Posts tagged solar cooking

Cooking: Refining the Recipes

Here’s a few pics of my “new and improved” Banana Pie, now featuring Ginger and mixed berries. By eliminating the extra juice and adding fruits that I foraged and some shredded ginger, I was able to both increase the sliceability of the pie and add a crucial taste dimension. It kept very well covered at room temperature for a day. If I had a fridge, I’m sure it would have kept longer and tasted good chilled.

Yum. This was a drastic improvement over the past recipe, though both were tasty. This time, I added: 1/2 ginger root, shredded; 10 blackberries; 3 ripe bananas, mashed; 2 passion fruits (foraged); flax seeds (enough to coat top of pie); and graham cereal to top (a nice thick coat, added after cooking, to cover the browning of the bananas). Cook covered for 1 hour. Make sure you shred the ginger very fine, and mix well or spread evenly, unless you like your desserts “spicy”.

Crab and Artichoke Frittata. Next, I attacked the egg “jello” recipe, hoping to solve a little of the texture problem. This time, I used: three eggs, lightly beaten, but not totally homogenized; 1 small can crab meat; 1/2 can quartered artichoke hearts (not the marinated kind, the kind packed in water); two pinches crushed sea salt. Cook covered for 1 and 1/2 hours. The result? The eggs did have a slightly better texture, but I’m thinking that the texture is something iherent in the solar cooking process. The color issue did not improve (eggs turn brown in the solar cooker), but the result tasted good, especially when an additional pinch of sea salt was sprinkled on top before serving. No pictures here, as it wasn’t too photogenic, but it was a solid meal, and my cats went nuts for it, (and ended up eating a few human sized portions of it while I wasn’t looking!)

For a hearty side dish, I prepared carrot and black eyed pea succotash. Very simple, few ingredients, and tasted and smalled great. It was so easy I almost feel guilty calling it a recipe. I used: 1 can sliced carrots; 1 can black eyed peas; 1 t sea salt; 1 T sesame seeds. Mix all, and cook covered for 45 minutes, or until hot. Here’s the (predictable) result, which needed no extra seasoning to be palatable:

So there you have it: three “new” recipes for summer cooking fun. As I learn more about urban foraging (more about this in my next post) I am trying to incorporate locally found foods into my recipes. We’ll see how it goes.

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Solar Panel Installation (and Eating Your Neighbor’s Lawn)

Great news!  It’s been a while since I posted, but there are a slew of recipes that you’ll be seeing added over the next few days.  As few things in life turn out perfectly the first time, I have been refining the previous recipes and trying a few new ones, side dishes mostly.  Most have been successful, but more on that later.  Great news, you ask?  Yes!  I’ve just signed up to get certified as a solar panel installer.  This means that for the next eight months, I’ll be working toward completing the necessary coursework and study hours for the National certification exam, and hopefully getting some practical experience working with panels along the way.  You might be asking why this should interest you in any way… well, since I love to share, and since writing about things helps me to learn, I mean really LEARN things, I’ll be keeping a sort of study diary on this site.  So if you’re wondering where to start on that whole “watts vs. volts” issue, or if you need a little brush up on your high school physics or electronics (and who doesn’t?), keep checking back often to see if I’ve covered the topic here.  I’ll be using the SEI’s textbook on photovoltaic installation and repair, which is pretty much the best on out there as far as I can tell.  Class starts Wednesday, so more about that then!

In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot about urban foraging.  It’s a huge topic with relatively few available references.   But starting with Christopher Nyerges’ excellent Wild Foods and Useful Plants guides and also covering specific guides to my local SoCal area, I’ve been out every morning hunting for food.  And it’s everywhere!  Did you know that most of the plants in your garden, never mind those that professional landscapers use in public places, are edible in one way or another?  Geraniums, pansies, daylilies, lavender, nasturtium, chrysanthemums, marigolds, roses and more all make tasty snacks alone or blended into recipes.  You can even replace some of the gourmet items in your pantry with wild alternatives, adding an exotic flair to your cooking.  For example, nasturtium seeds make an excellent caper substitute when pickled, and you can make jellies straight from your yard instead of store-bought marmalades. 

