Best veggies to cook in a solar oven

artichoke

Crispy artichokes: strange but good

Straight up veggies are perhaps the easiest thing to cook in a solar oven, and may be a good way to get started if you are a little intimidated by solar cooking

Sun oven proponents claim that sun ovens cook veggies better than any other device, because they can be cooked dry, and the slow heat brings out their flavor. This is true to some extent.

This is what I’ve learned about sun oven veggies. The cooking results are analogous to steaming. Vegetables which do well with steam cooking do well when tossed into a sun oven. Now, some people may counter that all veggies do well when steamed. Many people eat most of their veggies steamed as a matter of course. I do not. I rarely steam my food. I think most vegetables do better when they lose water and caramelize a bit (e.g. cauliflower , carrots, Brussels sprouts, zucchini) I’m a big fan of roasting and sauteing vegetables, and only like a few vegetables in their steamed form.

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Brussels sprouts and cauliflower before cooking

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The same after. Not a failure, exactly, but just …bland and wet, as steamed vegetables always taste to me. Note the color of the cauliflower. That is not oven-browning, but rather the slight discoloration that some vegetables pick up in the solar oven. The color of the Brussels sprouts is due to a Schiracha sauce, which did not counterbalance their mushy Brussel-sproutsness. These guys have to be roasted, IMHO

So you can see this is all going to be a matter of taste, but be assured you can cook any vegetable a solar oven, and if steaming is one of your favorite cooking methods, you’re in luck.

Generally speaking you just throw any veggie in a covered pan and let them steam in their own juices. In some cases it helps to add a smidge of water to bottom of the pan.

Vegetables which I give my personal seal of approval for solar oven cooking are, for me, those vegetables I happily eat steamed. These foods also happen to be very summery vegetables, well suited to backyard entertaining and as companions to grilled foods:

  • Potatoes
  • Artichokes
  • Corn on the cob
potatoes

Baked potatoes and lentil stew

HOW TO:

Baked Potatoes

This is the easiest of the easy. Just wash off a couple of big russets and tuck them into a covered pan. Potatoes cook in about 4 hours when temps are approximately 250-300 F. This will vary, of course, depending on potato size and oven temp. Stab the potatoes to test for doneness. Don’t be afraid to leave them in there as long as it takes for them to be truly done. They won’t burn.

Erik and I have re-discovered the baked potato craze of our high school days, where you could go to the mall and get a baked spud with any variety of unhealthy things piled on top of it. We’ve been making southwest style potatoes piled with black beans, salsa, cheese and sour cream.

Corn on the Cob

You don’t need to shuck the corn. You don’t need to soak the husks. You don’t even need a covered pan. You can just put some ears on the floor of your oven (or on a tray). You can tuck them around pans cooking other things. I’ve even heard you can also pile them up, fill the whole oven with cobs. I’ve not done this, so don’t know how that would effect cooking times.

But if you put in a single layer of corn on the cob, husks intact, into a pre-heated oven and cook it around the 250F mark, the corn will be ready  to eat in an hour. It’s that easy. If your corn is truly fresh and sweet, it can and should be eaten almost raw, so don’t overcook it.

To get the silk off, cut off the stem end grab hold of the silk and and sort of squeeze from that end, toward the cut end. You should be able to get the corn to disengage from the husks pretty cleanly.

My favorite way to eat corn on the cob is Mexican style, which involves buttering the cob then smearing mayo on it, then sprinkling it with chili powder, salt and a squeeze of lime.

Artichokes

Artichokes have been more of an adventure, but a good adventure. I’ve not been able to find instructions I like for artichokes in the sparse online world of solar cooking resources.

The first round of artichokes I cooked looked like a failure but were actually successful. What I did that time was simply throw them in a covered pot and left them for 2 hours at around 250F.

When I went to check on them, I was appalled to see that they’d turned brown. They looked roasted. Their outer leaves were dried out and hard.

But I took them inside and tried one of those crispy outer leaves. The flesh at the base was succulent and sweet, even extra artichoke-y in flavor. In short, really good! I devoured that artichoke, brown and crispy as it was.

