Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven~Part 4: Recipes & Tips for Solar Cooking

You’d be surprised by the variety of what you can cook in a solar oven! It’s definitely an art, and there are a few nuances that make it different from cooking on a conventional stove. Here are a few tips and recipes to help you get started.

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Solar-roasted beet hummus

To begin, Solavore has a wonderful website full of tips and gourmet recipes. Check it out: http://www.solavore.com/

Here are a few of my favorite recipes:

Punjabi Eggplant (Baingan Barta)

Rosemary Potatoes

Roasted Beet Hummus (This version calls for canned chickpeas – I’m working on a version that uses raw/sprouted or solar-cooked chickpeas)

Veggie Broth

A few other tips…

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Solar-infused veggie broth

You can cook soups and other liquid-y items in a solar oven if you first bring it to a boil on your kitchen stove, then put it in the pre-heated solar oven to simmer. I’ve made some delicious solar-infused vegetable broth this way.

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Solar-hard-cooked eggs

I’ve had success cooking hard-boiled eggs in the Solavore Sport Oven without any water – I just set the pot lid upside down inside the cooking pot and let the eggs cook for about an hour and a half (I’m at a higher elevation so it could be less – I’ve read 45 minutes works for some people).

You can also bake in the oven – I’ve made delicious banana bread in the Solavore but ended up throwing it in the conventional oven for a few minutes at the end because I got a late start and ran out of sun. Solavore has a carrot cake recipe they strongly recommend, which I’ve yet to try (I’ll probably try a reduced-sugar version!).

Overall, I’m stoked to be cooking with the Solavore Sport Oven and looking forward to fine-tuning my craft! I love cooking for dinner parties and potlucks in the solar oven because people are so curious and often surprised by what’s possible. Next up: granola (with no processed sugar), lentil soup (a staple), garden veggie frittata (with eggs fresh from the chicken coop) and scalloped potatoes (a decadent Thanksgiving treat for my family).

This article is Part 4 in a 4-part series: Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven. The rest of the series is linked below:

Part 1: Why Go Solar?

Part 2: Choosing a Solar Oven

Part 3: Cooking with the Solavore Sport Oven

Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven~Part 3: Cooking with the Solavore Sport Oven

I picked up my Solavore Sport test oven from the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a non-profit organization and Solavore distributor, at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair. I’ve spent the last couple of months experimenting with it, and had some wonderful results.

solavoreThe unit is made of thick recycled plastic (reinforced with glass fibers to prevent heat degradation and crushing) and is lightweight (9 lbs), durable, and easy to transport and assemble, which has made it very convenient for us to use. I’m by no means an expert on solar ovens, but it seems extremely well-designed (read more here).

The clear plastic lid is made of two layers (one is thicker plastic, one is a thinner polyester film) with a space in between to help retain heat. From what I’ve read on the Solavore website, it sounds like there can sometimes be issues with moisture getting trapped between the two layers (Solavore recommends storing the unit on its side to help drain out any moisture), or with the polyester film getting punctured. I haven’t experienced either of these issues, but it’s nice to know that if you do have a problem with the lid you can order a new lid or lid repair kit, rather than having to replace the whole oven. The oven also comes with a thermometer and a WAPI stick for water pasteurization.

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Roasting eggplant, tomatoes, onions and garlic to make “Punjabi Eggplant.”

At the end of the day, I can pick up the whole oven, with food still hot inside of it, and carry it into the house. It comes with two 9-inch black graniteware pots so we can cook two dishes at once (which is somewhat rare for solar ovens), or multiple ingredients for the same dish that require different cooking times (for example, a pot of rice and a pot of roasted veggies).

 

I’ve experimented with a number of recipes, and had the best results with roasted veggies (beets, eggplant, tomatoes, etc.), which come out absolutely juicy and delicious after just a couple of hours. As a rule of thumb, cooking time is twice as long as conventional methods, with an additional half hour for the solar oven to preheat.

