My exhaust manifold is stamped with the image of a hand with an “X” over it, meaning that when the car is turned on, it’s too hot to touch. Post-hurricane, the little hand took on anther meaning: hot enough to cook on.
Sunday morning - with no power and a case of cabin fever - presented the perfect moment to attempt manifold cookery. I’d heard stories about construction workers warming lunches on truck engines, but the idea had the flavor of an urban myth.
Not so, say the authors of “Manifold Destiny,” a chatty, how-to-cook-on-your-car-engine cookbook. Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller trace the idea of cooking with heat generated by propulsion back to the Huns, who tenderized meat by tucking it beneath their saddles.
Truck drivers may be the modern-day pioneers of heating meals under the hood, but “Manifold Destiny” adds a lot of horsepower to the idea with single-serving recipes for Hyundai Halibut with Fennel, Safe-at-Any-Speed Stuffed Eggplant and Thruway Thighs.
Shrimp, steak, stuffed crabs - almost anything, it seems - can be cooked on the engine. Basically, if you’ve got a car, you’ve got a way to cook dinner, a tidbit well worth remembering during the height of hurricane season, especially with another storm already brewing in the Atlantic.
Instead of suggesting times and temperatures, recipes denote distance traveled. A pork tenderloin cooks in 250 miles. Venison cutlets will be done in 55 to 85 miles. Scallops in just 30. The authors say their “recipe mileage numbers are based upon an average speed of 55 mph.”
The multitasking aspect is alluring - cook and go somewhere simultaneously. But still. Isn’t it impossible to secure food to the engine so that it won’t splatter across the pavement? And won’t a car-cooked meal taste of exhaust and perhaps hasten death?
Absolutely not, according to “Manifold Destiny.” Most car engines have plenty of nooks and crannies that aluminum foil food packets can be securely tucked into. And if your car is in good condition, there shouldn’t be a whiff of exhaust under the hood. That’s the business of the back end of the car.
Still skeptical, I took the first step: figuring out where on the engine to cook. Maynard and Scheller use the “burn your finger” method. After driving around for a bit, turn off the vehicle, open the hood and touch metal surfaces. The ones that cause recoil are hot enough to cook on. (Plastic surfaces are useless for car cookery.) Search out surfaces that are hot but that also offer a secure place to tuck or wire the food into place.
My Honda’s manifold is perfect because it’s easily accessible and has a spacious, flat surface. Plus, there’s a little metal thingie sticking up on one side that has a hole in it, perfect for threading wire through.
Besides the food, the method calls for heavy aluminum foil and some baling wire, available for about $5 a roll at local hardware stores.
For the inaugural meal on wheels, I chose Good and Simple Cajun Shrimp and Speedy Spedini, a triple-decker sandwich made with fresh mozzarella.
After prepping the food - which took no time at all - it was time to triple-wrap the dishes separately in aluminum foil, pressing down the seams to make a tight seal. The triple wrap is key.
Because my manifold is so spacious, I was able to combine both dishes in the third layer of foil, making one large packet that would be easier to secure.
By twisting wires to the metal thingie and around the clamp of a mysterious rubber hose, I was able to make a cradle for the food.
All that was left was the driving.
A chronic multitasker, I decided to cook my way to my mother’s house in Portsmouth to see how it had fared during the storm. Each bump on Interstate 264 induced a cringe, and the cargo kept me checking the rear-view mirror for shrimp-strewn pavement and slowing way down for puddles so as not to sully dinner.
Mostly, I felt like I had a delicious secret.
The authors advise against checking for doneness, so I resisted.
Back home, less than an hour later, I popped the hood and there it was: dinner, hot off the manifold.
The unshelled shrimp, seasoned with peppers and garlic, was only slightly overcooked. The sandwich, which had anchovy paste as the condiment, sported plenty of stretchy, melted mozzarella, was not a bit soggy and was satisfying, even if there was no crunch.
A brave friend who sampled the fare summed it up best: “It’s good! I couldn’t have told that you cooked it on your car.”