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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008 10:15 pm

A vacation worth repeating

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Are you making plans for your 2009 vacations? Or are you, like many of us, wondering if you’ll be taking a vacation at all? Last summer people stayed home because of high gas prices. This year the financial meltdown has many wondering when, if ever, they’ll be able to take a real vacation again.

I’d like to suggest a vacation that my husband, Peter, and I have been taking for several years now. We’ve always had a wonderful time and afterwards, we were refreshed, relaxed and reinvigorated; not least because we had no fatigue from a long car trip or flight, worries about bad weather, road conditions or flight delays. In fact, we never leave our house.

I’ve written about vacationing at home in Illinois Times before — last March, in fact; and parts of this column are taken from that earlier one. But it seemed especially appropriate — and especially worth repeating — in these financially troubled times.

It may seem as if a home vacation wouldn’t be all that special, but the truth is that my husband, Peter, and I, like most people these harried and hurried days, rarely take time to savor the home we’ve created — on which we’ve spent a lot of time and more money than we like to contemplate. More often than not, it’s a nice backdrop to a host of activities, some pleasureful, but most of which are the “have-to’s” of modern life.

Vacationing at home, we’ve found, doesn’t require much effort, but does require some planning. Surprisingly, the biggest effort — the hardest thing, especially the first time — was not giving in to guilty feelings that we should be doing something, not just lazing around. We kept reminding ourselves that if we’d traveled, we wouldn’t be feeling guilty. Our kids were grown by then, but I’d think that, depending on ages and level of cooperation, it would be possible to vacation at home with children, especially in midwinter when there are fewer activities.

Planning is crucial for a successful home vacation. Here’s a checklist we’ve come up with over the years:

• Decide which time(s) of year work best for you. Midwinter’s our favorite. Summer hasn’t been as successful when we tried it, but I know a Lake Springfield family that takes an annual week-long vacation at home in the summer, enjoying their boat and lazing around the pool.

• Make sure the house is reasonably clean and tidy. Nothing makes those nagging guilty feelings shout louder and be harder to resist than piles of dirty laundry and dishes or floors that need cleaning. Minor repairs need doing? Plan on getting them done ahead of time, or plan to deal with them at a later date.

• Make a rough plan. It shouldn’t be a tight schedule — that’d defeat the purpose — just a concept of how things will play out. The planning should be done jointly and the activities be ones you both enjoy. What will you do? Reading, hiking, cards or games, watching movies, or even working on a creative project together? Will you stay in the entire time, as we do, or go out for some meals or to movies? Once you’ve decided, be sure to get necessary items in advance. Nothing spoils home vacations more than fighting Saturday shopping crowds.

•  Meal planning is one of the most important parts of a successful vacation at home; the more specific you are here, the better. Peter and I both like to cook and we like to cook together — in fact it’s something we’ve done together since our first dates. Cooking is an integral part of our vacations at home, but our rule is that the preparations must be simple and, most importantly, don’t create huge messes. On other occasions, we enjoy collaborating on an elaborate meal like the Asian menu we recently made that took three entire days to prepare (we finally sat down to eat late Sunday night) and literally used every pot and pan we have — and we have a lot of pots and pans. We had fun, but preparing it and cleaning up the resultant mess was far from relaxing. For our home vacation meals we try to make some elements ahead, and keep last-minute prep and cleanup to a minimum. Write out menus, make a shopping list, and be sure you have everything you need before your vacation begins.

Breakfast might be an omelette, or we may pre-buy and freeze some of the fabulous croissants and breakfast pastries from Incredibly Delicious (they’ll be happy to tell you the best way to reheat them). Lunch might be a soup such as French Onion that we’d frozen earlier in the year, or sandwiches made with special ingredients. Dinner can be as simple and luxurious as a good steak, baked potato and salad — easy even if you don’t like to cook. Or how about lobsters? — both Schnuck’s and Meijer’s will steam them perfectly, so all you have to do is warm them; or king crab legs. Melt a little garlic butter and you have a feast. If you don’t want to cook at all, consider ordering carryout. Even upscale restaurants not normally associated with carryout are happy to prepare a meal you can take home.

• Splurges: With the money we’ve saved on transportation and hotel, we always indulge in some luxury foods not in our normal budget. Prime dry-aged steaks, shell oysters or other seafood, fresh wild mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest and caviar, are some of the things we’ve mail-ordered for various home vacations. We also stock wines that are usually only for special occasions, always including at least one bottle of Amarone, a rich, warming, unctuous red that just begs to be sipped in front of that warming fire.

Once our pantry and wine cellar is stocked, the house clean, advance preparations made, firewood stacked and ready and books, magazines, and DVDs lay waiting, we’re ready to slip into something comfortable, sit back, relax, and enjoy our home — and each other.

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Porcini are among the most flavorful — and highly prized—mushrooms. As good as they are fresh (and I’ve only been lucky enough to have fresh ones a very few times in my life), drying them intensifies the flavor. I buy them in pound containers in Italian groceries in Chicago and St. Louis, but they’re available in small packs at Angela’s (1535 MacArthur Blvd. 787-7922) and at several local groceries. This rub is one of my favorite treatments for steak — absolutely delicious without overwhelming the flavor of the steak itself.

PORCINI RUB FOR STEAKS

1 oz. dried porcini
1 T. minced garlic
1 T. freshly ground pepper
1 T. hot pepper flakes, or more or less to taste
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 T. salt
3 T. dark brown sugar
7 T. extra virgin olive oil
Grind the mushrooms to a powder in a spice grinder or food processor. Combine with the remaining ingredients to form a paste. Rub steaks generously with the paste. Place the steaks in a resealable plastic bag, squish out the air, and let stand at least an hour and up to 24 hours. If the meat will be marinating more than 1-2 hours, refrigerate it. Remove from the refrigerator an hour before cooking to bring to room temperature. Wipe excess rub from the steaks before cooking.

Grill the steaks over charcoal, or sear on both sides in a heavy, oiled ovenproof skillet, then place in a 500° oven until the desired doneness is reached. The time will vary based on the type and thickness of the steaks. Begin checking after 10 minutes for rare meat.

Makes enough rub for 4-6 steaks, depending on size. Leftover rub may be frozen.Contact Juilianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com

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