Now We’re Cooking…with Sunshine

We offered our solar cooking workshop last weekend to an enthusiastic “crowd” of 17. That’s the biggest group a Pogue’s Run Grocer class has ever attracted, so we were pleased.

Judy demonstrating how to make a lid for a box cooker.

Judy demonstrating how to make a lid for a box cooker.

Judy has developed a wooden model, but we’re still working out the kinks. So we focused the class on “the old workhorse,” our tried-and-true cardboard box cooker. We wanted to show that you can start cooking with sunshine using only cheap (or free!) materials.

Judy adapted the design out of our solar cookery bible, Cooking with Sunshine. And you can find DIY instructions online as well.

All it needs now is an arm to prop the reflector--and you can make this out of a wire hanger.

All it needs now is an arm to prop the reflector. You can make this out of a wire hanger.

One of the attendees, a firefighter, plans to make the box cooker at the firehouse. He has a big vegetable garden, and he brought us all kinds of herbs and veggies in thanks for the teaching. He was eager to try using up garden produce in all-day stews and soups.

And we discovered after the class was done that another of the attendees has already been experimenting with solar cooking quite a bit. He sent me this inspiring video, proving me wrong when I said, “No, you can’t solar cook in the winter, because the sun’s too low.” Check it out!

The company behind this innovative design is called Solar Clutch. Its mission is promoting solar cooking in high risk areas of the world. I hadn’t heard of Solar Clutch, but I’m proud to find my home state of Indiana producing such a company.

Perhaps solar cooking season doesn’t have to end on Sept. 15 after all!

Good to Grow

Guest post by Luke Taylor, who started a business called Good to Grow with his wife, Emily

Luke and Emily Taylor

Luke and Emily Taylor

Based out of Irvington, on the east side of Indianapolis, Good to Grow aims to harness the power of community to revolutionize the way we interact with overlooked natural resources.

What does it look like to “harness the power of community?” And what are these overlooked natural resources?

The power of community is a shared vision, and many hands. Our vision is one that makes it easy for neighbors to make choices that not only benefit their community, but also themselves. Choices like saving their food waste to create compost—and collecting rainwater to reduce water bills and strain on municipal utilities.

Good to Grow's custom-built water barrel towers enable urban gardeners to save large amounts of rainwater.

Good to Grow’s custom-built water barrel towers enable urban gardeners to save large amounts of rainwater.

Some might call this “being green,” or recycling. I am happy thinking of it as purely selfish.

If you have altruistic notions of saving the world one recycled cardboard box at a time, great! Continue seeking out ways to heal your part of the world through changes large and small. Your community needs more people like you.

Many in your community, however, need a layup. (Editor’s note: a layup, for the basketball-uninitiated, is the easiest of shots, more difficult to miss than make.) These folks will only choose to recycle if they are standing next to a bin or a forest ranger is looking in their direction.

Or if they receive something free as a reward. In short, they need incentive.

Developing an incentive framework to support behavior change is our goal at Irvington’s Good to Grow.

A bucket ready to receive a neighbor's vegetable scraps.

A bucket ready to receive a neighbor’s vegetable scraps.

One such framework is Irvington’s composting program. Already being championed by 16 households, this initiative’s ultimate goal is to collect compostable food waste and distribute finished compost (a valuable organic fertilizer) at the very same time. The idea is to connect beneficial behavior as seamlessly as possible with valuable incentive and convenience.

It is my hope that this idea encourages communities to create incentive frameworks of their own!

Luke Taylor moved to Irvington, Indianapolis with his wife Emily in early 2013. They chose this neighborhood mostly because of its strong sense of community. The Taylors wanted to be a part of it, and to encourage its growth. With Good to Grow as the vessel for delivery, they have a vision for Irvington that will amplify and enrich our local resources, bringing together an already blossoming Indianapolis community. One day, they dream to be able to enrich other Indianapolis communities in the same way by sharing the Good to Grow framework.

A Field to Fork Market

“In Indiana, we can grow so much of our own food. We really could be sustainable now,” says Kevin Logan, MD. Though we can’t grow mangoes or bananas, he believes we could cultivate everything we need for regional self-sufficiency.

INgredients Field to Fork Market, a new shop he opened in partnership with wife Jacqueline and old friend Tom Wiles, is exerting influence on both supply and demand. To stimulate the market for good clean food, the deli demonstrates how to use local produce like bok choy and spaghetti squash. Meanwhile the proprietors are coordinating with the many farmers and producers capable of feeding our region, in anticipation of the 2014 growing season.

