Meet the Solavore Sport Solar Oven

IMG_7172 (1)As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the good folks at Solavore have loaned us a solar oven to play with this summer. We’re still working on how to cook in the thing–more on that later–but we thought we’d take a moment to show you the oven itself.

The basics:

This is a Solavore Sport, which sells from their website for $229.00 US, plus $39.50 for the optional reflector. (We’d recommend the reflector, unless you live near the equator, or only plan to use your oven at midday in high summer.)

Solavore is a woman-run company, based in Minnesota, and the ovens are made the U.S. Plus, Solavore partners with NGOs to bring sun ovens to sun-rich, fuel-poor developing countries.

Solavore keeps an extensive, and attractive recipe section on their site.

The oven itself:

The floor of the oven measures 9 1/4 inches x 17 1/2.

It weighs 9 pounds.

It is entirely made of plastic. The body is all black molded insulated plastic, while the lid is double-walled clear plastic, molded to fit the oven body.  There seems to be a trade off going on here between portability (and perhaps lower shipping costs) and structure. They opted for it not to have a heavy casing.

It doesn’t seem flimsy by any means, but at the same time you can imagine doing it some serious damage if you were to trip over it. I worry particularly about cracking the lid around the thin edges. Yet at the same time, I really appreciate the portability. I love how light and easy the Sport is to manipulate. It is simply no big thing to move it around, and until you get the hang of solar cooking, and learn the way the light moves in your yard, you’re going to be moving it a lot. It’s light weight makes it good for camping and picnicking, too.

IMG_7224The oven is made to hold two cooking pots at a time, which is handy, because you can do a main dish and a side at once, or a pot of something for dinner and a pot of something for lunch.The Solavore comes equipped with two shiny new black Speckleware casserole pots for this purpose, though you may choose to use any pot you like–though lightweight black pots like the Speckleware are best for solar cooking. It’s also big enough hold a casserole dish or a quarter sheet pan.

The Solavore also comes with a free standing thermometer which you can use to monitor the internal temperature of the oven.

We don’t have experience with any other commercial sun oven by which to compare the Solavore Sport, so all we can say so far is that it totally works. It’s been getting to cooking temperature easily (200-250F), even though the sun is still a little low in the sky at this time of year, as long as you follow the directions and use it correctly.

IMG_7174Quibble with the clips

So far we have no complaints at all, and only one quibble: the clips.

The lightweight lid must be clipped down to the oven body to maintain proper heat efficiency. Having failed to read the starting instructions properly (ahem), I missed that detail on our first trial, and had trouble getting the oven up to cooking temp–which lead to a lentil disaster.

I failed to notice the lid clips were there at all first time out because they are not immediately obvious. They are small metal hooks which are permanently affixed through holes in the oven’s body. They come up over the lip of the lid to hold it down tight.

The good thing about these clips is that they are very simple and would be easy to replace with a piece of wire if you break them. Also, since the clips are tied to the oven, they can’t be lost, which is another major advantage.

The downside is that they are finicky to use. I have a hard time getting them over the lip of the lid, and always feel like I’m in danger of abrading or even cracking the edge of the lid as I force them on and off. Each time I  wrestle with them, I dream of a quick release system, or wish I could just use binder clips to clamp the lid to the body–but regular clips don’t work because of the particular shape of the lid/body interface.

But all in all, that is, as I say, only a quibble.  We’re enjoying playing with the oven, although as I alluded to in my last post on the subject, there is a learning curve to solar cooking. We’ve had a few disasters, which we’ll talk about, but we’re beginning to get a good feel for what works well in this cooking system. More to come soon!

The Horror Beneath the Armoire

IMG_0527I lost my keys, and being in that state of advanced desperation where you search for your keys in the most unlikely of spots, I made the mistake of looking beneath our armoire.

This ungainly piece of furniture has a mere inch or two gap between its lower face and the floor. Better it should have a higher clearance, or no gap at all, but instead, there is this little gap that resists brooms and vacuum wands.

Of course, tidy people would approach this difficulty by moving the armoire so they could dust beneath it at decent intervals. Or maybe they’d wrap a coat hanger with a dust cloth and slither around on their bellies, stabbing into the darkness. Really, who knows what lengths tidy people might go to? Not us, that’s for certain. We choose to ignore that space entirely between the times we paint the bedroom.

So, anyway, looking for my keys, I turned on the flashlight on my phone and peered into the gap, but still couldn’t see very well, because the gap was so low. So I took some blind pictures with the flash, and they revealed a horrifying yet charming landscape of dereliction: a dollhouse version of the Blair Witch Project, in which three lost mice are hopelessly trapped in nightmare landscape of dust bunnies and cobwebs.

And, ironies of ironies, while I did not find my keys, I did find a lost vacuum cleaner attachment.

(Apologies for any trauma these images have caused our tidy friends.)

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Low-Tech Magazine

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Chinese wheelbarrow with sail assist. Image courtesy of Low Tech Magazine.

