Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Storm Cookery

A pot o beans

I admit it, this is one of those contrived blogposts, and you know, I think we've all learned something here. 

But there really was a big winter storm here in Olympia last week. I blathered in truly blogallistic style elsewhere, but here, I want to real it back in. Like, how to feed the 'stead after icy branches bring down the electric grid. There are those in the secret backroom of the Chamber of Commerce who scream for the pre-emptive beheading of all those trees who would terrorize Americans by attacking the consumerist infrastructure, but wiser heads prevail. Meanwhile, I just adapt.

Fortunately, I have a primitive fireplace. No wood stove, not even an insert; there was a grate once, but I threw it out. Just the flueless firebox (within a magnificent heatilator, to be sure). Wood goes in, heat flows out(and not all of it up the chimney). 

And when the wires go down and the stove strikes in sympathy (or sometimes, when I just feel like it), I cook in that there fireplace. 

Step one: burn through a half dozen logs, heat up the big chunk of heat-sucking concrete underneath, and get a nice batch of coals going. Put a couple of bricks in one side of the fireplace, to support the grill later on; I start herding logs to the left, and coals to the right, where they can give me nice steady heat. Flames are good for cooking marshmellows or quick sterilization of the sausage that the dog licked, but that's about it.

When there's a solid layer of ember reaching nearly up to the top of the bricks, put on the grill. Not that you have to grill anything. This time, I heated up soup one time, and beans another, in a heavy aluminum pot. As long as you are willing to stir it often enough, half the pan can sit on the brick while the rest is over the fire. That way, there's space to grill something, because you know you want to, and anyway, the electricity's out, so you may as well use some of that stuff in your no-longer-freezer. 

Foil is your friend as well. Packets of just about anything can be heated or cooked in foil, then tucked into whatever space you have left, off the grill and even in the coals or ash. I'm not much into skewery, but if you are tight on space or cooking stuff on sticks is your thing, there's the whole yakitori/kebab world of food waiting to be held over the fire.

Whatever techniques the fireplace chef brings to bear, vigilance is a must. A bed of coals is not uniformly hot, so pots must be stirred and packets or grillables rotated and flipped to avoid ending up with a half-charred half-raw abomination. And because the fire is more a distraction than a source of light, a good flashlight is key to keeping watch, because trying to eye golden brown perfection in a hot sooty cave is not as easy as you imagine.

On the invisible handle is an even more invisible hand-print.

Then there's the issue of injury. It's effing hot in there. Making espresso in one of those little Italian rigs last week, I grabbed the plastic handle which, as I predicted, would not conduct heat from the metal pot, but which, as I was stupid enough to forget, can still get hot when it's sitting near a fire. The burn was not too bad, but it took most of the day for me to finally be rid of the melted plastic stuck to my palm. Oven mitts help, but you still have to move quickly lest they burst into flame. So yeah, hot, flamey,...be careful.

Otherwise, it's just a matter of managing several flows. The flow of air through the fire side, keeping flames licking wood and birthing coals. The flow of coals from fire side to cook side, replenishing those that burn out (half-cooked meals suck). The flow of which food first, of flipping, of stirring. The flow of kindling to blaze to embers to slumber.

It was less than 48 hours without power, but we ate hot food, and we ate not badly, considering my limited talent. Basics like black beans, potatoes, and canned soup, but also impromptu pie (spiced apples wrapped in pie crust and grilled on foil). Grilled brats and skewered veggie sausage. And of course, marshmellows. 

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