POWER’S OUT BUT DINNER’S STILL ON
Long Island, New York
Here’s what it’s like to live with a man who I know deep down really wanted to be a meteorologist. In the morning when I’m still half asleep, Lynn goes downstairs and turns on the television to look at radar maps of high and low fronts and the temperatures from California to Maine. With that information he then proceeds to dispense fashion advice appropriate to the day’s climate readings. Should we carry an umbrella? Wear a coat, hat or gloves? Or none of the aforementioned?. Due to the uncanny ability of my body to frequently gauge the weather situation without watching a forecast (if it’s about to rain, I start to ache), he is often stupified when I tell him it’s going to rain later when we wake up to bright blue skies.
One Saturday morning in March he turned on the TV to learn heavy rain and a few wind gusts were expected. We dressed accordingly. He went to work and I followed him into the city a few hours later. It was raining pretty hard and wickedly windy. Walking down a stretch of Fifth Avenue, I was surprised to find that I was the only person in a two block radius. Manhattan, empty? A dog walker suddenly turned the corner and I felt relieved. Wait, there ahead of me were a couple of Japanese tourists. My body wasn’t giving me the usual signs of an impeding storm but it should have considering after a mere two block walk my umbrella remained in a permanent inverted position over my head. Another five blocks and my jeans were soaking wet. I tried to cross the street but found myself facing large puddles, too big to jump over and too deep to walk through. Of course this being New York City, besides navigating the wet sidewalks, I also had to stay out of the way of the inevitable taxicab going way too fast so as not to be given a dirty water bath by a very rude driver.
Well, the weather in the city might have been bad but it did not prepare me for what I faced when I got home. Shortly before five o’clock, my next door neighbor called to tell me one of my huge pine trees came down. What? We have two big Christmas trees that with a few more years of growth would have rivaled the one they put up at Rockefeller Center every year. While they were not particularly fat, they were very, very tall. Trying to remain calm, I asked her if the tree had fallen on the house. She tried to look outside but suddenly the neighborhood lost power and she couldn’t quite tell. I told her we were leaving the city right away and headed to catch a train. Before we even left Penn Station, the cell phone rang again. “Julie,” she said. “The second tree just went down, too.”
By the time we got home, we realized this was a a huge storm. Power lines were down, massive oak trees and Christmas trees and shrubs were uprooted, siding and shingles torn off of houses. We drove home in the dark trying to navigate around the mess and many blocked off streets. Finally, we reached our house and got out of the car to look at the damage. We were lucky. One tree fell one way, the second tree in another direction. They formed a backwards “L” and fell away from the house, landing on both sides of the fence. The deck I hated was ruined (yeah!) and the grass was pretty torn up. Both could easily be fixed.
Our daughter Rachel, even at 16, I think felt a bit freaked out by the storm and the loss of power since when we walked into the living room it looked like she had lit every single candle we owned. In fairness, it had been quite a few years since our last blackout and back then we had been with her. Still I was slightly amused by her “fear of the dark.” But then I realized maybe it wasn’t the dark that was scaring her but perhaps the sounds we were hearing from outdoors. The wind was literally howling outside the windows. Hearing and feeling the intensity of the storm (our house was actually shaking!), I had a feeling the power wouldn’t be back on for quite some time.
I changed my clothes in the dark. I went to the bathroom in the dark. I found a flashlight and decided to try and make something for dinner. Luckily for us, even in a power outage, I could still cook something on my gas stove. All I needed to do was light the burners with a match. It was pretty dark in the kitchen even with the flashlights aimed up at the ceiling and lots and lots of candles scattered around the countertops. I pulled out all the leftovers in the fridge and thought about what I could make.
I had leftover chicken (don’t I always) so I thought maybe I could make some sort of dumpling or ravioli thing since I also had leftover wonton wrappers which are great for that kind of dish. I realized however that using the food processor was out so shredding the chicken would have to be done by hand. I cut the chicken into really small pieces, then mushed the pieces some more with my fingers, added some leftover goat cheese, grated some Gouda and added a good shake or two of dried dill. Unfortunately, when I opened the wonton wrappers they were simply too dry to use so now I was stuck with chicken filling but nothing to put it in. I decided I would make some small chicken croquettes out of the filling, rolling the mixture into oblong shapes then dipping them in a bit of scrambled egg and finally breadcrumbs.
Peering inside the fridge with a flashlight, I found some white rice and decided to make a quick fried rice dish. Getting out the grater (boy was I really missing the food processor!), I grated some carrots, cut up some scallions, regular onions, fresh parsley and tossed everything together in the wok with some oil, soy and hot chili sauce.
