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Nov 19, 2017

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If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Off the Road
by Bob Blumer
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.1

A guy can only poach salmon so many times in his dishwasher before it becomes yesterday's news. In search of a new culinary adventure for my forthcoming book, "Off The Eaten Path," I decided to test drive a cooking method that's frequently discussed but rarely attempted: cooking on the car engine.

My crash course began with an out-of-print copy of Manifold Destiny (Villard 1989), the serious yet humorous book that spawned the legend. It answered all my questions: yes, the engine of a car is a safe and (relatively) clean place to cook; yes, the food will smell and taste as good as if it were cooked in an oven as long as the aluminum foil package is tightly sealed (although it braises rather than browns); yes, all engines will do the trick, but older models make better ovens. Yes, it dawned on me, cooking on a car engine relies on the same two essential ingredients as poaching in a dishwasher: one part heat source, one part culinary theatrics.

All I needed before taking the show on the road was a destination. In keeping with my new credo -- that with a little creativity wine can be worked into every aspect of daily life -- I mapped out a 140 mile drive to Santa Barbara Wine County. I concocted a few recipes, packed a cooler, enlisted a kindred spirit to navigate and headed for Buellton, the home of a frisky Sanford 1995 pinot I recently discovered.

After preheating the engine for 20 miles, I pulled over and threw dinner under the hood. Sixty miles of salivating later, I stopped to check the oven. My shrimp were still limp. Damn Honda for making such an efficient engine! Sensing that I wasn't using the hottest section, I wrapped my packets around the dip stick and jury rigged them against the exhaust manifold cover. The flesh of my fingertip sizzled as it accidentally touched the metal. I'd found the sweet spot. Twenty miles down the road the intoxicating aroma of lemongrass wafted into the passenger compartment. Arriving at the winery, I unlatched the hood and unpacked my "picnic" in front of several disbelieving tourists. The melt-in-your-mouth-moist fish and fragrant shrimp were a testimonial to the fact that anyone who can operate a motor vehicle can improve their standard of eating while cruisin' down the highway of life. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

The Instruction Manual

1) In preparation for your first car meal, you must first locate the engine's hottest areas. Do this after any long drive by turning off the engine and letting the car sit for 15 minutes. Then lift up the hood and quickly tap the various components. On most vehicles, the hottest area is the exhaust manifold cover, but most engines have additional nooks and crannies that will generate enough heat to slow cook your freeway fare. Stay clear of areas near any moving parts, such as the accelerator linkage, belts or fans, and don't block any air intakes.

2) Before attempting any complex recipes, get to know your engine. Hot dogs (or tofu dogs) are the guinea pigs of engine cooking -- just don't forget the Grey Poupon. If you want to make a roast or a turkey, I wont try to stop you. But the sensible way (relatively speaking) to take advantage of the oven under your hood is to cook small portions of lightly textured foods. For this reason, fish is the perfect road chow. When you're ready to cook:

-- Lay out three equal sized sheets of aluminum foil, one on top of the other. Proceed as if they were a single sheet.
-- Grease the top sheet with a small amount of butter or olive oil to avoid stickage.
-- Wrap ingredients in foil and seal securely by folding seams to create an airtight package. (See illustration.)
-- Before placing food on the engine, loosely roll up a six-inch ball of foil, and set it on the sweet spot of your engine. Then close the hood. Immediately re-open it and use the squashed ball to determine the amount of clearance space between the engine block and the hood. Place food on the pre-determined sweet spot, and secure it by placing a ball of foil on top that is equal to the clearance space less the pouch size. If necessary, hold the pouch in place with additional aluminum foil bracing.
-- Make, model, speed, outside temperature, food density and placement will all affect cooking time. Most small packets of food should cook in 1 - 2 hours. To insure that you have fingers left to lick at the end of the meal, always turn off the engine before loading, unloading or testing for doneness.

The Tool Kit

  • A roll of aluminum foil
  • A roll of paper towels
  • An oven mitt
  • Tongs for pulling food out of crevices
  • Forks, knives and paper plates

    What would road food be without road music? Here're my current top five favorite road albums:

    BOB DYLAN - Highway 61 Revisited
    JUNIOR BROWN - Highway Patrol
    JACKSON BROWN - Running on Empty
    LITTLE FEAT - Sailin' Shoes
    MORCHEEBA - Who Can You Trust (instant highway hypnosis)

    R E C I P E S

    Lemongrass Shrimp
    (serves 2 as an appetizer)

    1/2 lb. medium-sized shrimp, shelled and deveined
    1 fresh lemongrass shoot, bottom 2 inches only, sliced finely
    1 1/2 T freshly squeezed lime juice
    1/4 t salt
    1 pinch cayenne pepper
    2 sprigs of fresh mint (optional)
    3 12 x 12 inch sheets of aluminum foil

    1) Layer all three sheets of aluminum foil on top of each other and fold up the edges. Sprinkle lemongrass around the center. Place shrimp on top and drizzle with lime juice. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne. Top with the mint, and seal foil package.

    2) Place on engine and cook for approximately 50 miles. (It's not necessary to turn the package.)

    3) Open package and serve immediately. (Don't eat the lemongrass.) If lemongrass is unavailable, it may be replaced with 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger root, sliced finely.

    Trout with Lemon and Fresh Sage
    (serves 2 as a light meal)

    A similar version of this meal can be found, cooked en papillotte, in many fine restaurants. If you really miss the obnoxious service, just ask the gas station attendant to speak to you with a fake French accent.

    1 whole trout, gutted (approximately 12 ounces)
    1 lemon, sliced
    3 fresh whole sage leaves (or fresh dill sprigs)
    2 T butter, sliced into 4 pieces
    3 12 x 16 inch sheets of aluminum foil
    Salt and pepper to taste

    1) Layer all three sheets of aluminum foil on top of each other, and use one piece of the butter to grease the top layer.

    2) Rinse and pat trout dry. Sprinkle inside with salt and pepper.

    3) Line the fish's cavity with three lemon slices topped with sage and remaining butter, and seal foil package.

    4) Place on engine and cook for approximately 100 miles, turning once (the fish, not the car).

    Green Beans
    (serves 2)

    1/2 lb. of green or yellow string beans, trimmed
    1 T butter, sliced into three pieces
    1 T lemon juice
    Salt and pepper to taste

    1) Layer all three sheets of aluminum foil on top of each other, and use one piece of the butter to grease the top layer.

    2) Place beans on foil, drizzle with lemon juice. Add butter, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and seal foil package.

    3) Place on engine and cook for approximately 60 miles, turning once.

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