Archive for April, 2008

Today’s Menu? Egg Jello

Ahhhh. I’m finally back on my laptop, after three weeks of it acting like a teenager going through puberty. First, the wireless card broke after a week of intermittently kicking me off. So, I freecycled for another (if you don’t Freecycle, read my previous post) and received two. I tell you this entire story basically to show how even in difficult situations Freecycle can brighten your day and your esteem of others. Lovely. But no, that wasn’t good enough for the computer, which promptly sent a spark to the power cord and disabled that about ten seconds after I obtained the driver for the card. Another week and countless trips to the library since, I’m happy to be back at the helm.

Another reason I tell you all this is that over the three week period, I had a lot of time to think about the importance of technology in my life. If there’s an electrical equivalent to a nasty Coffee Bean habit, I have acquired it. Sure, if all the major cities were wiped out tomorrow, and there was no grid, I’d manage. And you won’t see me typing away on some gadget while on vacation either. But most of the time, I missed being on the box, enough so to use my friends’ computers at any opportunity (mostly to post on this blog!), and to actually use my little PDA to surf the web or (horrors!) as a notepad instead of as an expensive solitaire game. What can’t you live without? Do you have a backup plan? Do you really need it?

You see, I kept very busy without my computer, managing to finish several of the books that have been collecting dust lately, cook several great meals, not to mention making the new cooker (and scrounging for its materials!), and taking a little more time to smell the roses growing in my neighborhood. So sweet. Not that you’re probably too interested in what I did, but it goes to show that the greatest thing you might dislike is the IDEA of change should your own situation receive what Hank Williams Jr. so aptly called an “attitude adjustment”.

Now, I promised you egg jello, and egg jello you will get. Yesterday, being 100 degrees with not a cloud in the sky, was a beautiful day for cooking. I decided to break out the ingredient that foiled my cooking skills on the windshield shade oven… eggs. The books I’ve been reading make them sound so easy, but if you remember my post, they came came out lumpy, liquid, and VERY messy. Will it be a repeat, or a redemption?

Not wanting to spend too much time on the ingredients, in case things went wrong, I simply broke up six eggs, beat them in the round baking pan, dumped in a small can of sweet corn, added a little milk, and shook a little Chef’s Essence on the top. Out in the sun at 10:45, and I settled in to watch Babe. Midway through the film, I went out to check on things. The top and bottom lids had glued themselves together with the eggs, and when I pried them open, everything was still liquid. I’m seeing visions of last time in my head, so I doubtfully put everything back in, and went to finish the film.

At film’s end, heartily cheered by the cute story, I went out again. And… it was solid! No way! I took it inside for a taste test. It was nice and light, and had the consistency of… jello. Wierd. At least, that was my initial reaction, but after a bite or two, I got used to the texture and liked it quite a bit. I think it would be better to think of this as custard than as a breakfast food. My mistake. Next time, I’ll skip the spices and make a sweet pudding instead, which is pretty much how it came out anyway. Highly recommended, and here are the pics. I’m finally back on my feet with this cooking thing, and the future possibilities are dancing around on the old noggin. Until tomorrow~

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Forget the $10 Solar Cooker!

How about $3.50 instead? As often as I tweaked my previously profiled windshield solar cooker, there remained a real wind problem (as it was constantly falling over in the unpredictable gusts that are SoCal’s weather), and it never seemed to get QUITE hot enough for me to trust cooking something like meat or eggs within. So rather than tinker into oblivion, when I fortuitously found a nice sized box on the side of the road, I decided to make myself a little box cooker. After locating another box to house the inner cooker, and reading the many variations on recommended construction in a few books, I promptly threw out the plans and just went at it myself.

First up, finding tin foil. I had a roll at home, but it would have costs me $1 otherwise, so that’s the running total so far. I also had a few rolls of aluminum foil tape from when they had some at the 99 cents only store, of which I used one roll (10 yards) in construction, bringing the total to $2. The cement factory down the street threw out a buch of AirPaks (the plastic air filled bubbles you use as packing material for large items), which became the insulation for my oven. Price? A trip to their dumpster. Holding it all together was a roll of duct tape, also bought for a dollar, and a nice oven “window” made of cardboard and a Reynold’s Oven Bag ($0.50). Grand total – $3.50 and about an hour’s work. Not exactly a bank-breaker.

First, I lined the smaller box with foil on the inside, taping edges down with the aluminum foil tape. When I was happy with that, I closed up the other box completely with duct tape, making sure to cover ALL cracks well with the tape to minimize heat loss. I placed the smaller box on top of the large and traced around it to create a cut line for inserting the one box in the other. There were about 3 inches on each long end of the box around the smaller one and about an inch on the two shorter sides. So I dropped in two pieces of folded up cardboard on the bottom and secured them (to support the weight of the inner box and pots, etc), and then surrounded them with the AirPaks. After dropping the inner box down into the larger one, I secured the flaps to the large box with duct or aluminum tape, depending on where, and then stood back to see what I’d created.