Yesterday, Erik and I had the privilege of interviewing Kris De Decker, the creator of one of our very favorite Internet resources, Low-Tech Magazine. Those of you who know Low-Tech will understand our vast excitement. To make it all even happier, he seems like a really good guy.

If you haven’t heard of this blog, believe me, Root Simple readers, if you like what we do here, you’ll love Low-Tech. This is the sort of site you fall into and stay for days.

Our interview with him will appear on our podcast next Wednesday, but in the meantime I suggest you whet your appetite by reading some of our favorite articles:

How to Make Everything Ourselves: Open Modular Hardware

How to Downsize a Transportation Network: The Chinese Wheelbarrow

If We Insulate Our Houses, Why Not Our Cooking Pots?

Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, Not Spaces

Recycling Animal and Human Dung is the Key to Sustainable Farming

Announcing Our New Solar Cooking Initiative

Moreau_Sun_Furnace

Last December, when the summer heat finally subsided, I decided that since Los Angeles has become the capital of the planet Arrakis, we may as well as make hay with the sunshine. I decided to learn how to cook in a solar oven, and more than that, I wanted to learn how to do it really well.

We have made and used and written about solar cookers here,  and here, which are reflective surrounds for a cooking pots, and which can be quite effective under the right circumstances, but we’d never played with a solar oven, which is, in its basic form, an insulated box with a clear lid. Solar ovens reach higher temperatures than cookers, and can be used in less ideal conditions. But we’d never invested in a solar oven because they are rather pricey, especially for an unknown quantity. Would they really work? Could we make good food in one? I certainly didn’t want to spend a couple of hundred bucks on an oversized rice cooker.

Wait! I almost forgot. We do have a solar oven in our garage! And if I don’t mention it, the Internet will make me a liar. Erik posted on it back in 2013. He was gifted a Sundiner, which is a 60’s era solar oven. We never use it because, being a product of the 60’s, it has a very small, shallow cooking box, suited only for cooking hot dogs and frozen dinners.

sundiner
So, anyway, being cheap and not fond of TV dinners, I decided to make a proper, box-style solar oven (there are a lot of DIY plans out there) and test it out come the equinox, when the days are longer and the sun a little higher. Then, just as I was about to start construction, the good folks at a sun oven company called Solavore contacted us and offered to loan us their oven, the Solavore Sport, for an extended trial period. It was one of those moments where the universe seemed to be conspiring to help us along, so I answered, “Funny you should offer…”

A few happy emails later, and now we have a shiny new Solavore Sport to explore. In the spirit of DIY, I will still make an oven later this summer and report back on that process, and I will also run a comparison between the commercial oven and the homemade oven and see how they stack up.

But my primary goal in this season of solar cooking is to figure out whether, if properly used, a solar cooker can create meals of the same quality as those I turn out with my kitchen stove. Not “It’s not bad for solar” but “Hey….this is scrumptious!” More than that, I want to figure out what solar ovens do better than real ovens. I want to master the vocabulary of solar cooking.

I figure the learning curve is going to be high–it’s like having to learn how to cook all over again–but I’m excited to have the Solavore Sport on hand for these experiments, because I can focus on the cooking itself instead troubleshooting my construction techniques.

Throughout this short winter I’ve been looking at fusty old solar cookbooks from the library and poking about on the Internet for inspiration, and frankly, most of what I found has been pretty bleak. A lot of the recipes seem outdated or just out of step with what Erik and I like to cook and eat. But, in all my looking somehow I never stumbled on the Solavore website. It turns out they have an attractivecollection of solar recipes, so that is where we will be starting out.

I’m calling this series Solar Oven Summer, and no, I do not find the acronym S.O.S. pessimistic. And yes, it is summer here now, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll tag all these posts so you can find them all at once. In our next post we’ll take a close look at the Solavore Sport, and then we’ll begin learning how to use it, one recipe at a time.

Are any of you solar chefs? Any advice? Horror stories? Favorite resources?

Satan’s Easter Basket is Filled with Plastic Easter Grass

Easter baskets, a springtime ritual so loved by kids and adults alike should not have a dark side. So it’s more than a little ironic that this holiday, which in its secular form emphasizes rebirth and celebrates new life and baby animals of all sorts, actually causes accidental pain and suffering to many animals. The culprit is plastic Easter grass.

The day after Easter this year, I took an early morning walk down to Echo Park and found Eastermagedon waiting for me in the dawn’s soft light. The entire park was strewn with detritus of the happy day, plates and soda bottles and all the usual picnic garbage, plus the added seasonal bonus of tons of loose plastic Easter grass tangled in the real grass. I think animals may have gotten into the garbage cans overnight, making it all worse, but clearly a lot of that trash, especially the Easter grass and Silly String, was probably on the ground when the picnickers left.

