So-So Tomatoes Become Excellent When Dried

As we reported earlier, we weren’t thrilled with our cherry tomato choice this summer. They were just plain dull. They were also rather large for a cherry, more like mini-plum tomatoes, which made them awkward for salads. But they were healthy plants, and very, very prolific. In situations like this it is good to remember that tomatoes which don’t taste good off the bush often cook or dry well. The ratio of skin and seeds to pulp in these tomatoes made them a bad candidate for sauce, so we’ve been drying them.

And man, are they good dried. Like tomato candy. It’s very hard not to snack on them, but I’m trying to save them for the depths of winter, when I really miss tomatoes.

We have maybe a couple of quarts of them now. Several years ago we had an absolute disaster involving a pantry moth, its many offspring, and one big jar of dried tomatoes. For this reason I’m storing the dried tomatoes in a series of small jars, to offset the risk. Another good tip for fending off moths is to freeze any food stuff which you suspect might be at risk for 4 days to kill moths and their larvae.

How did we dry our tomatoes, you ask? Usually we use our homemade solar dehydrator, but this year we’ve got a friend’s electric dehydrator on loan. It seemed wicked to run the thing day and night, but it dries a lot faster, and with less work overall, than our solar set-up. (Oh, the wonders of Modern Living!) The one thing I did not like, though, was the constant noise. The dehydrator sounds a little like a running microwave, not loud, but persistent. I was always half-consciously expecting to hear the microwave “ding!” at any moment.

So, while the electric dehydrator let us process this crop of tomatoes in record time, I don’t think we’re going to ever buy one ourselves. Old Betsy, the wonky wooden dehydrator, suits us well enough.

CooKit Solar Cooker Made Out of Wood

The nice folks at Solar Cookers International gave us permission to reprint plans for their CooKit solar cooker in our book Making It. You can access those plans, as well as many other solar cooker projects, for free, on their website here.

I’ve made CooKits out of cardboard and aluminum foil a couple of times. One problem is that I eventually bang up the cardboard and I’ve got to make a new one. This summer I had a lot of  1/4 inch plywood leftover from fixing up Mrs. Homegrown’s writin’ shed. Rather than send that plywood to the dump I decided to make a more permanent CooKit.

I blew up the CooKit pdf from the SCI website using Adobe Illustrator.  I did a tiled printout and taped the pieces together to create a life sized pattern. I used this pattern to cut out the plywood pieces.

I spray glued the aluminum foil to the plywood. Next, I drilled holes in all the pieces and inserted twist ties to, essentially, create little hinges so that I could fold up the CooKit when not in use.

The plywood CooKit folds much better than my cardboard versions did.

This type of “panel” solar cooker works best for things like polenta and rice. Now I’ve got a convenient folding panel cooker for backyard use and camping trips.

Genetically-Engineered Organism Secretes Diesel

Image © Joule Unlimited, Inc.

It sounds like science fiction but according to an article by Jay Lindsay of the Associated Press, A Massachusetts company has a patent on a genetically modified organism that secretes diesel fuel from water, sun and CO2 inputs. Here’s an excerpt:
Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel per acre annually, over four times more than the most efficient algal process for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 a barrel.

Normally I am opposed to genetically modified plants but this would appear to be a contained situation. Would it be a good thing for the planet if we had unlimited diesel fuel? I would guess that the CO2 would be net neutral whatever escapes the exhaust pipe would have had to have gone into the fuel initially – right?

Mass. company making diesel with sun, water, CO2

I’m curious what other people think about this.

Summer of Solar Cookin’


Homegrown Neighbor here:

I was lucky to recently receive a really nice solar cooker from a family friend. Apparently it had been sitting in her garage for a while, and I was happy to take it off of her hands.
The model is called an SOS Sport. It is a box style cooker with a black interior and clear, insulated lid. It also has a removable reflector to help concentrate the light in the box. The reflector is helpful, but I’ve seen the temperature get up to nearly 200 degrees without it during the middle of the day. It came with two round 3 quart pots, so it can cook up quite a lot of food.
Summer is here and it is nice and sunny in Southern California. And way too hot to turn on an oven. So I am embarking on a summer of solar cooking fun. I’ve made a few peach cobblers in the solar cooker, but mostly I use it to cook beans.
I love beans. They are inexpensive, hearty and filling. I keep my pantry stocked with at least two or three different types of dried beans and lentils at all times. I’m usually away all day at work and too exhausted at the end of the day to do much cooking.
I often slump into a chair in the garden at the end of the day, gazing at the veritable cornucopia of vegetables before me, wishing someone would harvest them and make me dinner.
The solar cooker is perfect for someone like me because I can load it up in the morning, leave it all day, and when I come home I have a great meal hot and ready. So it is kind of like a crock pot or slow cooker, just using solar energy instead of electricity. I’ve made a lot of black beans in it, but I’ve also used it to cook pintos, adzukis, mung beans and white beans. I usually grab a sprig of an herb or a bay leaf from the garden to throw in the pot.
Here is what I made today:
Solar Powered Navy Beans