One of my favorite things about using the solar oven is that is doesn’t require oil to cook veggies (which is both healthier and more economical). Because the oven cooks slowly at lower temperatures (typically ranging from 210º – 260º F, maxing out at 300º F), it’s hard to burn or overcook things, and the veggies retain more nutrients. This is a big perk for me because I tend to multi-task and get distracted when I’m cooking veggies on the stove and often end up overcooking them, which my partner hates.

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Soaked rice & lentils prior to cooking

Lentils and rice (after being soaked overnight) have also come out beautifully in the solar cooker. One of my current life goals is to get better at cooking “exotic” cuisine – Indian, Ethiopian, etc.

I used to work at an Afghani restaurant that served the most exquisitely delicious food I’ve ever eaten, and learned that one of their secrets (in addition to high-quality ingredients and some serious culinary talent) was cooking dishes for long periods of time over low heat, to allow the flavors to really sink in. I’m hoping the solar oven will work well for this task, sort of like a slow cooker.solar_lentils_2

Not your average camping food: delicious solar-cooked spiced lentils & rice!

One thing that’s important to note about cooking in the solar oven is that you need to use less water than usual (about 25% less), because water takes longer to heat up. I’m still experimenting with liquid ratios for rice, beans, lentils, etc. A few times I haven’t added enough liquid and the final product comes out a bit dry and under-cooked, so I’ve end up adding water and finishing it on the stove (which takes less time than if I were to cook the dish on the stove from the beginning).

I’m also trying to figure out how to cook larger dried beans like black beans, Great Northern white beans, and pinto beans. After soaking some Great Northern white beans for two days, I tried cooking them in the solar cooker. After a full day in the sun they were still pretty uncooked, so I ended up putting them in the slow cooker. But I tried the same thing with black beans, and it worked beautifully. Either way, it seems important to soak the beans beforehand if you want them to cook fully in one day.

Another challenge is that if you’re cooking something that takes all day, you need to be able to adjust the oven so that it stays in the sun. On a cloudy day, you can add metal reflectors that easily snap on to the oven to concentrate the limited sunlight, and usually things cook just fine that way. According to the website, the Solavore Sport Oven also works well for winter cooking—which I’m excited to try—and can maintain a cooking temperature of 250 degrees even when the air temperature is below zero. The oven can be turned on its side for winter cooking to better capture the lower angle of winter sun rays. Amazing – talk about appropriate technology!

The Solavore Sport Oven with reflectors retails for $269, and you can order it from the Solavore website. For a low-budget homesteader this feels like a big investment, especially when you could build a solar cooker yourself. But it’s actually cheaper than other commercial models, and personally, the time I would have spent researching and deciding on a design, gathering materials, and building the oven could be worth the financial investment, especially since I know the Solavore Sport Oven is so well-designed, efficient, durable, and convenient to use.

If you’re already thinking about purchasing a solar oven, I highly recommend this model. You can purchase the oven without reflectors for $229, but if you’re going to make the investment in the oven, I’d recommend purchasing the reflectors for those days that aren’t as sunny. I’ve already gotten a lot of use out of mine. You can also save a bit of money (about $25 per oven) if you and a friend go in together on a two-pack of ovens.

That’s all for now – time for a dinner of solar-roasted zucchini and some solar baked peach-banana bread for dessert!

This article is Part 3 in a 4-part series: Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven. The rest of the series is linked below:

Part 1: Why Go Solar?

Part 2: Choosing a Solar Oven

Part 4: Recipes & Tips for Solar Cooking

 

Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven~Part 2: Choosing a Solar Cooker

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Ever since my partner Jeremiah weatherproofed the underside of our mobile tiny home back in February, we’ve been carrying around remnants of sheet metal to build a solar cooker. I began perusing designs trying to find something that would be easy to construct and easily transportable.

