(Not) Cooking With Gas
My stove hasn't worked for the past six weeks. I should be more precise: our building hasn't had gas for the past six weeks so none of us who live in its 77 apartments has had a working stove. We have electricity. We have water. We just don't have gas.
Most New Yorkers have gas stoves instead of electric. Gas is less expensive and in my experience, while I know excellent cooks who have electric stoves, I think gas is easier and more precise to cook on. But then you can lose your stove if Con Edison comes along and shuts down your entire apartment building because of a suspected gas leak. I've learned this isn't a particularly unusual event in the city, especially if you live in an older building as we do. Like the ancient water mains underneath the streets of Manhattan that unexpectedly burst and flood basements and busy intersections, messing up rush hour traffic, our beautiful but creaky 100-year-old apartment buildings have infrastructures that sometimes need emergency surgery.
I first treated the gas outage as a novelty: I rarely order take-out food so having no stove became an excuse to dig out some of the menus that my husband collected from neighborhood places. After only two delivered dinners that left me troubled by the cost and bloated from too much salt, I cleverly (I thought) segued to a mix of market-prepared and home cooked food. First I bought a rotisserie chicken and made a salad. The next night, it was cooked shrimp from my neighborhood fishmonger, microwaved green beans, and another salad.
Four nights in and the novelty was over. I wanted my stove back.
By now we knew that this was not a minor outage. Two teams of plumbers had arrived in search of the leak and the best case was that we'd be without our stoves for a month. It was time for a new normal so I bought a hot plate and pulled out the instruction manual for my underused toaster oven, a piece of equipment that was like a toaster on steroids. Made by Breville, this little oven baked with or without convection, roasted, broiled, and made both pizza and toast. Between the hot plate, the Breville, and my little microwave that I only used to reheat coffee and melt butter, I was determined to cook without much compromise. Gas stove be damned.
I had the benefit of lucky timing since these weeks were peak time at the Greenmarket. It is far easier to make really satisfying meals in August when vegetables need little done to them except some slight heat and a little olive oil. I wouldn't be making roasts anyway, and simple chicken and fish dishes were all we'd want alongside platters of sliced tomatoes, tender lettuces, and ribbons of par-cooked zucchini. Fruit cobblers baked beautifully in my toaster oven, as did a pan of tiny potatoes that would shrivel to sweet tenderness in 30 minutes. A pot of boiling water was all I needed for our favorite summer pastas. One night I'd mix chopped raw New Jersey tomatoes with cubes of fresh mozzarella that would soften and become stringy from the heat of al dente linguine. Or I'd toss rotini with basil pesto, making extra pesto for the next night when I'd use it to dress pan-cooked chicken breasts or tilapia fillets. Who needs a stove?
The secret to cooking with limited resources is sequencing. Many of us strive to make meals as quickly as possible, which can mean having two or three burners going on the stove at once. But if you only have one burner -- a single hotplate -- you have to plan and cook ahead. For example, if I wanted to make fish or pilaf or skirt steak in a sauté pan but I also wanted green beans, I would either cook the beans in the microwave or else make them in advance on the hotplate and serve them at room temperature.
Your slow cooker is also an option but I ruled this out for two reasons: first, the kinds of foods made in a slow cooker (chili, stew, lamb shanks) just don't seem as appetizing on a 90° August day as they might in November. And second, in my small kitchen, after a couple of hours, a slow cooker becomes a fragrant 6-quart radiator.
But I'm the city cook and I should be able to make a good meal in a tiny kitchen without complaining about it. So after six weeks of cooking without a stove, and instead using a small microwave, a single hot plate, and a Breville toaster oven, here are some of the dinners we've had:
- Gazpacho with a garnish of diced Kirby cucumbers; roast chicken (legs and breasts in pieces cook faster than a whole chicken) rubbed with salt and picante Spanish paprika and speared with a piece of rosemary; rotini with basil pesto (Marcella Hazan's classic recipe, adding green beans and diced cooked potato to make a classic Genovese version).
- Peppered shrimp roasted in the toasted oven; I served it with orzo and grated Parmesan cheese, a dish I first had at my friend Karin's house (she often adds fresh basil). See our recipe.
- Pan-cooked skirt steak; sliced NJ tomatoes with fleur de sel (is there a better use for this most flavorful and precious salt?); tiny local potatoes tossed with a tablespoon of olive oil and spread into single layer in a small sheet pan that fits in my Breville oven, roasted at 400° until tender, about 30 minutes; a salad made with romaine, sliced red bell pepper, and thin slices of red onion, dressed with oil and red wine vinegar.
- Pan-cooked scallops. This time of year, at least in my markets, scallops are very expensive. But because they are very rich, only a few make the centerpiece of a meal that can be primarily room temperature vegetables and lightly dressed salad greens.
