Beating the Power Crunch
by Kate Heyhoe
See Kate's New Green Basics site for more up-to-date information on this topic.
As I write this, California is undergoing a ridiculous energy crisis. I say ridiculous not because of its severity, but because of the various factors that got us here and the debatable options for getting us out. Amazingly, if California was a nation unto itself, it would have the sixth largest economy in the world. Yet, the ripple effects of its energy shortage appear to be spiraling out of control.
I'll skip the causes and cures for our power malaise, but higher energy prices and limited availability may soon be a way of life in other regions as well. Realize this: changes in energy affect every aspect of your life—your workplace, your lifestyle, and your pocketbook. But just how drastically will the energy crisis affect home cooks?
Imagine right now losing all electricity—this very moment! No warning. Just silence: the sound of no electricity. If it's night, it's also instantly dark. Nothing works: no lights, computer screens, TV's, air conditioning, electric ranges, microwave ovens or refrigerators.
In March 2001, the first rolling black-outs occurred in sprawling Los Angeles County (which is only slightly smaller in population than the eighth largest state in the union). San Franciscans had already experienced such black outs this year. These black outs always come without warning, to prevent, as the authorities say, terrorism and criminal acts. So people get stuck in elevators, life-support machines chug along on generators, restaurants stop serving lunch, and kids can't do their homework.
Besides the sudden power black-outs, Californians are reeling from massively inflated energy prices. Not just for electricity, but prices for natural gas, propane and gasoline have all shot off the scales, in some cases doubling and even tripling from the year before.
Under these conditions, I've started thinking twice about what's for dinner. Roasting a chicken in the oven, steaming broccoli on the range, and boiling potatoes for mashing—all at the same time—now seems extravagant. What an inefficient way to cook, I'm thinking. Surely I can come up with menus that make better use of the fuel needed to cook them. Cents-off coupons at the supermarket now pale in value compared to saving money while cooking.
For instance, every time you turn on the oven or crank up the burner, consider about how many things you can cook at the same time, using nearly the same amount of fuel for all recipes as you would for one recipe. In other words, try to prepare the entire meal using just the broiler, or oven, or one burner.
Orechiette with Zucchini and Leeks is a perfect example: it uses one pot of boiling water to blanch the zucchini and leeks for the sauce, and to cook the pasta; the same boiling water can also be used to reconstitute the sun-dried tomatoes. Add a salad or breadsticks and dinner is done.
A complete one-pot meal for winter, Brown-Bag Barcelona Chicken roasts a chicken with a full range of vegetables in one pan, and the brown bag not only makes the chicken moist yet crisp, it also prevents oven-splattering for easy clean-up.
In many cases, it's not the cooking time itself that racks up the energy meter, it's the preheating of the oven or broiler, or bringing the water to boil. Oven cooking typically consumes more fuel because most recipes take longer to cook, as when roasting or baking bread, but if the heat offsets the fuel used to heat your house, and if you can cook two dishes or a complete meal at the same time, it makes sense. In warm weather, I drop my oven use to nearly nil, but in winter I'll be back to lowering the house thermostat and firing up the oven for cooking a full menu or at least two components of a meal.
Better yet, frying and sautéing are typically fast-cooking methods, so they by nature consume less energy. Skillets come to temperature quickly, and the cooking times for skillet-recipes and stir-fries are usually just a few short minutes.
One-Pot Meals vs. Component Cooking:
From Boiling to Broiling
Multi-tasking your fuel-use doesn't necessarily mean one-pot meals, though these are certainly good options. But one-pot meals like braises and stews can get boring after a while.
Instead, think about the components of recipes and how they're cooked. If you're bringing water to a boil for, say, cooking tonight's pasta, first add some of the boiling water to a bowl of bulghur wheat destined for tomorrow's tabbouli salad. To make a side dish, you can boil carrots in the water first, then purée the carrots with goat cheese and use the remaining water to cook pasta. Blanch corn on the cob in boiling water, then cook polenta in the same water. Serve the corn for dinner, and cool the polenta, cut into squares and fry it the next day, served with maple syrup for breakfast or a tomato sauce for lunch.
