Microwave archaeology,
reading the evidence

Wanna get a quick insight into someone’s food life? Their kitchen style and culinary character?

It’s easy: Look inside their microwave oven.

Believe me, it’s like reading a book. A large-print book, containing a very simple story.

The microwave oven: there’s one in practically every American kitchen. Some of the ovens look like part of the control panel in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle, while others appear as if they were jury-rigged by a crew of Korean fishermen on their day off.

You can find and purchase sparkly and spectacular microwave ovens at high-end department stores and kitchen appliance centers. You can procure one (it might need a bit of duct tape to hold it together) at the thrift store. The ovens come in all sizes, and many of them even have a seal around the door to prevent you from being zapped and growing a second nose.

There are foodies out there who loudly and proudly proclaim an intense aversion to the microwave oven; according to them, they never use the thing, would never think of using it, detest it, find the device a badge of culinary — no, cultural — inferiority. To them, the microwave oven is allegedly an emblem of bad, or no taste. To them, it is the tool of the common cook, capable of only common performance, leading only to common results.

Most of these folks are liars.

And those who are not lying, are simps. At least in the kitchen.

Why? Because — as for the liars — they usually have a microwave in their kitchen and an exam of the wave box will produce evidence of use. If they are kitchen simps, it is because the microwave oven has its uses, however limited, and they fail to take advantage.

Come on, admit it: You use the microwave, don’t you? Some of you use the device quite a bit. Some of you, in fact and sadly, overuse it to the detriment of the development of greater kitchen skills. But, nearly all of us use it at one time or another, for one purpose or another.

The temptation is always there; the microwave oven is convenient. It signals ease; it facilitates nearly instant gratification of a low-grade sort.

Yep, that zany non-ionizing microwave radiation bounces around inside the oven cabinet, exciting water molecules (and a few other molecules the names of which I cannot pronounce) everywhere they find them, and whip them into a frantic, heat-producing dance. As the molecules careen around, bombarded by the radiation, things get hot. Granted, sometimes parts of items put into the oven get hotter than others and when those darned molecules are exhausted, things can get a bit tough and dry, due to the fact the radiation strikes the surface of the item being cooked more profoundly than it does the center. (This is as close to a scientific explanation of the process as I can get.)

But, it works. It is convenient, And it is fast.

And, truth be told, the microwave is a valuable, if limited tool, for the conscientious and capable cook. A molecule-thrashing crutch to some, it is a handy implement for others, given certain tasks. The technology has improved markedly over the small devices located in college snack bars in the ’60s in which students eagerly exploded whole eggs. It has advanced far beyond the point when, if anyone was within two feet of the oven door, you smelled burning hair and there was talk of strange “rashes.”

The kitchen tasks to which the technology can now be effectively applied run the gamut from making popcorn to heating pre-prepared, storebought concoctions referred to by the delightfully ironic name of “microwave dinners.”

Somewhere toward the “quick and simple” side of spectrum lurk the uses that suit the needs of a competent cook. Quick, because anything that, generally, needs to be waved for a considerable length of time, is probably not worth eating — for a variety of reasons, aesthetic not the least.

There are times those short bursts of wave work are heaven sent.

Something in hand that needs prompt thawing?

The MW does the trick.

Need to soften some butter? Want to make a garlic, herb butter spread? A simple oil and, or butter-based sauce for meats or pasta?

Wave it.

Want to quickly steam some corn tortillas? Wrap a stack of the tortillas in a moist kitchen towel, put the pack on a microwave-safe plate and zap the tortillas for a minute or two.

A decent, quick way to soften potatoes (as candidates, sliced, for the frying pan or the grill) is to wave them. You can, if need be, “bake” a potato in the MW.

I know people who steam vegetables in the microwave oven. To do so is to observe a couple critical microwave tips: first, add a bit of liquid to the dish (remember those water molecules); second, cover the dish and don’t overcook.

Most microwaved items need to be covered. They often need to be stirred part way through the heating process, or rotated throughout the process, if the oven does not include a rotating platform (see oven produced by Korean fisherman, above).

The limitation?

It’s a big one.

Namely, you can’t create most of the regular stove’s or oven’s most desirable effects with the microwave oven — in particular, you cannot caramelize a surface. As we know, that’s where many of the great flavors begin. You cannot bake anything truly worth eating. If you like crisp, unless it is “crisp” steamed veggies, you are outta luck.

But, want a quick chile con queso? The wave is your thing. Want to whip up a nearly instant quesadilla? Hit the mess with the wave.

I use my wave quite a bit, primarily to melt and soften things and to quickly rewarm items taken from the fridge.

This use is the source of most of the evidence uncovered by a microwave oven archaeologist.

The other day I look in the refrigerator and spy a bowl full of green chile — left over from a dinner two nights before. This is a real find: As any chile verde freak knows, a day or two in the cooler amplifies the concoction’s goodness, as it does the goodness of most braised or stewed mixtures.

Perfecto, I think. I take the microwave safe container out, put it, with lid attached, into the wave and crank up the oven. I’m thinking I’ll make a stack of green chile enchiladas for lunch: a bit of the chile, a corn tortilla, some cheese, some chile, a tortilla, cheese, etc. With the chile warmed, I can then put the assembled stack back in the wave for another couple minutes and … olé … a neato lunch, cooked perfectly, with the chile already warm, to the point tortillas and cheese do not dissolve into a nasty mass.

I put the bowl of chile in the wave and crank that mother to high power, setting the timer to three minutes.

I wander off to watch bright, shiny objects out on the deck and am alerted to a potential problem by the sound of a muffled explosion.

As in the explosion that occurs when the top on the bowl in the microwave is blown off by steam.

As in chile coating the inside of the oven.

Thank goodness there is enough left in the bowl to make the enchiladas.

One of these days I need to clean out the oven.

Back to the initial point: When you are at a friend’s house, or you are an invited guest to, say, a dinner party, find a time when no one is watching, and creep to the kitchen. Open the door of the microwave oven.

Unless your host/hostess is obsessive-compulsive, there is evidence within. You can read it like you read the rings of a petrified tree, or the stony sediments that once formed the bed of an ancient sea.

If your host/hostess is obsessive-compulsive and cleans the microwave compartment after each use, seriously consider the value of the relationship.

If you are at a party at a stranger’s home, a peek will tell you whether or not to pursue a relationship beyond that point.

We all catch the wave now and then, and how we do it reveals a lot about how, and what we cook and eat.

Read the wave. It’s like a book.

With radiation.