Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Can She Cook in this Kitchen?

Passed on these boys while shopping for dinner - maybe because they were laughing at me!
Last night I found myself standing in the middle of our kitchen in Naples, Italy with tears in my eyes. Why? I couldn't find a vegetable peeler. Who doesn't have a vegetable peeler? (I can tell you now 50% of kitchens), but I swear I saw one. But maybe that was two, or maybe three kitchens ago - and now it's dark and throwing down rain and I have beautiful vegetables to peel for minestrone.

A good start to the soup, but the finish line was far in the distance. 
In order to make the Senior Nomads budget work we eat most meals at home and often pack a picnic for lunch. And I love that - because I love food. I truly enjoy the meal planning, the trips to the markets and the grocery store, the preparation and sitting down to the table together. In Italy food practically throws itself at you and it is one of my favorite places to shop and cook.

A "Go To" Nomads dinner. I often roast a chicken on the first night.
Sounds like something out of Under the Tuscan Sun, doesn't it? Well, set that fairy tale on the back burner. Since we left Seattle in July of 2013 I have cooked in 56 different kitchens and each one tells a story - most have happy endings, but some leave you tossing the book aside.

Obviously the lack of a vegetable peeler wasn't a life-threatening situation - no worse that a badly stubbed toe, really, but I guess I was just over it. Over taking inventory of each new kitchen, and, more often than not coming up "a sharp knife short of a load". Or a vegetable peeler, or a decent saute pan. Or any decent pans for that matter.

One of our smallest, and least equipped kitchens was in Marrakesh. This was about all there was to work with. 
There are always plenty of wine openers and pizza cutters, but rarely a whisk. Mixing bowls and casseroles are scarce. The occasional cheese grater is a nice find. And once I had a salad spinner! Most of the time I find this scavenger hunt fun - and even fantasize about starring in a reality show called "Can She Cook in This Kitchen?" But not tonight. In fairness to our Naples hosts, it was a very nice kitchen and had most everything you could ask for. I guess I was just having "a moment" and the lack of a few key tools pushed me over the edge.

Husband to the rescue! He put on his coat, grabbed the umbrella and said "Just tell me what you need - I am on it". Sweet man.

The list. And the results! I married a fine man who came through in a pinch.
However, our airbnb was in the Spanish Quarter which is a warren of cramped, winding streets with multiple small specialty shops. Unless you know the area, it can be tough to shop for a specific need. The list included at the very least a vegetable peeler. If possible a paring knife, and a cheese grater (No cheese grater? WHERE am I?) I drew a quick sketch of each item I hoped he might find and off he went.  He was back in half an hour with the goods. They may not have come from Sur La Table but they did the trick and restored my good humor, (who wouldn't laugh at these cuties) And the soup was delicious.

Here's how the Minestrone came together:  I carved a handful of lardons from my chunk of panecetta, got those sizzling, then added a sliced red onion, diced garlic and celery to the pan. I opened a big can of Moretti crushed tomatoes and a jar of their tomato puree, drained a jar of cannelloni beans, chopped the parsley, celery greens, and added a big handful of already chopped kale, chard, leeks and cabbage (it's a minestrone mix you buy loose at the green grocer). Once I had my  new tools I peeled and diced a couple of carrots, and a large potato. In they went along with everything else, plus two cups of beef broth and a good pinch of red pepper flakes, black pepper and salt. I cooked a pot of small penne pasta to stir into individual servings at the end along with a handful of incredible Parmesan cheese. The bread here is so good - and the rich, spicy olive oil so affordable that you can serve lashings of it along side this soup.

We eat fresher and better as Nomads than we ever did in America.
A typical Nomad dinner - this one in Helsinki, back when Brian Williams was in good stead.
Notes on ingredients: most of our kitchens have salt, pepper, sugar and the makings for tea and coffee on hand. Sometimes there is a welcoming bottle of wine and fresh fruit. After that it becomes more interesting. Cupboard contents are a real clue to your host's lifestyle. I've opened the majority of cupboards and found lovely herbs, spices, pastas and good oil and vinegar - and condiments that indicate whether they cook at all, or their preference for Thai or Vegan or "instant". Rarely, you just close the cupboards and hope the bugs are sleeping, and sometimes the cupboards are bare - like an IKEA showroom.
The smallest kitchen was in Marrakesh. A one person operation.
One of my favorite kitchens was in Bilbao, Spain. Fresh OJ every morning!
The one ingredient that often shows up, and sort of sums up the airbnb experience, is pasta. There are almost always two or three half packages of pasta because any Kitchen Nomad can whip up a pasta dinner (provided you have a pot and a colander). And who doesn't feel bad about wasting the rest of the box? So, like little stones on a path, we leave a little penne for the next traveler. More than once I have sadly left a heavy bottle of extra virgin olive oil, an artisan jar of Dijon mustard, a crock of farmer's market jam or sea salt behind because they wouldn't make the weight limit on Easy Jet, but it seems to be a sort of airbnb good Karma.

Sadly, you leave some favorite ingredients behind when traveling on

After cooking in so many different apartments, I have come to appreciate our Seattle kitchen and everything in it. It is the only room in our house that I would lift up and move to our next permanent home - wherever that might be. It wasn't big. There was no island in the middle (or in the way) but it did have stools at the counter, was open to the living area and had lots of counter space. I now place a very high value on counter space.

Our kitchen at the Queen Anne townhouse.
I've also given a lot of thought to the 20 items I would take to my "Desert Island" kitchen - the must haves, not the fantasy list. If every airbnb had these basic cooking tools I think anyone could make a decent meal without crying:

A good quality 8" chef's knife
A paring knife
A good cutting board (not glass!)
A wooden spoon
A spatula
A Large serving spoon
A cheese grater
A vegetable peeler
A mixing bowl 
A whisk
A colander
A Salad spinner
A casserole dish
A cookie sheet or roasting pan
A stock Pot (big enough for a pasta dinner)
A saucepan with a lid
A good quality 12" saute pan
A good quality 8" non stick saute pan
A toaster oven
A kettle
A pair of tongs
A wine / bottle opener
Bonus: unlimited paper towels. 

I could make a list of serving dishes I would also schlep to the island, but if I get my kitchen list, I am happy to spear anything and serve it on palm fronds and scallop shells.

The final and best meal in Naples.
I brought the kitchy grater and peeler to our current home in Bari on the bus since there are no weight limits or security checks, but I doubt they will be traveling to our next stop in Malta since we are flying there. I am sure they will be appreciated by the next Nomads and hopefully, no one gets hurt.

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads in Europe


  1. Great post. We are doing something similar and carry our vegetable peeler and paring knife everywhere. I do not think as many as 50% of places have them. We searched Europe for a rubber spatula and finally had someone bring one from home. A continent without rubber spatulas!
    But your post made me smile. Glad you are on the journey.

    You can see our adventures:

  2. As an airbnb host, absolutely loved your kitchen list. Going through it right now to make sure we're not missing anything.
    I hope my wife and I can go on a similar adventure when we have the opportunity to retire. Mahalo from Hawaii. Alfred--

  3. Hmmm. Cooking every night? Seems like the fun could wear off. In Southern Europe, Turkey and the Balkans, I think there would be some
    merit in one night per city in a local restaurant.(Might be too expensive up north) There's no other way to taste the real flavors of your city, is there?

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  5. So true. We are on the road for only 3 months, mostly in Italy, so I know what you mean about treasuring the small things like sharp knives, peelers and graters.