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Lean into vacation food no matter where you are

Pulled pork sandwiches make the best "vacation" food.
(Matthew Benson)

Whether it’s a secluded cabin getaway by a lake or sleeping in tents in the backyard next to an inflatable pool, one thing is certain: We’re all desperate to get away. The same feeling goes for our meals. I’ve been eating the same thing for the past couple months now, in an effort to restore some constancy and normalcy to a very chaotic time.

But now I’m desperate for the kind of celebration food none of us really get to indulge in since parties are a thing of the past ... for now. Fortunately for me, my birthday is this week, so I’ll be spending a week at a friend’s house on Lake Tahoe to escape my tiny Eastside apartment. We’ll finally get to cook for more than just two people, and the food will be things none of us have eaten since the shutdown started.

There’s a grill at my friend’s house, so barbecue is on the menu. I grew up near Memphis and love the sticky-sweet and dry-rubbed pork ribs of that area, but the majority of the group likes the North Carolina style of whole-hog barbecue served with its specific chile-infused vinegar “sauce.” We’ll make cool, creamy coleslaw, sweet baked beans and N.C.-style hushpuppies (oblong-shaped, no diced aromatics) to go with it, but I’ll buy the buns for the pork sandwiches (the bread-baking bug never bit me in quarantine and never will).

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I’ll advocate for my mom’s peanut butter pie for dessert (vanilla pudding layered with peanut butter-and-powdered sugar crumbles in a crisp pastry crust and topped with whipped cream), but I might be out-voted in favor of banana pudding or Key lime pie. There will be plenty of farmers market vegetable cooking, as well, to round out a couple indulgent meals and the insanely rich N.Y.-style cheesecake I’ll have for my birthday (all smooth cream cheese; none of that ricotta mess, please). That’s been my “birthday cake” since I was a child, and I look forward to it every year, no matter what else is going on or what we’re doing. It’s an escape on a plate, and whether we’re at the lake or back in our apartment complex, it’s these kinds of “food vacations” that will keep us going until we can actually take time off again like we used to.

First-timer’s pork shoulder sandwiches

Time 4 hours
Yields Serves 8 to 12

Skip the sauce and slaw here and focus on the meat; it takes time and attention but, as with all barbecue, the flavor more than makes up for it.

Coleslaw with buttermilk dressing

Time 20 minutes
Yields Serves 6 to 8 (makes 6 cups)

Coleslaw is a classic for a reason; keep it simple with a cool, creamy and tangy buttermilk dressing.

Boston Baked Beans

Time 6 hours 25 minutes
Yields Serves 6 to 8

Sweet, sticky and spiked with mustard and vinegar, these beans are the ideal complement to any outdoor barbecue or grilled meat.

Nicole Rucker’s Key lime pie

Time 30 minutes
Yields Makes one 9-inch pie

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Though citrus season is in winter, this pie screams summer vacation, so make it with the bottled juice and give yourself several breaks.

Tall and creamy cheesecake

Time 3 hours
Yields Serves 16

A chilled slice of smooth, creamy cheesecake can cool you down just as well as iced tea after a hot day outside.

Ask the cooks

I love making pies and, while quarantining with my parents, I’ve tried making a few for them. They have one of those really old-school, small ovens — like the kind that can’t fit a half-sheet pan — but my dad always makes delicious pies in it. But when I try to make pies, the bottom doesn’t get brown fast enough and the top gets over-baked and burned even though I tent it with foil toward the end. I use a glass pie dish so I can see the bottom, and I already place the pie on a preheated baking sheet to get more heat to the bottom. Should I also bake on the lower oven rack? I’d love any tips you have to save me from making another half-done pie.

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— Mari Uyehara

All standard baking recipes are going to typically be developed and tested in regular-size ovens, so if you put a pie or any other baked good in a smaller oven, that will dramatically impact the timing. When I developed recipes for my cookbook on air fryers, which are essentially just really, really small ovens, it taught me how to scale down food so the space around it is proportional to what the larger portions would have in a larger oven. Those small ovens are really only meant to be warming ovens, but people often use them like regular, conventional ovens, especially when cooking holiday meals since more oven space is needed to get everything to the table at once.

Smaller spaces heat up faster and stay hotter. And a lot of old ovens heat themselves from a single heat source, either at the top or back of the oven, so putting a standard-size pie in a smaller-than-standard-size oven can trap the heat, forcing most of it on the top of the pie and making it brown too fast. If you want to use it to bake a pie, I’d cut the recipe in half and make two 5- to 6-inch mini pies, but bake one at a time so the heat-to-food ratio is more balanced. Using a metal tin, which transfers heat quicker than glass or ceramic, will help with cooking the bottom crust faster too. Try tenting the pie with foil from the start; the dough and filling will still cook through and then, if it’s not browned enough for your liking, simply remove the foil and continue baking the pie until it is, being assured in the fact that it’s already cooked and you’re just browning the top as you like it now.

I would wager to guess that the pies your dad makes have been made in that oven for decades, and he’s learned to tweak his recipe/method so the pies come out successfully. Next time he makes a pie, observe him to see the small tweaks he’s making that he might not even be aware of or remember to convey to you.

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