Prior to all of this activity, I had taken out a pork tenderloin from the freezer which I realized I had to cook on the stove. I’m pretty picky about how I cook pork (I usually only like it when it’s been roasted in the oven for a couple of hours), so this was going to be a challenge. I tried to sear the meat but it was so frozen it just kind of bounced around in the pan. I sighed. I put the cover on, added some white wine and thought we’d just have to cook the thing to death. I also found a jar of artichokes in the fridge (complete with stems) that I thought I’d add to the dish at the end.
Rachel looked at the fried rice and started complaining that she wanted pasta. Why? Because for some reason the last time we had a power outage (albeit in the summer) she remembered me going out to my garden with a flashlight to pick some fresh tomatoes and basel and making a simple sauce to put over the noodles. The fact that she didn’t think I was a lunatic doing this, I think is pretty amazing. Let me recap how the winter of 2009-2010 has been: numerous snow storms, mind-numbing cold plus lots and lots of ice. Now we had pounding rain, thunder and wind gusts that in my mind were near hurricane level. Obviously, there weren’t any tomatoes to be picked in a garden in March and truthfully, the way the trees fell, had it been the summer, the tomatoes would have been buried under the branches.
Besides wanting pasta, Rachel was also getting bored. She couldn’t watch TV, the internet was down and her laptop had maybe an hour tops left on the battery. She thought she could help me cook; I told her to set the table. To at least get her to smile (after all it was a Saturday night and she was spending it trapped at home with Mom and Dad!), I told her after dinner we needed to eat all the ice cream in the fridge because it wasn’t going to last. To make her happy, I put on another pot of water to boil on the stove and found some frozen cheese tortellini in the fridge. I have to say, if my fridge and pantry weren’t always so well stocked, we wouldn’t have eaten so well.
But here’s the thing. After we ate our courses — chicken croquettes, vegetable fried rice, cheese tortellini, sliced pork loin with grilled artichokes — I started thinking how other people would manage a meal. Without a gas stove, you’re pretty much stuck with sandwiches (provided you have bread that is) with hopefully decent deli meat or cheese or tuna. Of course a nice hummus would be great but again without a food processor to quickly mash up that can of chick peas would take quite a while. I know people who grill in the middle of a power outage but truthfully it was kind of dangerous to be outside. There was lots of debris falling and the bottom line is one of the trees was blocking our back door so we didn’t have easy access to the grill anyway.
Was there anything you could warm up over a candle? Doubtful. Would anyone be so bold to try and cook over a fireplace? Even more doubtful. Was dinner without a gas stove then meant to be an eclectic mix of pantry and soon-to-spoil refrigerator items? In our house that meant the line-up would have been smoked oysters or canned sardines followed by some leftover angel hair pasta with tuna and capers, lots of cheese and bread. But you couldn’t toast the bread or melt the cheese. It was looking a little bit bleak. There was always the cereal option. (My least favorite.)
The food items I think most people would want in a storm to make them feel a bit less antsy would be basic comfort foods — pasta and soup. That’s when I decided I knew the perfect meal that didn’t need any power to prepare whatsoever — cheese fondue. Ok, so you would need a fondue pot but even if you don’t have sterno lying around the house, I’ve melted the cheese and kept the fondue warm using simple tea lights (although you need a minimum of four tea lights to make this happen and be prepared to wait for dinner because this takes a really long time.) And yes, you need some decent bread but in a pinch, old rolls and bagels would do. (I don’t recommend using raisin bread for this, but if anyone has let me know.) Plus it’s a great way to get rid of all those leftover pieces of hard cheese.
After we finished our dinner and as much ice cream as we could manage, we huddled on the floor of the living room and watched a DVD on a laptop that Rachel cradled on her legs Indian-style before the computer died and we decided to just go to sleep. Unfortunately, when we got up the next morning we still didn’t have power and because it was so overcast the house was still fairly dark. Walking downstairs, we had made quite a mess the night before. Actually, it looked like we had a college beer party — wax from the candles had melted over every surface, the leftover food and dishes and pots and pans were in three rooms (living, dining and kitchen). Plus, Lynn and I had finished a couple of bottles of wine and made a serious dent in the vodka. Since I couldn’t wash anything without hot water, I simply moved everything to one side of the kitchen and lit the stove. Rustling through the pantry looking for a fondue fork, I took one out and proceeded to toast some bread over a flame.
Bottom line: when you lose power Fondue is King.