What We Feed Our Kids When We Travel

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
One of the fastest ways travel can wear our family down is in the area of food. We eat well at home, by which I mean fresh and homemade, and while we always want to try the local specialties, the fact of the matter is, in America, there’s a lot of garbage on the menu.

This is especially true if you’re on a budget.

For adults, there’s no shortage of fried food, pathetic iceberg salads, and overcooked or undercooked veggies, typically of the frozen or canned variety. For kids, the menu is even more limited, rarely ranging beyond a stock rotation of PB&J, hamburgers, chicken fingers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, and spaghetti. And let’s not even talk at length about flights, where options include overpriced boxes of poorly curated snacks and tiny foil packets of peanuts and pretzels and packages of cookies (though Delta’s Biscoff cookies do get our family’s seal of approval).

Ooh... a corn dog and breaded ravioli!
Ooh… a corn dog and breaded ravioli!

All of this is to say that we take an unusual amount of care planning what we’re going to eat on our trips, especially for long flights and the first full day of travel. That planning can be stressful–especially because it often involves increasing the amount of stuff we’re carrying (and you know how I feel about that), but the rewards of eating well offset the hour or two of annoyance endured while hauling everything through TSA and into overhead bins or under seats in front of us on the plane.

Here’s our strategy for the first two days of travel:

1. The day before departure, review what we have on hand at home– especially in the fridge.
If you follow my work on The Latin Kitchen, then you know that I really hate food waste. There’s little reason for it, other than poor planning, and there’s really nothing I find more depressing in the kitchen than coming home after a fantastic trip, only to open the fridge and find half a dozen science experiments in progress.

My pre-trip job, then, is to assess what ingredients we have on hand and make suggestions to Francisco about what we can do with them. I typically help prep and store items we won’t use on the trip and that won’t keep until we come home, turning greens, herbs, and vegetables into the fixings for stock or pesto. He takes the rest–cheeses, meats, fruits, and other vegetables–into snacks and small meals. Veggies, meats, and cheeses may get turned into pasta or grain salads (couscous, quinoa, barley, and orzo are all delicious and filling, and they pack and hold up well). Vegetables also get turned into raw finger-food munchables, and if there are only small bits of certain items, such as peppers and onion, they’ll likely get mixed up with some tuna for a salad, which will either be served on bread that will be hard by the time we get home or lettuce or greens that will be wilted and brown if left to fend for themselves until vacation’s end.

Lunch our first full travel day in Utah: tuna fish, corn for Orion, bananas, and a salad-- everything was prepped at home during our pre-trip fridge cull. We also had  ears of corn we'd roasted at home. Grounds courtesy of the Utah State Capitol. :)
Lunch our first full travel day in Utah– everything was prepped at home during our pre-trip fridge cull. We also had ears of corn we’d roasted at home. Grounds courtesy of the Utah State Capitol. :)

2. The day before departure, we assess what kids’ snacks we need to replenish.
We have a 4.5 year old and a 10 month old, and each has particular snacks that are always in our backpacks, even for daily outdoor jaunts around our NYC home-base. The older one can always be sated and placated with 365 brand cereal bars from Whole Foods, while the younger one is calmed down with Mum-Mums, quick-dissolving rice rusks. Cups of applesauce are packable (we always have a fork-knife-spoon in our packs), as are Choopoons labneh, which come in some novel flavors (sour cherry, sweet carrot) and are so thick and creamy that they serve as a full meal for the 10 month old and a snack that fills the 4.5 year old enough to ward off a full-scale meltdown when we know it will be at least another hour until dinner.

Choopoons labneh is a filling, easily packed go-to snack for families on the go.
Choopoons labneh is a filling, easily packed go-to snack for families on the go.

3. Once we’ve assessed everything we have, we pack cold items in an insulated bag and non-perishables in our carry-ons.
If two parents are traveling with their kids, then divide and conquer is the operative rule; if you’re a single parent or you’re just traveling solo with one or more of your kids (I do this a lot), you can still give the kids some of the responsibility of shouldering the load. While you may resist the idea of carrying an insulated bag, it can really come in handy throughout the trip as you replenish your snack supply. Having snacks like cheese, yogurt, and other items that need to be kept cool breaks the monotony of not-so-healthy vending machine or gas station snacks. If our accommodations have a fridge with a freezer, we put the ice packs and the bag itself in the freezer overnight; if there’s no freezer, then we get a hotel garbage bag, fill it with ice, and put it in the insulated bag before we leave for the day.