I’ve seen models that were as simple as cardboard boxes covered in aluminum foil (or even aluminum chewing gum wrappers!), as creative as an old tire between two pieces of glass, or as sophisticated as this inclined solar box cooker.

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solar_cooker_inclinedbox

 

But we were looking for something durable, yet still lightweight and easily transportable. Something we could quickly throw in our trailer if a storm came along and we needed to pack up camp, something that wasn’t too bulky or too fragile and could handle being jostled around with the rest of our gear while we towed our tiny home over mountains and back roads.

solavore_logoSynchronistically, right around that time I received an email from a representative at Solavore, a Minneapolis-based company that manufactures Solavore Sport Ovens, asking if I’d be interested in testing out and reviewing one of their solar ovens. I was initially a bit hesitant because marketing and product promotion of consumer goods run contrary to my belief in living a low-impact lifestyle, and I have very high standards for the companies I do support (for more info on this, see the new report “25 Enterprises that Build Resilience”).

But after doing a bit of research on Solavore and learning that it’s a small, women-owned business; conscious of how its product is produced, packaged, and shipped; striving to become a Certified B-Corps; and selling a product that has an important role to play in building a low-carbon future, I decided to give it a try.

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Solavore project in Kenya

Another great thing about Solavore is that the company works with local entrepreneurs  to increase access to solar cookers in Kenya, Cambodia, and India, areas where cooking over open fires is a major health and environmental concern  and is linked to serious respiratory problems as well as deforestation and even low status of women (girls often have to miss school to collect firewood).

This article is Part 2 in a 4-part series: Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven. The rest of the series is linked below:

Part 1: Why Go Solar?

Part 3: Cooking with the Solavore Sport Oven

Part 4: Recipes & Tips for Solar Cooking

Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven ~ Part 1: Why Go Solar?

The closer I get to living in alignment with my values of a healthy, environmentally-sustainable and socially-just lifestyle, the more I realize my life revolves around producing, obtaining, and preparing food.

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Solar-cooking 2 pots of spiced lentils and rice for a potluck at the Wisconsin Permaculture Convergence. ‘Twas a hit!

I strive to know where my food comes from and how it was grown, and to eat meals that are delicious and even indulgent, yet have the maximum benefit for my physical and mental health and my energy levels. To do this in a way that is affordable means cooking much of our food “from scratch.” It can be a lot of work but also extremely satisfying, and since food is one of the few things we need to survive, it seems worthwhile to do it right. This goes for not just the food itself, but also for our cooking processes.

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Cooking on a camp stove in our mobile kitchen, on BLM land in Utah. 

 

Spending the summer living off-the-grid in a mobile tiny house (pictured above), we cooked primarily with a 2-burner propane camp stove, and now we’re living in an off-the-grid house with a propane stove. Propane is one of our few housing-related expenses since we don’t pay for electricity (100% solar) or water (100% rainwater catchment), and we’re eager to cut back on our propane consumption.

We cooked with natural gas for years at our last house, but now that we actually buy each canister of propane—rather than just paying a monthly utilities bill that comes directly out of our bank account and lumps together gas and electric use, making it easy to ignore—we know exactly how much propane we’re using. And now that we live in Colorado’s fracking country, the impacts of industrial natural gas (as opposed to NG from small-scale biogas digesters) are impossible to ignore.

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Dangers of Fracking for Natural Gas

A solar oven seemed like a simple, economically and environmentally-friendly alternative to cooking with propane or natural gas.

solar_cooking_diagramSolar ovens and solar cookers use passive solar technology, usually some sort of black box with metal reflectors, to concentrate the sun’s heat onto whatever you’re cooking. If it’s sunny outside, over the course of the day—or sometimes just a few hours—you can cook a variety of foods this way: stews, grains, meats, roasted vegetables, granola, hard-“boiled” eggs, and even cakes and other baked goods! Of course this means you have to plan ahead; solar-cooking is slow food, not fast food.