I theorized that it was over-cooked. Perhaps it had been done cooking, and still pleasantly soft, after an hour. I hadn’t checked at the one hour mark, so I didn’t know. I tried another round.

Not so. At one hour a stab test to the base proved artichokes need more cooking time. But they’d already started browning. Some vegetables discolor when cooked in solar ovens. Seems artichokes are one of those vegetables.

While the crispy form of the artichoke is very edible, I found a work around for this. Just pour about 1/4 inch of boiling water into the bottom your cooking pot before setting the choke out in the oven. (You may be able to start with cold water, but I used hot water to jump start the process.) The steam produced by this water keeps the artichoke leaves softer, and lessens the browning somewhat, makes the final product look more like a “normal” cooked artichoke.

So, to recap, make artichokes by cooking them in a covered pan at around 250F for around 2 hours. It helps to cover the bottom of the pan with hot water, to produce steam, to keep the artichoke leaves softer. If you forget, it will still be edible. Test by stabbing the stem end with a fork. It should be very tender. Don’t be afraid to extend the cooking time, as an al dente artichoke is no fun. You won’t overcook it.

My next step will be to add garlic cloves to the steaming water to see if that infuses the artichokes at all.

If you are looking for more solar recipes, I’d point you toward the Solavore website. They have an archive of sweet and savory recipes.

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Cold brewed tisanes, teas and coffee: Your summertime best friends

drink

Cold brewed coffee is all the thing these days. And you’ve probably heard that we’re not supposed to make sun tea anymore, but fridge tea instead–which is cold brewed tea. In fact, cold brewing allows you to  throw just about anything you’d brew hot into cold water instead, refrigerate it overnight and end up with something refreshing, cold and delicious to drink the next day.

Proponents of cold brewing point out that though it takes longer than hot brewing, it preserves the more delicate scents and flavors of whatever you’re brewing, and minimizes the bitter and vegetal overtones which come from heating and from overbrewing.

Most importantly from my standpoint, you don’t have to heat water. You don’t have to get anywhere near the stove, and the finished product is nice and cold and ready to guzzle.

Cold Mint Tea

My everyday summertime fridge staple is cold mint tea (tisane, technically). I make this by simply throwing a handful of dried mint leaves (harvested from my rangy mint plant) into a jar, adding filtered water, and leaving it in the fridge for the length of a day, or overnight. Then I strain the tea to remove the leaves and keep the tea in the fridge. I never measure anything. You can make the tea stronger and dilute it to taste if necessary, or make it very weak, so it’s just cold water with a delicate breath of mint to it. It’s good no matter what you do. If you don’t have a mint plant, use a couple of mint tea bags.

Jamaica

If you don’t mind a little added sugar in your bev, jamaica (hibiscus flower tea) is a really nice summer drink, tart and sweet and refreshing. And as a bonus, my herbalism teacher tells me all that rich red flower power is good for you, too.

You can buy bags of dried hibiscus/jamaica flowers inexpensively in the spice aisle of any Latin market, in the same area where you’d find dried peppers and the like. If you can’t find the flowers, you may be able to find bagged hibiscus tea.

Cold brew jamaica by placing about a 1/2 cup of the dried flowers into a quart jar and top with water. I am ever grateful to The Kitchn for turning me on to the idea of adding a cinnamon stick to this brew. Cinnamon adds a really nice, sophisticated touch to the flavor. (The whole article is worth a read for some in-depth jamaica talk.) Let this sit overnight, or most of the day, strain and add sweetener to taste. It’s easiest to use simple syrup.

A taste of the wild

Our friend Pascal, who is on our podcast this week, usually shows up at parties with a big jug of cold infusions of foraged plants. He talks about this in his book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine. He uses whatever is in season at the time, an eclectic mix that may include wild mints, elderflowers, conifers like white fir and pine, herbs like black sage and berries of all sorts. Sometimes he adds less-wild ingredients, like lemons or honey. He leaves all these things swirling around in the jug at table, so that the sight of the infusion is almost as arresting as the taste.