If you’d like to find out more about the plants of your area, I’d highly recommend you check out a book that specializes in your area and start looking for wild foods every time you go out the front door.  I have to admit that though I’d never even noticed what was edible before, now I’m finding myself distracted trying to walk down any street, looking at the possibilities.  And the fruit you pick is SO much sweeter than the one you buy, even if just in principle.  The book I just finished Edible and Useful Plants of California (can’t remember off-hand who wrote it) also included many great anecdotes about the Native American food and medicinal uses of various plants.  When moving away from reliance on the grid, you’d do well to know a bit about the native flora of your community.  And I hardly need to spell out its importance after grid-crash, except to point out that it will be the few months following immediate aid and before people’s sowed crops mature that will be hardest for individuals to survive.  If you know about edible plants, then you can sit happily munching on your neighbors’ lawns while they sit inside their houses panicking.  You might even get an “I told you so” out between bites.  How’s that for sweet justice!  Until next time, happy foraging!

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Solar Cooking Roundup: Two New Recipes

As mentioned previously, I haven’t been getting out the oven as often lately, as it’s been unseasonably cool and cloudy here. But, as if magically anticipating that summer was right around the corner, a few days back the thermometer jumped about 30 degrees. Yikes, it is triple digit hot!

So, of course the first thing I did was pull out the box cooker. After a yum but “haven’t I tried this before?” few meals of roasted red sweet peppers with cheese, it was time to do a little culinary exploration. So this past weekend, I fired up the “grill” and made two new recipes.

First up:

Banana Nectarine “Pie”

3 bananas, roughly broken into slices
1 nectarine, chopped
2 T flax seeds (for nutrients and “crunch”)
1/8 cup Sunny Delight (next time I’ll skip this)
1/4 cup honey graham cereal

To make, mix all ingredients except graham cereal into pan. Cover and bake for 30 minutes, or until the bananas smell super sweet and mash easily. The flax seeds will swell to a larger size, too, so you know they will not be too hard. Bring out of the sun and mash the bananas with a fork, stirring to mix everything well. Allow to thicken for about ten minutes. During that time, crumble graham cereal into the bottom of ramekins/ cups and crumble more for the tops. Spoon mix into each cup and top with more crumbled graham cereal.

This recipe turned out well taste-wise. Next time I might skip the Sunny D (there was a lot of natural liquid in the mix after cooking) and add a little cinnamon before cooking, but it was also good as is. The only disconcerting part was that the bananas looked kind of brown in the pot, but covering the top with graham solved that aesthetic dilemma. Easily makes enough for two people.

Today, I tried a different take on my pepper lunch:

Chili and Celery with Mango

2 large green Anaheim Chili peppers
2 long stalks celery
1 sweet red pepper
Annie’s Naturals Organic Balsamic Vinaigrette Marinade
1 large mango

To make, cut and deseed the chilis and sweet pepper into pinky finger size strips, and chop the two stalks of celery. Pour a little marinade over the mixed veggies in the pan, and put in the sun for about an hour. At that point, I checked the progress, added a bit more marinade, gave everything a good shake to cover, and returned the pan to the oven for another 1/2 hour. Bring everything inside, add the mango (chopped) to the mix and stir together. Serve immediately.

Yum. Of all the dishes I’ve made so far, this was my favorite. At first, I was nervous about adding the mango to what smelled like a very hearty mix, but it worked perfectly, giving everything a cool taste even on this scorcher of a day. And it needed no seasoning either, though I’d imagine it would be good with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt sprinkled on top. This recipe will make it into the cookbook. Makes enough to feed one VERY well, or two for a light lunch or appetizer.

And here’s the finished result:


Now for a nap to work off all that gourmet eating! =)

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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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LESSON LEARNED: How not to Cook Eggs

Here’s the recipe:
1/4 cup milk
4 eggs
Sesame seeds
3 handfuls shredded cheddar
2 oz. sliced mushrooms
3 oz. canned sweet corn

All were mixed by hand.

