Now We’re Cooking With the Sun

solar_ovenA friend gave me her solar cooker last year because she lives in a shady neighborhood and it just wasn’t working for her.  I was very excited to receive it but had trouble getting motivated to use it until I picked up a book at the library this spring.   “Cooking with Sunshine” by Lorraine Anderson and Rick Palkovic has a great selection of recipes and tips but also talks about different options for when you have more or less time available.  They have some recipes that cook entirely in the cooker and others where you either do some cooking ahead of time (such as sauteing onions) or some cooking afterward (such as converting cooked rice into a rice salad).  They also talk about what foods you can leave in the solar cooker all day without worrying about burning or drying out.  I don’t want to admit how many times I have scorched rice or beans by leaving it on the stove for too long so I was very relieved to learn that wouldn’t be an issue with the solar cooker.

It also took awhile for me to grasp the idea that even if I only use the solar cooker for part of a meal (say cooking a pot of beans which I then incorporate into burritos or chili) I am still reducing my carbon footprint and taking advantage of free, clean energy.  Somehow I got caught up in the idea that if I were going to go solar I had to go all the way and the world would come crashing down if clouds rolled in and I had to put my beans in the oven to finish cooking them.  Silly but true.

solar_oven_condensationAnyway, now I’m starting to get into the solar cooking routine although I’m still learning the ins and outs; we had some rather crunchy baked beans last week that hadn’t cooked quite long enough – although the flavor was excellent!  I’m also on the hunt for the perfect solar cooker dish.  Ideally, it would be an oven-safe dark colored pyrex or ceramic dish with a tight-fitting lid.  Right now I’m using a white casserole dish with a clear lid and covering it with a blue cloth to try and soak up some extra heat.  It works pretty well but the lid isn’t quite tight enough to keep in steam and so the top panel often gets covered in condensation, which reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the food.  It’s a common challenge for solar cooking and one solution is to vent the lid slightly but that also reduces cooking efficiency.  I have seen a lot of variations of solar cookers and it would be pretty easy to build your own.  This one is a little bulky but it’s well constructed with a moveable set of reflectors, a plexiglass lid on a rubber lip, and a shelf inside to keep the pot off the bottom of the oven.


I set the solar cooker up on our front porch (which is south-facing) and let it cook from about 10:00 to 4:00.  If I’m home, I’ll turn it a couple of times during the day so that the reflectors capture as much sun as possible but if I’m going to be gone, I just leave it pointing as close to due south as practical.  On a sunny day, the oven quickly heats up to 250 degrees.  On a cloudy day, it tends to hover at more like 150.  So far I’ve been sticking with grains and beans but I’d like to try some bread recipes and maybe a quiche.  I was surprised to see that egg dishes are considered fairly easy for the solar cooker but the reasoning is that they cook pretty quickly so you don’t have to have a perfectly sunny day.  I am also contemplating using the solar cooker to sterilize some potting soil for my next round of seedlings.

Have any solar recipes or tips to share?

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Fried Green Tomatillos

TomatillosHow often do you discover a new vegetable?  I’m generally not too adventurous but this year I’ve made a few delicious discoveries thanks to Lost Pond Farm CSA.  CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture” and the idea behind it is that a group of consumers give money (and sometimes labor) to a farmer at the beginning of the growing season in exchange for a cut of the farm’s production.  In our case, we signed up to get a weekly delivery of about a quarter bushel of produce, enough for a family of two for a week.

We never know what we’re going to get but it’s always in season and it’s always fresh.  I’ve been working with Pete Johnson for awhile through the Local Growers’ Guild and I love his passion for organic growing and special varieties.  So far I think my favorite item has been the blue potatoes.  They’re pretty recognizable as potatoes but they’re a fantastic shade of blue and also exceptionally tasty.   I’ve also enjoyed being introduced to new and different produce options.  One week we received tiny Mexican cucumbers that are just a little bigger than jellybeans and taste like they’ve been pickled.  Another week it was a plant somewhere between broccoli and kale that provides the texture of broccoli heads while withstanding hot Indiana summers.  (Around here, you can get broccoli and brussel sprouts in the fall or in the spring if you start ’em early but they wilt during the summer.)

More recently, we received a bag full of tomatillos (pictured above).  They’re similar to tomatoes but fairly small, fairly tart, and you’re supposed to eat them before they get too ripe.  You also have to peel the husks off first, which is kinda fun although they get a little sticky.  I have only found a couple of tomatillo recipes, many of them variations on salsa verde, but decided to stick with fried green tomatillos, especially since we’re here in the South.  The recipe is pretty simple – mix cornmeal, eggs, herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper as a batter.  Dip the tomatillo slices in and fry them in oil.  The batch I made this evening wasn’t quite as good as I’ve had in the past (I didn’t include quite enough spices) but they were still pretty good.

