This post is part of Foodbuzz’s March 24×24. It happens to coincide with the World Wildlife Fund’s 2011 Earth Hour – a challenge to the world to turn off the lights and not use electricity for one hour – from 8:30 PM until 9:30 PM on March 26. The meal featured was cooked without the aid of electricity.
Imagine, if you will, a world without electricity. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this world exists in the past or in the future. Perhaps your imagined world exists before humans effectively harnessed the power of electricity in a battery or alternating current. Perhaps this world of yours exists in the future, having been created because of some natural or man-made disaster. However or whenever this world came to be does not really matter. What does matter is how the you of today – the you that is reading this post – would survive in this imaginary world. Without convenience foods, without a microwave, without factory farms and without commercially processed ingredients. How would you fare?
For this 24×24, I challenged myself to create such a world in my home – one without a working stove, oven or microwave. One in which there are no appliances like KitchenAid stand mixers or food processors. One in which the only tools at my disposal are fairly primitive – hands, knives, cooking vessels and fire. My scenario is set in the future, a dystopian world, perhaps out of I Am Legend (zombie apocalypse, anyone?) or City of Ember.
A few caveats – I did use an electric mill to grind the flour for the breads you’ll see featured. I had hoped to purchase a hand-cranked mill prior to doing this post, but was unable to acquire one in time. I also used my refrigerator to keep highly perishable foods (like fish) cold until I was ready to cook them. It’s amazing what you don’t think of when you set out to do a task like this. Without electricity, there is no refrigeration. Use a cooler? How do you make the ice? Heating things up without electricity is one thing, but cooling them down is something else altogether.
Originally, we had planned to make this an outdoor adventure, camping out in the backyard with the kids and preparing everything over a campfire. As is almost always the case, Murphy had other plans for us. The weather was typical of March in Georgia – thunderstorms and high winds caused our camping plans to go by the wayside. Instead, I built a fire in the fireplace, opened as many windows as I could without causing too much rain damage and lit a bunch of candles (no electricity means no lights).
I began the day by heading to the store. I wasn’t sure what the menu was going to be, but I knew I wanted it to be comprised of fairly local or regional ingredients (things that could possibly be acquired without having to travel long distances in refrigerated trucks and rail cars). It’s still too early for there to be much in the way of spring fruits and vegetables from Georgia, but I was able to find some lovely purple sweet potatoes from South Carolina, and some beautiful Florida Strawberries. The protein came in the form of red snapper from the Florida gulf coast. I rounded it out with a salad of local red kale (which is still growing in Georgia) and some Florida grape tomatoes.
Granted, in a true dystopian world without electricity, there would probably also be no way to move red snapper from Florida to northern Georgia before it spoiled. Again, no electricity, no refrigeration. I suppose in that case, I could have taken my cane pole (which I do actually have in the loft of our storage barn) and some worms down to the pond behind our house and seen what sort of small bream or other freshwater fish I could have pulled out of there. In any case, fish seemed like the most logical form of protein for me to be able to acquire without too much trouble.
One of the things I didn’t account for in all of this was time. It takes a lot longer to prepare a complete meal over an open fire than it does in an oven or on top of the stove. Even though I began our meal preparation around 11 AM, it was still after 7 PM before we sat down to eat.
I began by slicing the strawberries and macerating them in two tablespoons of honey granules. I left them on the counter all day while I prepared the rest of the meal.
My next step was the bread. I wanted a ciabatta-like loaf, something crusty and hearty that would lend itself to hearth-side baking. I began with a biga of 2 cups flour, 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon honey and 1 tablespoon yeast. I combined this and let it rise in a warm place (next to the fire) for one hour. After that hour had passed, I combined the biga with 3 cups flour and 2 cups warm water to create a sticky dough. I stirred and kneaded this for about 10-15 minutes by hand. This I allowed to rise, covered with a damp cloth, for another hour next to the fire.
