Jump to content

Meals on wheels?


Recommended Posts

Now THAT'S meals on wheels! How a chef cooked up a roast dinner under the bonnet of his car driving round the M25



By Tom Sykes

Last updated at 10:29 PM on 28th May 2010




As I turned off the M25 and eased my battered old Golf onto the M1 back into London, the unmistakable smell of roast beef wafted appetisingly through the vents of my car.

I looked at the clock with anxiety. It was 7.15pm. I had been on the road for about two-and-a-half hours - not quite long enough.

Thank goodness the engine was overheating and, if I was really lucky, I would hit some heavy traffic on the way home.


article-1282351-09CDAE62000005DC-822_468x576.jpg Moveable feast: Tom Sykes cuts his parcels of food free from the engine


Perhaps I should explain.


After all, it is not every day that the aroma of roasting cow fills your car and you find yourself praying for a traffic jam.


You see, under my car bonnet, wired firmly to the engine manifold, was my dinner - a chunk of prime rib of organic beef, which I was attempting to cook using just the heat of my car engine.


The concept of cooking your food using the excess heat generated by your car is not a new one.


It was first popularised by cash-strapped Americans during the Great Depression.

The motor car was the one asset that many families fought to hold on to, and, with the realisation that you could cook food on your engine block as you drove around the dust bowls looking for work, the art of manifold cuisine took off.

Although most families gave up engine cooking as soon as they could afford to, the practice remained popular with a number of devoted enthusiasts - mainly truckers and other road warriors.







Their meals are often cowboy cuisine - a tin of beans with a hole stabbed in the lid or half a dozen hot dogs reheated.

My challenge, with fuel and electricity prices rising to record highs, was to see whether I could cook a real roast dinner - meat, potatoes and veg - in the time it took to circumnavigate the M25.

I was reasonably confident of success, having previously roasted a large joint of pork in the bonnet of my car on the 450-mile drive from London to Perth.


Pork needs to be fully cooked through and therefore is only suitable for a very long car journey.


article-1282351-09CE1B9E000005DC-926_468x444.jpg Sear beforehand: Tom covered his beef in pepper and browned it on a grill pan (above) before tightly wrapping it in tin foil





Even after seven hours under the hood it still needed a 45 minute top-up in the oven, just to finish it off and crunch up the crackling.




I had concluded, as a result of that first trial, that cooking under the bonnet is equivalent to an oven heat of about 150 degrees centigrade, so you need to adjust cooking times - and mileage - accordingly.


Diesel drivers should add some extra cooking time (about ten per cent) to allow for the fact that a diesel engine, which works differently to a petrol engine and consequently gets less hot.


I estimated that a 120 mile lap of the M25, travelling at an economic and leisurely 60mph on a Friday evening, would take me about three-and-a-half hours.

This included 30 minutes each way getting onto the motorway from my base in West London and regular stops to check on the progress of the meat.

I decided, therefore, that the most appropriate dish would be roast beef, because roast beef has the great advantage that it is best served, in my opinion, reasonably rare.


The most important thing to remember when undertaking a highway cook-out is that, in order to keep your food free of unpleasant engine smells, oil or fumes, you must securely wrap everything in tin foil.


And don't just wrap it ... triple wrap it.


Also, because the food is cooking inside foil, any searing or browning needs to be done before you set off.


So the first thing I did to my 2.5lb piece of rib steak was to cover it in pepper and sear it on a grill pan on the cooker.


Give the meat at least a couple of minutes on each side.

It's also helpful if you can let your joint sit outside the fridge for up to five hours before you start cooking it.


If your meat is at room temperature, rather than fridge-cold, it won't take as long to roast.


To accompany my under-the-bonnet roast, I decided on steamed potatoes, fresh British asparagus and carrots.


article-1282351-09CE1BCA000005DC-387_468x286.jpg Temperature: It is impossible to judge when wrapped food is cooked without a meat thermometer


I prepared these just as you would if you were going to steam them, adding a sprinkling of salt and a nob of butter before triple wrapping them in foil.


Then, using tin snippers, I cut out two strips of metal mesh (you can buy sheets of this for a few pounds in any hardware store).


I wrapped the first sheet tightly around my foil packaged roast beef and secured it with wire.

I used the second strip to create a cylindrical wire tube, into which I placed the vegetables. Finally, I inserted a meat thermometer into my joint of beef.


One of the major problems with cooking this variety of tightly-wrapped fast food is that you cannot look at it to judge when it is done, so a meat thermometer is essential to get an idea of how your meal is coming along.

All that remained was to attach my food parcels to the car. I popped the bonnet, and, using wire and ingenuity, attached the beef basket so that it was resting on the very hottest part of the engine, the manifold (the big square thing at the front) and tucked the veg into a cooler spot behind the main engine.

It is essential the engine is switched off when you are doing this, as the fan belt or other moving parts could slice an unsuspecting car chef's fingers off.