We already plan many of our meals in advance because we eat a lot of grains and beans which we like to soak or sprout to make them easier to digest and the nutrients more accessible. So for us, the biggest barrier to solar cooking was not lack of convenience, but simply that building our own solar cooker seemed a bit daunting (to me, at least).

This article is Part 1 in a 4-part series: Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven. The rest of the series is linked below:

Part 2: Choosing a Solar Oven

Part 3: Cooking with the Solavore Sport Oven

Part 4: Recipes & Tips for Solar Cooking

Homesteading Hacks: Veggie Broth

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This batch came out a beautiful reddish color because of beet stems & peels.

Making homemade vegetable broth was our favorite homesteading project at my last community house, the Big Red Barn, and I’m continuing to carry on the tradition. It’s simple, delicious, nutritious (much healthier than store-bought), and makes great use of a waste stream (veggie scraps). I usually use veggie broth for cooking in place of oils (for health and economic reasons) or water (to add flavor and nutrients). And now that I have a solar oven, I have the added benefit of simmering the broth outside in the solar oven rather than on the stove.

Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Save veggie scraps in a plastic bag or Tupperware in your freezer. I usually go for garlic and onion peels, celery and carrot butts, carrot tops, cabbage/tomato/potato scraps, broccoli stems, kale stalks, remnants of herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil, ginger, etc.), even apple cores or lemon peels. I don’t use scraps from veggies that you don’t usually cook (cucumbers, lettuce, etc.). Other than that, I’m usually not too picky about what I keep for broth, but try to avoid having too much bitter (ex: mostly kale stalks) because that can affect the flavor of your dish (Kathryn, remember that horrible squash soup we made?).
  1. When you’ve filled up a bag or two with scraps (depending on the size pot you’re using), you’re ready to make broth! I used to use a huge pot and would save up 2-3 bags of scraps, making broth once or twice a month and storing it in the freezer. Now that I have limited freezer space, I make smaller batches on a weekly basis and use it fresh. If you’re using the Solavore Sport solar oven, I recommend using one quart-size bag of veggie scraps for each graniteware pot.
  1. If you’re using a solar oven, pre-heat the oven.

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    Veggie scraps: beet stalks, celery, onion peels, basil stems, & more!

  1. Pour the frozen veggie scraps into your pot, and fill the pot with enough water to mostly submerge the veggies (once the scraps begin cooking they will sink lower into the pot). Feel free to add seasonings (extra garlic, onion, ginger, or spices) if desired (you can always add these later when you use the broth in cooking).
  1. Bring to a boil on your stove.
  1. Once the water is boiling, turn down the heat to a simmer. Or, if you’re using a solar oven, place the pot(s) in the pre-heated oven.
  1. Allow to simmer until you smell a strong, rich veggie broth aroma (this is harder to identify if you’re using the solar oven – just let it simmer for an hour or two and go give it a smell).
  1. Turn off the heat or remove pot from solar oven and let cool.
  1. When the broth is room temperature (or cool enough to package in glass or plastic), strain out the veggies and pour the broth into storage containers to keep in your fridge or freezer. If you’re freezing the broth make sure to leave enough space in the vessel for the liquid to expand when frozen (we’ve cracked plenty of glass jars and wasted lots of broth this way!).
  1. Keep one jar of veggie broth in your fridge to use for soups, rice, sautéing vegetables, and more!
  1. Enjoy, and repeat!

A New American Dream

Jeremiah (my partner) and I don’t dream of getting rich, or owning a big house with a white picket fence and a two-car garage, or driving a fancy car.

Rather, we dream of a world where our children will have a decent chance of survival and good quality of life – a world with drinkable water and breathable air, a world where food is nourishing and our food system isn’t controlled by profiteers, a world without debt slavery, extreme violence, or pervasive depression. The current state of world affairs is just a glimpse of what’s to come if we continue down this trajectory of endless exploitation and extraction, and it makes Jeremiah and I question whether it’s fair and responsible for us to bring another life onto this planet.