- I love cod but don't always want to revert to coating the fish in panko and frying it. Looking for a way to instead bake the fish without too much fuss or fat, I found an excellent recipe in one of America's Test Kitchen's cookbooks that bakes cod fillets baked on a bed of very thin potato slices. Use your mandoline or Japanese ceramic slicer to make 1/4-inch thick slices of potato that are shingled in rows to cover the bottom of a baking dish or small roasting pan. These are pre-cooked (I used my Breville toaster oven) until tender and begin to brown. Then serving-sized pieces of cod are rubbed with herb and lemon butter and placed on top of the potatoes. Bake for 15 more minutes until the fish is opaque. Cut a square of crispy potato around each piece of fish for each serving. I served the cod with tabouli salad with mint and cherry tomatoes -- I like the convenience of the boxed Near East brand, adding a little more dry mint, sliced local cherry tomatoes, and twice the lemon juice as instructed on the box. I also double the amount we need for dinner because it makes a great next-day lunch.
At this point I was feeling a little smug about how adaptable I could be. But I still have two problems. One is that I was really looking forward to canning tomatoes. This is a bountiful season for local tomatoes -- the choices are so varied and the prices are lower than they've been in years. But since it takes 30 minutes for an 8-quart pot of water to come to a boil on my hot plate, I can't imagine the time I'd need to ready my 21-quart canning pot. My favorite Greenmarket farmer, Jeff Bialis, told me he thinks the peak tomato season has three weeks left here in NYC, and I'm hopeful that I'll have my gas stove back in time to put up six quarts of tomatoes for the winter.
The other problem is my electric bill. I'm dreading to see Con Ed's consolation prize, the cost of having to run electric hot plates and small ovens. I expect it will be ugly.
Assuming you have a fully functioning stove, there's much to cook as we've just begun what is probably the best month for fresh ingredients and local flavors. At my Greenmarket this past Friday, in addition to the piles of peaches that rival those of the tomatoes, I saw the first apples of the season. Still summer? Or finally autumn? What a happy confusion.
I resisted the apples, knowing there would be time, instead reaching for a small basket of Italian plums that would end up in a cinnamon-tinged kuchen I'd make for a dinner with friends.
But as the weather and our markets once again change their colors, here are ideas for what to anticipate and what to cook in the coming weeks:
- Soups. This is the time to make zucchini, tomato, roasted corn, or red pepper soup for freezing. The flavors will be a treat when you defrost the soups this winter.
- Tomato Sauce. Also to freeze -- make a simple quickly cooked tomato, garlic and basil sauce (I also add a little pinch of red pepper) and decant into meal-sized portions in recycled deli containers or ziplock bags. There will be nights mid-winter when you're home late from work without the heart to go shopping or the energy to cook and this is when a late summer tomato sauce on a bowl of pasta will taste like the best thing you've ever eaten.
- Simply cooked pieces of pork tenderloin or boneless chicken thighs served with roasted red grapes or pan-cooked peaches that have been seasoned with rosemary. The sweet and savory combo is balanced and satisfying. Whenever I make something that has sweet and savory, I always make sure there's something else in the meal that is acidic. This can be as simple as lemon vinaigrette on a green salad or sliced raw cherry tomatoes tossed with steamed green beans.
- Pizza with early fall vegetables, including butternut squash and kale, and goat cheese.
- Bitter greens, beets, potatoes, red peppers, squashes, Brussels sprouts, quince, celery root, turnips, and pears are all on their way.
Need more motivation or new ideas? There are several new cookbooks coming this fall for which anticipation is high. Ina Garten's newest, Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust, and Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen, are both due out on October 30.
I'm sometimes sent copies of new cookbooks and two I've recently received look very promising (without a stove I've been handicapped in recipe testing). Grain Mains: 101 Surprising and Satisfying Whole Grain Recipes for Every Meal of the Day by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough is very appealing both for the nutrition in cooking with whole grains and also for their budget value as we anticipate rising food prices from this past summer's drought. And Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish also inspires me. I often say the bread that's sold in NYC can be so good that there's little incentive to bake your own, but having read much of this gorgeous and inspiring book -- and its major section on levain breads which I love -- I may change my mind. I'll write about these more after I have more experience with them, which means after I get my oven back.
Autumn Breezes, Burgundy Wines
As the weather gets ready to turn and we look forward to the first frosts, we may want to put aside our glasses of chilled rosé wine and pinot grigio for something more complex.
Among our greatest wines are those from Burgundy, the eastern region of France, west of the Saône River, a tributary of the Rhône. Since this region has many great wines to choose from, it helps to have some guidance. So we've turned to one of the best -- Brian Flanagan of The Burgundy Wine Company. This wine store, located in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, specializes in the ten subregions of Burgundy: Chablis, Chassagne-Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertin, Macon-Chardonnay, Meursault, Pommard, Pouilly-Fuisse, Puligny-Montrachet, Volnay, and Vosne-Romanee.
Before you next head to the wine store, listen to our podcast interview with Brian Flanagan for what he can teach us all about the great wines of Burgundy.
May your stoves never have a gas leak! Happy September.