Or re-use boiling water for steaming. After cooking pasta or potatoes, remove them but leave the boiling water in the pot. Place a steamer on top containing lettuce-wrapped fish to serve as an entrée, or fresh vegetables to mix with the pasta or serve as side dishes. A Chinese bamboo steamer with two or three compartments can cook everything from pork-stuffed dumplings to steamed artichokes to dessert custards.
Once a broiler gets hot, it cooks food quickly. Instead of just broiling chicken, prepare a tray of breadcrumb-topped tomatoes or feta-topped zucchini strips for broiling after the chicken is done, then pop in a tray of garlic bread to complete the meal. You end up with a menu of three distinctly different dishes, but cooking the bread and vegetables adds only a fraction more energy usage to what the chicken dish burns up.
Stretching Your Energy Dollar
If you're looking to make better use of your energy dollar in the kitchen, consider these tips:
Outdoor Grill: This is the queen of multifunctional cookery. On it, you can make every dish, or just about—grilled veggies and meats, toasted bread and bruschetta, pizza, and even grilled fruit for dessert. and outdoor grilling can be so social! (Indoor grills are just as versatile.)
Pressure Cooker: Who can argue with a stovetop device that cooks food in a fraction of the time, retains more vitamins and minerals, and keeps the kitchen cooler in summer? In about ten minutes or less, my Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker cooks up beans, risotto, and chicken in wine sauce. Lorna Sass, in her book Cooking Under Pressure, makes cheesecakes, curries and pilafs as well.
Slow Cookers: Small appliances often use energy far more efficiently than full size ovens or cooktops. A slow cooker (or crockpot) running for 10 hours burns less than a dime's worth of electricity, or at California prices, maybe a quarter.
Microwave Ovens: Not only do they cook quicker, but microwave ovens use about half the energy of conventional electric ovens. and they don't heat up the house, keeping summer air conditioning bills down.
Oven Lights: Check the doneness of a dish by first looking at it through the oven window with the oven light on. Opening the door can allow about 25 degrees of heat to escape.
Pot Lids: When boiling water or heating soup, cover the pot to bring the temperature up quicker.
Refrigerators & Freezers: Keep 'em full. The more packed the freezer and refrigerator are, the less energy they consume to keep the temperature cold. If they're equipped with them, switch to the "conserve energy" settings.
Energy Star: Appliances with the Energy Star label are designed to conserve energy. When buying new appliances, look for ones with the Energy Star and compare the labels indicating annual energy consumption.
Standby Power Loss: Many appliances consume electricity just by being plugged in—coffee makers with clocks, VCR's, cordless phones, and others with timers, clocks, memory or remote controls. Unplug them when not in use. Throughout the house you can save as much as 30% of your electricity bill.
Sunlight: Brew "sun tea" by leaving teabags in a glass jar of water out in the summer sun. No need to heat the house to make ice tea.
Every day now, I'm inspired to create more energy-efficient meals. and cooking great meals using less energy is completely painless—far less painful than forking over more money to Southern California Edison. So tuck these recipes into your "when-the-rates-go-up" file. For no matter how much electricity, gas and oil you think you have today, tomorrow it could be gone in an instant. Poof! California living—instantly!
To round out the meal, add rice from a rice cooker to these recipes:
Quick Vietnamese Chicken
with Crisp-Cooked Snow Peas
(Stir-fry and microwave combination)
Shrimp with Asparagus and Almonds
Thai Grilled Beef Salad
General Tso's Favorite Chicken, by Martin Yan
Tripe Pepper Steak, by Martin Yan
Energy-Saving Appliance Recipes
These appliances use a fraction of the energy that a conventional oven or stovetop does.
Pressure Cooker Recipes:
Slow Cooker Recipes:
Kate's Global Kitchen for May, 2001:
05/05/01 Energy Synergy: Beating the Power Crunch
05/12/01 Mama's Savory Dutch Babies
05/19/01 Remembering the Sandwich: Great Moments, Great Sandwiches in History
05/26/01 Memorial Day Mixed Grill
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created May 2001