Solar Cooking Season at Last

Taking a break from the education series for a little joyous yippee-skip, because today? I busted out the solar cooker!

Yep, on this cool, breezy day I solar cooked for the first time this year. It makes me so happy to usher in the season this way. Despite the chill, the sun is high and bright, the sky bluest blue, and in the solar cooker the oven thermometer registered 275 degrees.

I was having so much fun, I neglected to take any photos of my handmade cooker doing its thing.

Solar Cooker

This is not a photo from today, but from my very first summer of solar cooking, 5 years ago. Nowadays I know enough to put a dark cloth over my cookware. And I don’t use clothespins anymore, at least not inside the cooker. But you get the idea.

OK this isn’t a food blog… but here is what went into the soup that is just now steaming in my mug after simmering out there all day:

  • leeks from my CSA (community-supported agriculture, a weekly allotment of locally grown vegies, yum)
  • baby carrots, also from the CSA
  • sage and dill, ditto
  • parsley I dried at some point, can’t remember the origin, possibly the back yard
  • corn my partner and I bought at the farmers market and froze during the summer
  • a dried Aleppo pepper from the community garden, given to me by my friend Heidi
  • potatoes purchased at the food co-op
  • celery that really really needed to be used up
  • frozen chicken stock I made during the winter from an Amish-raised chicken
  • salt, pepper, and love, baby!

Tell you what, it hits the spot.

Also from that first year. But I did toast pumpkin seeds today on top of the soup.

Also from that first year. But I did toast pumpkin seeds today in a tray on top of the soup. I’ll put them in my salads this week.

I love cobbling together a dish like that, using produce from the garden or market or CSA, or whatever needs to be used up to make room for fresher stuff. (Time to get that corn all eaten up before it shows up in the markets again.)

I’m so looking forward to another long summer of solar cooking. I can almost taste the plum cobbler now.

There’s more about my solar cooker and how you can make one here.

I’ve Got a Tin of Sardines…

…and I’m not afraid to use it!

By jules (Flickr: sardines in a can) via Wikimedia Commons

By jules (Flickr: sardines in a can) via Wikimedia Commons

Actually, I am, a little. I bought the tin weeks ago at the Co-op in hopes of eating lower on the food chain. I have not yet worked up the nerve to peel back that shiny lid and peek inside. I may need a clothespin for my nose when I do. Little fishies can be so…fishy.

But I’m determined to conquer my fear of the little fishies and make them part of my diet. Or at least ingest them once and see if it’s possible to consider…one day…loving them as much as I love salmon. Why? Efficiency of dining, mainly. If I eat a sardine instead of the big fish that eats the sardine–no matter how much more appealing said big fish might be–I reduce my impact.

It seems I know too much. And I can’t un-know what I know. What we eat has consequences. In the case of seafood, overfishing is rampant, and then there’s pollution, climate change, habitat destruction, and ocean acidification. Leaving us with a “system in crisis,” according to the National Geographic.

All that knowledge makes my fallback choice on any restaurant menu, salmon, seem a bit fraught.

Though according to the National Geographic Seafood Decision Guide, salmon–at least wild-caught Alaskan salmon–is actually one of the better choices in the ocean-going protein buffet. It is “abundant, well-managed, and caught or farmed in ocean-friendly ways.” Three cheers for that.

But sardines are equally well rated, equally low in mercury, and equally high in omega-threes. Then there’s the fact that it takes five pounds of forage fish to produce a pound of farm-raised fish. So I still feel bound to try these little fishy-fishes.

By TANAKA Juuyoh Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) via Wikimedia Commons

By TANAKA Juuyoh (Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) via Wikimedia Commons

It strikes me, unpleasantly, that they’re kind of like the worms and grubs of the ocean world. Grubs are food for birds; sardines are food for bigger fish, and for chickens and pigs too.

No matter: I’m sure they’re deelish. (Just like grubs, which, after all, are food for people all over the world. I wrote a piece about that once, and fully expect to one day venture bugward in my dining.)

Helpfully, in the meantime Slow Food International has begun a push for upping human consumption of anchovies, complete with recipe contest. (Nate at the Co-op shook his head at my sardine purchase and advised anchovies next time.)

Oh faithful readers, do you eat sardines or anchovies, those humble fishies known as forage fish? If so, pray, how do you fix them? Give me some ideas to go with Slow Food’s and Rachael Ray’s suggestions. I promise to report back after my first foray into this brave new culinary world.

Solar Cooking, the Cookprint, and You

Solar cooker demo at the Flower and Patio Show

Solar cooker demo, Flower and Patio Show

Yesterday I had the chance to bring my well-loved handmade solar cooker to the Urban Homestead exhibit at the Indiana Flower and Patio Show.* I was a little worried that my cooker, made of cardboard, duct tape and aluminum foil, would feel self-conscious in the company of all those gleaming new grills and such. But: We rocked it.

No one seemed to care that the glass has a nice “patina,” as a friend christened the smudges I could not seem to remove with vinegar water. They were too busy peering into it and asking questions about how it works and how it’s made.

This will be my fifth summer of solar cooking. It was a thrill to spend part of a snowy day sharing my cooker with gardener types, a few of whom seemed ready to go right home and make one.

My solar cooker at work

My solar cooker at work

Not only is solar cooking crazy fun, it means we drastically reduce our natural gas use from May to September. And the fact that we can make something so useful from (nearly) all salvaged materials and make it last five years and counting? Well, it kind of feels like getting away with something sneaky.

I’m even prouder of my solar cooker since hearing a radio interview with the author of Cooking Green: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint in the Kitchen, which concerns ways to “shrink your cookprint.”

The local food movement has raised awareness of our “food miles.” But we don’t always consider the impact of another aspect of eating: what we do with the food after we get it home. Anyone who gardens or belongs to a CSA knows that procuring food sustainably is only the first step. Once you have all that produce staring at you, you’ve got to process it. Except for salads, cold soups and the like (raw foodists, holla!), this task generally involves using some form of energy–turning on the burner, heating up the oven, plugging in the crockpot.

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if she advocates solar cooking as the ultimate in cookprint reduction. In the interview the author shares tips like this one for pasta-making:

Tip: Bring the water to a boil, then turn the burner off once the pasta is in the covered pot.

gas burnerI imagine pressure cookers are high on her list as well. (Don’t tell my solar cooker, but I’d be lost without my pressure cooker, at least from October through April.)

What about you–have you looked at ways to reduce your “cookprint?” Do you use a solar cooker–or would you like to? Share in the comment section below! (If you’d like more info on solar cooking, contact me for recipes and tips. Find DIY instructions here. You can buy one here–but really, don’t. So easy to make!)

*Still time to check this out if you are in Indy–through March 17. I’m told sheep will be grazing the urban homestead grass at some point in the next few days. Get your coupon here.