page). I double-checked a passport that was getting close-ish on IATA’s website (the International Air Transport Association — to which my airline directed me) for peace of mind. You input your travel dates and passport expiration date and it will tell you whether or not you’re good to go.
  • Will you need a visa? If you’re traveling to the Schengen area, you currently don’t for stays less than 90 days. Again, check the State Department’s page for the country you’re planning to visit.
  • Check/schedule any needed immunizations. (Guess who has that info? Bingo! The State Department pages!)

In addition, the State Department has a whole international trip checklist for travelers should you want to read more extensively about visas and such.

Reims Catherdral International Checklist

2-3 months out

  • If your children are traveling internationally, but will not be traveling with both parents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection highly recommends that you have a notarized permission form from the absent parent(s). There is no official form, but you can find sample wording here, and further guidelines/explanations here. You may never be asked for it, but I’m bringing a letter just in case.
  • Check the typical weather where you’re visiting: AccuWeather will give you average highs/lows for the weeks you’ll be traveling, so you have a general idea of what to expect. (Click on the “month” tab to select future/historical weather).
  • Then, check that you have needed clothes and shoes for this weather! Living in South Louisiana, our summer/warm weather season sometimes lasts most of the year, so even just cool weather clothes take some planning on my part. I often need to buy fall/winter clothes before my children need them where we live. (Because kids never fit into last’s years clothes, amiright??) Planning your wardrobe early also helps you pack lightly; if you plan ahead you can see gaps and strategically purchase as little as possible for maximum versatility.
  • Break in any new shoes; wear ‘em lots and make sure they’re comfortable!
  • Book rooms. (See here and here.)
  • Book any high-speed train tickets you may need. (The Man in Seat Sixty-One has a supremely helpful website all about train travel!)
  • If you’re traveling with kids, check out books/movies/music from the library that are relevant to where you’ll be visiting! (I mean, I think this is great fun even you’re not traveling with kids. . .) If you get to read just one short book a week, they’ll have a robust framework for what they’ll see.

One Month/Two Weeks OutReims Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Stop mail/arrange to have it picked up.
  • Make airport parking reservations, if necessary.
  • Notify your bank/credit cards of your travel plans.
  • Clear your calendar/hand off responsibilities: So, if you’re leaving on a trip, you’ve probably already figured out what events in your life someone might need to take care of while you’re gone. (Keys to a building? Documents? Books?) One time a certain treasurer left town without handing over her local professional association’s checkbook to anyone else. . . aannd there was a festival for which they needed to write checks. Yeah, that was me. . . Big oops!! Thankfully my mother rescued us all, but this time it’s on my list of things to take care of ahead of time!!
  • Get a haircut a week or two before your trip.

Week of Your Trip

  • Return/renew any library materials to avoid fines.
  • Look up the weather forecast for the duration of your trip.
  • Wash clothes and begin to pack. Yes, I am an annoying mother who packs most of my children’s clothes several days ahead of time! Clothes get selected (more on that in another post), washed, and packed away out of reach. No searching frantically for items or late-night laundry for me. . .

Ideally the week of your trip all you have to do is pack and get yourself to the airport, because everything else is taken care of!

The pictures I interspersed in this post are from a magical evening sitting outside the cathedral in Reims. We were jet-lagged, had just managed to find our room after a long search, we were eating take-away sandwiches from a boulangerie. . . and it was glorious. The view was incredible, the sandwiches were delicious, and we sat and looked at each other with wonder that we were actually in France. Hopefully this international trip checklist will cut down on the stress of planning a trip, but remember that the memories are worth the hassle!

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Restaurants in Slidell, LA (Where to Eat After a Swamp Tour)

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Favorite France Blogs and Podcasts

Favorite France Blogs and Podcasts

Perhaps you’ve read enough posts around here to figure out that I (Melissa) love France. And France blogs and books. What’s not to love? The language is poetic, the French approach to food is almost reverent (creating meals that make you swoon), and the topography and history are rich and varied with much to discover.

The France blogs and podcasts listed below are ones that I have on my blog feed, and reference time and again. Whether I’m looking for cultural insights, travel tips, or food recommendations, these sites always deliver delightful and useful information! Usually I’m sighing over the pictures, or reading for fun, but they are also where I usually begin research when a trip is on the horizon. Worth noting is that these blogs are all written by American expats (with the exception of Annie at Join Us in France, who is French, but she has lived for many years in the US). I think that’s part of why I find their cultural articles helpful; as Americans or those who understand American culture, they spot where French culture is different from American culture and help explain how to navigate those differences. Allons-y! Let’s go!

