Thursday, February 28, 2008

Alternatives to microwaving

A few years ago, when Kevin and I were still living in Brooklyn, we threw out our microwave. I'd inherited it from an old girlfriend, and it still worked fine, but we'd come to a tipping point: the microwave was not in keeping with our values around food.

When I was a kid, in the early '80s, my parents bought their first microwave oven. I remember them consulting the manual that came with it, for instructions on reheating chicken wings, and then zapping them on high for ten minutes, until the meat and skin had been rendered as tough as the bones. They got better at it, and learned the microwave's strong suits as well as those jobs best left to the stovetop or oven. Among the new technology's failures were microwave cake mixes that yielded sad, wet cakes in the same length of time it took to bake perfectly good ones in the oven. Popcorn that takes about five minutes in the microwave instead of ten on the stovetop is still popular, no matter how many bags get burned and carried outside to stink. Further, both of these could be made more cheaply and naturally using standard ingredients.

I'm not orthodox about any philosophy of food: I prefer to take inspiration from a variety of schools of thought, rather than taking a hard stance, and haven't sworn off microwave ovens altogether. At the office, for instance, when it's time to eat last night's leftovers for lunch, I consider what I'm willing to eat cold, like roasted meat, and microwave the rest for as little time as possible. When I'm at home and need to reheat food in my own kitchen, I use either the toaster oven or steam the food on the stovetop.

Some foods are undeniably better when warmed in a toaster oven versus a microwave oven. Pizza is a perfect example: the bread becomes crisp instead of soggy or rubbery, and the cheese, instead of becoming dangerously hot and melting off the sides of the crust, melts more slowly and stays put. A toasted burrito is more crisp and stays intact better than the soggy results of microwaving. Fried foods are much better reheated in a toaster oven: the dry heat restores the crispiness of the outside, while a moderate heat warms the insides thoroughly.

When I'm heating food in the toaster oven, I usually heat it at 350 degrees, leave the food uncovered, and heat it for about ten minutes per serving of food. Toasting works well for foods with some moisture: sauced pasta, steamed vegetables, and roast chicken all reheat well this way.

For wet foods, the stovetop is a faster route. You can warm soup or stew in a saucepan on the stove on moderate heat, stirring frequently to keep it from sticking. A great way to steam up leftovers is to put them in a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, add a few tablespoons of water, and heat on very low for about ten minutes per serving. Today for lunch, I reheated last night's dinner this way: a stuffed, broiled tuna steak, a piece of baked butternut squash, and some cooked brown basmati rice, all in one pot on the stove. The trick with foods that will not stand up to stirring, is to keep the heat very low, keep the lid on, and resist the urge to check frequently. You can reheat a whole saucepan of rice or pasta this way, with very little sticking to the bottom of the pot.
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