2 cups navy beans
a handful of celery leaves
5 garlic cloves, whole
1/4 cup pickled red onion (just sliced red onion soaked overnight in white wine vinegar- delicious with everything)
Lots of water- maybe 4-5 cups
You want to make sure to use plenty of water. Beans absorb a lot of water as they rehydrate and the solar cooker looses some moisture as it cooks. So err on the side of extra water.
I’m not much of one for measuring. The great thing about making beans, soups and stews is you can add a pinch of this and a sprig of that and adjust the flavoring as you go. It is very forgiving.
I put the pot in the solar cooker around 10 a.m. and got home around 6 p.m. The pot was still nice and warm but not too hot. The beans were the perfect eating temperature. I had a lovely dinner and I’ll have leftovers for several days. I love easy meals. I’m going car camping next week and I’m thinking of taking the solar cooker with me. I think I’ll try a vegetarian chili for the camping trip. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Sundiner

Beekeeper Dennis made one of those once in a lifetime garage sale finds earlier this year: a solar oven from the 1960s called the “Sundiner.” I couldn’t find much on the interwebs about it except for a brief mention in the  April 1963 issue of Desert Magazine,

“Here’s a new product that suits desert living as few others can—it collects and concentrates the heat of the sun and allows outdoor cooking without fuel or fire. They call it the Sundiner. The technical description is “Solar Energy Grill.” Sundiner is a compact unit, 17-inches square and 6inches tall. Fold-out mirrors are metalized Mylar plastic, supported by polypropylene holders. The mirrors focus the sun’s heat on the lower section of the cabinet, where heat slowly builds up to a maximum of about 450 degrees—plenty to cook with. Directly below the apex of the mirrors is an oven enclosure. Plastic foam insulation and a pair of glass plates prevent excessive heat loss. The solar energy grill works in this simple way: point the mirrors toward the sun for a few minutes until the right temperature is reached (built-in heat indicator dial) and pop a tray of food into the oven. There is no fire or fuel to handle. Sole source of cooking stems from the collected, concentrated rays of the sun. Here is a sample of how long various meats take to cook: Hamburgers, franks, and fish, 15 to 20 minutes. Steaks and fillets, 20 to 25 minutes. Quartered chicken, 25 to 30 minutes. Temperature variations are possible by turning the Sundiner toward or away from the sun. The advantage of the Sundiner is that it can be used as a safe substitute for a fuel-fired stove on beaches, parks, decks of boats, and other restricted areas. Carrying handles are standard. The price is $29.95. From Sundiner. Carmer Industries. Inc., 1319 West Pico Blvd.. Los Angeles 15. Calif.”

That price would be about $207.62 today, just under what the very similar Global Sun Oven Solar Cooker costs.

When collapsed the Sundiner resembles, unsurprisingly, a 1960s era portable record player.

Dig that groovin’ temperature dial.

 The instructions are printed on the inside cover.

I can almost taste the heavy nitrites in those 1960s hot dogs.

For more vintage solar thoughtstylings see Life Magazine’s “Solar Power Back in the Day.”

Another Panel Solar Cooker

Poyourow demoing her solar cooker design

There’s no one size fits all solution when it comes to the world of solar panel cookers. All have their advantages and disadvantages. I got an email from author Joanne Poyourow, leader of the amazing Los Angeles Environmental Change Makers, with a simple and effective design she came up with.

Pouyourow’s cooker comes together much faster than the CooKit design that I blogged about earlier this week. There’s hardly any cuts to make and no glue needed. Her design makes use of a car sunshade which can be picked up cheap at your local 99¢ store. The sunshade is more durable than aluminum foil glued to cardboard. While you can also fashion a sunshade alone into a solar panel cooker, I’ve found that they don’t stand up well in even a moderate wind.

Plans for Poyourow’s cooker can be found here (pdf).

She also has a list of solar cooking resources here.

And yes, for most North Americans this is the wrong time of year to be blogging on this topic since, as the sun gets lower in the horizon, solar panel cooking season is almost over. But I’ve got a backlog of summer R&D to share. Stay tuned for the ups and downs of our summer gardening, a bike accident story and a taste test of beer made with our homegrown hops . . .