Château de Chenonceau France Blog

David Lebovitz

I’m leading with the good stuff, y’all. A one-stop resource for recipes, culture, restaurants, boulangeries, and more, American pastry chef David Lebovitz chronicles his life in Paris (and around France) on his eponymous blog. His writing on the vagaries of life in France is always humorous and entertaining in a droll, dry sort of way. Since food is his livelihood, delectable recipes make regular appearances. But he also has comprehensive (and invaluable!) pages listing restaurant recommendations and pastry shops. (Once upon a time this pastry shop list existed on an app where you could see them all on a map, plus listed by arrondissment. I ADORED it. And gleefully put it into overdrive on my first trip to Paris. But the app is, alas, no longer available, and iCloud removed my copy from my phone and it’s not yet something I can contemplate without grieving, even if it wasn’t totally up to date. Me, bitter? Never. . . I am indebted to it –rather, to David! — for the majority of my most memorable food memories in Paris.) For now, I suggest reading his food recommendation pages all the way through to what piques your appetite, and also using the search function on your browser to find them by arrondissment. I’ve got a new (to me) chocolat chaud spot to try that I found on his chocolat chaud page!

Château de Chenonceau

Join Us in France Podcast

I’ve previously referenced this marvelous travel resource when I talked about driving in France. The Join Us in France Travel Podcast is hosted by jolly Frenchwoman Annie, and she (along with her guests) conversationally cover vast expanses of France with all sorts of practical information. From what to see where and how to see it, and what to do or not to do, put these episodes on play and get informed and inspired!

The podcasts are listed both by topic and by region, making it easy to find the subjects that are most interesting and helpful to you.

Secrets of Paris

This is a new find for me, but a find indeed! Secrets of Paris is a blog written only by people who live at least part-time in Paris, creating what does indeed feel like a peek into a secret (local) side of Paris. They cover everything from when to visit (jackpot! I’m going then!), to where to find the best pistachio ice cream (bookmarked), and if you’ve wondered how gauche it is to wear shorts in Paris (I sure have), they have given the best answer I’ve ever read on the subject! They also cover local Parisian subjects such as disposing of Christmas trees after the season, so there is nothing touristy about it. Personally, I like feeling like a non-touristy tourist, so sign me up. My only complaint is that I could not find any sort of search function on the site, so it may take a while to find a specific topic you’re interested in. But you’ll certainly have fun looking.

Château de Chenonceau France Blog

Aspiring Kennedy

Expat Lauren is based in London, and somehow reading her blog makes you feel like she’s a friend. (I mean, we share a passion for grocery shopping in France, not to mention a love for travel with adorable kiddos.) Much of her blog centers around London, but part of her job is planning and conducting international college trips, and she’s collected lots of tips along the way, including travel with small children. (I recommend her tips for pacing meals with small ones all. the. time.) You can find her Paris posts here, and her tips for the rest of France here (making notes for Provence!!).

Coffee Break French

So, this is neither food nor culture, per se, but if you’re looking for a convenient and practical introduction to the French language, I have thoroughly enjoyed the Coffee Break French series. Even if you’d just like to pick up a few phrases to get by on a trip it’s helpful, but they have more advanced lessons as well. I have linked to the beginning season, but their intermediate series have been enriching and informative. Heads up: it’s hosted by a Scotsman, but as he’s lived and worked in France, his accent will not lead you astray. 😉 They have also put out series for Spanish, German, Chinese, and Italian, so you’re not limited to French, either.

Château de Chenonceau

Dorie Greenspan

I should also mention Dorie Greenspan, who releases recipes and musings at doriegreenspan.com. She doesn’t write prolifically on France, but she releases little gems like this ode to the cafe in France that worth keeping an eye out for. She also periodically releases a Paris newsletter if you subscribe. (You should.)

I’ve been having a grand time researching and dreaming over all these pages! Anticipation makes a trip that much more exciting. What France blogs and podcasts are your favorites? I’d love to hear about what other resources you love!

 

All pictures are from our visit to Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Just because they make me happy. Oh, and I used Join Us in France to help select which chateaux to visit, so that’s relevant, right?

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