My crash course began with an out-of-print copy of Manifold Destiny (Villard 1989), the serious yet humorous book that spawned the legend. It answered all my questions: yes, the engine of a car is a safe and (relatively) clean place to cook; yes, the food will smell and taste as good as if it were cooked in an oven as long as the aluminum foil package is tightly sealed (although it braises rather than browns); yes, all engines will do the trick, but older models make better ovens. Yes, it dawned on me, cooking on a car engine relies on the same two essential ingredients as poaching in a dishwasher: one part heat source, one part culinary theatrics.
All I needed before taking the show on the road was a destination. In keeping with my new credo — that with a little creativity wine can be worked into every aspect of daily life — I mapped out a 140 mile drive to Santa Barbara Wine County. I concocted a few recipes, packed a cooler, enlisted a kindred spirit to navigate and headed for Buellton, the home of a frisky Sanford 1995 pinot I recently discovered.
After preheating the engine for 20 miles, I pulled over and threw dinner under the hood. Sixty miles of salivating later, I stopped to check the oven. My shrimp were still limp. Damn Honda for making such an efficient engine! Sensing that I wasn’t using the hottest section, I wrapped my packets around the dip stick and jury rigged them against the exhaust manifold cover. The flesh of my fingertip sizzled as it accidentally touched the metal. I’d found the sweet spot. Twenty miles down the road the intoxicating aroma of lemongrass wafted into the passenger compartment. Arriving at the winery, I unlatched the hood and unpacked my “picnic” in front of several disbelieving tourists. The melt-in-your-mouth-moist fish and fragrant shrimp were a testimonial to the fact that anyone who can operate a motor vehicle can improve their standard of eating while cruisin’ down the highway of life. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
The Instruction Manual
1) In preparation for your first car meal, you must first locate the engine’s hottest areas. Do this after any long drive by turning off the engine and letting the car sit for 15 minutes. Then lift up the hood and quickly tap the various components. On most vehicles, the hottest area is the exhaust manifold cover, but most engines have additional nooks and crannies that will generate enough heat to slow cook your freeway fare. Stay clear of areas near any moving parts, such as the accelerator linkage, belts or fans, and don’t block any air intakes.
2) Before attempting any complex recipes, get to know your engine. Hot dogs (or tofu dogs) are the guinea pigs of engine cooking — just don’t forget the Grey Poupon. If you want to make a roast or a turkey, I wont try to stop you. But the sensible way (relatively speaking) to take advantage of the oven under your hood is to cook small portions of lightly textured foods. For this reason, fish is the perfect road chow. When you’re ready to cook:
— Grease the top sheet with a small amount of butter or olive oil to avoid stickage.
— Wrap ingredients in foil and seal securely by folding seams to create an airtight package. (See illustration.)
— Before placing food on the engine, loosely roll up a six-inch ball of foil, and set it on the sweet spot of your engine. Then close the hood. Immediately re-open it and use the squashed ball to determine the amount of clearance space between the engine block and the hood. Place food on the pre-determined sweet spot, and secure it by placing a ball of foil on top that is equal to the clearance space less the pouch size. If necessary, hold the pouch in place with additional aluminum foil bracing.
— Make, model, speed, outside temperature, food density and placement will all affect cooking time. Most small packets of food should cook in 1 – 2 hours. To insure that you have fingers left to lick at the end of the meal, always turn off the engine before loading, unloading or testing for doneness.
The Tool Kit