I must confess, though, my tastes are alread turning to autumn.  This afternoon I made applesauce bread with the last bit of applesauce from 2007.  It’s about time to cook up some of this year’s orchard crop.  Applesauce, apple butter, dried apples, frozen apples, apple cider, apple soda….   Mmmmm.   I’m  excited to see what other exciting fall goodies will be in our CSA basket this fall.  Only time will tell.

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Make Soda at Home

Soda in the FridgeI think Will and I got into soda-making last year when we read “The Tightwad Gazette” and started thinking about the myriad ways we could save money if we just put some energy into it.  Or perhaps it was when we started paying attention to the amount of corn syrup contained in the food we eat and looking for an alternative.  Well, mostly I think it just sounded fun.  We started with a Mr. Root Beer kit from Bloomington Hardware.  I’m not much of a soda drinker but I do enjoy a good root beer and was intrigued by the idea of brewing my own.  Alas, that first batch tasted like the fake flabor in root beer hard candies.  Yuck.  We tried a couple other recipes and had some successes but then got involved in other projects and the soda-making supplies were ignored for awhile.

Lia Cuts GingerI decided this weekend I was ready to try again and invited my cousin Lia to come and help out.  (Little did she know it was an invitation to do all the work.  Mwa ha ha ha.)  We decided to make a gallon of ginger beer and a half gallon of root beer.  To make any sort of soda, the basic idea is to make a sweet herbal tea or juice mixture and then add a little yeast and let it ferment for a few days to create the carbonation.  Technically, the carbonation means that it’s very mildly alcoholic but I think we’re talking something like 0.01%.  Once it’s fizzy enough, you put the soda in the fridge to stop the fermentation.  Actually, the soda will keep fermenting in the fridge but at a much slower rate.  You do have to drink it within a couple of weeks or it’s liable to fizz all over the place.

Boiling gingerOur first step for the ginger beer was to cut up a bunch of ginger.  (I let Lia do the dirty work).  Our recipe said to combine 1.25 oz grated ginger, 1/2 gallon water, 1.75 C sugar, and  the juice from half a lemon and to simmer for 25 minutes.  The next step was letting it cool so we got started with the root beer.  I decided to try using Pappy’s sassafras tea concentrate this time.  It’s a greenish brown syrup sold at the grocery store for people who are too lazy to dig up sassafras root.  (Actually, there’s some big hooplah about how sassafras contains a carcinogen so there are lots of “safrole-free” products available at grocery stores but I read through the study they did on rats and a person would have to drink hundreds of cups of tea a day to get the same dosage so I don’t worry too much.)  We mixed the concentrate with water and sugar and heated it up to dissolve the sugar.  Then we had to wait for it to cool too.

Lia ladles soda into bottlesFor the ginger beer, the next step was to mix our ginger “tea” with half a gallon of cooler water to get the final mix around 75 degrees F to make the yeast happy.  We mixed 1/8 teaspoon of yeast with 1/4C of water and let it proof for a few minutes before mixing it all in.  The recipe book “Homemade Root Beer, Soda, and Pop” generally calls for ale yeast but the author says you can also use bread yeast, which is what we use.  After mixing the ginger beer, we added yeast to the sassafras tea to make root beer.  Then we poured each batch into bottles.  Will and I have been using two types of bottles.  There are four 1-Liter plastic bottles that came from our original Mr. Root Beer Kit.  They have special lids with little pressure release vents so if there’s too much pressure, they will fountain rather than explode.  The plastic bottles are also nice because you can squeeze them to judge the amount of carbonation (the bottles get firmer as the soda ferments).  Our other bottles are 1-pint (I think) brown glass swing-top bottles from Butler Winery, a local supplier of homebrew equipment (and also tasty wine).  The swingtops lids also provide emergency pressure venting and the bottles look super cool.

Due to warm August weather, our soda was ready in two days.  My verdict?  The ginger beer is quite tasty although it definitely has a strong bite.  The root beer is a bit disappointing, with a mild sassafras flavor and a very strong yeasty flavor.  Maybe I’ll try again using more sassafras concentrate and less yeast or perhaps I’ll go old school and try with real sassafras root.  We’ll see if Lia is up for some more hard labor.

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Dry It! You’ll Like It!

Peaches in Dehydrator TraysThis evening I went over to my friend Bobbi’s house to help her dehydrate some peaches.  I am still a novice food preserver but I am really excited to learn more about drying food and Bobbi has been doing it for awhile.  Her persimmon leather is particularly tasty but she works seasonally and the fruit-of-the-month is peaches.  She buys seconds (the ugly, small, or slightly blemished fruit) from Olde Lane Orchard and dries, freezes, cans, or jams them although her preference is drying.