And for ourselves, we desire to live simply, connected to nature and loved ones, with enough time and energy to live a regenerative lifestyle, taking good care of our bodies and the land that nourishes us. We know that a healthy, balanced lifestyle brings us peace, joy, and fulfillment.

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But for us and for many, the pressures of living in our society result in unhealthy, disconnected lifestyles. I spend much of my time working to pay off debt and rent. Even though I am fortunate enough to be passionate about my paid work, I notice it taking a toll on my body. I don’t have the time or energy to get enough exercise or consistently feed myself as well as I would like to. And financial insecurity is a source of stress for both of us. Between student loans and the high cost of living in the Bay Area, it seems highly unlikely that we can afford to “settle down”—at least not in the traditional sense—here in Sebastopol, the small town in Northern California where we met.

Sure, it’s probably safe to say that in our culture it’s normal to be chronically stressed and unhealthy, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to accept the status quo as absolute. After all, we only get one chance at this human experience, and we’re committed to living it to the fullest.

Fortunately, we are both pretty unconventional—one of the qualities that has attracted us to each other—and willing to try new things. So, after much talking and dreaming and researching and planning, and a bit of divine intervention, we decided to try something radically different in hopes of cultivating a lifestyle that really works for us, a lifestyle that is aligned with our values and will help create the kind of world we will feel good about bringing children into.

Like countless others who are pursuing the New American Dream, our intention is to live in community, grow our own food, and reduce our reliance on the fossil fuel-powered mainstream economy as much as possible. We seek to build equity in the land we cultivate: understanding the fragility of our financial system, our retirement plan is to literally harvest the fruits of the trees we plant in our youth rather than invest in a 401K (more on this in a future blog post).

Because land in Sonoma County, CA is ridiculously expensive (though we’re still hopeful about the potential of a community land trust), we are beginning our farming/homesteading endeavors this summer in Wisconsin, on some land my parents own near my hometown. We will grow as much of our own food as possible, and make many of the other products we consume (toiletries, cleaning products, candles, etc.), little by little extracting ourselves from the exploitative global consumer economy, and creating opportunities for others to join us.

homeownerTo free up enough of our time to be able to launch our regenerative agriculture project—without going into debt—we are eliminating the cost of rent from our expenses. Instead, we are converting a 6’ x 12’ enclosed cargo trailer into a Tiny House on wheels. We will park our very tiny house in Wisconsin during growing season, and bring it with us next winter as we look for seasonal opportunities in warmer climates.

We anticipate our fair share of challenges—and indeed, are already encountering some as we attempt to make an aluminum box into cozy living quarters—but it seems a small price to pay for freedom, good health, and the knowledge that we are doing our best to leave behind a livable planet for future generations.

We’ll be blogging regularly about our homesteading endeavors, so stay tuned! We’re looking for collaborators and are happy to share what we learn.

AND if you’d like to support this worthy undertaking, we are currently fundraising to purchase a work truck that will be vital to our operation. To make a contribution, please visit: http://www.plumfund.com/fundraising/mobilize-a-regenerative-lifestyle

Images (from top): 1) a snapshot of our most recent garden at the Big Red Barn in Sebastopol, CA – this is the kind of regenerative footprint we want to leave behind us wherever we go!; 2) our new home – a 6′ x 12′ cargo trailer!

Meet Your Neighbors, Change the World

Originally posted at www.transitionus.org

“Houses don’t make neighborhoods – neighbors make neighborhoods,” a friend recently told me.

Reno famShe’s lived in the same house for three years and trades produce over the fence with one of her neighbors, but doesn’t know many of her other neighbors. But with the arrival of a new baby, my friend yearns for the sort of neighborhood she grew up in—where everyone looks out for each other –and is wondering how to go about building relationships with more of her neighbors.