I had the pleasure of talking with the three of them when I wrote this Nuvo piece on the store. It’s located in a refurbished Taco Bell, and full of items grown or produced in Indiana.

Pie pumpkins and gourds from local farmers at INgredients.

Pie pumpkins and gourds from local farmers at INgredients.

“I feel like we’re going to have to get back to community,” Logan says. “And food choices are one way that we do that.”

The trio plan to hold classes on every stage of food growing, storing, cooking, and preserving, to help people gain garden knowhow and kitchen skills. Both fermenting and cheese making classes are in the offing.

All in all this shop is a great addition to community resilience efforts in my town.

Sharing Summer’s Abundance and Summer’s Work

You never know what might result from posting a request on Facebook. The other day I asked our neighborhood Facebook gardeners’ group if anyone would take my zucchini in exchange for peppers. Because really, how many zukes does one household need? This led to the idea of a veggie swap ‘n share. So I invited any interested gardeners to bring their surplus over yesterday for some trading.

Only a couple folks showed up, but it was just right, and no doubt more will come in the future.

Summer's abundance shared at the veggie swap.

Summer’s abundance shared at the veggie swap. (The eggs are a side deal.)

Julie brought heirloom tomatoes, the only thing she grows. I was thrilled to take some off her hands, since mine are ripening ever so slowly after initially falling prey to blossom end rot. Her cherry tomato variety is called Doctor and rivals my beloved Sungold for sweetness.

As the most ambitious gardener among us, Laura brought a slightly squirrel-chewed pumpkin that needed to be harvested because of an issue with the vine. She had also just picked yellow squash, collards, basil, and more lovely heirloom tomatoes, including a variety called Principe Borghese, reputed to be great for drying. (I’m happy to say these are in my dehydrator as we speak.)

Collards and basil straight from the garden.

Collards and basil straight from the garden.

I offered the aforementioned Zucchini Explosion, specifically a variety called Cordello, as well as some jalapenos and various herbs. Laura went home with catnip for her kitties (sorry Kitley and Maggie!), sage, and rosemary.

Funny how these things all work out and people go away happy to try something new. I think swapping could be habit-forming.

Clowning with Cabbage

Clowning with cabbage at last year’s kraut party

On a related note, last summer our kitchen was home base for group preserving efforts, loosely connected to our community garden. With polka music on Pandora, we shredded up several heads of cabbage and packed them in crocks at the Kraut Party.

Kraut Party Action

Kraut Party Action

Later in the season we switched the sound track to the Three Tenors and Andrea Bocelli at the Pesto Party.

And a couple of us got together to make a gazillion varieties of salsa as well, to share with the community at a Salsa Party.

When you try to cook and preserve seasonal produce, summer can be a crazy time, especially if some of the produce comes from your own garden. Most of us don’t live in the kind of multigenerational households that were the rule back in the day. So we don’t have the built-in helpers that our foremothers did. It can get lonesome, toiling away in your kitchen on your own.

So it’s been great fun to turn some of that work into social events.

There’s talk of another Pesto Party, and maybe even a group effort to “put up sweet corn,” as my people say. We can get a boatload of sweet corn from one of our many local growers and just go to town.

Hm. What musical genre would work for a Corn Party?

Postcard from FoodCon

Friday’s FoodCon was a thrill. I haven’t heard the final tally of attendees, but there was a steady stream of bright-eyed folks. I met so many people with interesting stories about foraging (which, as I explained to one non-native English speaker, is like hunting, only for plants).

Swapping foraging stories with a foodcon attendee

Swapping foraging stories with a foodcon attendee

People spoke of making elderberry syrup for winter colds and congestion, of becoming more accustomed to the taste of bitter greens to the point of craving them, and of eating oxalis as kids.

One little girl said she likes to eat clover petals, which brought back my own flower-eating past: My friends and I used to pick the blooms off my dad’s tall phlox and suck the nectar, pretending it was a special elixir.

Most of my exhibit consisted of weeds picked that morning. All are available in the typical urban yard or garden. “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em,” was my line.

Trees are a source of unexpected nutrition too: Even seasoned foragers were surprised to learn that basswood tree leaves are great in salads.

