Solar Oven Triumph: Fluffy Egg Strata

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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.

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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.

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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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Salted Spruce Tips and Pine Infused Garlic Salt

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I’ve been really enjoying homemade seasoned salt lately, especially herb and conifer salts, but also just plain old garlic salt. For me, garlic salt sort of snuck under my DIY radar. If a recipe calls for garlic salt, you reach for the beige stuff in the jar, right? Well, no, actually, it turns out you can make it yourself in two minutes. I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out.

All you have to do is chop any aromatic, like garlic or herbs or citrus zest, into salt, mincing it with a big kitchen knife until it reaches a texture you like. That might be very fine, or a little rough. You could do this more quickly in a food processor. I use kosher salt for this, you could use a fancier salt if you like.

When you’re done, you spread the salt on a plate and leave it out to dry for a day or two. The salt really accelerates the dry time. Then transfer it to a jar. That’s all there is to it.

The only decisions to make are which aromatics you’re going to try–I’ll give some suggestions below–and what your salt to aromatic ratio is going to be.  I can’t give you an exact recipe–it’s something you’ve got to feel out for yourself, knowing all the while that whatever you make will be okay.

Many herb salt recipes suggest equal parts herb and salt, but I often use much less salt than that. The question you must ask is whether you want your end product to be salt which is lightly flavored, or flavor chunks of some aromatic which are enhanced by salt–that is to say, herbed salt or salted herb?

The best approach is to simply start with less salt and see how it goes, because you can always add more.

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Feline assistance in making the pine garlic salt.

A Tale of Two Salts

To give you some concrete examples, I made two small batches of salt today. I often make herbed salt in tiny batches that get used up quickly, because I like to experiment.

The first one I made was with spruce tips. These are the fresh spring growth of a fir tree, the tender chartreuse tips which stand out in such brilliant contrast to the tree’s older foliage. They have a subtle citrus-pine flavor. I only had a handful to work with–I’d like to get more if I can get up to the mountains again soon.

I felt like the spruce was the real star of this blend. I didn’t want its subtle flavor overwhelmed by salt, so I used very little salt.

I also had a bit of pine to work with. I’d been in the mountains for the day, and had been nibbling on every pine I saw, like a lunatic. [See the end for an obligatory safety warning.]

There is surprising flavor variation among conifers, even between trees of the same type growing right next to one another. Moreover, the flavor of a particular tree will fluctuate over the course of the year. If you’re looking for edible pine, you just have to taste test until you find something nice. Most of the pines I found on this outing were really dry despite the season–thank you, drought– and tasted bland or unpleasant. I found one tree which had a decent flavor, and brought home a single cluster of needles.

In this case, I decided the pine flavor was not interesting enough to be the star of the recipe, but I thought it would add a nice twist for garlic salt.

Most herbs, including the soft spruce tips, will sort of blend and mash into the salt, creating a uniform, sandy texture. Pine needles are too tough for that, so the best you can do with them is to chop them into very fine pieces then mix them into the salt. They will infuse the salt with flavor as they sit in it, but will always remain distinct, and if the pieces are too big, it can be unpleasant.

After I minced the needles, I minced some garlic into the salt as well. Chop the garlic about as fine as your patience lasts, keeping in mind that it shrinks when it dehydrates, so it doesn’t have to be super-fine to start.

You can see in these pictures that the garlic/pine salt is much whiter, i.e. much more salt heavy. The spruce tips, meanwhile, are all about the green.

two salts

Pine and garlic on the left,  spruce tip on the right

Other Herbed Salt Ideas

Get creative. You can chop almost anything you like into salt:

• Herbs of all types–dill, sage, parsley, basil, etc. You can recreate classic herb combos, like Herbs de Provence.  

• I haven’t made onion or shallot salt yet, but am wondering why I haven’t.

• Straight garlic salt is easy and useful

• Citrus zest is lovely with salt

• A nice fresh spicy red pepper would make an interesting salt

• Various combinations of the above seem suggestive: citrus and hot pepper, onion and parsley, etc.

• Lavender salt can be really nice if used sparingly on sweets, like caramel or shortbread or chocolate

• Stinging nettles don’t taste like much, but they have lots of nutritional value. Make a healthy green salt with fresh or dry nettles (For fresh, use a food processor, or wear gloves as you chop! The stingers will fade when the plant dries out.)

• Seaweed salt. Add some sesame seeds for furikake-like flavor

• My favorite salt so far has been piñon pine with garlic. I need me some more piñon!

What do you do with it?

Herbed salts are nice on vegetables and popcorn. They can add that extra oomph to soups and stews. They can be used as meat rubs. They can be kept at table and sprinkled on everything.