4. Eat in order of perishability.
True, tuna fish salad is probably not the best lunch to pack for a trip… unless you keep track of your food inventory and eat in order of perishability. The tuna fish salad we packed for this trip (the obvious choice for using up a few small pieces of onion and pepper and celery) had to be kept cold and it had to be eaten within 24 hours; otherwise, to the garbage it would go… and then, the whole point of avoiding food waste, eating well, and saving money would be lost.

5. Refill strategically.
When you’ve brought plastic containers from home, you can refill them strategically throughout your trip. Dry cereals, fresh fruit, and instant oatmeal from the hotel breakfast bar are all fair game.

How–and what–do you feed your kids when you travel? Share your tips in the comments.

Coming Soon: Puerto Rico Restaurant Week

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
The dates for the third annual Puerto Rico Restaurant Week have just been announced, and this year’s line up of participating restaurants promises to be the best yet. The event will take place May 14-20, and will feature prix fixe lunches ($14 or $19) and dinners ($28 or $38) at some of San Juan’s top restaurants.

Organizers have also partnered with some new, big-time sponsors, including JetBlue and several local hotels, so keep an eye on the event’s website for announcements of special accommodation deals.

Santaella, one of the restaurants participating in the third annual Puerto Rico Restaurant Week, May 14-20.
Santaella, one of the restaurants participating in the third annual Puerto Rico Restaurant Week, May 14-20.

Francisco and I have been writing about and photographing food and culinary culture in Puerto Rico since 2005. If you want to know more about what’s in store for you as you eat your way around San Juan, the island’s capital, check out some of our recent articles about Puerto Rico’s current food scene:

Puerto Rico in 10 Plates: Bespoke Magazine

Puerto Rico Farm to Table: Bespoke Magazine

Puerto Rico’s New Culinary Superstars: The Latin Kitchen

Puerto Rico’s New Cheese Movement: The Latin Kitchen

And while you’re there, check out the recently protected Northeastern Corridor, which I wrote about for National Geographic Traveler.

Saturday Morning Cinnamon Rolls

Text & Instagram Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
There are recipes I dance around for a loooong time— years, in some cases.

Should I make it? Should I not? What if the outcome’s a disaster? What if I waste perfectly good ingredients? Have I built up the skills to pull this one or that one off?

Cinnamon roll recipes fell into this “Maybe, maybe not” category. Baking, as I wrote about the empanadas a couple weeks ago, can be challenging enough without the added task of rolling dough into a spiral and cutting its pliant, slightly quivery mass into perfect rounds that hold their shape and filling… a task that, for someone who considers herself not particularly adept with spatial tasks, seemed really daunting (especially at 2 AM, which is when I was finishing the job).

But yesterday, Mariel and I were talking about recipes and she said she wanted to make cinnamon rolls. What kind of mother can say, “No, let’s not do that one; it’s too hard”? You don’t say that to your kid. Instead, you say, “Yes! Let’s try it!” and hope that you can pull warm, doughy, perfectly sweet rolls out of the oven at the end of it all.

The finished product- not too bad for our first try!
The finished product- not too bad for our first try!

And we did.

Either I’ve gotten better at baking or I’ve been lucky with good recipes lately, though I suspect it’s a bit of both. We used Deb Perelman’s recipe, an adaptation of Alton Brown’s recipe, as our point of departure. We omitted fresh cranberries and replaced them with some dried cranberries, added slivered almonds, and cut the amount of light brown sugar to 3/4 cup, as we didn’t want cloyingly sweet rolls. We didn’t make the frosting and we didn’t have buttermilk, substituting a half measure of milk and a half measure of orange juice (which makes a sort of buttermilk).

And they were perfect, especially for a sunny Saturday morning.

If you decide to make these yourself (don’t be scared!), do be sure to roll the dough into a log that is as tight as possible. The tighter it is, the easier it will be to cut. If you don’t want to bake all 12 rolls that the recipe yields at once, do as we did and cut the log into thirds and store the other two in your freezer for another morning.

