Best veggies to cook in a solar oven


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.


Brussels sprouts and cauliflower before cooking


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

Baked potatoes and lentil stew


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 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.







Cold brewed tisanes, teas and coffee: Your summertime best friends


Cold brewed coffee is all the thing these days. And you’ve probably heard that we’re not supposed to make sun tea anymore, but fridge tea instead–which is cold brewed tea. In fact, cold brewing allows you to  throw just about anything you’d brew hot into cold water instead, refrigerate it overnight and end up with something refreshing, cold and delicious to drink the next day.

Proponents of cold brewing point out that though it takes longer than hot brewing, it preserves the more delicate scents and flavors of whatever you’re brewing, and minimizes the bitter and vegetal overtones which come from heating and from overbrewing.

Most importantly from my standpoint, you don’t have to heat water. You don’t have to get anywhere near the stove, and the finished product is nice and cold and ready to guzzle.

Cold Mint Tea

My everyday summertime fridge staple is cold mint tea (tisane, technically). I make this by simply throwing a handful of dried mint leaves (harvested from my rangy mint plant) into a jar, adding filtered water, and leaving it in the fridge for the length of a day, or overnight. Then I strain the tea to remove the leaves and keep the tea in the fridge. I never measure anything. You can make the tea stronger and dilute it to taste if necessary, or make it very weak, so it’s just cold water with a delicate breath of mint to it. It’s good no matter what you do. If you don’t have a mint plant, use a couple of mint tea bags.


If you don’t mind a little added sugar in your bev, jamaica (hibiscus flower tea) is a really nice summer drink, tart and sweet and refreshing. And as a bonus, my herbalism teacher tells me all that rich red flower power is good for you, too.

You can buy bags of dried hibiscus/jamaica flowers inexpensively in the spice aisle of any Latin market, in the same area where you’d find dried peppers and the like. If you can’t find the flowers, you may be able to find bagged hibiscus tea.

Cold brew jamaica by placing about a 1/2 cup of the dried flowers into a quart jar and top with water. I am ever grateful to The Kitchn for turning me on to the idea of adding a cinnamon stick to this brew. Cinnamon adds a really nice, sophisticated touch to the flavor. (The whole article is worth a read for some in-depth jamaica talk.) Let this sit overnight, or most of the day, strain and add sweetener to taste. It’s easiest to use simple syrup.

A taste of the wild

Our friend Pascal, who is on our podcast this week, usually shows up at parties with a big jug of cold infusions of foraged plants. He talks about this in his book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine. He uses whatever is in season at the time, an eclectic mix that may include wild mints, elderflowers, conifers like white fir and pine, herbs like black sage and berries of all sorts. Sometimes he adds less-wild ingredients, like lemons or honey. He leaves all these things swirling around in the jug at table, so that the sight of the infusion is almost as arresting as the taste.

Pascal’s beautiful infusions should give you the courage to grab a few things from your garden and see what happens.

Spa water

If you’re not up for infusing the entire forest into your drinking water, what about cucumbers? It’s easy to forget how good simple infusions are to have around. A few cucumber slices, a cup of watermelon chunks, a handful raspberries–all these things make iced water a little more fun. Just use whatever you have leftover on any given day–that spare half of a lemon, a melon slice that no one seems to want, that extra handful of herbs. My favorite Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, Cacao, puts sprigs of rosemary in its table water.

Other herbal experiments

Experiment with other teas and herbs you have in your cupboard. For instance, I quite like cold brewed chamomile tea. Erik does not, however. Tastes do vary! Any of your favorite bagged hot teas might be good cold. It’s a good way to use them up if your tea collection is taking over your kitchen cabinet.

A healthy if decidedly green tasting option is dried nettle cold brew. Cold brewed nettles taste a little less like a cook vegetable than hot brewed nettles. Sometimes I mix nettles and mint half and half, to make the nettles a little more sprightly.

Extreme wonkery over iced tea and iced coffee

I am a lazy person. I enjoy sitting in my proverbial armchair and reading about other people’s obsessive quests to make things like the perfect cold brewed iced tea, but when it comes time to make it myself, I always end up just throwing a few things together and seeing what happens.

I always enjoy the experiments in the Food Lab over at the Serious Eats site, and I send you there if you want to up your fridge tea game:

The Tea Lover’s Way to Make the Best Cold Brewed Iced Tea

For The Best Sun Tea, Forget the Sun

(Amusingly, the different authors don’t exactly agree on the best route to iced tea, which only reinforces my laissezfaire attitude. But they’re great reads.)

And here’s their take(s) on cold brewing coffee:

It’s Time to Make Cold Brewed Coffee

Or maybe not?

What’s the Best Way to Brew Iced Coffee?

So brew yourself up something refreshing, find yourself a seat in the shade, and enjoy the summer!


From the Archives: That Time Kelly Accidentally Ate Hemlock

Death of Socrates JacquesLouisDavid

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (detail).

At the risk of bragging, in the tenth year of this blog we’ve accumulated 2,735 published posts and another 706 unpublished drafts. Using a random number generator I decided to pick out a random post to see what the heck is in the archive. A blog post by Kelly came up, from October of 2013, that tells the story of how she accidentally munched on a piece of dried hemlock (Conium maculatum) having confused it for fennel.

