When young and adventurous, we enjoyed family tent camping. We sneered at the “wimps” who used trailers—even including those who used camping trailers. We were purists. One year, a friend loaned us a few days of relaxation in his 16 foot travel trailer. A revelation! This was living!
We learned that deprivation was not nearly as much fun as it was to be camping with all the amenities. It was made even more clear as we watched the folks in the next campsite while they stood around in a drizzle waiting for their Coleman stove to heat up water for coffee.
Recalling this episode got me to thinking about how cool or room-temperature food will add to the misery in a down-grid situation. Hot meals are just about required for making everything else endurable. But in a continuing crisis one vital concern will be how to conserve fuel, yet provide hot meals.
Here’s a slick solution: “fireless” cooking.
Your crock-pot is the latest application of this old, old idea. But the old idea as you will see is better because your homemade fireless cooker won’t require electricity.
The idea is simple: food in a pot is heated to boiling on your stove, then allowed to simmer for a few minutes; then the pot lid is clapped on and the pot is quickly transferred to a well insulated box. More insulation is stuffed around and on top of the pot, filling the entire box; then the lid is closed tightly. Now you can turn off the stove! After four hours or so (timing is not critical), the food is ready to eat. If the pot is not disturbed (peeking is not allowed!), the food will still be hot even after six or more hours.
Here’s the payoff: (1) not much fuel is used and (2), the food can be prepared well before it is needed.
Your fireless cooker can be readily created using a fiberglass ice chest. Ours has wheels and a collapsible handle. This is handy for having the chest near the stove for moving pots to it quickly, then rolling it out of the way while it does its job.
To adapt your ice chest:
1.Put a piece of plywood on the bottom of the chest to keep the hot pot from damaging the chest’s plastic bottom.
2. Use a pot which will provide enough stew to feed your family and which has small handles. Don’t use a pot which has large handles because you want the insulation to snuggle up against the pot at all points.
3. How to provide insulation for the pot:
Get a supply of styrofoam “peanuts” used for shipping and sew them up into bags that will nestle the pot. Dish towels make a nice size for these bags—or cut lengths from the legs of old slacks and sew one end shut. Sew the bags, leaving one edge open; that way you can adjust the quantity of peanuts as you create the nest. Don’t overfill these bags; they should be flexible to conform to the pot. Pin the open end temporarily. Put your pot in the chest and arrange the bags around it so that there will be no air spaces between the pot and the walls of the chest. Now remove the bags and sew them shut.
Cut a couple of old bath towels into smaller pieces to stuff in odd corners if needed to gently fill any air pockets. Make a large peanut-filled bag to cover all this so that closing the lid will result in a chest completely filled with peanut bags and a pot. Later on, you can try using more than one pot, but let’s make this basic for now.
Carefully remove the pot so that the nest is undisturbed. That’s because when you do the actual cooking, you will want to get the hot pot into its nest quickly. Now you are ready.
1. If using meat in your meal, cut it intro bite-sized pieces and gently fry it till just done, then transfer it to the stewpot. Or cook it right in the pot. Add the vegetables, water, spices et cetera so that the pot is 2/3 full—no more: the hot air between the lid and the top of the stew is important. Oh, and soft veggies, peas for example, should go in the pot 10 minutes or so before serving.
2. Heat your stew to boiling and immediately move the container into your fireless cooker; leave it alone 4 or more hours, that’s it.
3. Most crockpot recipes can be adapted for this technique—except those that call for adding ingredients while the cooking is underway. Remember, in fireless cooking, peeking is not allowed, so neither is adding anything after you’ve nested your pot, except at the very end (see above about peas).
One wonderful advantage to this process is the opportunity to eat any time after a few hours—food will still be hot, but not overcooked because the cooker is allowing it to gradually (really gradually) lose heat. This means the cook doesn’t have to be working just before the meal is served. In fact, the cook can sit and enjoy the meal with everybody at the table. And the meal doesn’t need to be ready at any set time–the meal will be ready and stay ready for several hours. So a dinnertime emergency calling the troops away won’t be a kitchen disaster
Besides the advantage of using heat only to fry meat and bring the stew to a boil, you can prepare a meal long before it will be eaten and you don’t have to stand over a stove making sure nothing burns.
Stew recipes are not only easily adapted to this cooking technique, they are very nutritious because the liquid is not poured off, throwing away a lot of food value. Add a hearty slice of two of whole wheat bread and your meals will be delicious and filling.
Prepare a meal in the morning to eat during or after a TV football game and no one has to spend time in the kitchen preparing. Or use this technique to prepare for a tailgate party—no on-site cooking!
When you get the hang of this technique, you will want to try using more than one pot to make, for example, a dessert to accompany the meal.
Practice using this wonderful technique now; it’s simple, and it will give you one more valuable tool if disaster strikes.
Bon appetit! (You can find lots of additional information on the Internet with web search for “fireless cooking”.)