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Dinner when the power goes out

This is today somewhere in Melbourne. We have been hit by some wild storms, lots of thunder and lightning, hail, rain and high winds that have meant that much of Melbourne has been without power. Like us. First thing this morning it went but fortunately for us it came back on just a short time ago - around 3.00 pm. I gather it may be a couple of days before everyone gets it back though. Just too much for the poor repairers to do.

When this sort of thing happens it makes you realise of course, how dependent we are on electricity in our homes. There is almost nothing that we do on a daily basis - except perhaps gardening, as long as you are not using electrical, non battery driven, tools. And of course a lot could be said about that reliance. But this is not that sort of blog.

This is a foodie blog, and so a power outage means a bit of lateral thinking when it comes to food. The first problem was breakfast. We were still in bed when the power went off. Coffee was not a big problem, because we do have one gas burner on my cooktop - the wok burner - so you just boil up some water in a pan and then use the plunger rather than the espresso machine to make the coffee. As long as you have ground coffee of course - which we do. See this is the main thing for short-term emergencies such as this - you need to have 'emergency' supplies - like alternative ways of making coffee. Mind you sometimes in rented holiday homes we have been forced to just pour hot water over ground coffee and then strain it through a sieve or something. It works but it's not ideal.

Toast was more of a challenge though. David, who makes the breakfast, had forgotten that we had a griddle on which he could grill some bread, but he devised a method of balancing the bread somehow on the handle of the saucepan where it joins the saucepan, which sort of simultaneously steamed and heated the sliced bread. Not exactly toast, but it did warm it up sufficiently for it not to be just stale bread. Mind you in spite of the imaginative and creative way of warming up the bread, it also shows a certain amount of lack of imagination. Why not have something different - fruit cake, a biscuit, granola, fruit, a smoothie? The powerless options are pretty endless really. Oh how locked into habit we are when it comes to breakfast.

The moral is that you must always have at least one gas burner - you will need a match to light it, but one gas burner will give you so many options. Mind you I have just read that some council areas of Melbourne are talking about ceasing to supply gas for pollution/climate change reasons.

Before I get into dinner let me tell you about my brief explorations online about how to cook a hot dinner when the power goes out. I was amazed at the complicated things that people suggested. The solutions were mostly from dedicated campers and survivalists, and included things like making a burner from a tuna can and its oil, specialist camping kind of equipment, cooking over a fire and so on. Not one of them mentioned a plain old barbecue, though they did mention cooking over your home fire. - very tricky and marginally dangerous. The barbecue, or a Weber are, of course, the obvious alternatives, but weatherwise this was not really on for us. And if you look for recipes for dinner without power all you get are various cold meals - salads, dips, bread and cheese, etc. Which is Ok for one meal, particularly if it's summer, but if you have to do more than one meal then that's not really for me.

Before the power went out I was going to make Madhur Jaffrey's Lamb with fresh green coriander (Dhaniwal korma). I thought David might like a curry and it would go with my purchase of an Aldi rosé. Then the power went out, but I thought I could still do this, my reasoning being that I had the gas and it only needed one pot. But then I remembered rice - can't use the rice cooker and only have one gas burner, although I suppose you could cook the curry - almost, then cook the rice, and then just reheat the curry briefly.

In my vague near future planning I had also thought to revisit an old Elizabeth David recipe that I used to make every now and then - Carbonnade Nîmoise - which consists of large pieces of lamb cooked with potatoes, bacon and herbs - with the addition of various vegetables according to what you had. And I had been thinking of using Monika's fennel. You see my recent spate of failures have got me hankering to go back to my early cooking ventures and actual recipes. However, when I looked up the recipe I saw that this was actually a slow-cooked oven exercise, so not possible without power. And too late in the day when it came back on. So another day sometime soon I think.

Yesterday, for example I made Robert Carrier's Poulet sauté à l'estragon because Monika had given me a little bit of tarragon which I had boosted in my shopping expedition yesterday. My end result didn't look as delectable as this - I never brown the meat enough, and I had forgotten to get shallots so had to use onions, but I have to say it was pretty delicious. So I am encouraged to try more 'old' recipes.

In the meantime though, whilst I had no power, and Elizabeth David wouldn't do, I therefore started creating in my head a new dish - with a touch of the Elizabeth David carbonnade. However, no potatoes, and I didn't really want to go out and just buy potatoes. The last ones had been used for a delicious gratin to go with yesterday's chicken. Why not beans - I have tins of beans, that fennel, some of the rosé wine, a cherry tomato or two and some thyme. And seeing that David had bought a baguette in case we were down to bread and cheese my idea was confirmed. Bread is the perfect accompaniment to such a dish. Perhaps a bit of celery too. Maybe even some pickled artichoke.

"It's a rare day that I say to myself, I know, I'm going to pick a very specific dish, go shopping for it, and then cook it for dinner. That requires more planning, shopping, and cooking time than I have on most weeknights. More often, I stare into my fridge, scour my pantry, and think, what the heck can I whip up that uses some of this stuff up and still tastes really good?" Daniel Gritzer - Serious Eats

So perhaps just as well I do mostly improvise. Back to recipes tomorrow. Madhur Jaffrey I think. Now for a bit of creative fun. Although the anticipation of such dishes is more often greater than the taste of the result, whereas the recipes rarely fail to delight.


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