You also need to be quite careful where you place the food. You particularly don't want to be touching the accelerator linkage or the gears.


This is why it is important - when starting off in car cookery - to do it with someone who knows a bit about cars.


With your food in place and the bonnet open, start up the motor, waggle the gears and rev the engine, while your friend looks to see whether your food parcels are interfering with the moving parts of the engine.

'Opening up the roast beef was one of the proudest gastronomic

moments of my life.'



I had to reposition the veg after discovering the carrots were obstructing third gear.

Oh, and there was a bit of spare space in a warm spot behind the starter motor, so at the last minute I threw in a corn on the cob for good measure.


Then, with my final safety checks done and my food wired very firmly in place, it was time to hit the road. I pulled out and headed through north-west London towards the M1.


It is advisable to stop and have a look at your handiwork about 15 to 20 minutes after departure, just to check that everything is staying in place.


So I pulled over at the London Gateway service station and popped the hood for a preliminary examination.


'NO LOITERING' said a big signpost nearby, but as it didn't say anything about cooking, I guessed I'd be alright.

As I poked around in the bowels of the engine, checking the heat levels with the back of my hand and making sure everything was staying in place, I got chatting to Marianna Rees and her daughter Fine, 33.


I wasn't convinced the mother and daughter duo, who run the Covent Garden fashion boutique Miss Lala's Boudoir, would be too excited about an en route roast.


They looked like the kind of winsome beauties who exist mainly on a diet of endive salad.


But, nonetheless, once they had stopped laughing enough to concentrate on the concept, they seemed open to the idea of the big end barbecue.


'I sometimes have to drive to Denmark and it would be handy to be able to cook something on the journey - food at the petrol stations is so bad,' said Marianna.

'It is a good idea, but I'd still be worried it might taste a bit fumey,' said Fine.


I patiently talked her through the triple-wrapping foil concept, but she didn't appear convinced that the underlying flavour of Castrol could be avoided.


Meanwhile, under the bonnet, everything was still in place so I switched on Radio 4 and settled back in my seat.


Dartford Tunnel came and went. I drove past Sevenoaks and turned into the services at Clacket Lane, near Oxted, for another quick progress check.


article-1282351-09CE1AAF000005DC-641_468x286.jpg Engine: Tom was careful to ensure the beef wasn't severed by a fan belt or other moving part


This time I was delighted to see that the needle on the meat thermometer had started to rise.

Rare roast beef needs to have an internal temperature of about 130 degrees Fahrenheit and I was already on about 90.


I turned back onto the motorway with renewed hope. Although it wasn't until I got to Heathrow - almost two hours after setting off from home and after crawling through a brief traffic jam - that I started to get the first proper whiffs of roast beef from up front.

It was a warm afternoon and lots of cars on the motorway had their windows down.


Several individuals sniffed the air inquisitively as I idled next to them. 'Smells like roast beef!' said one woman sitting in a passenger seat.


'It is,' I replied nonchalantly. 'I'm cooking it under my bonnet.'


At that very moment the traffic began to flow again and I just caught her astonished expression in my rear-view mirror as we all moved off.


By the time I got to my last checkpoint (the London Gateway services ... again) the beef was doing very nicely.


The meat thermometer showed that the internal temperature was up to about 110 degrees.


Although this was quite a bit lower than the 130 mark I was aiming for, I still had just under half an hour to go and, I noticed happily, the car was starting to overheat.




When I finally got home, just before 8pm, and flipped up the bonnet, the heat coming out from the car was incredible. The meat thermometer read 120 degrees.

The beef was going to be rarer than some might like it, but no pinker than it would be in a good French restaurant.


Would the foil layers prevent an underlying flavour of Castrol?




And as this was a prime, organic rib roast, I was happier that it was a shade under-cooked than overdone, which would have destroyed dinner completely.


Still, I felt nervous as I carefully snipped the mesh baskets out of the car and carried them inside.


Opening up the roast beef was, however, one of the proudest gastronomic moments of my life.


Thanks to the searing I had done before I set out, it couldn't have looked more beautiful if it had come out of a £5,000 Aga.


But given that it had been cooked in a vehicle that cost £500 on Loot, it was nothing short of a miracle.


I carved into it nervously ... it was pink and, with a dollop of horse- radish on the side, perfect.


The vegetables, which had been in a much cooler spot than the meat, were perfectly done as well.


The asparagus was tender and succulent, the carrots were sweet and crunchy, and even the last minute sweetcorn was cooked to perfection.


All in all, my foray into haute hatchback cuisine was a triumph.

Maybe next time I'll attach a few bananas to the exhaust pipe, and have pudding as well.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Why do I get a sense of Deja Vu with this story?


Oh yeah, because Top Gear did it back in 2002 and fed the food to Gordon Ramsay

[ame=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTBJ4hQszPs]YouTube- Jeremy Clarkson cooks turkey on an engine with celeb guest Gordon Ramsey! Rev alicious! Top Gear S01E09[/ame]

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...