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The skill I learned during Texas' massive power outage
Turns out, caffeine withdrawal is the mother of invention.
A week ago today we woke up to a very chilly house, making it clear that ours was one of the millions of Texan homes impacted by Winter Storm Uri and its frigid temperatures. I pulled on a couple layers of pants to join my little family unit in the home’s natural meeting place, the kitchen, where we made a plan: we had a cooler we could pack with snow and use to store many of our perishables. There was a chicken carcass from last week’s roast that we could turn into stock on the gas stove. The car could (very slowly) charge our phones for emergency use. And the oven went on periodically to—illicitly, I know—warm a few rooms in the house and some bricks from the yard that we used to heat our beds at night.
All in all, our access to gas cooking methods made the experience so much more bearable than it was for most (many are still grappling with the fallout—here’s a great list of organizations that are helping if you’d like to lend a monetary hand). We ate a number of warm, comforting meals: a minestrone to use up the delicate veggies for dinner on Monday, various rice-based porridges for lunches, and grits as the pallet for whatever leftovers survived in the warming refrigerator. Given the soup-y, stew-y nature of the comfortable type of cooking we’d resorted to, I started referring to our meals, as affectionately and with as much gratitude as possible, as slop.
Though the reality of the power outage never fully set in (I found myself still reaching for impotent light switches two full days into the ordeal) one thing became immediately clear: coffee would be a problem. We always opt for whole beans, grinding them fresh in a little electric grinder each morning because it yields a more flavorful cup of coffee than pre-ground beans. And also because I am, admittedly, a bit of a coffee snob. During our planning session on Monday morning, I offered to set some water on to boil for coffee—we’d obviously need caffeine to shepherd us through what I expected to be a challenging day. Wait, do we have ground coffee, Quentin inquired, clearly confused by my insistence that we get to brewing. No, I responded, crestfallen and a little embarrassed by my rookie power outage mistake. I resigned myself very briefly to tea, because within a few hours the headache and lack of focus typical of caffeine withdrawal set in. So I decided to get crafty, leading me to the discovery that…
To grind coffee beans sans electricity, you can use a rolling pin.
We tried a number of methods and found the rolling pin the fastest and most effective. (Using a garlic press was quite slow; smashing them with a heavy object like a hammer didn’t get the beans as finely ground.)
You’ll need whole coffee beans, a ziplock bag, and a rolling pin. A full bottle of wine or other heavy, similarly shaped object would likely work here as well.
Add a single serving of coffee to the bag, zip it up, pressing it to remove as much air as possible before it’s fully closed. I don’t recommend this method for large-batch grinding. Quentin tried and spent more than double the amount of time he would have doing multiple rounds of grinding on single batches.
Place the bag on a hard, even surface, spreading the beans into a single layer, then begin rolling them, pressing down lightly at first, then with more force once they start cracking and breaking under the pin.
Roll until you’ve achieved your desired coarseness, though I don’t think this method will ever yield anything extremely fine. It took me about 5 minutes to get a medium grind that resembled coarsely ground sea salt, perfectly suitable for brewing a more than decent cup of joe.
Because you’ll have coarser grounds, choose a brewing method that will allow for a longer brew time. If you have a French press or Aeropress (my preferred brewing system), this is the best option. If not, create a makeshift one by steeping the grinds in a glass jar for 4-5 minutes, then pouring the brewed coffee into your mug through a strainer lined with a paper towel or coffee filter.
While this may seem like a bit of a niche tip, I share it with you because the goal of this newsletter is to make you feel at home and empowered in your kitchen. I hope my little moment of rolling pin-related resourcefulness reminds you that we all experience barriers in our kitchens, but with the right attitude (and enough caffeine withdrawal…) you almost certainly have the tools in your arsenal to solve almost anything. I hope you consider me and this letter one of those tools.
Warmly (literally, the power’s back), and with a tip of my chef’s hat,