My own neighborhood is a quirky one, a shared rental property with a dozen eclectic tenants in close quarters, two of them in a longstanding feud that’s landed one of them (briefly) in jail. My household, made up of a handful of young people who try to live simply and do our best to leave behind a livable planet for future generations, seems to be thriving amidst the chaos. But whenever I’m in the front yard tending to our unruly permaculture garden and look across the street at our neighbor’s front yard, with its few sparse pear trees in a field of barren earth—both withering from drought and persistent herbicide use—I’m reminded that we’re only as resilient as those around us.

Just 43% of Americans know most or all of their neighbors by name. This needs to change. Whether we’re trying to create a safer neighborhood for our children, grow food in our front yards, or build resilient communities that can withstand the increasing impacts of climate change, we have got to get to know the people who live around us – and more than just their names.

sheet mulchingMy suggestion is to start simple, by sharing something – cookies, flowers, or produce from the garden. Host a neighborhood potluck. Ask to borrow a tool. Share ideas on how to make your street a better place to live. Build a friendship, a relationship based on trust, and then we can start talking to our neighbors about why it’s important to sheet mulch and grow food in our front yards.

At the same time, we’ve got to be willing to respectfully embrace the conflict that might emerge. And we need to learn how to communicate and collaborate better so we can deal with those tensions.

secret biomass sourceEarlier this year I gave a presentation on permaculture, Transition, and community resilience at a sustainability conference in Chico, California, where the impacts of the drought are strikingly evident. Some of the audience members wanted to transform their lawns into drought-tolerant landscapes but were hesitant due to concern about what their neighbors might think.

When the world is burning—as Northern California literally is, right now—fear of what the neighbors might think is not a good excuse for staying inside of our houses instead of taking action and making the changes we know we so desperately need. If you need an extra boost of courage to knock on your neighbors’ door – think of your children and grandchildren, and the kind of world you’d like them to inherit. Or try out Transition Streets.

Impact_MapThis past spring, twelve neighborhoods in cities across the US –from San Diego to Missoula to Newburyport to Charlottesville—participated in a social experiment called Transition Streets. Neighbors came together for a series of 7 sessions to explore a handbook full of practical actions and tips for creating sustainable households and resilient neighborhoods. Each week neighbors focused on a different topic: energy, water, food, waste, and transportation, identifying actions they wanted to implement in their own homes and volunteering to help each other as needed.

By the final session, neighbors had fixed drafts and leaks, installed compost bins and greywater systems, swapped recipes and ideas, shared tools and skills, learned how to read their water meters and who had lived in the neighborhood the longest. But what participants most valued about their Transition Streets experience were the relationships they built with their neighbors.

transition_streets_screenshotIn some cases, participants had lived in the same neighborhood for years without knowing each other, and by the final session of Transition Streets they not only knew each other’s names, but also their interests and skill sets, seeing each other as friends, allies, and resources in imagining and building a better place to live.

Now anyone can participate in Transition Streets by visiting transitionstreets.org, where you can download the handbook as well as tools and tips to help you reach out to your neighbors.

There’s also a crowdfunding campaign to support the national roll-out of Transition Streets happening this fall. Already more than twenty inspired neighbors across the country are planning to bring Transition Streets to their communities, and our goal is to reach 100 neighborhoods by spring.

garden_4.27.14As Transition Streets spreads, our neighborhoods and communities become more connected, fulfilling, and resilient, at the same time reducing our dependency on fossil fuels.

I feel the urgency of the times we live in, and challenge us all to take a step toward making our neighborhoods more resilient: knock on a neighbor’s door, share something, or start a Transition Streets group in your neighborhood.

And if you can, consider supporting the Transition Streets crowdfunding campaign.

For me, it’s time to go tend to that front yard garden and see which of the neighbors stops by to ask what I’m up to. Hopefully I can send them home with some of our abundant squash and a vision for a neighborhood full of front-yard gardens.