Not bad. It looked relatively like the ones I’d seen in the books, even though I’d been reading warnings about how these cardboard versions would “never hold up like one of wood”, it looked pretty sturdy. Now on to the lid. Given that my top surface wasn’t exactly level the whole way across (it dipped in the corners where I taped things into place), I was wondering how to trap in the heat while still providing easy access. In a moment of inspiration (or was it desperation? I can’t remember now!) I thought to build a square frame of cardboard, and then place it inside a plastic oven bag, creating my own version of double glazing which was VERY easy to construct. Then I taped this down to the cooker along one edge and found two fist sized rocks to hold down the open corners, creating, with the excess plastic I’d left a little loose around the edges from the bag, a pretty decent seal.

Next up? You guessed it, time to test her out! I went to store and got some hot dogs. Now, I never liked hot dogs much even as a kid, but hey, this is an experiment, right? (and they’re already cooked, so I don’t have to worry much about food poisoning) So I cut four of them in half, and then added a few slits along the body of each so that I could tell if it actually cooked (did you ever make “hot dog men” in your microwave before? Same idea.) and placed them in the two back pans I’ve used previously. Put in the sun at about 2:30, the hot dogs were visibly cooked by 3:05 on a pretty hot sunny day. And the plate was HOT, requiring a leather work glove to remove from the oven, which was also quite warm (didn’t use a thermometer this time). They smelled great, sort of like a sweet sausage rather than your standard picnic fare, and there was a bunch of liquid in the bottom of the pan that had cooked out. As far as I could tell, it was mostly fat, but perhaps water as well.

In the name of science, I ate a bit, and found that the sweet smell translated to taste, making them pretty good. The biggest test was when I left the room a moment and came back to find my two best taste testers (my cats) happily smacking their lips around an almost empty plate. Two cats made it through three hot dogs in a minute? It must be good! Happy, I put the cooker away and called it a day.

Today, I pulled out the oven for another test. Having fulfilled my meat-eaters’ test, I returned to something I’d actually cook for myself. I bought two zucchini and cut them up in 1/4 rounds about 1/2 inch thick. It filled the bottom of the pan completely, about two layers deep. Next, I added about three tablespoons of cheddar cheese and roasted red pepper spreadable cheese and mixed well. On the top, I added a dash of “Chef’s Essence” spice, which seems to be a mix of garlic, salt and a little chili powder. The mix went out in the sun at 12:20 on another hot sunny day as I sat down to watch Fast Food Nation (see my previous post).

At first check, they were good, but still a little firm. So I gave the mixture another twenty minutes (40 total) and brought the oven inside. Again, the plate was too hot to handle (but the oven wasn’t, which I’d worried about). This little cooker doesn’t mess around! Properly gloved, I removed the meal and opened up the pot. Wow! Perfectly cooked to a nice steamed tender with the cheese melted into everything, giving it a little kick and a lot of creaminess. It was seriously good, and very filling. My hurried picture doesn’t do it much justice. RESULT? Total success. I like this cooker already, and though I won’t scrap the windshield shade cooker, I trust this one more with foods that require a hot temperature to cook through. They are about the same size, and as you’ve read, neither costs much to make. So, since the long days of summer are approaching, what are you waiting for? You can be a gourmet slow foods cook by tomorrow!

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MOVIE REVIEW: Fast Food Nation

If you’ve never read the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, get to the bookstore right now.  You’ll never feel the same about fast food again.  Or most other food, for that matter.  But I’m not here to review the book (which is wonderful), I’m here about the movie.  I was interested to see this film, because the book is written in an expose journalistic style, and the movie sells itself as a fictional account.  How do the two work together?

 Fast Food Nation

So, I put some food in my new solar cooker (more about this in my next post!) and settled in to watch.  While there are gruesome scenes that leave you depressed, the movie is not nearly so hard-hitting as the book.  It starts with a coyote leading several migrants over the border to seek a new life in America.  Predictably, one doesn’t make it (or so you assume… this is something you will have to do a lot in this film if you want any questions “answered” in your head), illustrating the risks that these hopeful workers face even before reaching their grueling factory life.  Across the country, a new VP of Marketing for the fictional Mickeys fast food chain gets an assignment to chase down rumors that there are high levels of eColi in the beef.  Basically, there’s shit in the meat, and management wants to know either why, or how that info got out there in the first place.  So he travels to small-town Cody to investigate, meeting Amber, a Mickey’s employee, when he gets into town.  She’s in high school at that coming-out-of-her-shell age, working lots of hours at the restaurant to help her mother make ends meet.  The rest of the story follows, at various points, Amber, the VP (Greg Kinnear, but I can’t remember his fictional name), and the migrant workers who are dropped off at the meat packing plant that supplies all the meat for Mickey’s burgers. 

