Deep Frying in a SolSource Solar Cooker

We did a little deep frying test of the SolSource Solar Cooker (provided to us by the manufacturer) and made us some beignets this morning. As Kelly says in the video, a little known fact is that solar cooked deep fried dough pillows won’t make you gain weight. Never! Really!! (Not.)

But they are mighty good! The test worked out really well and now we want to do something fun with it, like take the solar cooker to the streets and make donuts for The People!

We’re also really pleased to find that we can hit deep frying temperatures with the cooker, even in November. We’ll be doing more videos about solar cooking in the coming weeks.

The beignet recipe we used comes from King Arthur Flour. Note that we have a new Youtube channel. Please do us a favor and subscribe!

Solar recipe review: Moroccan Chickpea Tagine (Works on the stovetop, too)

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If you’ve got canned goods on hand, this is a super fast and easy solar oven recipe. It’s also very much like many a quick bean-based stews I’ve thrown together on the stove top over the years. If you don’t have a solar oven, or if its cloudy outside, you can certainly make this on the stove. I’ll add notes about that at the end.

This recipe comes from the Solavore recipe collection, which is the best collection of solar recipes I’ve found on the internet. I’ve found you have to be really careful with random solar recipes found on the internet–well, you need to be cautious with any recipe found on the internet, but since I’m new to solar cooking my radar that tells good recipes from bad is impaired. Witness a truly appalling, chalky, brick-like cornbread I made a couple of weeks ago, following instructions found on some random prepper type site.

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Inedible solar cornbread. I shudder in remembrance.

Meanwhile, even if I haven’t loved every recipe I’ve tried at the Solavore site, none I’ve tried are technical failures.

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The is a link to their Moraccan Chickpea Tagine.  I’m just sending you there for the recipe because I don’t have any significant changes to make, so no excuse for copying it here.

It is simply onion, carrot, garlic and can of chickpeas and a can of tomatoes and some spices.  You just dump these all into one pan, stir them up, cover the pan and leave it in a solar cooker for 3 or 4 hours.

The ingredients are so basic that you can likely pull this out of your pantry right now. If you have fresh cooked beans or your own canned tomatoes it would be all that much better, but this is a good recipe for busy days.

The resulting stew is comfort food, spicy and sweet. My one critique is that it is perhaps a little too sweet. It calls for raisins or currants, and I used raisins. The raisins ended up being preternaturally sweet–perhaps due to the slow cooking? They’d be fantastic in a bread pudding, but I found them overwhelming in this dish. Perhaps if I’d made the dish more hot-spicy that would have counterbalanced the sweetness. But at any rate, next time I will either leave out the raisins or sub them with something a little more tart, like chopped dried apricots.

If you don’t have a solar oven all you’d have to do to adapt this recipe is start by sauteing the onions and garlic and carrots till they soften, then add in canned chickpeas and tomatoes and spices. Bring to a simmer and cook, maybe covered, until everything is hot and the beans have softened a little and the flavors have had time to blend: approximately 1/2 hour. Add a little broth or water if things are looking dry in the pan.

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Best veggies to cook in a solar oven

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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
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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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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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SolSource Review Part I: Assembly

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When we wrote our second book, Making It, I wanted to include a parabolic solar cooker project. I found a castoff satellite TV dish and covered it with aluminum foil. The problem was how to position a cooking surface in front of it while simultaneously tracking the sun. If you knew how to weld this might be possible– if still a challenging project. I just couldn’t figure out a way to do it without custom welding and gave up on my dream of solar grilling.

That fire, so to speak, has been reignited by the folks at One Earth Designs, who sent us their SolSource solar grill for testing, as part of our solar cooking initiative this summer. This device is different than a solar oven in that it does not function like a slow cooker, but as a high-heat grill. Arguments could be made that a well-outfitted solar kitchen needs both an oven and grill. More on that later!

We’re going to break our initial review of the SolSource into a couple of parts, starting with assembly.

But first, a few basic things so you know what you’re looking at. The SolSource is a parabolic mirror with a clever central cutout to allow easy access to the cooking surface. The sun’s rays are directed beneath a pot/frying pan support, so that all the cooking heat is focused on a single spot at the bottom of the cooking pot or pan.

A small mirror in the center of the assembly helps you keep the light focused in the correct place. You refocus the sunlight by rotating the whole assembly, which move easily on two separate axes.

I have assembled and disassembled the SolSource twice. I shot a time-lapse of the second assembly which I accomplished in 33 minutes. It would probably take a little longer the first time. The grill went together easily using the the provided Ikea-like pictographic instructions. The SolSource comes with two wrenches and no additional tools are needed.

If I wanted to take the SolSource on the road for a picnic or solar tailgate party I would probably not fully disassemble it. The disc and the grill assembly come apart easily into two parts and that’s how I would stash it into my chariot to go on the road.

Los Angeles’ usual June cloud cover has suddenly vanished and a record setting heat wave is set to arrive this weekend–perfect timing for testing the SolSource. (Though, honestly, this heat wave looks so nasty we might able to cook just by setting the food out on the patio!)

The SolSource retails for $499.00. It can be purchased at the One Earth Designs site (shipping is free) and also at Amazon.

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