Making Empanadas on a Rainy Saturday

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
The continued elusiveness of spring has me down; one of the ways I’ve been coping is by spending time in the kitchen.

The empanadas before baking.
The empanadas before baking.

Earlier this week, Mariel and I made a bright, delicious blood orange olive oil cake from a Smitten Kitchen recipe; we also mixed and refrigerated the dough for empanadas, part of my ongoing quest to find a perfect lunch/snack alternative to sandwiches for Mariel on her way to or from school.

If you’ve never made empanadas before–and I had not–you’ll soon find that there are dozens of recipes, varying not only in fillings (check out, for example, some of the sweet fillings in these recipes on The Latin Kitchen), but also in the preparation of the dough. I wanted a recipe that would allow us to make our dough from scratch, but didn’t feel like cheating. At the same time, I didn’t want a recipe with the level of complexity that involved us rendering our own lard. After all, anytime you’re making a recipe with a pre-schooler, you can be assured that the total prep time will be double the time that the recipe developer indicated.

Whenever I’m in need of a basic, reliable recipe, my go-to cookbook is The Joy of Cooking. A recipe made from The Joy of Cooking will never fail because of the recipe; it will only fail because of you. If you don’t use cookbooks often, you might not realize how rare this kind of accuracy is; for all the talk of recipe testing and professionals whose job it is to run through a recipe before it goes into print, the fact is that a growing number of recipes are clearly not tested.

Anyhow… Joy’s recipe instructs the cook to let the dough rest in the fridge for an hour. Ours ended up resting for three days. That’s another thing you know if you have a pre-schooler AND an infant who’s in that lovely and maddening interstitial phase between crawling and walking (the phase that involves courageous, energetic, and poorly considered attempts to pull oneself up into a standing position on any object that appears to be still): while you will become expert in doing many things with one hand, you will not be able to roll out and cut dough unless another adult is around to wrangle that rascally infant.

We were finally able to make the empanadas today, a full family effort. Francisco made the fillings–one of ground beef, one of shredded chicken–and I rolled out and cut the dough and made the empanadas. Mariel took up her traditional posts: director, taste tester, and server.

The ground beef filling.
The ground beef filling.

I always feel a little anxious when working with a recipe I haven’t tried before, especially if it involves a dough or baking, since both require absolute precision and an innate ability to know how to tweak moisture and thickness to produce the desired texture. Thankfully, Joy’s empanada recipe is one that talks to you. The dough lets you know what it needs and–very much unlike typical dough recipes–coaches you along. After my first pan of empanadas, I realized I needed to be braver about rolling the dough thinner. The second batch was just right- and the perfect antidote to the blues induced by a cold and rainy spring Saturday.

And the finished product!
And the finished product!

Drink Local: A Tale of Two Distilleries

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo

As far as food goes, it doesn't get much more local than Argyle Cheese Farmer's yogurt. Dave (shown here, left) makes his yogurt in Argyle and sells it in Saratoga Springs, less than 30 miles away.
As far as food goes, it doesn’t get much more local than Argyle Cheese Farmer’s yogurt. Dave (shown here, left) makes his yogurt in Argyle and sells it in Saratoga Springs, less than 30 miles away.

Eating local– buying and consuming food grown or made close to home– has been popular for a while now. Though making a commitment to buy locally-sourced food isn’t always cheaper than the alternatives, advocates of “going local” say local food tastes better (it spends less time in transit, so it’s fresher when it reaches you) and its environmental footprint is typically much smaller than food that’s been processed and packaged for longer shipping routes.

Tubers sold at Saratoga's Farmers' Market.
Tubers sold at Saratoga’s Farmers’ Market.
Judging by the consistent increase in the number of farmers’ markets that have sprung up across the United States over the past two decades (from 1,755 in 1994 to 7,864 in 2012), it seems safe to say that Americans like local food and are willing to spend more for it. Producers in other areas of the food and beverage industry began to wonder: might consumers support locally-produced spirits with the same degree of enthusiasm and loyalty? They suspected the answer was “Yes,” and the “drink local” movement was born.