While the information presented was factually interesting, and visually disturbing at times, I had trouble feeling like a coherent story emerged from the separate narratives.  The workers, portrayed primarily by Fez from the 70s show, his wife, and her sister, go to the factory, are disgusted by the job, but amazed by the pay, and each follow a separate path toward destruction.  The guy gets hurt and subsequently fired, the wife can’t take it and quits to go to a low-pay hotel maid job but eventually has to come back and beg for a job when her husband is fired, and the sister gets involved with the supervisor at the plant and gets hooked on speed.  All the while, Amber is learning about what it means to be a corporate cog, like her mother (Patricia Arquette) while her coworkers plan a robbery that never goes down, and her uncle (Ethan Hawke) tries valiantly to get her to follow her dreams.  She meets college students who are activists, and they plan a way to try and get back at the meat packing plants for their brutal practices.  Greg Kinnear, however, is also having an eye-opening week, talking with ranchers, factory workers, and Mickey’s employees about the rumored horrors at the plant.   Suddenly, his burgers aren’t tasting so sweet anymore.  In the end, we see a new crop of future workers making that dusty trek across the desert to replace the ones we’ve seen get used up by the system, completing the ugly circle.

It was enjoyable to watch (especially Amber’s performance), save the prolific amounts of raw meat and dead and dying animals.  Totally gross to see them get killed and chopped up, to see people mushing up pieces of bad meat to become your ground beef patties.  Like the worker’s wife, upon seeing the kill room, I cried a few tears.  And knowing that whatever was shown was likely sanitized a bit for the screen made it all the more uncomfortable.  But I never felt the same angry call to action that I felt upon reading the book.  I almost felt I’d rather have watched a documentary than a fictional account that tried to cover so much territory, albeit pretty well.  That being said, even my cooked zucchini lunch looked kind of unappetizing after all that carnage!

If you haven’t read the book, then this movie will be interesting to watch without preconceived ideas.  Watch it first, then head for the bookstore to back up the story with facts you can pull out at a cocktail party or activist meeting.  If you’ve read the book already… well, read it again!  =)  You can never know too much about the harm the fast food industry in particular but all franchise commerical low-wage industries in general do to our society

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Kitchen Fun – Make Dandilion Wine

A little natural recipe for you… it’s not solar (unless you have ALL DAY to let the stuff get to a boil, and if you DO adapt this for solar, please share your experience!) but it’s a defacto local specialty, and looks pretty easy to make. Rather than redirect you, I’ll reprint the recipe here. Hey, you KNOW you know where some dandilions are… what are you waiting for?

How to Make Dandelion Wine

from wikiHow – The How to Manual That You Can Edit

Dandelions are in season during the summer and spring months, but they lend themselves deliciously to a beverage you can serve year-round. April and May are the best months to harvest dandelions for this purpose in the Northern hemisphere.[1] Try it out and taste it for yourself.

Ingredients

  • 1 package (7 g) dried yeast
  • 1/4 cup (60 mL) warm water
  • 2 quarts (230 g) whole dandelion flowers
    • Using 2 quarts+ of just the petals can make for a less bitter wine.[2]
  • 4 quarts water (3.785 L)
  • 1 cup (240 mL) orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons (45 g) fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons (45 g) fresh lime juice
  • 8 whole cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon (1.25 g) powdered ginger
  • 3 tablespoons (18 g) coarsely chopped orange zest; avoid any white pith
  • 1 tablespoon (6 g) coarsely chopped lemon zest; avoid any white pith
  • 6 cups (1200 g) sugar

Steps

  1. Wash and clean the blossoms well. Think of it as a fruit or vegetable; you don’t want bugs or dirt in your food. Remove all green material.
  2. Soak flowers for two days.
  3. Place the blossoms in the four quarts of water, along with the lime, orange, and lemon juices.
  4. Stir in the ginger, cloves, orange peels, lemon peels, and sugar. Bring the mix to a boil for an hour.
  5. Strain through filter papers (coffee filters are recommended). Let the wine cool down for a while.
  6. Stir the yeast in while the wine is still warm, but below 110 degrees F.
  7. Leave it alone and let it stand overnight.
  8. Pour it into bottles, poke a few holes in a balloon and place over the tops of the bottles to create an airlock, and store them in a dark place for at least three weeks so that it can ferment.
  9. Optional: Rack the wine several times. Racking means waiting until the wine clears, then pouring the liquid into another container, leaving the lees (sediment) at the bottom of the first container.[3]
  10. After that time, cork and store the bottles in a cool place. Allow the wine time to age. Most recipes recommend waiting at least six months, preferably a year.[4]

