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Going without an oven started as a fun culinary challenge for this editor

These simple recipes for chicken cauliflower will have you hugging your oven. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

These simple recipes for chicken and cauliflower will have you hugging your oven. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 16, 2012 8:01AM



I can’t say I was surprised the day my oven raced up to 500 degrees and refused to come back down.

On that November day of the oven uprising, mine was around 20 years old, and it had been acting up. It was not like it was a top-of-the-line model, either. In fact, when that last breakdown occurred I looked into the cost of the same model, since all the newer ones were wider than the space it inhabited. The price: $216. Brand new.

A total renovation of the kitchen was nearing, so I decided to treat this betrayal as a challenge. I’d go without an oven for a few months. How hard could that be? I mean, I still had the burners; well, two of them, anyway.

Many times over the years I’d met people who would swear they never used their ovens. I even watched a colleague fish a fresh sweater out of hers as she explained that since she didn’t cook her oven provided much-needed storage space.

Now, of course, the difference between me and these folks was that I cook. A lot. Still, I was up for a culinary adventure. And it wouldn’t be for long, since remodeling was going to begin in the early spring.

Out came the slow cookers — large and small — the wok and covered skillet. I could do this.

I was barely two weeks into the adventure when I hit the first bump in the road: Thanksgiving. We weren’t hosting, but I always like to make a small bird of my own. To my way of thinking, there’s nothing worse than enjoying a big Thanksgiving feast and not having turkey leftovers. So I started trying to figure out how to make a turkey sans oven. True, we could grill it, but that would mean a lot of early-morning maneuvering, since my relatives host dinner at 1 sharp.

A friend told me she always does a turkey in the slow cooker, so that’s the route I took. Well, I can say this: It sure was moist, or some might say, soggy. Still, we had turkey for sandwiches, so I didn’t count that as a total loss.

The next challenge was baking for my parish’s Christmas bazaar. I was one of the co-chairs of the bake sale. It just didn’t seem right to show up empty-handed. So I invested in a small tabletop oven, deciding to make mini loaves of banana bread.

What a pain.

I have a few tried-and-true recipes I use for bake sales, potlucks, family get-togethers. They all make fairly large amounts, but all in one turn in the oven. It never mattered if I were starting to bake later than I’d planned, as happened on this day. I’d whip up a recipe, shove the pans into the oven and in no more than an hour, I was done. And during the waiting time I’d be nearby, curled up with a book, enjoying the aroma of baking.

With this tabletop oven, I could only bake two at a time. I couldn’t contribute just two little loaves to the sale, so I did the process over. And over. And over. No quick Miracle of the Loaves here.

As I sat there, yearning for sleep but waiting for yet another pair of loaves to finish baking, I was muttering to my shuttered oven, “You couldn’t hold out for another couple months?” Maybe it was because I was so tired by then, but I swear that oven was smirking back at me.

Christmas Eve, we were hosting, but that wasn’t a problem. Homemade ravioli is our traditional meal, so no oven needed, although I did want to make a beef roast. I bought a lovely one from the butcher and stuck it in the slow cooker. The end result was a tad stringy, because a slow cooker is better with tougher cuts that benefit from hours of cooking. That roast needed an oven. Sigh.

I made it through the holidays, but the day-to-day cooking was getting to be a drag. That’s because now I was pretty much cooking something different every day. With an oven, I’d spend a weekend day making big batches of food — a roast one week, whole chickens another, always loads of roasted vegetables — all things that could be reheated or refashioned quickly into other lunches and dinners during the week. Somehow we’d make it to the next weekend with enough meals. Without an oven I wasn’t estimating correctly, or the family was on an eating binge. Whatever it was, I was cooking more, enjoying it less.

While I could — and did — cram chicken pieces into my tabletop oven, that’s all I could bake at one time. The “adventure” of going without an oven was quickly losing its appeal, but I knew it would be over at the end of March when the remodeling would begin. I could hang on a bit longer.

And then my company filed for bankruptcy.

A braver soul would have forged ahead with the renovation. Not me. I looked at that chunk of change saved up for the remodeling and knew that if I found myself out of work that was money I’d need. No matter how much I wanted — needed — a stove and all the rest, I would have to wait.

So my short stint without an oven stretched out way longer than expected, 21 months to be exact. What started as a fun challenge became sheer drudgery with each passing day. In those last few weeks I probably made a record number of omelets and salads. I couldn’t bear one more stir-fried supper or slow-cooker meal, things that at one time had been treats. I started dreaming about roasted carrots and meatloaf, and I don’t even like meatloaf all that much.

For me, cooking had been relaxing, but without an oven it was nothing but work.

I was so happy when I finally had an oven again, I put it to use immediately, even though it was the height of summer and my kitchen had no air-conditioning. “Quit telling the oven you love it, Mom,” my son said to me more than once.

If you’re one of those people who ignores your oven and finds cooking a chore, well, I know why. Without an oven, it just takes so much more time and effort.

These simple recipes will prove my point. You put them together in no time, and just sit back or do other things while they cook.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself proclaiming sweet-nothings to your oven later.



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