Pascal’s beautiful infusions should give you the courage to grab a few things from your garden and see what happens.

Spa water

If you’re not up for infusing the entire forest into your drinking water, what about cucumbers? It’s easy to forget how good simple infusions are to have around. A few cucumber slices, a cup of watermelon chunks, a handful raspberries–all these things make iced water a little more fun. Just use whatever you have leftover on any given day–that spare half of a lemon, a melon slice that no one seems to want, that extra handful of herbs. My favorite Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, Cacao, puts sprigs of rosemary in its table water.

Other herbal experiments

Experiment with other teas and herbs you have in your cupboard. For instance, I quite like cold brewed chamomile tea. Erik does not, however. Tastes do vary! Any of your favorite bagged hot teas might be good cold. It’s a good way to use them up if your tea collection is taking over your kitchen cabinet.

A healthy if decidedly green tasting option is dried nettle cold brew. Cold brewed nettles taste a little less like a cook vegetable than hot brewed nettles. Sometimes I mix nettles and mint half and half, to make the nettles a little more sprightly.

Extreme wonkery over iced tea and iced coffee

I am a lazy person. I enjoy sitting in my proverbial armchair and reading about other people’s obsessive quests to make things like the perfect cold brewed iced tea, but when it comes time to make it myself, I always end up just throwing a few things together and seeing what happens.

I always enjoy the experiments in the Food Lab over at the Serious Eats site, and I send you there if you want to up your fridge tea game:

The Tea Lover’s Way to Make the Best Cold Brewed Iced Tea

For The Best Sun Tea, Forget the Sun

(Amusingly, the different authors don’t exactly agree on the best route to iced tea, which only reinforces my laissezfaire attitude. But they’re great reads.)

And here’s their take(s) on cold brewing coffee:

It’s Time to Make Cold Brewed Coffee

Or maybe not?

What’s the Best Way to Brew Iced Coffee?

So brew yourself up something refreshing, find yourself a seat in the shade, and enjoy the summer!

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Plenty of choices

watershelfOur market-driven economy enshrines consumer choice as one of its highest virtues. The other day I was standing in line at the grocery store, looking at the bottled water, and I just had to take a snapshot of what I was seeing. This is only a portion of the water case.

I can buy water from Italy or France or Fiji or Hawaii or Iceland. I can buy water with odd molecular super powers: it’s oxygenated or alkaline or…something? Buying a bottle of water in certain stores in Los Angeles in the year 2016 can be as exquisitely nuanced a process as buying a bottle of wine.

When it comes to buying water, I have tons of choices–as long as I have no problem with generating utterly unnecessary plastic waste, or with flying my drinking water across the world (a gesture that even Marie Antoinette may have found excessive), or with paying exorbitant sums for this folly.

In other words, I am perfectly free to buy into this group psychosis which is our contemporary culture.

What I cannot have is a free sip of water from a functioning water fountain. They are as rare as hen’s teeth in these parts-or perhaps I should say, rare as pay phones.

What I cannot have is tap water in my home which I can drink without filtering it.

What I cannot have is clean water running in my streams and rivers, or even an ocean clean enough to forage from. Sometimes, it’s not even clean enough to swim in it.

But oh yes, I have plenty of choice.

mtwilsonfountain

A beautiful fountain at Mt. Wilson Observatory. Like most beautiful old drinking fountains in public places, it is no longer functioning.

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Solar Oven Triumph: Fluffy Egg Strata

strata3

Yesterday I made the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in a long time, and I cooked it in our Solavore Sport solar oven.

It’s an egg strata. I’ve never made a strata before, so making one in a solar oven seemed a bit risky, but I was rich in eggs and stale bread and the sun was out, so I decided to try.

For those of you don’t know, an egg strata is a casserole-type dish, typically served at brunch, which is composed of bread, eggs, cheese, butter and milk. It is indeed a fat bomb. But you know what? Fat is not evil.

