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Eats and Drinks

Home Cooking When the Lights Go Out

Hot food on cold days and nights with no electricity

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A

Michelle Gienow


It feels like extended power outages have become distressingly commonplace in recent years. In late 2012, Hurricane Sandy left my family without power for nine days; following last week’s ice storm, we were down for almost 72 hours. Before our most recent weather event, BGE robo-called to say, basically, “Sorry, but we pretty much expect power in your area to go out at some point during this storm and we’ll do what we can to bring it back quickly but hey, what can ya do?” Since we live in a house where no power means not just no lights and no refrigerator but also no running water, heat, or stove to cook on, I’ve started to take that whole getting ready before a storm thing seriously. And I don’t mean simply stocking up on the sacred Baltimore triumvirate of milk, bread, and toilet paper.

Many city residents are more fortunate than electricity-whipped county dwellers like me, since city water service and gas stoves (and gas water heaters) seriously lessen the no-power downer experience. You people can just go take a nice hot shower or crank up the oven while the rest of us try to figure out how you make coffee when there’s no water, no electric coffee maker, and we haven’t the benefit of a cup of coffee to aid in the creative problem solving necessary to making some fucking coffee already. Even if you’re not a pathetic caffeine addict like me, after a couple days of making do with cold cereal and sandwiches you’re going to be craving a hot and reasonably healthy meal.

I used to roll my eyes at public service announcements about disaster preparedness; like, yeah, let’s all have our flashlights and duct tape ready to whip out. But after Hurricane Sandy thoroughly kicked my ass—nine days is an incredibly long time to go without electricity at home, even when you’re working and showering elsewhere—I realized that a few dollars spent ahead of time could save a lot of suffering down the power-outage road. I invested in two five-gallon folding water carriers and a small tabletop grill, total cost about $25. Other helpful items—a French press, a large Thermos, lightweight all-metal pots (no plastic handles)—you might already have, or they can be easily found at thrift stores. I also started a stash of decent emergency coffee—microground java like the kind in Starbucks Via packets mixes up instantly, even in cold water —and other fast-to-fix foods like instant oatmeal and soups.

But what if you don’t even have a basic alt-cooking setup, like a grill or camp stove? Then it’s time to get creative, and think backwards from your ultimate goal of something hot to eat or drink. If you can rig a way to boil water you can cook yourself and your dear ones all kinds of tasty, comforting treats, from pasta to bread pudding. The first few days after Hurricane Sandy, for example, I was cooking over a kerosene lamp minus its chimney, using a toaster oven rack held up by four mason jars. That improvised rig took at least 20 minutes to heat enough water to fill a French press, though, so I definitely recommend using a grill (outdoors only) or even a fireplace to speed things along. But you can even boil water over a candle flame, if that’s all you got.

One-pot meals like pasta or chili are great comfort foods for power outage situations, but that can entail a long, long time hunched over an improvised cooking setup. Enter the insulated stainless steel vacuum Thermos: think of it as a no-electricity slow cooker. Small grain or pasta + small dried legumes (lentils, split peas) + seasonings + hot water x several hours sealed in a Thermos equals low-effort deliciousness. There are a couple important keys to success, the foremost being to preheat the Thermos by filling it with hot water (and then emptying it out, but use that precious hot water to make tea or something!) before putting ingredients inside. Room temp ingredients and hot water added to a room temp Thermos means things will all cool off quickly, which can lead to sticky, undercooked food. A second key is patience - opening and closing the Thermos also robs heat, so try to resist checking to see how things are coming along in there.

If you’re cooking for more of a crowd, however, even a big Thermos isn’t going to cut it. Enter my long-ago days at Girl Scout camp, where we did haybox cooking—a technique once popular with pioneers crossing the prairie. This involves getting your ingredients to a boil in a pot with a tightly fitting lid, then packing the covered pot into an insulated chamber. Yes, once again this is a no-power Crock Pot, larger in scale, and you don’t need Camp Conowingo’s rustic hay, horse blanket, and apple crate setup—some towels and a large cooler, even a heavy cardboard box, work just fine. The crux here is getting everything to a good boil before it goes into the insulated chamber, and you have to be playing the long game—starting the evening’s meal in the morning, or the next morning’s breakfast before you go to bed. You can even improvise based on regular recipes, using the rule of thumb that cooking time will be two to three times longer than when using a conventional stove —shorter when the food inside the pot is smaller (quinoa, rice), longer when it’s larger (beans, chunks of vegetables).

None of these meals will be the finest of your life—this kind of cooking lends itself to simple, hearty peasant fare. But on #Day3NoFuckingPower, steaming bowls of home-cooked curried lentils or steel-cut oats with cranberries and almonds are still going to taste pretty fucking magnificent. Maybe it’s the candlelight.

HAYBOX THAI CURRY

INGREDIENTS

Pot with a tight-fitting lid
3 tablespoons of your favorite curry paste (more, if you like)
1 pound, more or less, protein, cut into 1-inch chunks (chicken, tofu, shrimp all work well for this —whatever is melting fastest in the freezer)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 can coconut milk
2 cups vegetables, chopped into chunks — onions, carrots, pumpkin, green beans, tomatoes, whatever you got. The more the merrier! (Items resurrected from a rapidly defrosting freezer are perfect)
Nice to have but not necessary: fresh basil or cilantro

DIRECTIONS

Heat the pot over your improvised cooking stove/grill/fire. (You’re doing this outdoors, on a fire escape, etc., right?) until hot, then coat the bottom of the pot with vegetable or olive oil. Stir in the curry paste and heat until sizzling, then toss in the protein. Stir and fry until it starts to brown, then pour in the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Put the lid on tightly, then nestle into thermal chamber, i.e., cooler or box packed with blankets, pillows, towels, etc. Cover the top with more towels and put a lid or board on top. Check back in 6-8 hours.

Meanwhile, make

RICE IN A THERMOS

INGREDIENTS

Basmati rice
Salt
Water
A Thermos

DIRECTIONS

Figure out how large your Thermos is, then boil twice as much water as it holds. (For a standard 1-quart capacity thermos, which holds four cups of liquid, boil 8 cups of water). Fill the thermos with hot water, put the lid on, and let it sit for 3 to 5 minutes to preheat. Meanwhile, measure rice, using a ratio of 2 parts water to one part rice. (So a four-cup Thermos calls for 1 and 1/4 cups rice).

Pour out warming water, pour in rice plus 1/2 teaspoon of salt per cup of rice, then fill Thermos to its neck with boiling water. Screw in top, then shake well to mix everything. Lay on its side and shake every now and then if you think of it. Open after 6 hours, fluff with fork.

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