Just a couple days ago we discussed some practical tips for making extended power outages much more bearable; and in response to the story reader (and also writer, as it turns out) Halcyon commented that I should write an emergency cookbook.
Seeing how the weather from the American Midwest is arriving on the East Coast’s front door this morning….well, let’s just say that it might be a good time to take a request.
So here’s what we’re going to do: I will go through my fridge and freezer, just as though my power had just gone out; and we’ll have a practical conversation about not just eating—but eating well.
Oh, and just for fun—quotes from the movies I’m watching as I write.
“Survival kit contents check…one .45 caliber automatic…one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills…$100 in rubles, $100 in gold…one issue of prophylactics, 3 lipsticks, 3 pairs of nylon stockings…shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”
–Slim Pickens to his crew in Dr. Strangelove (1964)
First thing, we need to think about what will defrost first.
For us, it’s the small frozen items: the tamales, the egg rolls, the mini tacos, and the lumpia—and the White Castles (I love those little burgers!). Also the frozen vegetables.
So here’s our first lunch: Let’s put the tamales in the handy baking dish first. OK, now, is there a bottle of salsa dying in the fridge? Either toss it in, or mix it with a tomato product—we have some cans of chopped tomato in the pantry….you probably do too. Any frozen corn? Toss that in, too. Any handy onion, garlic, or even a lime? Any or all of those are excellent.
At our house, the primary power out cooking tool is a Weber grill and charcoal. Now we touched on this last time, but let’s be clear. The way to load coals in your grill is to load them along one edge of the grill. You do not want to put them in the middle. Put lighter fluid on only one end of the “row” of coals, and after they’re lit, the coals will burn from one end to the other in a nicely controlled process that offers nice even heat and won’t crack your ceramic baking dishes.
So while you’re cooking the “tamale surprise”, use the space remaining on the grill (don’t waste coal!) to cook some of the other small, loose stuff. For example, we’d be laying out eggrolls or whatever small snack food you have (pizza rolls, fish sticks, any of that kind of thing…), the theory being that you can have a small snack on hand that can be stored outside, cooked but cool. (You have 2 hours to lower the temperature of cooked food to below 45 F. and be safe; and the small things will cool with in ½ hour or less if it’s good and cold outside. (Remember, if it’s below 45 F., the world is your refrigerator.)
Now we need to think ahead to dinner. We should be pulling something large for tonight….and something else for tomorrow. The idea here is we can put a large piece of meat in a liquid, even if it’s mostly frozen, and by cooking it slowly we can sort of “force defrost” and turn the large item into something like a stew or pot roast—or coq au vin (one should enjoy one’s deprivations, after all). Tomorrow, we’ll use the defrosted large item as a traditionally grilled item, or we’ll cut it up.
All this grill work is a great time to bring in the kids. There’s no better way to keep the kids busy than to let them help….so perhaps they can help turn the eggrolls and watch the small items. Keeps ‘em warmer, too. Plus you get to have a conversation about fire safety….and foodborne illness, too.
45 minutes or so have gone by, and if you have any shredded cheese (“Kids? Wanna help?”), this would be the time to toss it on. We’ll be done in 15 minutes or so.
Here’s some thoughts:
First, use the paper plates and plastic to the extent you can. I know it’s not green, but honestly, the fewer dishes the better. The grill can be used to boil water for dishwashing, and it can be mixed with a little cold water in the sink to “stretch” it (besides, water over 140 F. can burn your hands—be careful!).
Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dimitri? Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dimitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn’t friendly….you probably wouldn’t have even got it.
–Peter Sellers, as the US President, to the unseen Russian Premier in Dr. Strangelove (1964)
At this point, a word about frozen meals. They are very useable, assuming they can be repackaged. And they can. Into the baking dish they may go….and they can obviously be combined in new ways—the rice package of one dinner matching with the chicken of another, sauces tossed akimbo. Well….just go crazy.
Now back to tonight
I found the chunks of beef I froze not too long ago, a bag of mini bell peppers (fresh, not frozen), celery, onion, and a couple bags of ripple-cut carrots. There are potatoes, too.
Sounds like pot roast to me.
The trick to a great pot roast is letting the meat cook for an extended period of time (the connective tissue in tougher meats requires that time for the meat to become more tender), browning the meat at the beginning of the process, and developing a good sauce.
“What were you when you came here five years ago? A little college girl from a School of Journalism! I took a little doll-faced hick—“
“You wouldn’t have taken me if I hadn’t been doll-faced!”
“Why should I? I thought it would be a novelty to have a face around here a man could look at without shuddering.”
–Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” (1940)
Put the pan (cast iron Dutch oven, perchance?) on the grill, and drop in a bit of oil. After the pan has heated up, toss in the meat and let it brown. (Helpful tip: rub some tomato paste on the meat to create a nice sugary brown “flavor builder”.) Add water to the pot, cover, put the cover on the grill, and let the meat simmer slowly. The coals will run out before you’re done, so remove the pot, add some coals touching the end of the other coals, there on the edge….and the fire will continue burning. Add potatoes about an hour before you’re done, carrots half an hour or so later. You can add onion (cut it in nice big chunks) and celery—but I’m going to hold back the bell peppers for later.
Put the top on the grill, and go read a book for awhile.
This should take 3 hours or so to cook, depending on the cut and size of the meat. Do not boil the contents, just let them simmer. Adjust the heat applied to the dish by moving it closer to or farther from the edge of the grill with the coals.
“I’m sorry, Roy, it’s too late.”
“Just like that, huh? This country’s going to the dogs! It used to be when you bought a politician, the son of a bitch stayed bought.”
— Joe Flaherty and Jack Warden in “Used Cars” (1980)
Tomorrow we would find a way to use the defrosted large meat….right now I have some chicken breasts and pork loin in the freezer; so let’s use the pork.
I have kidney beans in the pantry, and you might have some more tomato stuff….and if you have some paprika, maybe some seasoning salt, some garlic, a bit of black pepper….maybe even some Worcestershire sauce. So just like last night, a bit of oil in the pot, brown the cubed pork, then toss in the tomato stuff and the seasonings (got any basil, oregano, or thyme? All the better….) and the kidney beans. If you are willing to give up a glass of red wine for the sake of science, this would be a great time to add it. Near the end of the cooking time (this will be much shorter than the beef; potentially an hour or less) I would be tossing in my split mini peppers.
So that’s how emergency cooking works.
Be creative, be aware of what’s in the house, use fuel wisely.…and get completely out-of-the-box with your sense of what goes together.
But most of all: have fun.
Remember when you used to say the worst day fishing was better than the best day working?
Well, today, you’re fishing.
Author’s note: Just in case the power does go out….you might want to print this.