Regarding pine toxicity

There was a single study that showed that eating Ponderosa pine tips caused miscarriages in cattle, and if the cattle ate huge amounts of Ponderosa pine, they suffered other illnesses. This gets waved around and scares people from eating pine. In contrast to this is a long tradition of humans brewing and drinking pine needle tea in perfect safety. It is my understanding that all true pines (Pinus) are considered edible.

As usual, the answer is all things in moderation. Don’t eat tons of pine. Easily done! It’s not that tasty. And to be absolutely safe, skip pine entirely while you’re pregnant.

In addition, know how to identify two truly toxic trees you might run into, and definitely don’t want to eat: The Australian Pine, also known as Norfolk Pine and the Yew. Neither are actually pines–they’re not members of the Pinus family–but they are sometimes thought of as pines.

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How to Make Your Own DIY Instant Oatmeal

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Long time readers will remember my trauma when I accidentally bought a box of “low-sugar” i.e. artificially sweetened instant oatmeal. I took it on a camping trip unawares, and ended up trapped in the woods with nothing to eat for breakfast except Splenda soaked packets of horror. Frankly, I’d rather be alone in the woods with rabid bears or hook wielding maniacs.

At the time, some of you pointed out, “Umm…why aren’t you making your own darn instant oatmeal, Mrs. Homegrown?” To be sure, you all said it more nicely than that, but this was my takeaway.

Well, you were right. I think the impulse to bring packets of oatmeal camping is the sort of thing which, once inculcated at an early age, is never considered again consciously afterward. But yes, of course one can make their own instant oats, and even pack them up in single serve packets. So last week I took a container of homemade instant oats camping and they were a big hit. They were so much better than the sugar stuff in packets. They were scrumpdillyicious, in fact–toasty, chewy, not too sweet. I liked it so much I’ve decided to keep it around the kitchen for everyday breakfasts.

oats2You’ll need:

4 cups of rolled oats, old fashioned or quick oats. See oat notes below

1/4 cup brown sugar. This much brown sugar will result in something barely sweet, much less sweet than the store brands, which have about 3 teaspoons of white sugar per tiny packet. Of course, you could opt to use no sugar, or more sugar. Or, heaven help us, you could use a sugar substitute.

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup (give or take) of various add-ins of your choice: the dried fruit family: raisins cranberries, apricots, cherries, apples, and freeze dried bananas or strawberries; seeds of different sorts like chia, flax and hemp; additional fiber such as wheat bran, exotic substances like cacao nibs, coconut, candied ginger and powdered milk. Nuts fall into the add-in category too, of course, but personally I like to toast my nuts and store them in a separate container to keep them crunchy until needed, because no one likes soggy nuts. But do as you please.

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Spread oats out on one cookie sheet and toast in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. It’s a good idea to stir them half way through. You want some color, but no burning. This step is not found in all DIY instant oatmeal recipes, but totally worth it for the flavor it adds. I think it also makes the old fashioned oats more digestible.
  3. If using old fashioned oats, remove oats from the oven and grind some portion of them in a blender or food processor. I leave half whole and process the other half until some of the oats turn to fine meal while others are still partially intact. The finely ground bits make the oatmeal more “milky” and cohesive.  This is a personal preference thing–everyone likes their oatmeal in certain ways–dry or wet, lumpy or smooth. (If you’re using quick oats, this step unnecessary because they break down fast when soaked, so they don’t need any mechanical assistance in that direction.)
  4. In a big bowl, recombine your oats (if necessary ) and stir in the sugar, salt and cinnamon.
  5. Stir in your add ins
  6. Transfer to an air tight container, or portion into single serving bags.

To use, just scoop out what you need into a bowl and pour boiling water over the top until it’s as moist as you want it to be (It’s a good idea to give your storage container a shake or stir before using to make sure stuff hasn’t settled out). Let the oats sit for a minute or so to soften up before you tuck in. Add a little more water if it stiffens up too much. I’m sure you could microwave this, I just don’t know how.

I like to put a nice chunk of grassfed butter on top of my oatmeal after its mixed to anchor those carbs with some fat–and this is also when I add my emphatically unsoggy nuts.

I’m mulling over making a savory version of this to use as a quick meal/snack. Something involving a trip to the Japanese market for some seaweed and maybe a bit of instant dashi powder?

A note on oats. There can be confusion over oats. Whole oats are called oat groats. Don’t use those. Steel cut or Irish style oats won’t work either. You want the flattened kind of oat. Those come in two basic categories under different names. In the U.S., the classic kind is called rolled oats or old fashioned oats or some people refer to them as Quaker oats. These are oat groats which have been steamed and then flattened with rollers. The other category is quick oats, also called instant or minute oats. These oats have been steamed, flattened and cooked and then dried again so they cook up super fast. You can use either quick cooking or old fashioned oats in this recipe. The main difference is texture. The old fashioned oats will keep some fight. I like that very much, personally. Instant oats will have a softer texture, more like “real” instant oats.

