by Lisa

My friend Alicia and her husband like to eat.  They also have 4 children, ranging in age and appetite from preschool to high school.

They are also renovating their kitchen, which, like most major renovations, is taking longer than anticipated.   So, when I ran into her this weekend, Alicia said, only half-joking, “You should blog about how to cook without a stove.”  I stared at her for a minute, blankly, as in, “Are you kidding me?” But her husband concurred that they were in kitchen/family eating hell, and then, because I like a challenge, we brainstormed.  I promised them a blog.

They’ve been without a working kitchen for a while, which I know from our small, quick renovation three years ago, is a miserable situation.  Even if you have a grill and a microwave and a convection oven (which they do), the general disarray, the lack of countertops, working dishwasher, and in my case even running water, made prepping and cleaning up virtually impossible.  Eating out or take-out is an occasional option, of course, but hardly ideal on school nights–especially when you have mulitiple children’s homework to supervise and shuttle to activities.

So here, for Alicia and Michael, and whoever else wants easy, quick, nearly prep- and clean-up free family dinners, are a few ideas to get you through the last phase of a remodel or whatever other misery is confronting you in the kitchen today.

And please, after reading, share your own ideas for cooking without a kitchen.

1.  Buy the best rice cooker you can afford.  Not only will it cook you a fast, healthy side dish (brown & white rice, couscous, farro…) but you can use it to steam any vegetable you like–even frozen ones, which–since they’re often prechopped and cleaned–are a great option if you have no place to rinse and chop fresh ones.  You can steam frozen pot stickers and pre-cooked shrimp in it, too.  Also, it’s a one pot clean up.

2. Use your grill.  Buy easy cuts of meat, like chops or chicken breasts, pre-made burgers, pork tenderloin.  A lot of fish can be easy too: halibut or salmon steaks right on the grill, or fillets wrapped in foil, drizzled with olive oil, a handful of herbs, salt and pepper. You can throw sliced leeks in, too.)   Vegetables can be cooked easily on the grill in a foil pack (sometimes called a hobo pack).  Just toss the cut vegetables in a little olive oil and salt, crimp the foil all around, and grill until tender over medium-high heat.  We like potatoes, onions, carrots, zucchini, & yellow squash this way, but as long as you watch the cooking time, pretty much anything can be cooked this way.   I’d probably look for things that were already prepped in the store, or which required very minimal cutting.) Once, I met a man who put his wok right on his grill, but if you’re truly without a kitchen, even this much prep/clean-up is hard.

3. A really good convection oven can roast a small chicken and all manner of fish.  They’re not cheap, but mine is a workhorse, and very, very often replaces my oven.  They can also bake potatoes, roast squashes or eggplant, and handle a small casserole or pizza.  Pre-cooked sausage heats up quickly this way. Trader Joes has great crab cakes, too, which in a pinch can be cooked in the convection oven instead of pan fried.

4.  Fish tacos.  A quick fillet of red snapper in the convection oven + tortillas + premade salsa, guacamole, etc.  Around here, you can even buy pre-shredded cabbage to combat the inability to chop/rinse.  Even simpler than using fresh fish, cook frozen breaded tilipia filets (always available at Trader Joes) in the convection oven, and use these for your tacos. Defrost some precooked shrimp for shrimp tacos.  This same shrimp can be steamed in the rice cooker (see #1) while the rice cooks, and you can add soy sauce or any other dipping sauce your family likes.

5. Vegetables may pose the biggest problem.  We’re lucky that it’s spring here, or at least the vegetables think so. This means that there’s a lot at the Farmers Markets that doesn’t actually need to be cooked. Many things go from refrigerator to table these days, including:  snap peas, english shelling peas, carrots, celery, radishes.   All of these are fun to eat if you plop a bowl down in front of the kids, especially since they need no prep/cutting.  The kids have decided they like ranch to dip these days (we had 2 big tubs left over from potluck parties), but we also use olive oil and vinegar and homemade thousand island dressing.  (Of course, you can’t make Thousand Island w/o a kitchen, but in a pinch, a bottle will do.) We also have a small pile on our counter of the earliest tomatoes which can be quickly sliced or coarsely chopped.   If you can prep a little, shaved or thinly sliced fennel (think fancy celery) works, too. Again, as I wrote in Surviving First Grade, just look for things in season (it will be fresher and taste better) that you think your kids will eat.   In a pinch, spinach can be steamed in a microwave with a small amount of water, and dressed with a good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.