Chapter 4: Pot Luck
I’d learned to boil hot water on my new hot plate by turning the throttle up to 5 and waiting 5 minutes and 34 seconds, and was soon happily drinking cups of Earl Grey tea and press-pot coffee as if I had a real stove. I didn’t miss the gas at all.
An alu gobi in the offing
But I quickly discovered that routinely setting the hot plate on 5 and then walking off was in general a bad idea, and more than once I found myself running back into the kitchen as smoke poured out the door. So, I started leaving a small notebook next to the hot plate and recording the temps I’d used on various dishes.
Clearly, I had to alter my gas-o-centric cooking style, in which a routine meal often saw four pans teetering on the small stove as I simultaneously accomplished several cooking steps in the preparation of a meal. I’d be steaming green beans in one pan, melting butter for a rioux in another, as I boiled water for a hot beverage in a third pan, and rice cooked in a fourth. Such a welter of activity was no longer going to be possible.
Nevertheless, several dishes could be prepared as usual. I could cook my Saturday morning buttermilk pancakes on a single skillet perched on the electric burner. But if I wanted bacon, I had to do it first. Still, bacon needs a little time to drain and cool, right?
One pot meals were another natural. I could prepare a potato-and-cauliflower curry by first sautéing onions in my deep, cast-iron skillet, deglazing with water or broth, then dumping in the chunks of potato and cauliflower flowerettes. This was foolproof cooking at its best. If I also made a salad, and set out some charcuterie and bruschetta, I had a meal I could invite friends to.
In that way, my toaster became my ally. Normally, it sat unused on the counter, as I toasted bread for bruschetta, croutons, and other farinaceous what-nots under the broiler in the oven. But that was no longer possible, so I began to depend on my toaster for various prep steps. It worked especially well for bruschetta–I’d simply toast a big slice of bread, cut it up into smaller pieces, rub with garlic, drizzle with olive oil, and dust with sea salt. Voila! Who needs an oven?
I did the same thing with croutons, only cut the bread up into smaller pieces. If I could have figured out a way to stick a steak in the toaster, I would have done that. I fooled around with papadam–the crackling Indian flatbread that can be bought uncooked in South Asian stores in a variety of flavors, including garlic, cardamom, and cumin-seed. For certain dishes, including the potato-and-cauliflower curry (alu gobi) mentioned above, papadam crisped and browned in the toaster provided a perfect accompaniment, better than rice or an oven-baked flatbread.
Following is my recipe for the pancakes I cooked on my hot plate.
Robert’s Buttermilk Pancakes
1 cup flour, unsifted
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
Put the above ingredients in a large bowl, and “sift” them together by flinging spoonfuls up into the air until the ingredients are well-mixed. Make a well in the middle of the white mass.
1¼ cup buttermilk (shake the carton up first to homogenize the contents)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 extra large free-range egg
Pour the above into the well in the dry ingredients. Whip them within the well until the egg is well assimilated. Then whisk the wet into the dry ingredients, making sure to scrape the stuck ones off the bottom of the bowl, but don’t whisk so much that the batter becomes smooth. It should have small lumps in it.
Let the batter sit for 15 minutes, or, even better, 30 minutes. The batter should develop bubbles from the chemical and microbiological components.
Pour batter onto a tempered frying pan or skillet and cook on both sides till brown. If the batter seems a little thick, add a tablespoon or two of water.
Next: Timing is Everything
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 9, 2009