Here’s what it SHOULD have looked like: Mushroom Omelet

At 1:05 the eggs went in. At 1:25, the temperature was 140° F in the bag outside the pot. I rotated the cooker at that time and went back inside, clipping back an edge that seemed to be blocking sunshine. At the 1 hour mark, temperature was 150°, but the entire rack had slipped off one end, spilling (more!) of the contents into the bag. It was kind of a steamy mess, and foggy with condensation – I’ll have to do something about the slippage problem of both the rack and pot. At 2:25, I checked again and the spilled “juice” in the bag was still quite liquid. Since I’m still not sure what the relationship is between the bag and pot (after all, the pots seemed VERY hot, even though temperature registered around 130° on the thermometer), I decided to take a peek. Not solid, but not too runny anymore either. Okay, that’s good, at least. Reading the cookbooks, egg dishes seem to range somewhere between 2-4 hours. Hoping for two!

Yuck! When I went out at 2:50, the pot had toppled again, thanks to deceptively strong wind. Clearly this is not going to work as is. I elected to dump the messy stuff out of the bag, even though it meant losing heat. There is still something solidifying in the bottom of the pan, even after all those mishaps. Without the liquid I’m not sure how that will turn out, but let’s just keep our fingers crossed for now. Thermometer was down to 110° before emptying, so I can’t have lost TOO much heat! Time to check again (3:25)….

Another total blow-over. Now there are actual scrambled eggs curds in the pot, I guess from all the action the oven is getting! This construction issue must get fixed, pronto. Rotated the cooker again, and blew some more air into the bag. It’s still pretty messy in there, but it smells good, like grilled mushrooms. Should I declare this a failure? Did I mention that I’m stubborn when it comes to success? Well, I should have. Another 20 minutes it is!

And… Well, it didn’t blow over this time. But the food and the temperature still look the same! Everything is at 110°. Not too hot, and I’m wondering if this dish will even be SAFE to eat, given the eggs. There is still runny juice in the pot, though not much. Where did my 175° go from the other day? At 4 pm, it probably won’t happen today.

Thumbs Down

I should go ahead and tell you what I’ve told every prospective boyfriend, roommate, and employer in life: I don’t do dishes. And yet here I am with my hands in a goopy pot of water, scrubbing half-cooked eggs off of every component of the oven. Guess I’ve been praying to the wrong cooking gods. No, this clean-up was not easy, breezy, or beautiful like the grilled cheese. Oh yeah, the experiment was officially declared a “learning experience” at 4:05, three hours after the start. Instead of omelet, I got… yummy smelling goop. It did at least LOOK like eggs. In the interest of you enjoying your dinner tonight I’ll spare you pictures. Surely not edible, except by my cat, who didn’t seem to mind. As romantic as getting salmonella poisoning for “the solar cause” sounds… wait, that doesn’t even SOUND romantic. Hmmm. Back to the drawing board.

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Parabolic Home Solar Cooker

Here’s a nice-looking example of a home solar cooker… one that could potentially even REPLACE your regular cooking station. The Vesta is a large-scale parabolic cooker made up of individual mirrors that focus on the pot. It’s a little high-maintenance sounding, to have to adjust the mirrors every ten minutes or so as the site recommends, but seeing the light focused on the bottom of the pot lets you know that you’re getting the sun’s maximum power at any moment. At a price of $175 in DIY construction, this solar cooker might be a good second oven, once you’ve successfully gotten a few meals under your belt.
Vesta Parabolic Solar Cooker
clipped from www.solarfireproject.com

The Vesta solar concentrating array is designed to be small enough to be used at home, but powerful enough to provide heat energy at a scale people are used to. At 1.8kW, the Vesta delivers on the same scale as an average large electric stove element or stovetop gas burner.

Above, the Vesta is boiling a pot of water. The Vesta can bring 1 liter of water to the boil in 5 minutes, and can vaporize 2.75 liters per hour. The Vesta is primarily used for stove-top type applications like frying and boiling, but can also be equipped with a small baking oven, suitable for a few loaves of bread.

Named for the Roman goddess of the hearth, the Vesta can cook all the food and sterilize all� the drinking water for 5 people on a full-sun day.

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