Tips

  • Pasteurization uses sixty-five degrees Celsius for half an hour to avoid changing character.
  • Pick the flowers right before starting so they’re fresh. Midday is when they are fully open.[5] Alternatively, you can freeze the flowers immediately after harvesting, then pull off the petals right before preparing the wine.[6]
  • It may take more than three weeks for your wine to ferment if your home is cold. Try putting the bottles on top of your water heater or behind your refrigerator for faster fermentation. Be aware though, fermentation at higher temperatures probably won’t change the taste of the wine, but can lead to higher levels of fusile alcohols, which can cause hangovers.
  • This recipe will produce a light wine that mixes well with tossed salad or baked fish. To add body or strength, add a sweetener,raisins, dates, figs, apricots, or rhubarb.[7]

Warnings

  • Avoid using dandelions that may have been chemically treated. Also, try to stay away from dandelions that have been graced by the presence of dogs, or that grow within 50 feet of a road.

Things You’ll Need

  • Coffee filters or straining paper
  • Empty, clean wine bottles
  • Large beverage container to strain liquid into
  • A large pot you can boil the dandelion mixture in
  • A place to store the fermenting wine

Sources and Citations

  1. http://winemakermag.com/feature/196.html
  2. http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/dandelio.asp
  3. http://www.thecompostbin.com/2006/05/how-to-make-dandelion-wine.html
  4. http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/dandelio.asp
  5. http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/dandelio.asp
  6. http://www.thecompostbin.com/2006/05/how-to-make-dandelion-wine.html
  7. http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/dandelio.asp

Article provided by wikiHow, a collaborative writing project to build the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Make Dandelion Wine. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license.

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All About Biodiesel

22 Myths About Biodiesel Dispelled

BioDiesel

From the great resource Gas 2.0 comes a roundup of everything you think you’ve heard about biodiesel but were afraid to ask.  It’s the second version of the text, following up on a hugely popular series of a year ago, and has a LOT of facts to get you rolling in the biodiesel caravan.  Topics covered include, but are not limited to: the differences between biodiesel and ethanol, how biodiesel can replace regular gas, whether using biodiesel will hurt your car, whether you will void your warranty, what biodiesel is composed of… best get to the link above now to check it out!

As a parting shot, here’s a visual diagram of the biodiesel production process:

 Making Biodiesel

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Too Much Wind! (Where do I sign up?)

Too Much Wind?

Wind Turbine

It seems that utilities in Denmark have stumbled upon a problem.  On windy days, the wind turbines they use to generate 20% of the country’s power needs are intermittently producing TOO much energy, reducing power costs to $0.   Yup, that’s zero.  So power company Dong Energy (from Denmark) and Project Better Place (located in California) are teaming up with Renault and Nissan to build a fleet of electric cars with lithium ion batteries that can be recharged during periods when the power grid is carrying too much energy.  Then, this national fleet will get infrastructure, as Denmark plans to roll out a nationwide charging station initiative.  Nice!  To top things off, in looking for ways to “spend” the extra power, Denmark has also gotten cozier with some of its neighbors, selling inexpensive power to those such as Norway whose own energy needs are greater at certain times.  Now that’s international relations as it should be. 

What I want to know is: if Nissan and Renault are already going to build this fleet of purely-electric cars for Denmark and a similar program in Israel, why don’t they release them state-side as well?  Since the death of the EV1 in America, the only electric car we’ve had is the new plug-in option on the Toyota Prius.  Here’s to hoping they make a few with steering wheels on the left side. 

MDI Air-Car

Speaking of steering wheels, have you heard about the new car from MDI that runs on air?  AIR.  It has a 80s VW meets PT Cruiser kind of body, but inside seems pretty nice, and features… a steering wheel in the center of the car, so it can be driven anywhere in the world.  Why did it take someone so long to think of this?  Really.  Right now the car is only being tested in India, but with a promise of $3 fillups (that’s for the TANK, not a gallon) and 180 miles between each one, a lightweight fiberglass frame, and considering you get the car and a home air compressor for less than $20,000, I’m pretty certain it won’t be long before people want one worldwide.

 

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Quickie: Renewable Energy Installation Database

For all you Earth Day surfers out there, here’s a good site to check out, courtesy of the Stella Group in Washington DC:

Geographic Database of Renewable Energy Installations

It’s a nicely compiled state by state listing of proposed and operational energy installations.  If you’re looking for a little “been there” inspiration or want to know what sorts of alternative energy are well-suited for your area, start here!

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