Washing PeachesWe started by washing the peaches in a sink full of water.  (Kind of makes you want to bob for peaches, doesn’t it?)  Eliza, Bobbi’s daughter, had requested that we do a batch without skins so our next step was to drop each peach into boiling water for a few minutes to loosen the skin.  This is the same technique used to get the skins of tomatoes for people who like their tomato sauce smooth.  Bobbi and I are both of the opinion that it’s easiest and most nutritious to leave the skins on most everything but we were curious to see how it went.

Peeling PeachesThe peeling part wasn’t too bad once we let the peaches cool a little.  The clingstone peaches seemed to peel a lot more easily than the freestone peaches, which may explain why they’re still a popular variety even though they’re a pain to cut up.  However, skinned peaches are incredibly slippery and I think it was sheer luck that none of them landed on the floor.  They also seemed juicier than normal when cut, perhaps because they were partially cooked by the boiling water.

Cutting peachesWe sliced them into roughly even chunks and put them on the dehydrator trays to dry.  In an ideal world, all the pieces should be exactly the same size so they dry at the same rate but in reality some of them get a little drier and some not quite as much and life goes on.  Drying at low temperatures preserves a lot more vitamins and nutrients than canning or freezing and if the moisture content is low enough, it can be stored for many months.

Dried PeachesBobbi’s dehydrator is much nicer than mine with adjustable heat and a timer so you can turn it on and set it to magically turn itself off in X number of hours, which is helpful since drying times for fruit tend to be pretty long – say 20 hours.  I left just a couple hours after we got the dehydrator loaded so I won’t be able to report back on the results for a few days but I’m sure they will be tasty and probably look like this batch that Bobbi did last week.  I’m looking forward to trying out a few recipes from “Dry It!  You’ll Like It!” with my baby dehydrator and hopefully finding a serious dehydrator of my own some day.

Special thanks to Eliza for taking pictures while we worked and for nourishing us with nori rolls!

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Pickling Party

dill picklesI had a small pickling party this weekend and canned 23 jars of dill pickles, which made us all very happy.  I had hoped to thoroughly photodocument the whole process but even with three people it was tricky to make pickles and take pictures at the same time…  I hope I can at least give you the general idea of how to make pickles.

Step one is to gather a large pile of cucumbers.  Many came from my mom’s garden where the five cucumber plants are completely taking over.  Others came from our CSA and from the garden at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard where Stephanie is the gardening coordinator.  Once you have gathered the cucumbers, start chopping them into pieces (slices, spears, chunks, whatever)

Lindsey cuttinc cucumbersStep two is to make a boiling brine mixture.  We used a basic recipe from Keeping the Harvest – 3 cups of apple cider vinegar, 3 cups of water, and 1/3 cup of salt.  They recommend adding a garlic clove to every jar but we were feeling saucy so we added two or three or sometimes five.  We also added a pinch of fresh dill to every jar and half of a grape leaf from our wild grapes.  Grape leaves are supposed to make the pickles crisper and I had good luck last year.  Oh, and we also added a few spices to the brine – mustard in one batch, a “pickling spice blend” involving cardamom and cinnamon to another, and some fresh coriander to a third.

Step three is to combine the ingredients.  Start with hot, sterilized jars – we ran ours through the dishwasher and pulled them out to use while still hot.  Stuff each jar with cucumbers (and garlic and dill and grape leaves) and get ready to add the brine.  Ladle boiling brine into each jar, wipe the mouth of the jar, and apply the lid (which should also be hot and sterilized – we pulled ours out of a pot of boiling water).  Tighten down the lids and put them in the canner.

canning picklesStep four is canning.  You can skip the canning if you plan to keep your pickles in the fridge and eat them fairly quickly but if you want them to keep for months, you need to can them.  Since pickles are pretty acidic, they are less likely to harbor bacteria than low acid foods like green beans.  This means you can can them using the boiling water method, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – boil the cans in a big pot for 10-20 minutes (depending on jar size and altitude).  This sterilizes the content of the jar and also pushes most of the air out, creating a vaccuum seal.  If we were dealing with low acid foods like green beans we would have used a pressure canner, which increases the pressure as well as the temperature to make it as inhospitable to bacteria as possible.

Stephanie with garlicThat’s it!  Making pickles definitely takes some work but it’s a lot of fun when you make it a party.  Stephanie is always a blast to hang out with and being a dill pickle addict, she kept the energy high.  Lindsey had just moved to Bloomington on Friday and was excited to stock her pantry with her own pickles.  She is also already planning to recreate the Sunday Night Dinner Club she was involved with in Chicago and in Portland.  People getting together to cook fabulous meals for each other on a weekly basis?  Sounds great to me!  Perhaps I’ll find some more grunt labor, er, I mean partygoers for my food preservation projects…

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