And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.

As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.

He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”

At this point I’d already swallowed or spit out the seeds. You know, whichever.

I said, “Oh…um…I just ate a couple of seeds.”

The rest of the class made noises of dismay. Someone offered me water.

It was really embarrassing.

As you might guess, Kelly survived. And thank you random number generator for the Jungian synchronicity: our last podcast is an interview with Pascal.

As Kelly notes in her blog post, Hemlock is in the Apiaceae (carrot family). Novice foragers would be wise to avoid this family entirely. That said, Pascal tells a story of running into a group of older Armenian woman gathering hemlock. When he questioned them they explained that they boil the hemlock and change out the water multiple times to make the leaves edible. I suspect they were using the plant medicinally. Neither Pascal nor Root Simple endorse this.

Happy summer foraging and watch out for the hemlock! Let us know in the comments if you’ve ever made a foraging mistake.


089 The New Wildcrafted Cuisine with Pascal Baudar


Our topic this week on the podcast is the spectacular foraged cuisine of Southern California based Pascal Baudar. Pascal is the author of The New Wildcrafted Cuisine, Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of local Terroir. We cover a lot of subjects in the podcast–everything from wild mustards to harvesting sugar from insects! Here’s just a few of the things we touch on:

  • wild mustard
  • weeds and invasives
  • professional foraging
  • wild beer
  • Sacred and Herbal Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner
  • working with black mustard
  • foraging in a drought in August in Southern California
  • Pascal’s $350 energy bar
  • Native American foraging practices
  • Kat Anderson Tending the Wild
  • foraging controversy
  • what to do with broadleaf plantain (Plantago major)
  • lerp sugar
  • eating insects
  • harvesting your own sea salt
  • fermenting with sea salt
  • primitive fermentation
  • rosin baked potatoes
  • fermented hot sauces
  • ethics of foraging

You can take a class with Pascal via and make sure to check out Pascal’s amazing Facebook page.

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.




How to Roast Coffee in a Whirley Pop Popcorn Maker


Of all the nutty kitchen projects at the Root Simple compound, by far the simplest and most rewarding has been home coffee roasting. Why more people don’t roast their own is one of the great mysteries of home economics. I learned how to do it at a workshop put on by the Institute of Domestic Technology, but, with a little trial and error, you can figure it out on your own.

A hand-cranked wood stove top coffee roaster circa 1890-1910. Image: Wikipedia.

A hand-cranked wood stove top coffee roaster circa 1890-1910. Image: Wikipedia.

The History of Home Roasting
Up until the 20th century if you wanted coffee you had to roast it yourself. Folgers, did not exist yet. But by the end of WWII, the Man deemed that all of us should drink crappy, stale, industrialized brown swill, so along with Wonder Bread and Twinkies, we got bad canned coffee and folks forgot how to roast. Then, sometime in the 1990s, the Man gave us Starbucks and demanded that we go into debt drinking slightly better coffee. It’s time to rediscover home roasting.

Why Roast Your Own Coffee?
The main reason to roast your own is that coffee, once roasted, goes stale within a week. With your Whirley Pop you can roast just what you need for a week. Another reason is that you can get really high quality, fair trade green beans for half the price of roasted coffee. And, since you are doing the roasting you can control the flavor exactly to your liking.

Choosing a Method
There are four general ways to roast coffee: drum roasters, hot air popcorn poppers, stove-top popcorn poppers and just a plain skillet. Each method has pluses and minuses. I’ve tried hot air popcorn poppers and stove-top popcorn poppers (such as the Whirley-Pop pictured at the top of this post). Between the air popper and the stove-top popper, I prefer the stove-top popper because you have more control over the roast and the device itself is inexpensive and suited to this use. The air poppers, on the other hand, tend burn out quickly when used for coffee roasting. I’ve never tried roasting in just a skillet (a traditional method in Ethiopia, by the way) and I’ve never sprung for a drum roaster due to the expense and lack of counter space in our kitchen. The stove-top popper seems to me a good compromise between expense and control of the roast. The folks behind the Whirley Pop make a more durable stove-top popper that I might switch to if I have to replace my current popper.

Fitting a Whirley Pop With a Thermometer
For years I’ve used a plain old unmodified Whirley Pop with excellent results. But recently I drilled a hole in the top and fitted it with a short, pocket-sized candy thermometer so that I can follow the progress of the roast through temperature readings. I’ll do a post about how to install a thermometer in the future, but until that time, you can look at these directions on the Sweet Maria’s website.

