Summer is the time to pack it in: Pack our cars, pack our calendars with trips, and pack ourselves off to the mountains, parks and beaches.
That all works better if we pack some food, too. Sure, you could just go through a drive-in window or hit an overpriced and understocked tourist-town market as soon as you get where you’re going. But we have a better plan. In the Assembly Line Cooking series, we look for really simple food plans that let you take a few shortcuts and mix a little scratch cooking with good-quality prepared ingredients.
This time, we put together a menu featuring easy things that travel well. You can even eat some of these in the car. They’re all portable, ready to pack in a cooler and toss in the car.
We have recipes for Black Bean Summer Salad and a layered take on Caprese Pasta Salad. The rest are so simple, you don’t need a recipe:
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1. Ginger Lime Melon: Get out a flat plastic container with a lid. Peel and grate a 2-inch piece of fresh ginger (about 1 to 2 tablespoons), then place it in a coffee filter. Squeeze the juice into the container. Add 2 tablespoons demerara or raw sugar, 1 teaspoon grated lime zest, 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Mix it all together. Slice a cantaloupe in half and scoop out the seeds. Cut into quarters and peel off the rind, then cut the melon into thin wedges. Add it to the container, turning to coat the wedges. Cover, chill and serve. Adapted from southernliving.com.
2. Walking Chicken Tacos: This started out as Frito Pie – you add cooked chili and toppings to a snack-size bag of Fritos and served with a spoon to eat it out of the bag. This version lets you serve it cold: Make Avocado Crema Slaw (see recipe) and place in a plastic container. Strip and shred 2 to 3 cups cooked chicken (rotisserie or leftover grilled chicken is great), place it in a resealable bag and add about 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice and a little salt to taste. Take along enough snack-size bags of Doritos for everyone. When you’re ready to eat, crush each bag of chips a little, then open and roll down the top about an inch. Spoon in about 1/4 cup chicken and Avocado Crema Slaw. Add grated cheese, salsa and fresh cilantro if you like. Serve with a fork or spoon.
3. Camp Cooler Sangria: In a large jar or (3-quart) sealable pitcher, stir together 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/2 cup pomegranate juice until dissolved. Add 1 orange, quartered and cut into thin slices; 1 apple, quartered, cored and cut into thin slices; 1 (750ml) bottle of Zinfandel; and 1/4 cup each brandy and orange liqueur, such as triple sec or Cointreau. Seal and chill at least 3 hours and up to 1 day. To serve, pour some into a glass with some fruit and top with sparkling water or seltzer. From “Camp Sunset: A Modern Camper’s Guide to the Great Outdoors” (Oxmoor House, 2016).
4. Ice Cream in a Bag: You’ll need ice, salt, one 1-quart and one 1-gallon resealable freezer bags, and energetic kids for shaking it. Place 1 cup half-and-half, 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in the 1-quart bag. Leave it plain for vanilla, or add 1 tablespoon instant espresso, 1/4 cup chopped fruit or 1 1/2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa. Seal the bag and place in the 1-gallon bag. Add about 2 quarts of ice and 1/2 cup rock salt or kosher salt. Seal that bag. Wrap it in a towel and shake vigorously for 15 minutes. Remove the smaller bag and serve the ice cream immediately. From “Camp Sunset: A Modern Camper’s Guide to the Great Outdoors.”
5. Butterscotch Time-Crunch Cookies: Line a sheet pan with wax paper. Place 1 1/2 cups butterscotch chips in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir until melted. Stir in 1/2 cup peanut butter until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in 3 cups corn flakes. Spoon out in small mounds on the wax paper. Chill until set. (You can use almost any kind of cereal, and swap butterscotch chips for chocolate, but chocolate is messier in the car.)
Tips for packing that cooler
Adapted from “Camp Sunset: A Modern Camper’s Guide to the Great Outdoors” (Oxmoor House).
1. Keep everything cold. Ice blocks last longer than ice cubes. Use ice packs, or fill resealable freezer bags 3/4 full of water (to allow room for expansion) and freeze them in advance. Cold food keeps longer, so chill or freeze everything before you go.
2. Pack like a bagger: Put ice blocks and heavy frozen items on the bottom, things in plastic containers in the middle and fragile things (lettuce, eggs, herbs) on top. Stash loose items in a resealable bag so they’re easier to find. Fill empty spaces with ice cubes.
3. Get it really cold: If you’re driving a long way or you want to keep frozen food frozen, use dry ice. Just make sure you cover it with a cloth or use a paper bag so you don’t have to touch it, and keep a window cracked or keep the car’s ventilation system set on outside air.
4. Conserve space: Lose any packaging you can (cut egg cartons down to the number of eggs, discard the paper holder around a plastic-wrapped package of bacon, put ketchup in a smaller jar).
5. Keep food organized: Seal meats, cheeses and eggs in plastic bags so they’ll stay dry after the ice starts to melt. Mark containers with masking tape and a Sharpie.
6. Keep the cooler cooler: Wrap it in a sleeping bag or keep it in the shade. Use separate coolers for food and for drinks if you can. The drinks cooler usually gets opened more often.
Black Bean Summer Salad
From “Southern Holidays: A Savor the South Cookbook,” by Debbie Moose (UNC Press, 2014).
2 cups corn kernels (fresh or cooked) or thawed, frozen corn
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and well-drained
5 or 6 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
1 large sweet banana pepper, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon chili powder
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/3 cup chopped cilantro leaves
If you’re using frozen corn, rinse it under cold water to thaw it, drain it well, then saute lightly in a skillet with about 1 tablespoon olive oil to remove excess moisture.
Combine the corn with the black beans, green onions, banana pepper and cherry tomatoes.
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, vinegar, chili powder, salt and pepper. Pour over the vegetables and toss to coat. Stir in the cilantro, or take it along in a small plastic bag and add it right before serving. Refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to overnight before serving.
Yield: 8 servings.
Avocado Crema Slaw
Adapted from “Fast to the Table Freezer Cookbook,” by Becky Rosenthal (The Countryman Press, 2016). You’ll have extra avocado crema, but it makes a great dip with tortilla chips.
1 ripe avocado, pitted, sliced and peeled
1/2 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 1/2 cups tri-color coleslaw mix (or 1/2 cup each shredded red and green cabbage and carrot)
Place the avocado, sour cream or yogurt, cumin, salt and lime juice in a food processor. Process until smooth.
Combine the coleslaw mix with about 1/2 cup of the Avocado Crema and mix well. Cover well and chill until ready to use.
Yield: About 6 servings.
Layered Caprese Pasta Salad
Adapted from health.com. This travels well, and you can make it into a main dish by adding cooked chicken or sliced hard-cooked egg.
1/2 cup orzo pasta
3 tablespoons pitted kalamata olives, sliced
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil, divided
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
3 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut in bite-size pieces (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 cups fresh arugula, stemmed and lightly chopped
Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to boil and add the orzo. Cook until just tender, about 8 minutes or according to package directions. Drain, rinse under cold water until cool, then drain well again. Place in a small bowl and add the olives, 1 tablespoon basil, 1 teaspoon oil and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together vinegar, mustard, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and a pinch of salt. Slowly whisk in 2 tablespoons oil until combined. Add the tomatoes, mozzarella, 2 tablespoons basil and shallot and toss to coat.
Place half the tomato mixture in the bottom of a 2-quart jar with a lid. Top with half of the orzo and some of the arugula. Continue layering with the rest of the tomatoes, then the orzo and the rest of the arugula. Scrap in any extra dressing on top. Cover and chill for up to 2 days before serving.
Yield: 2 to 4 servings.