As I write this, Taos County, along with other swaths of New Mexico, is experiencing an official “state of emergency,” declared a few days ago by our new governor, Susana Martinez.  A natural gas pipeline was cut (no one knows quite how or why yet), causing schools, offices, galleries, shops, restaurants, theaters (and more) to be shut tight due to lack of heat (in this near-zero-degree weather).  No doubt some tourists have headed home to comfier conditions.  But Taos residents, such a sturdy and resilient lot, are going on with their lives as if nothing is amiss.


That’s one of the many reasons why I so love living in northern New Mexico:  It reminds me of the Peace Corps.  Almost everyone I meet here, many of whom are indeed RPCVs, has that can-do attitude I encountered among the young PCVs I knew while serving in Gabon in the mid-’90s.  In Lastoursville, the town where I lived and worked in Gabon, the electric lines often went down during the never-ending rainy season.  No lights?  Well, fine, I’ll use candles.  Romantic!  Just as often, there was no water from the taps for days and days.  Solution?  Grab a bucket and hike to the nearest mountain spring.  Athletic!  And when the bottled gas ran out in town and I couldn’t use the little gas-fueled stove in my kitchen for cooking, I rigged up an outdoor, wood-fueled arrangement, balancing a big pot on three large stones, just like my neighbors did.  Authentic!


Here in Taos, only about a mile up the road from where I live, the people on the Pueblo live as their ancestors have for a thousand years.  Taos Pueblo has been a World Heritage Site since 1992; it is the longest continuously inhabited village in America, with no modern amenities – no indoor plumbing, no natural gas, no electricity.   I imagine the people there thinking, “State of emergency?  What emergency?”


Similarly, those in the Hispanic community, whose Spanish forebears fell in love with this region four hundred years ago, have been farming and ranching here in the lower Rockies under all kinds of harsh conditions for generations.  Their response to this gas crisis?  A shrug and a smile:  “We’ve been through worse times.”



Even Anglo newcomers like me seem to be taking it all in stride.  No gas heat?  Dust off the old woodstove or make a crackling fire in the corner kiva fireplace.  (Or descend on a friend who has one or the other.)  Unable to use your gas stove for cooking?  Turn to your trusty, underutilized, underappreciated microwave oven.  (So far here we haven’t lost electrical power.)  Last night my friend Lorraine, a fellow former New Yorker, told me she’d even used her microwave to heat up some water so she could wash her hair.  “I felt like a Peace Corps volunteer!” she said proudly.


Since this is a food-related blog, I feel I must steer it now toward its culinary-centric destination:  the microwave oven.  There this boxy appliance sits on the kitchen counter, crying to be more creatively employed.  Yes, of course, it’ll boil a mug of water for tea in two minutes flat and pop a small bag of popcorn in a minute and ten seconds.  But it can do far more than that for you, whether you’re in a state of emergency or not.  Try making lasagna in it, using the “oven-ready” lasagna sheets available everywhere (following the recipe on the box).  Try cooking fish fillets in it (well covered), with nothing more than a generous pat of butter and a good squeeze of fresh lemon.  Fresh vegetables steam in only a few minutes and retain all their nutrients.  In fact, anything that requires a wet-heat method for cooking can be made in the microwave oven with ease.


In Lastoursville, Gabon, I knew one person who owned a microwave oven.  She was the only other white person in town, an American missionary named Bev Arnold.  Now that I think about it, there must have been times when, living in the rainforest under difficult conditions as Bev did for decades, she praised God for this modern appliance.  I believe that once you learn how to make the most of your microwave, you’ll be singing its praises too.


Food writer Barbara Kafka has written several now-classic cookbooks on microwave cooking.  Her Microwave Gourmet is a must-have bible for anyone who wishes to use their microwave oven to its fullest – and save cooking time and electrical energy in the process.  Here is one of Kafka’s recipes to whet your appetite for more microwave cooking, included in my Peace Corps memoir-with-recipes How to Cook a Crocodile:


Easy, Low-Fat Risotto

(adapted from Barbara Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook)


½ cup finely chopped onion

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup Arborio (Italian short-grain) rice

3 cups homemade chicken stock

       or canned chicken broth

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (optional)


In a 3-quart microwaveable casserole, combine the chopped onion and butter.  Cover loosely and cook on high 2 to 3 minutes, until the onions are tender.  Add rice and stir well.


Stir in broth.  Cook, uncovered, for 9 minutes.  Stir and cook for 9 to 11 minutes more, or until rice is al dente.  Remove from oven.  Add cheese and herbs, if desired. 


Cover with a kitchen towel and let stand for 5 minutes, or until rice absorbs excess liquid.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serves 4 as a first course, 6 as a side dish.