Creativity under fire sparks new recipes

I’m writing this week from the center of fire-ravaged Sonoma County, California, which currently has 20-plus wildfires eating up forests, homes and businesses.

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I’m writing this week from the center of fire-ravaged Sonoma County, California, which currently has 20-plus wildfires eating up forests, homes and businesses.

This unprecedented devastation started on Sunday, Oct. 8, and has left most of us without power, gas, internet or phone services. We have driven many miles to find spotty cell service to communicate with friends and family and keep up with fire and evacuation alerts. The highways are so congested with evacuees and overwhelmed first responders, that we’ve been asked to stay in place unless/until asked to leave.

So far, we are in a safe zone, but at the mercy of ever-shifting winds and exhausted firefighters. Last night, the power came back on, so my sleeping laptop is awake again and eager to share with you this week’s culinary adventures.

First of all, without stove, oven, microwave, slow cooker or hot plate, cooking is limited. Great excuse to go out to eat, you say? Unfortunately, this widespread outage means most restaurants are closed. Stores have run out of ice and nonperishables like sandwich fixings, bottled water, and (not surprising) most dessert items like cookies, pies and cakes. After all, “stressed” spelled backwards is “desserts,” right? On top of all this, without power we are listening to a lot of thawing in our freezers, as a sizable investment in meats and other perishables are screaming, “Use me now, or lose me forever!”

Luckily, the propane tank in the barbecue grill has about a quarter fill left, so I’ve been using it sparingly to prepare entire meals at one time. It’s amazing how creative one gets when faced with a “mystery basket” comprised of freezer and pantry items and only limited propane. Here’s some of the results thus far. I hope you aren’t ever in this situation, but perhaps some of these concoctions will come in handy even when the freezer is not thawing rapidly. Stay Calm and Cook On!

Focusing first on more expensive cuts of meat in the freezer, I had to pass on the long-cooking lamb shanks and roasts, but came upon a lovely flank steak. It could have been a lavishly-stuffed and rolled centerpiece of a dinner with guests, but was destined for something simpler: our first firestorm dinner. I also peeled, cut and oiled all the veggies in the refrigerator (except for a few carrots that became easy carrot stick snacks) and added them to the grill with the meat, to limit propane time.

Flank Steak with Honey Mustard

This lean but flavorful cut of beef cooks fast and pairs well with just about any sides. Makes enough for 6 servings.

1/3 cup prepared mustard with seeds

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon honey

1 1/2 pounds beef flank steak

1 pound large whole mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed, if available

Preheat grill. In a small bowl, mix mustard, soy sauce, honey and 1 tablespoon water until blended. With a sharp knife, lightly score both sides of steak. Place steak on a pan and brush with honey-mustard mixture. Oil grill, then grill steak 4 minutes. Turn steak; arrange mushrooms around meat and brush steak and mushrooms with remaining honey-mustard. Grill 5 minutes or to desired doneness. Allow meat to rest a few minutes. To serve, slice steak into thin slices diagonally, against the grain.

Chicken 2 Ways

Then came all the cuts of chicken, which were thawed halfway and sliced into strips/small pieces to cook faster and use less of the precious propane. Only salt and pepper were used, so that part of the cooked chicken could be seasoned after cooking with spices such as ginger/garlic pepper, and some with ground chili pepper/cumin/coriander. At the same time, we cut, oiled and grilled chunks of onions. Tortillas, grilled veggies, cilantro, basil, shredded cheese, canned beans dressed with cut up tomatoes, cucumbers, mango chunks and bottled salad dressing, and the lovely grilled onions, were served as accompaniments. A small amount of the salt-and-pepper chicken was mixed with mayonnaise and seasonings to make chicken salad sandwiches with our remaining bread. We had enough ice packs to keep some chilled until the next meal.

Hash of the Day

Most freezers will have at least one package of ground meat, either beef or turkey, which won’t safely last long after they thaw. What we did was mix the ground meats together in a bowl with some herbs and spices, salt and pepper, and a couple of eggs for binding. The meat was formed into very small patties for quick grilling. At the same time, we cut potatoes into small pieces, oiled them, added salt and pepper, and placed them in a grill pan to cook at the same time, but separate from the meat. When all was done, we broke up the cooked patties in a large serving dish and added the potatoes. Some of the grilled onions, leftover grilled veggies and anything else that looked “hash-worthy” accompanied as add-ins. A little sour cream and a bottle of ketchup served as toppings.

Comforting Desserts

A silver lining in all this was the lack of any “sugar guilt” in our urgency to use the quickly melting ice creams in the freezer, lest that investment be lost. Luckily, we had some nectarines and bananas to accompany the ice creams. Bananas was cut in half crosswise, then lengthwise, rubbed with butter and grilled. A sprinkle of brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a dollop of ice cream gave us a little comfort in the storm. (Note: If you have some rum, amaretto or other liqueur, a drizzle or two might add even more enjoyment.) Here’s what we did with the nectarines. If we’d had more of them, we could have also used a few to stuff with the chicken salad for something more interesting than bread, but the ones we had brought some pleasure.

Nectarines on the Grill

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This is so easy and makes a great presentation. (When in the midst of destruction, something visually attractive goes a long way.) Hopefully your fruit is ripe but firm. Simply pit and halve the nectarines. Brush halves with a neutral oil and place cut-sides-down on a hot grill. When grill marks form, remove and turn right-side up on a serving platter. Sprinkle each grilled nectarine half with a little sugar and fill each cavity with a dollop of vanilla or other ice cream. Serve immediately. Because you never know when the call to evacuate will come.

Final note: Early on, we packed a bag in the car with jerky, chips, crackers, granola bars, cereal, and any other munchies we could find. A cooler was in the trunk for any perishables we might grab, along with water and chocolate, my two mainstays. So far, the car remains packed and waiting while we continue to get creative in the trenches. Aloha for now!