CooKit Solar Panel Cooker


I’ve been experimenting with a nice panel solar cooker for the past week and, so far, the results are impressive. Called the CooKit, it was developed in 1994 by a group of engineers and solar cooking enthusiasts associated with Solar Cookers International and based on a design by Roger Bernard.

It has a couple of nice features:

  • It produces ample heat to cook rice and simple casseroles.
  • When you fold it up it takes up no more space than an album (do I have to explain what an album is for the youngsters out there?).
  • A flat area on the base of the CooKit makes weighting it down with rocks easy. This is really important in windy places.
  • All you need to build it is a knife, cardboard, aluminum foil and glue.

As with all panel solar cookers you need an black enamelware pot wrapped in a turkey roasting bag to hold in the heat. You ain’t gonna deep fry things with a panel cooker, but they are great for slow-cooked crock pot type dishes. The only disadvantage to this design is having to cut curves, but with a sharp knife it wasn’t difficult. The other improvement would be a stand to lift the pot off the aluminum foil for more efficiency and to keep the cooker un-scuffed. When panel cooker season returns to LA in the springtime, you can bet I’ll be making a lot of rice with this thing.

Detailed instructions for how to build a CooKit can be found here.

Also, Mrs. Homegrown and I are writing a new book and we’d like to include some plans for solar cookers (any kind). If you’ve got a favorite DIY model, leave a comment with a link.

Another view with curious Doberman in the foreground:

Build a Solar Dehydrator


Like many of you, I suspect, we’ve got a few too many tomatoes at this time of the year. One of our favorite ways to preserve our modest harvest is with our solar dehydrator. There’s nothing like the taste of sun dried tomatoes, but unless you live in a very dry desert climate like Phoenix, Arizona you can’t just set fruit out in the sun and expect it to do anything but go moldy. In most places in the world, including here in Los Angeles, the relative humidity is too high to dry things out in the sun. Solar dehydrators work by increasing air flow to dry out the food. The one we built uses a clever strategy to get air moving without the use of electric fans such as you’d find in your typical store bought electric dehydrator.

Our solar dehydrator is constructed out of plywood and consists of a heat collector containing a black metal screen housed in a box with a clear plastic top. This screen heats up on a sunny day and feeds hot air into a wooden box above it. Vents at the bottom and the top of the contraption create an upward airflow through natural convection (hot air rises). You put the food on screen covered trays in the upper box. With sliced tomatoes it takes about two full days of drying and you have to take the food indoors at night to prevent mold from growing (a minor inconvenience). We built our dehydrator several years ago and have used it each season for tomatoes, figs and for making dried zucchini chips.

You can find plans for this “Appalachian Dehydrator”, designed by Appalachian State University’s Appropriate Technology Program, in the February/March 1997 issue of Home Power Magazine. The February/March 1999 issue of Home Power features a refinement of this plan, but we just built the original design and it works fine. The original plans and improvements to those plans are split between two articles: Issue #57 and Issue #69. You need to download and read through both before building this dehydrator. . Alternatively, the always excellent Build it Solar website has a whole bunch of solar dehydrator designs, including a nice cardboard version. And while you’re in the library there’s also a book by Eben Fodor, The Solar Food Dryer.

As an added bonus to the tinkerers out there, take almost any of these designs, remove the top box, stick it in a window and you’ve got a passive solar room heater.

Camping and Solar Cooking

I’m a big fan of backpacking sufferfests, which often involve a long drive followed by hiking thousand of feet up and over challenging, rocky terrain. The sense of accomplishment and breathtaking scenery is always worth the effort, but something is also to be said for an alternate camping scenario we’ve taken to recently, involving loading up our cargo bike (the amazing Xtracycle) and biking to our destination, all the while carrying almost as much as we would car camping. After rolling into our campground, we’ll spend the weekend kicking back at the campsite, taking it easy and pretty much not going anywhere or doing anything. With the carrying capacity of the cargo bike, we can get fancy with the food and libations, allowing us to skip the usual dehydrated camping chow.

These sittin’ around type of trips, or even a lazy Sunday afternoon at home, are the perfect occasion to deploy a solar cooker. Best of all you can build a solar cooker yourself for pennies out of cardboard and aluminum foil. For some foods, such as rice, it’s actually easier to cook with a solar cooker than it is on a stovetop. Put some rice in a pot, place the pot in the solar panel cooker, stick it out in the sun and two hours later you have lunch.

Read the rest at The Cleanest Line via the Patagonia Company.