Creative food solutions for when the power goes out

Like most Keys residents, I've been stocking my hurricane provisions with cans of meat, fish, ravioli, hash, fruits, and veggies since June 1, the official start of the hurricane season. It's hard to face the unhappy prospect of serving this dreary fare to friends and family when they have been severely tested by the ferocious storms that sometimes lash the Keys along with the attendant power loss and unrelenting high heat and humidity.

I was convinced that there must be a better way to prepare for this eventuality so that the meals, at least, could bring some pleasure and be a positive experience.

So I asked three prominent chefs how they would deal with such a situation and what advice they could give. Chefs Andy Nguyen of Square One and John Correa of Cafe Sole, both in Key West, and Jean-Charles Berruet of Chanticleer South in Islamorada gamely rose to the challenge.

Putting aside their dedication to the fine cuisine synonymous with their restaurants, these good-natured chefs came up with creative ideas and practical suggestions. They focused not only on stocking your larder, but also on ways to rescue food slowly warming in your powerless fridge or freezer.

Their recommendations are innovative, creative, economical, and simple, so that even the most inept cook or stressed-out person can come up with comforting, delicious meals. As Chef Correa reminds us, "Be creative in assembling your hurricane supplies. Remember," he says, "variety is the spice of life."

Calls for planning

Chef Nguyen agrees, and adds: "No power? No problem." He advises that "a little pre-hurricane planning will help utilize the perishable inventory in your refrigerator so you don't have to throw out your hard-earned money."

He recommends preparing meats, poultry, fish and vegetables into your favorite recipes — stew, chili, gumbo, or chowder — and placing portions in heavy-duty resealable (e.g., Ziploc) bags and freezing them.

"Spaghetti with your favorite sauce, garden vegetables with fresh herbs, fish or shellfish marinated in white wine, tarragon, and lemon are great candidates for the Ziploc meals," he says, and "meats or poultry marinated with garlic, olive oil and herbs and spices are great on the grill."

"Gotta have dessert," he reminds us. Chocolate and marshmallow sealed in plastic bags can also be heated in boiling water.

Then, when the storm has passed, the power is still out, and "everyone is hungry and a little buzzed, fire up your charcoal or gas grill, bring a medium pot of water to a boil and reheat your meals by plunging the bags into the boiling water." In this way, he says, "You won't have dirty pots or pans." To further ease the cleanup, he says to use paper or plastic plates and utensils. "Keep in mind that your tap water might be contaminated," he warns.

For quick and dirty but welcome comfort food, go for the PB&J, but also delve into your supply of cured meats such as prosciutto, salami, and jerky, and be creative with your store of condiments. (A note for the unsophisticated: PB&J stands for peanut butter and jelly.)

Hint: If you have enough room, freeze water in 1 gallon plastic bottles. When you lose power, these blocks of ice will keep your food cool longer, and will provide additional drinking water when thawed. Leave room for the water to expand when freezing.

A little creativity

Chef Correa recommends that your supplies include pasta (lots of different kinds), ramen noodles, rice (some white, some Japanese, and some with flavoring), dried and canned beans, peas and lentils, bottled tomato sauce, and cans of your favorite fruits and vegetables. Good choices include tomatoes, diced tomatoes with chili peppers, pineapple, peach, pear, mandarin orange, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and green chilies. Other useful items are parmesan cheese, tuna, kippers, anchovies and pancake mix.

Hint: Place your canned goods in an elevated plastic storage container to prevent storm surge from ungluing all the labels.

Stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables that have a fairly long shelf life such as potatoes, garlic, onions, apples, etc., as well as soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, and water, water, water.

Correa keeps a Chef Master portable butane stove handy for emergency cooking and as an extra flame to make desserts and sauces in his restaurant. This compact, efficient burner can be purchased at The Restaurant Store for $45, along with an 8-ounce can of butane fuel, effective for about three hours of cooking, for $2.95. These products are also available from several sources over the Internet.

Check your inventory of dried herbs and spices, and replace any that are old. The basics, Correa says, include crushed red pepper, cayenne, thyme, sage, rosemary, and curry. It is also advisable to have white and brown sugar, honey, flour, breadcrumbs, mustard, ketchup, oils, salt and pepper, bouillon cubes, garlic powder, mayo, and hot sauce.

Ease post-storm blues

Correa has a store of recipes that he has amassed for years cooking for Boy Scouts. Since desserts are especially welcome by the scouts and by everyone under post-hurricane conditions, he started his recommendations with a recipe for an upside down johnnycake easily made with pineapple (or any fruit) from supplies on hand:

In a 9-inch skillet, caramelize 3/4 cup of brown sugar in 3 tablespoons of butter, if you have any left. (White sugar and vegetable oil can be substituted in a pinch.) Add a can of crushed pineapples with the juices, and cook slowly, reducing to a thick syrup. Mix 2.5 cups of pancake mix with 2 tablespoons of sugar and enough water to make a thick batter. Pour the batter over the fruit and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, using foil if needed. Cook on a very low flame. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick after 20 minutes. You may also bake this in a grill, set on low with the cover closed, but be sure to watch the thermometer if the lid has one.

To make crepes, mix 1 cup of pancake mix with 1 cup of cold water. The batter should form a thin line that holds on your spoon when you swipe a line with your finger. The crepes can be used with an infinite variety of sweet and savory fillings.

Macaroni and cheese, the ultimate comfort food, can be prepared in several ways. Simply boil a pound of your favorite pasta, drain, and stir in a cheese sauce. To make the sauce, melt 2 tablespoons of butter or oil in a pan, add 2 tablespoons of flour, and stir on medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually add a cup of fresh or shelf-stable milk or water and still until smooth. Then add a cup of Parmesan, American or Velveeta cheese and pepper to taste. When well blended, stir into cooked pasta.

Yummy trailer dip is a delicious way to use that sausage slowing defrosting in your freezer. It's great on bread or chips and as a sauce on almost anything. Slowly grill 1 pound of sausage. When browned, chop it up, and add one 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes, one small can of drained green chilies, and 1 pound of Velveeta, American, or cheddar cheese. Add a pinch of crushed red pepper or more if you like. Put all the ingredients in a fireproof pot and melt on the grill, stirring occasionally.

An easy-to-prepare artichoke and parmesan dip is wonderful on fish, stuffed in a chicken breast or on your favorite cracker. Mix 1 cup of mayo, 1 cup of Parmesan, 1/2 cup pressed diced canned tomato, 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, 2 cans drained green chilies, and 2 jars of drained and chopped marinated artichoke hearts. Place mixture in a pot and cook slowly until well blended.

Chef Berruet has an easy suggestion for rescuing fish in your warming fridge. "You can create a papillote!" he says. "Smear a sheet of aluminum foil with olive oil, put your fish on top, add sliced onions, chopped garlic, salt and pepper, lemon juice and a splash of white wine. Wrap the fish in the foil, then put in the grill until cooked."

Perhaps you have a chicken in your fridge. "You can also roast a chicken on the grill," he says. "Stuff it with garlic cloves and slices of lemon."

When your fresh fish and meats have been used up, you can create a good meal by cutting canned ham into thick slices, grilling it, and serving it with a little sauce made from whatever you have on hand, such as Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and honey.

Berruet agrees that pasta is a good choice if you have a burner and adds that you can also cook rice or even couscous. "Baked potatoes are easy, too," he says. "A lot of vegetables can also be grilled and served with a vinaigrette made by mixing oil, vinegar and mustard."