George Rector: M.F.K. Fisher’s Dirty Old Uncle

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We struck gold in the depths of the library the other day when I dug up Dine at Home with Rector: A book on what men like, why they like it, and how to cook it, by George Rector, c.1937.

Rector (1878-1947) was a restaurateur and popular author. This book is ostensibly a cookbook–I don’t know what else it would be–but it doesn’t have recipes per se. Instead, he just mentions how to cook things as he’s steaming along. I’m in love with the hardboiled yet strangely comforting prose (though I do have to ignore the casual sexism and racism of the period).

Seems most cookbooks these days range from bland to, at best, passionately sincere. Old George is just in it for the fun. The pleasure of reading him is filed in my brain alongside the pleasure of reading M.F.K. Fisher, though he’s more like her dirty old uncle. Which is to say you’d happily read either them even if you have no intention of ever cooking anything ever again.

Speaking of casual sexism, I’m particularly fond of the chapter titled “When the Wife’s Away”, which steps befuddled menfolk from the basics of grilling a steak (“Steak is a good thing to begin on; don’t be scared off because it’s one of the aristocrats of the cow kingdom…”), to how to scramble eggs over a double boiler (“that’s the dingus Junior’s cereal is cooked in…”) to making “that noble experiment known as Rum-Tum Ditty” for the boys when they come over for cards. Rum-Tum-Ditty, I have to say, defies explanation. Let’s just say the ingredients include whipped egg whites, a pound of cheese and a can of tomato soup.

Speaking of befuddled menfolk, Erik is quite fond of this passage about making Hollandaise sauce (from the chapter titled “A Touch of Eggomania”), not least because it has introduced the term “hen fruit” into our lives:

For eggs Benedict, you need Hollandaise sauce, an additional contribution of the hen fruit to the pleasures of the palate, and to the confusion of cooks. Hold on to your hats and we’ll round that curve. Add four egg yolks, beaten to the thick, lemon-colored point, to half a cup of butter melted in a double boiler. Stir as you add the eggs and keep stirring–stir with the calm and temperate perseverance of the mine mule making his millionth trip down the gallery. That’s the secret–that and getting the water in the bottom hot as blazes without ever letting it come to a boil. Just before the mixture gets thick–timing again–put in a tablespoon of lemon juice and cayenne pepper to taste, and I hope and believe you’ll have a crackajack Hollandaise. Which is something to have, because it’s cantankerous stuff, as the tears shed by millions of cooks down the ages all testify.

Easy Scandinavian-Style Bread

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I really like the dense, hearty whole grain loaves which are popular in Germany and Scandinavia and other points north, but which are difficult to find in the U.S.  I’ve come to like these better than the airy kind of bread, as a matter of fact. Fluffy bread doesn’t really seem like real food to me anymore, and white fluffy bread tastes like cotton candy.

Of course, I’m spoiled because Erik is a baker, so he makes me delicious, black hole-dense loaves of sourdough rye. Or at least, he used to. Now he’s on crutches, trying to recover from a bad case of Plantar fasciitis. This means he’s not doing anything in the kitchen anymore, and my bread supply is gone.

Sure, I could wake up his sourdough starter, take on the mantle (or apron?) of Household Baker, and start making these loaves myself, but I’m already taking on extra chores with him off his feet, so I’m not inclined to take up this one as well. Yet we can’t live two months without good bread. What to do?

Fortunately, I’ve found a solution to our bread crisis: a perfectly good yeasted recipe which makes a dense whole grain loaf with minimal effort. No starter. No kneading. No rise time, even. It’s a quick bread, essentially. It takes 5 minutes to mix up, then you plop it into a loaf pan and put it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. That’s it.

It lacks the sour flavor and chewiness you get from developed loaves, true, as well as the health benefits/improved digestibility that comes from the fermentation process. But you know, it’s still very good. And it’s 100% whole grain and packed with healthful seeds. And for a yeasted bread, it keeps well. Our loaves have been lasting at least three days on the counter top, unwrapped.

This isn’t a bread for soaking up sauce, or making fancy sandwiches, because it’s not springy. Instead, it’s a bread for layering with cheese or lox or slices of cucumber and salt. It’s also great toasted. But mostly I’ve just been eating it slathered with that fancy cultured butter that Trader Joe’s has started selling lately.

Now that I’ve got you all excited, I’m not going to write the recipe here, because I’m using it exactly as I found it on The Transplanted Baker. I have nothing to add or change, or any excuse at all to claim it as my own. She calls her version of this recipe (which originated with Nigella Lawson) “Lazy Man’s Bread.” I’ll have to call this blog entry “Lazy Man’s Post.”

See: Lazy Man’s Bread at The Transplanted Baker