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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.

cauliflowerbefore

Brussels sprouts and cauliflower before cooking

cauliflowerdone

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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Two Podcasts You’ve Got to Hear: Thinking Trees and Rewilding

Oostvaardersplassen

The Oostvaardersplassen, an attempt to rewild a very unwild place in the Netherlands.

In case you can’t get enough of our podcasts, let me suggest two other podcast episodes that will definitely be of interest to Root Simple readers and listeners:

WNYC’s Radiolab released an episode, From Tree to Shining Tree which features the mind-bending research of Suzanne Simard. Her work shows that the root systems of forests form a sort of neural network, perhaps even a kind of plant consciousness.

The always worthwhile and thoughtful Ideas show has an episode on Rewilding, the tricky notion of returning landscapes to a “natural” state. One of the examples in the show is an attempt to rewild a region in the Netherlands that was reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s. I’m very familiar with this place from a bizarre, failed project I was involved with that attempted to create a monumental land art piece with explosives. Someday I’ll tell that crazy story, but let’s just say that this part of the Netherlands is probably the most dull landscape in the world. The Ideas show begins with the story of Ecologist Frans Vera introducing wild animals to this very artificial place. The show goes on to explore what “wildness” means. Spoiler: that’s a topic that will never have a neat conclusion.

Help! I’ve got Paper Wasps

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Around this time of year we field a lot of questions about paper wasps, likely because the nests get larger in the summer. The most popular nesting site for paper wasps around here is in the eaves of a house. When the nest is by a door people tend to get uneasy.

Take a chill pill
Don’t panic! Paper wasps are extremely docile and rarely sting. Most importantly, paper wasps are a beneficial insect. They eat beetle larvae, caterpillars, flies and nectar (making them pollinators). They are your friends in the garden. Right now I have a large colony living in the eave of our front porch right over my favorite chair. I’ve sat in that chair, with my head a mere four feet from my paper wasp buddies, for many hours and have never once been bothered.

Biology
Like honeybees, paper wasp are social insects. A mated queen lays eggs. But the similarity ends there. Paper wasp nests range in size between a dozen to 200 individuals. A honeybee colony can be made up of 60,000 workers or more. And honeybees only gather pollen and nectar. Paper wasps feed their young with protein (other insects).

What a paper wasp sting feels like
About the only way you can get stung by a paper wasp is to grasp one. I did this inadvertently once when I reached behind a fence. Keeping bees, I’m well aware of what a honeybee sting feels like. The paper wasp sting was, initially, sharper than a honeybee sting but the pain dissipated quickly.

Paper wasp control
If you don’t want a paper wasp colony next to a door or window it’s best to get rid of the colony early in the season. You can knock it down with a stream of water from a hose or with a long pole. Make sure you have an exit route planned! They will no longer be peaceable after you do this.

Most importantly, after you knock down the nest (a good while after, of course, after they’ve calmed down), oil the location where they were with cooking oil or furniture oil so they can’t attach a new nest in that spot. You can also buy poison at the hardware store but who’s a fan of poison!? It’s really unnecessary. If you have a bee suit you can put it on and remove the colony with a gloved hand. But the best option is to leave them in place so that they can eat all those nasty flies, beetles and caterpillars. A wasp colony makes your yard a healthier, more balanced place.

Also, as you decide what to do with the nest on your house, keep in mind the fact that the colony will dissipate come winter. They will produce a young queen who will move elsewhere, and the remaining workers will die off. In other words, if you can wait until cold weather, your wasp problem will solve itself. Then you can knock down the old nest and grease the area so they don’t revisit that spot.

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The Practical Side of Philosophy

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How did I get through my entire education without studying so much as a page of philosophy? It is, after all, the foundation of all human knowledge. In desperate act of catch-up, I’ve attempted in the past few years an often difficult program of philosophical and theological self-study.

Now, before you think I’ve gone way off topic on a homesteading blog, let me counter with a few examples of how philosophy can help navigate thorny DIY questions:

  1. How should one evaluate arguments for or against compost tea, organic gardening, or Hugelkultur beds?
  2. Is it ethical to drive/fly/buy stuff in plastic bottles given our ongoing ecological crisis?
  3. Do the humanities or arts have anything meaningful to contribute to our understanding of nature or is the whole shebang covered under the sciences?

In one of the Republican debates last year Marco Rubio quipped that America needs more welders and fewer philosophers. It’s true that much of academic philosophy has devolved into either arcane navel gazing or a dogmatic neuroscience-based materialist orthodoxy. And good luck getting a job with a philosophy degree. But it’s my hope that the practical side of philosophy can be reclaimed, though that might have to happen outside of the context of the university. As an example the creative folks at the Idler Academy in London offer both beekeeping and philosophy classes. To Rubio’s assertion I would counter that we need people who can both weld and understand a logical or ethical argument.

Attempting my own self-study program hasn’t been easy. There’s been a whole bunch of $50 words to learn and I can’t say that I’m anywhere near the point where I can explain key concepts. It would have been better to have started this program earlier in my life and integrated with all the other things I had to study in school.

But as to how to get that self-study program going, I recently found a book that covers the history of philosophy in a clear and entertaining format: Oxford professor Anthony Kenny’s A Brief History of Western Philosophy. I also struggled through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a difficult but worthwhile tome that completely changed my view of history. You can listen to a five part interview with Taylor via the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Ideas show (this, by the way, shows the cultural superiority of Canadians–I doubt our NPR would do a five hour interview with a philosopher!). But I’d recommend starting with Kenny’s book. Even a cursory study of Aristotle and Plato unlocks a lot of the key issues and debates in Western culture.

In a few more years I hope to know the difference between my epistomologies and phenomenologies. Then I can move on to welding!