Whirley Pop Coffee Roasting Procedure
Roasting coffee is pretty straightforward and is basically all about adjusting the heat on your burner so that you don’t either roast the beans too quickly or too slowly. It takes a few times to get the hang of it, and while installing a thermometer in your popper will definitely help, you can certainly do it without the thermometer–it will just take a little more practice to get the timing right. The following directions are based on the ones in Kenneth Davids’ book Home Coffee Roasting. One big-ass caveat: your results may vary depending on your stove. These directions work on our O’Keefe and Merritt with a diffuser over the burner. An electric stove or a professional stove will work but will be different. I just tested this recipe on a portable butane burner and got better results with these slightly different directions from Sweet Maria’s. The caveat out the way, here’s how I roast coffee:

  1. Set a gas stove burner on low or your electric stove on medium and pre-heat the Whirley Pop for a minute or two. On our old gas stove, I use a medium burner setting and a heat diffuser. While the Whirley Pop is pre-heating, make sure you’ve got a colander at arm’s length and ready to dump the beans in when they are done roasting. Pre-heat the Whirley Pop, regulating the burner so that the temperature steadies at 475°-500°F (246°-260°C) and then put the beans in. If you don’t have a thermometer, pre-heating will be a matter of guesswork, most likely a few minutes at a low burner setting. Take notes each time you roast, and you’ll get a good system down soon, even without a thermometer.
  2. Add no more than 8 ounces/226 grams–by weight–of beans to the popper. If you use more than that and the beans won’t roast evenly. You could add less and roast more often for fresher coffee but I’m too lazy for this.
  3. Start turning the crank. For the first few minutes nothing much will happen other than you standing around turning the crank. You have to crank continuously or the beans will roast unevenly. Occasionally reverse directions for a second to un-stick any beans that get caught under the stirring mechanism.
  4. Watch the temperature. If it dips below 325°F/162°C, adjust the burner. Your goal is to hit and maintain a temperature of 350° to 375° F (176°-190° C). Note that the temperature of the beans will actually be much higher since they are in contact with the bottom of the Whirley Pop. If you don’t have a thermometer this will be a matter of trial and error as well as paying attention to the browning of the beans and the smell of the roast.
  5. Several minutes into the roast the beans will begin to turn light brown. Your first major milepost is “first crack,” the moment when they start popping like popcorn (though not quite as loud). This will be likely be around the 9 minute mark.
  6. You could stop at first crack for a very light roast, but most people keep going, shooting for a darker roast. After first crack, start paying very close attention to the smell and color of the beans. If you keep roasting, around the 12 minute mark you’ll reach second crack, which is lower in volume and sounds like crinkling cellophane. When to dump the beans out of the roaster depends on what kind of roast you are shooting for. Keep reading.

When to pull the beans
Don’t become a slave to the thermometer. Your thermometer is just a guide to get you started. More important is to use your ears to listen for the crack of the beans, your noise to smell the smoke and your eyes to judge the color of the beans. After several attempts you’ll get a good idea for where you should set your burner. Some roasting aficionados will mark their stove knobs with a Sharpie to pinpoint the ideal setting.

For a very light roast (too light, for my taste): Pull the beans in the middle of the first crack.

For a medium breakfast type roast: Pull when the first crack has ended but before the second crack begins. The beans will be a medium-brown.

For a “full city” roast: Pull just as the second crack begins. Beans will be starting to really smoke at this point.

For a dark roast: Pull in the middle of the second crack when the smoke starts to get pungent. The beans will be dark brown.

For a French roast: pull as the second crack reaches its peak. Beans will be very dark and shiny.

Cooling the beans and removing chaff
As soon as you finish roasting you need to cool the beans down as quickly as possible. Pour them into a metal colander or bowl. I take them outside at this point and pour them repeatedly between a colander and a metal bowl. The chafe will drift away in the process You don’t have to remove all of the chaff, so don’t get to obsessive about it. Note: decaffeinated beans do not have chaff.

Storing beans
Put your roasted beans into a lidded container but don’t put the lid on too tight. The beans outgas a lot of CO2 for the first 12 hours and continue to put off CO2 for a few weeks. CO2 is your friend. It pushes out the oxygen that makes beans go stale. This is why you should get an inexpensive coffee container with a valve. Roasted beans keep for around six days before starting to lose flavor.

Store your green beans at room temperature, away from sunlight. They keep very well in their green state. The clock only starts ticking after you’ve roasted them.

What can go wrong
Not much can go wrong other than having the burner too high or too low or pulling the beans too soon or too late. After you roast a few times you’ll get a good idea about how high to set your burner and roughly how long it takes for the particular style of roast you like. I would say that my most common mistake has been to pull the beans too early leading to a grassy and more sour taste.

When I first started roasting coffee I was surprised at the diversity of beans available. Some are tiny and some are large. This will effect the length of the roast. If you’re the note taking type, I tip my hat to you. Notes will help you will get more consistent results.

Roasting is a smokey process and will set off your smoke alarms. I do my roasting inside but shut the door to the kitchen to prevent the smoke alarms throughout the house from going off. Some people do their roasting outside on the side burner of a barbecue.

Where to Get Green Coffee Beans
I’m a big fan of Oakland, California based Sweet Maria’s Coffee. They carefully source their coffee and have very reasonable prices even including shipping. You can also ask your local coffee roaster if they will sell you green beans.

I shot a video of how I roast coffee that I will post as soon as I can make some time for editing. For Angelinos, I’ll also note that Kelly and I will be doing a coffee roasting demo at the Natural History Museum this Friday July 8th. That’s tonight, so we hope to see you later!

Now get roasting!