Monday, July 02, 2007

the portable kitchen

topographic map of the island

We reserved our customary crumbling hippie shack on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine for two weeks in July and suddenly it's time to start thinking about what to bring.

Did you happen to read Cynthia Zarin's "Fantasy Island" in last August's Gourmet supplement, about the challenges of cooking in a rental on a small Maine island? Zarin was writing about Swan's Island but her description of the sad little grocery store reminded me of the one on Monhegan Island, which we visited several years ago:

The owner of the cottage had left a map marked with the location of the grocery store and the historical society. (Later I was to reflect that these were, in some respects, one and the same). We piled into the car, still packed with our swimsuits and summer reading, our towels and orange peels. A few minutes later, I stood in front of the vegetable bin, which contained three molting cabbages and a few wormy potatoes. Too late, I read the message of those grocery bags on the ferry. Dismay hit. What would we eat?

Fortunately the author's neighbor on the island turned out to be a lobsterman amenable to bargaining, but after five days of boiled lobster, sautéed lobster, grilled lobster, and lobster salad, "[t]he children had recoiled from lobster's waving tentacles, its garish red hue, and by Thursday, so did we."

I'm hesitant to tell anyone, but the situation on Vinalhaven is much more agreeable. There's a small but well-stocked grocery store (Carver's Harbor Market, shown below), and an even-smaller but also well-stocked store across the street (Island Spirits) that sells wine, cheese, olives, bread from Atlantic Baking Co. on the mainland, and good coffee.

Carver's Harbor Market

The Victorian-style house to the right of the post office belongs to the artist Robert Indiana.

Many (most?) of the island's year-round residents are lobstermen, and at the Vinalhaven Fisherman's Co-op — just down the road from the grocery — you can choose a vivacious local lobster from the tank while you put gas in your car.

It's hard for me to get used to thinking about food shopping in advance when at home I pass by so many grocery stores and markets on foot every day, but my vacation cooking tends to be improvisational, and a forgotten bundle of chives or whatever can always be worked around.

We're fortunate with respect to the kitchen at the cabin. It's small, but so is the one in my apartment and this one's got a nicer view. It's also unusually well-equipped for a summer cabin kitchen: there's a full-sized food processor, a coffee/spice grinder, decent pots and pans (plus a few pieces of Le Creuset, which are more than decent), sharp knives, and the lobster crackers and their accompanying picks and forks and butter cups are all accounted for.

Nonetheless, I bring a box of kitchen must-haves, and over the past couple years I think I've refined my packing list to the point where I'm bringing only things I know I'll end up using. Of course much of the list that follows is a matter of one's cooking style and preferences, but I hope it will be useful to those of you who will have occasion to take your batterie de cuisine on the road this summer:

the Tiny Banquet portable kitchen (summer edition)


  • kitchen shears

  • timer

  • tongs (there are probably some there but I can't remember, and can't deal with two weeks without them)

  • favorite corkscrew

  • muslin (for straining seafood shells out of stock)

  • twine (for who-knows-what)

  • pastry blender (it's definitely not too hot to bake there)

  • biscuit cutter

  • lemon reamer

  • tiny strainer (am I the only person who finds these indispensable?)

  • tiny whisks (like these; I know they look ridiculous but I use them constantly for making small quantities of salad dressing)

  • small Kyocera ceramic slicer (like this)

  • microplane grater

  • silicone basting brush

  • small silicone spatula


  • peppermill and plenty of peppercorns (Malabar)

  • flaky sea salt

  • smoked salt

  • Aleppo pepper (a flavorful red pepper from Syria)

  • Pimentón de la Vera (hot Spanish smoked paprika)

  • cayenne pepper

  • coriander seeds

  • cumin seeds

  • cardamom seeds

  • fennel seeds

  • whole nutmeg

  • five-spice powder (a versatile blend of star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel and white pepper)

  • Old Bay seasoning

  • saffron


  • silicone muffin pan (in anticipation of Maine blueberries)

  • small cast iron skillet (9") (the pans at the cabin are all larger, and this one is my most-used pan at home)

grilling paraphernalia: I know the grill there is rusted and unusable. I'm bringing a small charcoal grill this year, and they require a few accessories.

  • wire brush for cleaning

  • chimney for starting charcoal

  • hardwood chips

  • bamboo skewers

condiments & etc.

  • favorite olive oil

  • Vinagre de Jerez Sherry vinegar

  • Champagne vinegar

  • Maille extra-hot Dijon mustard

  • Kewpie mayonnaise

  • salt-packed capers

  • good imported tuna in olive oil

  • pine nuts (why is it that in many places they seem to be sold only in tiny, overpriced jars?)

grains and such

  • good dried pasta

  • good polenta

  • chickpea flour

  • de Puy lentils

  • Calasparra rice

It's a lengthy list, I know, but most of these items are small. At least, that's what I tell myself.

I didn't include cookbooks on my list, for a few reasons: (1) as I mentioned above, I don't often cook from recipes while we're there; (2) there are a few cookbooks at the cabin in case I'm stuck on making something I can't improvise (the most useful seems to be a giant Craig Clairborne book, as big as a dictionary); and (3) I've got lots of recipes in my laptop, stored in MacGourmet. I've also got lots of newer recipes in my, but there's no internet at the cabin, so I'll have to go through and see if there are any I have to add to MacGourmet before we leave.

Think I've forgotten anything important?


  1. Wow, I think you've got it seriously covered, except maybe the turmeric? ;) That cabin looks super sweet.Happy travels!

  2. How have I missed MacGourmet? It's just what I need!

  3. Sputnick4:57 PM

    How about rice branoil for high heat cooking!!! Have a great time.

  4. Michelle - Tumeric is a good choice. I realized I also left two other items off the spice list:
    * good curry powder
    * hot pepper flakes (I am really liking Pequin pepper flakes right now) and dried whole chile peppers

    Lisa - Try it! One recommendation, though: I don't bother entering the ingredients in a separate field - I just paste the entire recipe into the directions field. If I'm looking for a recipe that uses a certain ingredient I do a search for "directions contain . . . ." I don't use my MacGourmet recipes to generate grocery lists and I think not being able to do that is the only down-side to saving them this way. It's so much faster and easier, though.

    Sputnick - Thanks. I have seen rice bran oil in the stores but have not tried it yet.

  5. Be a good bloggy friend and bring us back a coupla lobstahs, eh? Just kidding, but have a blast! We're heading up into the mountains soon... I wish it was Maine instead!

  6. Ann, have a great time in the mountains!
    When I read your comment I pictured my dog sitting in the back seat, his little eyes bugged out at the site of a couple of Vinalhaven lobsters menacingly waving their claws at him! It would be an even longer ride back than usual . . . .