In reality, drinking local isn’t new at all. If you travel to certain pockets of America, most folks have been drinking local brews and spirits (if illicitly) for a long time, sipping on moonshine from backwoods stills in the South, for example. But what is new is the formal organization, legal operation, and the development of a compelling narrative– the story that sells the spirit–of craft distillers, as well as the insistence that locally-made spirits, like local food, taste better, help local economies, and ease environmental impacts.

In my travels around New York State’s Capital-Saratoga and Finger Lakes regions over the past few weeks, I’ve visited several breweries and distilleries that are encouraging their neighbors to drink local. While New York State is well-known for its wineries, both those on Long Island and in the Finger Lakes, these breweries and distilleries are just beginning to assert their presence. And they’re also just beginning to confront every small producer’s dream and challenge: how to make sure that production keeps pace with growing demand.

Here are two you can visit the next time you’re in New York State:

1. Albany Distilling Company: Albany, New York
Albany Distilling Company, founded in 2011, is still a baby as far as businesses go, but expect big things from co-owners, friends, and master distillers, John Curtin and Matthew Jager.

CoalYard, the new make whiskey from Albany Distilling Company.
CoalYard, the new make whiskey from Albany Distilling Company.
Curtin and Jager left their jobs as teachers to start the distillery, where they produce new make and aged whiskey, as well as rum, in small batches. Though the molasses for their rum comes from the Caribbean (as they note, “At present, there are exactly zero sugar plantations in New York; as a result, locally sourced molasses are a bit tricky to come by.”), their whiskeys are made of “100% New York State farm and food products.”

It’s a two-man operation, with Curtin and Jager switching distiller-marketer-PR-cleaner-upper hats frequently. There’s also the task of feeding Cooper, cat-in-residence.

Curtin and Jager are also tour guides; you can visit the distillery (tasting included!) on Tuesdays from 4-8 pm and on Saturdays from noon until 8 pm. The guys say people regularly knock on the door (or call from the other side of it) on non-tour days, too… and they typically indulge those spontaneous visitors.

Finding Albany Distilling Company’s products is a bit of a scavenger hunt. For one thing, there’s the issue of production levels; keeping up with the demand has been a challenge. If you like what you taste, ADC’s website keeps a running list of where bottles and sips are available around the state.

2. Finger Lakes Distilling: Burdett, New York

Finger Lakes Distilling.
Finger Lakes Distilling.

The first thing you notice about distiller Thomas McKenzie is this: He ain’t from ’round here.

McKenzie’s drawl is unmistakably, unapologetically Southern– Deep South Southern– as is his candid attitude about competitors. “All sorts of micro-distilleries been poppin’ up,” he says. “They make crap.” McKenzie is the Alabama farm boy counterpart to his buttoned-up business partner, Brian McKenzie (no blood relation… or, as we say in the South, no kin.), whom he met at the American Distilling Association’s 2007 industry conference. Though Brian has written that he only understood about half of what Thomas was saying during that first encounter, the McKenzies were able to communicate well enough to establish the idea for a distillery in the Finger Lakes. Thomas made the move from Alabama (though his accent is still firmly rooted there) and started making spirits in their purpose-built facility.

While Thomas says he wishes they could stick to making just two spirits (mainly whiskey; “I’m a whiskey man,” he says. “Beer just makes me drunk.”), Finger Lakes Distilling is a larger, more varied operation than Albany Distilling Company; for one thing, it’s been in business a few years longer. At present, McKenzie makes brandy, gin, grappa (!), vodka, and a variety of liqueurs, including Maplejack Liqueur, made with New York State maple syrup.

Maplejack liqueur, one of Finger Lakes Distilling's products.
Maplejack liqueur, one of Finger Lakes Distilling’s products.

Like Albany Distilling Company, Finger Lakes Distilling is classified as a New York State Farm Distillery, meaning that most of the fruit and grain used to make the spirits are sourced from New York. Albany Distilling Company does a good job of explaining exactly what that means–especially for consumers and the availability/accessibility of these spirits– in this post.

If you want to taste McKenzie’s wares, Finger Lakes Distilling is open to the public daily from 11 AM-5 PM. They have a tasting room where you can sample all of the spirits they currently have available, and a shop where you can purchase spirits to take home with you.