Trees are a source of unexpected nutrition too: Even seasoned foragers were surprised to learn that basswood tree leaves are great in salads.

I told the uninitiated to start by topping a salad with the tangy, tender oxalis, which is prevalent in urban yards. Then see if, like me, they don’t get completely hooked on picking stuff from their yards to bring in to the dinner table.

Wet tablecloth

My tablecloth got all wet after an early gust of wind blew a few cups over. But it didn’t matter: check that wilty salad!

Japanese wineberries (at the right edge of the above photo) were the star of the show. Though one website calls this bramble fruit a “bio-bully” for being invasive, the berries are dazzling little gems that are sweeter than should be legal. (Last year I learned the identity of this mysterious bramble I’d found just as the buds were forming. I was anticipating some happy picking, then they perished in the drought. This year: bountiful harvest.)

Some were amazed that you can actually eat mulberries, asking incredulously, “What do you do with them?” while others were right there with me on the “nature’s candy” point.

A friend and I had biked around the neighborhood questing for these berries.

A friend and I had biked around the neighborhood questing for these berries.

Things I learned: There’s a “Poke Salad Annie” song, and you can eat milkweed flowers, and four hours of talking makes one hoarse.

The solar cooker got lots of interest too, though generally more as a novelty from what I could gather (my partner Judy fielded most of those questions, bless her).

As far as the other exhibitors, I was able to make a quick circuit late in the evening and talk to the folks from Wolf-Beach Farm, as well as friends at the “dumpster diving/dumpster dining” booth and the “making easy meals in 5 minutes” table. (These were all people I had referred to the organizer.)

I also found a couple standouts in the resilience arena. I’ll report on them in an upcoming post. Some great innovators there, helping people break their dependence on a shaky centralized food system that is wreaking havoc on both planetary and personal health.

Real Simple

Still wobbling through Staphland. So here is a bit I dusted off from the archives of Shawndra ravings, for your reading pleasure. Back to the couch.

Some years back this magazine Real Simple caught my eye in the checkout lane at Kroger. Its thickness approximated that of the phone book of the small town where I went to college. It was unlike me to put it in my cart, but I  was attracted by the silky cover, I suppose.

By Jim Clark, via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Clark, via Wikimedia Commons

Because I remember that cover to this day. It was a tableau of succulent blueberries. Inside were “real simple” ideas for augmenting someone’s perfect life: Make blueberry tea cakes the size of dolly dishes for your brunch guests! Weave a wreath from wheat purchased at such-and-such online store! Festoon it with dried wildflowers you’ve sprayed with hairspray, for colors that last! And so on.

Not one project within those pages would do anything but complicate life. The crafts were Martha Stewart-level hard, the recipes were full of fussy ingredients, and the whole magazine was a waste of $4.95.

Hmph, I thought, I’ll show you real simple.

Call me crazy, but say “real simple” to me and I don’t think of spending oodles of time piping mint icing onto chocolate chip cupcakes. I don’t envision sewing clunky wooden beads onto the placket of my earth-toned Nehru shirt. I don’t have time for fussiness.

But I realize that what I do in the name of the simple life may seem a bit on the fussy side, to people with different priorities. I operate on the premise that the less money I need to live on, the wealthier I am. This leads me down some curious roads.

Here I am leaning way into a wild bramble, getting all scratched up to reach one more black raspberry for my little bucketful.

Or here I am washing onion skins and celery tops to save in a big Ziploc bag in the freezer, for a future stock-making escapade.

Or here I am standing over the stove on a 90-degree August day, stirring sugar into grape pulp—having picked the grapes from my neighbors’ fence—and waiting for the precise moment when it turns to jam, seemingly many sweaty hours later.

There are times I feel rather smug about my gardening and homesteading efforts. Like when homegrown produce turns into a meal made a soleil “for mere pennies!”

Other times, I just feel like a chump. Lugging buckets of water from here to there in 100-degree heat, for example, while my neighbors up the street lounge by their in-ground pool.

Remember that TV show featuring two famous-for-being-rich-and-famous young women who attempted to live among farm folk? It was called The Simple Life. The opener showed the starlets in overalls, with straw in their hair and dirt on their faces, looking aggrieved.

I guess the fun was in watching the high-class duo learn that the simple life ain’t easy. So true, even on my own modest homestead here in town.


Wouldn’t trade it for a slick magazine.

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.

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.