How do you cook without an oven? Creatively at first, and then you start visiting the neighbors.
That is what my wife and I surmised recently when our oven stopped working during the holidays.
The trouble started on the evening of Dec. 25, during a meal that is now known in family lore as the Christmas dinner of the two-tone turkey.
My wife, our older son, a friend and I had planned to dine on roast turkey and fixings around 6:30 p.m. But at 6 o'clock, when we plunged the instant-read thermometer into the turkey - a fresh 16-pounder I had secured the day before from my butcher - the reading showed the bird was still 50 degrees short of the 170 degrees it needed to be done. So we turned the oven up, from 350 to 400 degrees, or so we thought.
In the meantime, we drank some wine and ate some cheese.
When we checked the bird, 30 minutes later, its top was brown, but the instant-read thermometers (we employed two this time), still showed the thigh meat was down in the 130-degree range. I also added an oven thermometer to the fray, placing it on the rack next to the turkey and closed the oven door. Again, we passed around the cheese and wine.
Sure enough, 15 minutes later when I checked, the oven thermometer registered a mere 230 degrees, not the 400 that the oven controls were indicating.
We were hungry, mad at the oven and getting snappish. This was not unfolding like the joyful ending scene in A Christmas Carol.
Eventually, we ran out of patience and cheese, and at about 9 o'clock the bird came out of the oven. It was a two-tone job, like an old Edsel - brown, almost black, on its top and pale white on its bottom. The instant-read thermometer reported the meat on the top of bird was done, while the bottom portions were barely cooked.
The corn-bread stuffing - we stuff our bird - was tepid. The hominy casserole, a dish that sat next to the turkey in the oven, was somewhat soupy. We scooped out the stuffing and zapped it in the microwave until it registered 165 degrees. The stuffing was passable but lacked the crisp crust and flavor that comes from being cooked in the oven.
I sliced away, salvaging the upper parts of the turkey. They were cooked, very cooked. They were also dry. When I sat down at the table, I poured a lot of gravy on my turkey. The hominy and other vegetables were crunchy, more like crudites than a casserole.
The meal ended around 10 o'clock as we polished off the slices of the pumpkin pie, which, thankfully, had been baked when the oven was behaving. We did the dishes and fell into bed. We felt more exhausted than festive.
The next morning I was up early, telephoning the oven-repair man who, lucky for us, had an opening in his schedule that afternoon. Unlucky for us was the news he delivered. The part the oven needed - the lower baking element of our electric Dacor oven - had to be ordered from the factory. It would not show up for a while. The top element worked fine, hence the two-tone bird.
Meanwhile, we had invited a boatload of folks over for New Year's Eve and had to feed them. A massive ham had to be baked. Soups requiring cooked eggplant and roasted peppers had to be made. And a panoply of desserts, including cakes and cookies, had to be baked.
Quickly, we began searching for oven space. A neighbor across the street agreed to let us cook the ham in her oven. We telephoned other neighbors who were out of town for the holidays, and they let us bake the desserts in their deserted oven. We roasted the eggplant and peppers in the backyard in my barbecue kettle cooker.
It turned out that the barbecue cooker was also the spot I finished roasting the lower half of the two-tone turkey.
So we greeted the New Year with plenty to eat, but without a working oven.
Cooking without an oven was, I thought, a lot like digging out after a snowstorm. At first you are exhilarated, proud of your resourcefulness. But soon thereafter, you welcome the convenience of a warm, dependable routine.