After the second rise, I oiled a cast iron dutch oven, punched down the dough and formed it into a ball. I placed it in the dutch oven and covered it with a damp cloth.
This rose for a third time next to the fire, until it had doubled in bulk.
To bake it, I removed the damp cloth from the top, replaced the lid and placed the dutch oven on top of some coals in the fireplace. I shoveled coals onto the lid of the oven and let it bake for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, I turned the oven 180 degrees, and shoveled more coals on top. I let it bake for another 10 minutes. I carefully swept the coals from the top of the oven and removed it from the fire (I used silicon oven mitts to handle the hot oven). The bread was nice and crusty, although it had lost quite a bit of it’s rise during the process (I think it fell when I placed it in the fire). It had a nice crust, but the crumb was not as light and chewy as I would have liked. Next time, I’ll allow the biga to develop longer.
Next up was my purple sweet potato gratin. I sliced two large purple sweet potatoes and two medium russet potatoes.
I buttered a second dutch oven liberally. I combined one cup of heavy cream and one cup of whole milk.
I layered the sweet potatoes on the bottom, sprinkled them with sea salt and freshly ground pepper and poured 1/5 of the cream/milk mixture over top. On top of this I grated some parmesan cheese. I alternated the layers – one sweet potato, one russet potato, ending with sweet potatoes. I poured the remaining cream/milk on top of the last layer and sprinkled it liberally with parmesan cheese.
This I covered and baked on a rack in the fireplace for one hour, rotating it once after 30 minutes. While the potatoes were baking, I prepared the shortcake for dessert. I used the same dutch oven I’d baked the bread in, preheating it in the fireplace and melting some butter in it to keep the shortcakes from sticking.
The shortcake was comprised of 1 cup of brown rice flour, 1 cup of whole-wheat flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1/4 cup of honey granules, 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt, 5 tablespoons of butter, cut into the dry ingredients, and 3/4 cup of buttermilk. This dough was rolled out to a 1-inch thickness and cut with a 2-inch round cutter. The shortcake rounds were placed in the preheated dutch oven, covered, and allowed to bake on the rack next to the gratin for 20 minutes, rotating once during baking. I did place coals on top of the dutch oven to allow for even baking top to bottom.
While the potatoes and shortcakes were baking, I prepared the fish. I rinsed him, and stuffed his cavity with fresh dill and lemon slices, along with salt and pepper. I made some deep slits in his flesh and inserted lemon and dill there as well. I liberally seasoned him with salt and pepper and placed him on some oiled foil.
When the shortcakes and potatoes came off the fire, I placed the fish on the rack over the coals. After about 15 minutes, I realized he wasn’t really cooking there, so I removed the rack and placed the foil directly on the coals and covered the fish with another piece of foil. After 15 minutes, I flipped it over and let it cook another 15 minutes on the second side.
When he was finally done, the skin slipped right off and the bones lifted easily from the flesh.
The salad was simply red kale, rinsed and tough stems removed, some grape tomatoes halved and a simple dressing of lemon juice, lemon zest, a grated garlic clove, a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper. The entire meal was incredibly flavorful, although I was almost too tired to eat after spending the entire day standing (literally) over a hot fire.
For dessert, I whipped some cream by hand and spooned the sweetened berries over the halved shortcakes. Topped with the unsweetened cream, it was a nice way to end the meal.
We spent almost the whole day without turning on any lights – no TV, no video games. While this post was inspired by the WWF’s Earth Hour, it turned into so much more. It required my husband, who normally doesn’t get very involved in the process of cooking, to be very hands on. He helped bring in the wood to fuel the fire and then to tend it as the night wore on. My mother was there to help, too – not only with the cooking but with watching the kids (small children around open flames could be a recipe for disaster). It brought us all closer together as a family, as a working unit. We actually talked to each other (gasp), rather than sitting in front of the computer or the TV. And while the process was somewhat tedious, it was rewarding in the end to know that we could make it work (you know, in case of zombies or something).
So how about you? Have you considered a world without modern conveniences? How would you fare?