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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087 Foraging Controversy with Lisa Novick

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Goldfinches on Hooker’s Evening Primrose. Photo: Lisa Novick.

On the podcast this week we talk to Lisa Novick Director of Outreach and K-12 Education of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants. We contacted her after seeing her blog in the Huffington Post, Forage in the Garden, Not in What’s Left of the Wild. In that post Lisa expresses her concern about foraging and suggests that people grow native plants in their yards and in public spaces. While our conversation is California-centric, I think, the principles we discuss apply to other regions. During the podcast Lisa mentions:

Hooker's Evening Primrose in bloom. Photo: Lisa Novick.

Hooker’s Evening Primrose in bloom. Photo: Lisa Novick.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

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Restoring the Original Black Box: Our Western Electric 534A Subset

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Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa invented a word, “Thomasson,” for a “useless and defunct object attached to someone’s property and aesthetically maintained.” The term is named, somewhat unfairly, after baseball player Gary Thomasson, who spent the last two seasons of his career in Japan nearly tying the league strikeout record despite being the most highly paid player in the country at the time.

When we bought our house in 1998 it contained one genuine Thomasson in a dark corner of the hallway: a phone ringer box. Somehow, over the years, the previous residents never bothered to remove the box but did feel the need to touch up the metal with a not so good black paint job.

The box in question is a Western Electric 534A ringer box. Candlestick phones in the 1920s did not have enough internal space to squeeze in a ringer so the bells were mounted in a separate box in a central location in the house. This particular ringer box was manufactured between the years 1918 and 1930 and replaced earlier wooden models. Phone expert Ralph O. Meyer speculates that the Western Electric 534 ringer box may be where we get the term “black box” from (flight recorders are bright orange, not black). Ringer boxes and the phones that went with them were also one of the first consumer electronic devices.

There’s a handsome variation on this box. Add a dial, transmitter and receiver to the 534A and you’ve got a wall or “hotel” phone:

Image: Kenton's Antiques.

Image: Kenton’s Antiques.

Ever since we moved in to our house, I’ve wanted to “un-Thomasson” our Western Electric 534A and make the bells ring again. In an earlier attempt at repair I, unfortunately, lost a few of the parts. But thankfully, after some library and internet research I figured out what was missing and got the box ringing again. For the one or two phone geeks in our audience, I replaced the missing capacitor with a new 1uF mylar/film capacitor in series. The capacitor prevents the phone line from going off-hook while allowing the ring signal to go through. I also had to replace a spring and adjust the spacing between the bells. Since these boxes were owned by the phone company, solidly built and meant to be fixed (unlike the cheap crap we buy these days) all of the adjustments to the ringer were relatively easy to make.

For your listening pleasure I posted a video of the interior of our ringer box in action. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it sounded like when the phone rang in 1920s:

And, yes, I will be making this available as a ringtone in about a week. Though, I’ll note, you probably won’t be able to fix your iPhone 96 years in the future.

Does your old house still have a ringer box?

Baking Bread with Specialty Malts

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I used to make my own beer. But after three ruined batches and not wanting to add to a growing middle-aged paunch, I decided to give away the  equipment. One thing I miss is not being able to make bread with the leftover grains.

That is, until I tried a recipe from Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s book How to Make Sourdough. Hadjiandreou, a specialist in Northern European breads, taught me that you can skip the beer making and just use malted grains directly in your bread.

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The grains used in making beer are, mostly, barley that has been malted (sprouted) and then either caramelized or roasted. To make beer you soak the grains in warm water to extract the sugars that form in the malting process. Fermenting that sugary malt water creates alcohol. Most of the grain used to make beer is two or six-row malt. You add so-called “specialty” grains (that have been caramelized or roasted) to add flavor. If you skip the beer making and add the specialty malts directly to your dough, more of their flavor makes it into the bread.

Step into a homebrew shop and you’ll find bin after bin of different specialty grains. I decided, with Hadjiandreou’s advice to start with three: a crystal malt (I used a caramel 120), a plain malt (such as Maris Otter) and an American chocolate malt. But you don’t need to use these exact grains. Stick your head in the grain bins and let your nose lead you.

In a 2-pound sourdough rye loaf Hadjiandreou’s recipe calls for 20 grams of chocolate malt and 40 grams each of the other two grains. A lighter hand with the dark malts will reduce the chance of bitter bread.

To soak or not to soak
Usually when I add whole grains or seeds to bread I like to soak them for a few hours in hot water. But when I tried this with the specialty grains I ended up inadvertently starting the beer making process. Much of the syrupy goodness flowed out the grain and was lost when I had to drain it prior to adding it to my dough. Instead, I got better results by starting with a wet dough and letting the grain soften during a very long bulk fermentation and proof. An important last step was to put a bowl over the loaf after it came out of the oven to lock in the moisture. I would never do this with most kinds of bread, but this style of dense German/Scandinavian bread really benefits from a wet post-bake sauna. In addition to further softening the specialty grain it also softens the crust.

While I may no longer make beer, I can still make what I like to call “solid” beer: a.k.a. bread. And with the many varieties of specialty grain, a whole world of flavor awaits.

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Saturday Tweets: Urine, Cats and Swedish Dresses Made From Ikea Bags