One lonely, overburdened city maintenance guy was already raking up the garbage, but it was a Sisyphean task, and I doubt he’ll be so fine tuned as to focus on the Easter grass, but the Easter grass may be the most problematic of all the garbage on the ground this morning, especially because Echo Park surrounds a lovely little urban lake full of birds. Read on to find out why.

eastergrass3

4 Excellent Reasons to Avoid Plastic Easter Grass and use all of your influence to make sure other people avoid it, too:

  1. Domestic cats and dogs eat Easter grass and it can cause intestinal obstruction. Cats are particularly attracted to its stringy texture, but dogs might also gobble it up when they raid a kid’s Easter stash. If your pet does consume Easter grass and you see it coming out the other end, don’t try to pull it out! The other end of the string might be wrapped around something important inside your pet. Let it work its way out on its own, or visit the vet.
  2. Nesting birds pick up strands of plastic Easter grass and use it to build their nests. Sadly, this stuff is super strong, so it can tangle up baby birds, or even wrap around the feet of parent birds, tying them to their nests. People who keep bird boxes can tell us horror stories.
  3. Plastic grass left over from egg hunts in parks can blow into lakes, ponds and rivers, where it becomes both a water pollutant and a hazard to aquatic life. No kid on an egg hunt would want to know that her pretty pink Easter grass might end up choking a duckling.
  4. Like any plastic garbage, airy strands of Easter grass, whether floating out of parks or school yards or the back of garbage trucks, will make their way to the sea via wind and city gutters and rivers, where they will become part of our ongoing crisis of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Happy Substitutes for Plastic Easter Grass

The worst thing about plastic Easter grass is that it is so utterly unnecessary. We don’t need it. No one really likes the stuff–it gets everywhere in the house and is hard to clean up. Kids will not miss it–the padding is hardly the point of the basket, after all. Plastic grass is just something that was invented in a more ignorant age and marketed to us, something that we got used to using and never questioned. There are many ways, better ways, to line an Easter basket. We just have to take this plastic hell fluff off our “auto buy” list and embrace our creativity:

  1. There’s a natural, sustainable, renewable, organic form of Easter grass called real grass! (whhaaaa???) And best of all, it’s free! Just visit your nearest vacant lot. Pick long green grass and coil it in the bottom of the basket. You could also use hay or straw if you have access to it– both smell fantastic.
  2. Use green leaves, vines and short, flexible green branches from trees or bushes and flowers* to make sort of a wild fairy basket. As a Californian, I’m imagining a basket filled with a heady mix of rosemary branches and lavender leaves and buds. Or what about a nest of sweet chamomile? That would be lovely. Or maybe purple cabbage leaves? Arugula? Fennel fronds? Grape leaves?
  3. Use shredded wrapping paper–this is particularly easy if you have a paper shredder, but you can also cut or tear the paper into strips. This is a great way to re-purpose used paper, or to finish up the ends of rolls. Same goes for construction paper and other bright craft papers.
  4. Line the baskets with pretty table napkins or old scarfs, or tear fabric scraps into strips.
  5. Make little basket pillows out of scrap material. This might be a good use for old themed bed sheets or favorite clothes that kids don’t want to give up.
  6. Use moss, which you may be able to gather gently in the wild, depending on where you live, or buy sphagnum moss in a craft store or nursery.
  7. Fill the baskets with colorful mini-marshmallows–if you can deal with the resulting sugar high and possible marshmallow fights.
  8. Get ambitious and grow a pot of grass! Find a plastic pot which will fit your Easter baskets, fill it with potting soil and sprinkle a dense coating of seed on top. You can use lawn seed, if you have it, or you could buy “cat grass” seeds at the nursery–that way you can buy a small quantity instead of a big bag of seed meant to plant a lawn. All you have to do is keep it moist and you should have a pot of short grass by Easter. Check the seed pack and look for “days to maturity”–use that to figure out when you should plant. Bonus: your cats will thank you for the grass after Easter!
  9. And finally, there is commercial Easter grass made out of shredded paper instead of plastic– as easy as plastic, but sooooo much better!

See how easy it is to avoid Satan’s Grass? So spread the word. Ban it from your home. Bug your friends and relatives about it. Agitate at community egg hunts. Let’s just end this whole business as a really bad idea.

And let us know if you have any other ideas for grass substitutes!

* Okay, plant paranoiacs and nanny-staters, yes, you have to be a little bit cautious to make sure you don’t choose a noxious plant to line your Easter basket,  a plant like poison oak or yew, for instance (unless you’re having a Tim Burton Easter). The vast majority of plants are harmless, particularly if you’re not ingesting them. Just keep the babies from mouthing the greenery, to be safe.

Pesticide sprays are more of a concern than plant toxicity, frankly, so gather from your own yard, or from places you know are not sprayed. 

Or, if you remain concerned, use only food plants from your garden or a neighbor’s, or go to the farmer’s market and have fun picking out herbs, flowers and plant leaves to use in the basket–the vendors can tell you if they are safe.