My inspiration for this experiment came from a post called Six Beginner Recipes for Solar Ovens on the Eartheasy blog.

strata2I wasn’t going to write out a recipe at all, instead referring you back to Eartheasy, but now that I think about it, I made some changes so that the strata would fit in the pot which comes with the Solavore Sport, so I’ll write that up at the end for folks who are interested. Before that, though, I want to talk about solar cooking in general.

To be honest, learning to use a solar oven is not very straightforward. In a way, it feels like learning how to cook all over again, but with the handicap of not knowing how long any dish should spend in the oven.

Imagine if back when you were making your first batch of cookies, your mom’s old Betty Crocker told you they would be done anywhere between one and four hours. Or perhaps the recipe would not even include a time or temperature recommendation, but just said the cookies would be done when they were done. Can you imagine your tears?

Welcome to solar cooking. Recipes are guidelines or even hints rather than instructions. You have to learn to judge the weather, the timing, the temperature and the type of food to determine how long a dish should cook, or indeed, if that particular dish should even be attempted that day.

For instance, we have still not had success in cooking a pot of beans in the solar oven (more on that in a future post)–but we do at least know that bean cooking is an all day venture.You have to get the pot in the oven early, and the sun has to be out all day. But other dishes may only need two to three hours of cooking. Morning cooking is more of a “sure thing” while starting a dish at noon is risky, but possible. You learn to plan accordingly.

Another learning curve is figuring out what kind of foods do well in a solar oven. Eggs, it turns out, really like solar ovens! This is logical, because eggs do well when cooked low and slow. (Have you ever tried the Eggs Francis Picabia recipe in the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook?) I think any kind of quiche/egg pie/strata type recipe will do well in a sun oven, and intend to explore this more.

The Eartheasy egg strata recipe was precise for a solar recipe–it said it should cook at 325 F for 60 to 90 minutes. My oven did not get to 325 F. Despite having solar reflectors on, it was operating at 250 F, so it took longer–2 hours and 40 minutes in total.

strata4

The egg soup from which this glory arose

These are my notes from the process. I find notes help prevent future mistakes. And I think this gives you a sense of what it is like to work with a solar oven.

9:30 AM- 10:30AM: Preheated the oven to 300. Pro-tip: preheating solar ovens is not absolutely necessary, but really helps speed things up. Meanwhile, the strata soaked in the fridge, which is very good for it.

10:30 AM: Strata in. Temperature dropped to 250 from opening door. The strata is in a black enamel pan with a lid. It is chilled. Reflectors and clips are on. Nothing else is cooking in there at the same time.

11:30 AM: Oops! Left it too long unattended while I screwed around on the internet. It got off center with the sun. That, combined with the coldness of the pot has dropped the oven temperature to 225 F. This is not a disaster–it just means the cooking has slowed down. As long as you keep the oven temp. above 180 F (82 C), the food is cooking and bacteria is not growing. I re-center it with the sun. (All this means is you look at the shadow of the oven. If you see a big shadow coming off one side, it’s not centered. You should see almost no shadow.) The temperature started climbing again as soon as I repositioned the oven.

12:30 PM: Two hours in, still 250 F. Don’t know what’s up with that, why I can’t get back to 300 F or above, but it is plenty hot enough to cook. I open up the oven and check progress inside the pot. It looks surprisingly good–the eggs have puffed up and it looks firm on top. I judge it to be almost but not quite done. I could have done a toothpick test, but was too lazy to go back in the house and get one.

1:10 PM: I check it again, and now it is gorgeous, definitely done. It has pulled away from the sides of the pot and gained a nice brown finish on top, which I did not think would happen. I had expected something more like a steamed pudding, frankly.

Unable to believe I had made something so pretty in a sun oven, I danced into the house carrying my prize in mitted hands. Unfortunately, Erik had gone off to deal with a plumbing emergency at his mom’s house, so did not get in on the strata lunch party.

Sad that Erik was missing this, but strangely happy in my primitive backbrain to have the whole thing to myself, I cut myself a huge slice. It was amazingly fluffy and light and decadently rich at the same time. I cut myself a second piece. And then a third. And then I made myself stop before I got sick. Do you know how when something is really good you just want to keep eating even though you know you are quite full? That was my relationship to this strata: disfunctional, yet beautiful.

strata1

Here she is in the oven at the 2 hr and 40 minute mark, ready to come out.

Solavore Sport Strata (based on the Eartheasy Strata)

Serves at least 4-6, more if you have other things to eat

The main adjustment I made to the Eartheasy recipe was in adding more eggs and milk, because the enamel pots which come with the Sport are pretty big, and I found that the original recipe’s quantities didn’t quite cover the bread. It’s normal to have some bread poking up out of the mix, like glaciers in an eggy sea, but you don’t want the bread left high and dry. If you’d prefer a more modest 5 egg recipe, follow the link.

Thankfully, our hens have been busy, so I have more eggs than I know what to do with!

One last note: I added a 1/2 cup or so of cooked asparagus because I had it on hand (that’s the green stuff in the pics) but I don’t think it added a lot to the dish, flavor-wise, and it got overcooked in the process. I suspect it would have been better if it had gone in raw. I’m not including it as a recipe ingredient.

Ingredients:

• Fresh or stale bread, enough to cover the bottom of the cooking pot in two layers. Crusts are okay, they add texture–more crusts=more rustic. You can cut it up any way you want to make it work. There does not have to be complete coverage. I used two stale sandwich-sized sourdough rolls for mine.• 2-3 cups grated cheese. I used half good cheddar and half good Parmesan, because that was what was in the fridge.
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
A couple of sprigs of fresh thyme (leaves stripped, stems discarded)
• 2 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for baking dish
• 8 large eggs
• 2.5- 3 cups milk (I kept topping it off so I kind of lost track of the exact quantity. Also, I used an equal mix of half n’ half and water because I didn’t have milk.)
• 1 teaspoon sea salt (This was a smidge too much, probably due to the Parmesan being salty. I’d use less next time, unless my cheeses were more mild.)
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Equipment:

You need one lidded cooking dish for solar cooking. I made this recipe in one of the 9″ round enamel pots which come with the Solavore Sport oven.

How-to:

Start by greasing the pan with some butter.

Next cover the the bottom of the pan with one layer of bread. Sprinkle half of the the cheese over the bread. Lay down the second layer of bread and cover that with the rest of the cheese. As I said above, don’t sweat it if there are gaps between the bread slices, or if it overlaps. It’s all good.

Next beat all those eggs, then mix all the rest of the ingredients: the milk, the melted butter, the herbs, the salt n’ pepper.

Pour the egg mix over the bread. Let it soak in. The bread might float a bit before it takes enough water aboard to sink. You should have pretty good coverage of the bread. A little poking above the eggs is fine.

The bread needs time to soak so it really breaks down. The magical thing about strata is that the bread and egg and cheese meld into one, creating a magical new substance if given a chance. So give it an hour at least– or better, make it the night before you cook.

Cook this covered in a pre-heated solar oven. At temperatures above 300F it may cook in as little as 60 to 90 minutes. Around 250 F, it may take 2. 5 hours. Lower than that? Longer! Just keep it above 180 F. Look for the top to be firm and dry. Ideally it should brown a little and even pull away from the sides of the pan.

Variations: Of course you can add in vegetables or cooked breakfast meats like ham or bacon or sausage.  As per my note above, I found my cooked asparagus overcooked by the end, so more delicate veggies could probably start off raw.

As I was eating, I found myself fantasizing about a 70’s style “Mexican” strata with diced canned jalapenos mixed through it, served with salsa and heaven help us…sour cream. More fat! On reflection, I think this notion might be a an actual childhood memory. The ghost of brunches past.

I also think that a bit of Dijon mustard would have added a nice touch to the flavor, just a spoonful, stirred into the egg mix at the beginning (though not with the hypothetical jalapeno variation!). I’m going to try that next time.

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