Solar Cooking During Monsoon Season

Most people are skeptical when I tell them that solar cooking is very convenient. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, convenience was the last thing I expected to get when I first purchased my Sun Oven and I’m still a little in awe at how easy it is to use. But like anything new, it does require breaking old habits and building new ones, which may not seem so convenient at first. It takes time to figure out which parts of the yard get the most sun and how that changes throughout the year, and, for most of us, it takes time to get used to getting dinner in the oven much earlier in the day. Weather patterns come into play too. Oddly enough, in Arizona it’s the summer weather that can cause the most headaches. This time of year, locally know as the monsoon season, means cloudy skies (and hopefully thunderstorms) almost every afternoon. It’s not a good time of year to leave the Sun Oven unattended all day. But there’s still plenty of morning and midday sunshine to prepare a solar cooked dinner that can be gently reheated, storm or no storm.

Sun Oven Solar Focaccia Made Easy

Some days I just don’t feel like making everything from scratch, but I hate to see a sunny day go to waste. Luckily, purchased refrigerated pizza dough can be used to make focaccia bread in no time. Trader Joe’s and Fresh & Easy both have very good white and whole wheat ready-made dough.

Focaccia is a street food in Italy and most Italian bakeries will have at least two or three different kinds. Basic focaccia bread is topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of kosher salt, but other toppings could include rosemary, olives, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, etc. It’s very easy to make. Just spread the room temperature dough out in a baking pan, use your fingers to dimple it all over, cover it with a sheet of oiled plastic wrap and let it rise for about 30 minutes, then top it with oil and salt (or seasonings of your choice) and pop it in a preheated Sun Oven until it starts to brown, about 45 minutes. Any leftovers should be frozen because focaccia bread does get stale quickly.

Sun Oven Maintenance

I can’t remember the last time I had to clean my regular oven. I use it so rarely that it doesn’t get dirty. That’s just another little perk of Sun Oven ownership. And cleaning the Sun Oven is easy, so easy that I usually get Mark to do it.

To keep your Sun Oven in tip top shape simply wipe away any moisture that may have formed before closing it up for the night and leave the glass door unlatched to allow any that you may have missed to escape. Clean the reflector panels and the door with a glass cleaner, and take care of any spills promptly. Most spills can be cleaned up in no time with a garden hose.

A properly maintained Sun Oven will last a lifetime, if you don’t believe me come to Tucson’s annual solar pot luck (the next one is in April 2012), I saw a few there that looked like they’d been through the wringer, doing just as good a job as ones that looked like they’d just come out of the box.

Safe Sun Tea

Here in Arizona it’s not uncommon to see a jar of “Sun Tea” brewing in people’s front yard. It’s a simple enough process, put some water and a few tea bags in a glass jar, set it in the sun, let it steep for 4 to 5 hours, and you’ve got the perfect brew for iced-tea.

I’ve never made it that way myself, partly because I live with a Brit who thinks cold tea is an abomination and partly because I’ve heard it can be dangerous. Apparently the water doesn’t get hot enough to kill all the bacteria that might be present, especially if you’re flavoring the tea with fresh mint or lemon.

But Brit or no Brit I occasionally enjoy a refreshing glass of ice cold tea on a hot summer day so I use my Sun Oven to make a thirst-quenching pitcher of slow-brewed tea in a fraction of the time. And, just to be on the safe side, I use my WAPI to be sure that it’s bacteria free. To brew tea in your Sun Oven just take a glass jar, fill it with water, add a few teabags, and set it in the cooking chamber. Mine was ready in under an hour.

Use your favorite tea, herbal teas are good too, and flavor it with mint, lemon, or peaches if you like. Keep it in the fridge for a refreshing cold summer beverage.

How to Eliminate Condensation

I’ve covered this issue before but I get enough questions about it to merit another post. I know there are scientific explanations as to why condensation occurs more on some days than others, but I can’t remember them. However, excessive condensation is a problem for solar cooks. It makes it harder for the cooking chamber to maintain high temperatures, lengthening, or in extreme cases halting the cooking process. Luckily it’s a problem that’s easy to fix. At least one of the following solutions should solve any condensation issue.

The first solution, which is the easiest and therefore my favorite, is to simply unlatch the glass door. Turn the latches so they’re not holding the glass down as in the picture below. Make sure the door is not resting on the latches. The condensation will be able to escape and the door will still be closed. It works like a Read more »

Crispy Sun Oven Bacon

I read somewhere that bacon is the most commonly burnt food in restaurant kitchens. That used to be the same in mine too. In a frying pan it seems that it goes from ‘not quite done’ to ‘burnt beyond recognition’ in the blink of an eye. Bacon in the Sun Oven on the other hand is much harder, although still possible, to burn. It takes a little longer to cook it, but on the plus side your house won’t smell and the risk of a grease fire is zero.

All you need is a rimmed baking sheet or pan and a rack. Set the rack on the baking pan and drape the bacon strips on the rack. The pan will catch the grease and the rack will keep the bacon out of it. It will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour if you like it crispy. And once you have some crunchy, fragrant, cooked bacon on hand the sky’s the limit.

Spontaneous Solar Cooking

Solar cooking is easy, but getting into the habit of using your Sun Oven can be hard at first. The biggest challenge for me was planning. You don’t have to plan a week’s worth of meals, but you will have to start thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner early in the day or even the night before. It’s so much easier when you have all the ingredients you’ll need on hand when you get up in the morning. Having said that, there’s still plenty of room for spontaneous, spur of the moment, solar cooking. Today, after getting my pre-planned main course going bright and early, I found some baby veggies on sale at the grocery store. I snatched them up, tossed them in with some olive oil, and added them to the Sun Oven to cook along with it. Now all we needed was a nice loaf of bread and we had a meal.

Solar Minestrone

It’s hard to make a small amount of minestrone. Even though it’s pretty much one or two of each vegetable once they’re chopped up you’re looking at a big pot of soup. Luckily there’s a lot you can do with it once it’s done. Serve it hot on the day you make it and cold (yes, it’s good cold) the next. Freeze some for later, I like to puree it before freezing, or use the leftovers to make risotto. My recipe was adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” but feel free to include any fresh, in-season vegetables you have on hand. Obviously for a big batch of soup you’ll need a big pot. A six quart stock pot should do; you’ll need to remove the leveling tray and place a trivet or a rack on the bottom of the cooking chamber to accommodate it.

Read more »

Mmmm… Solar Meatloaf Muffins

Making meatloaf muffins has many advantages. They cook faster, make portion control easier, freeze well, and are fun to eat. Use your favorite meatloaf recipe or use mine which can be found by clicking here. Serve them with mashed potatoes or make some solar tomato sauce for spaghetti and meatballs. Don’t worry if you don’t have a fancy cast iron pan like the one in the picture, any muffin pan, or even silicone cupcake molds, will work just fine; if not better. Whatever type of cookware you use, it will need to be covered with tin foil and a tea towel, or placed in an oven bag.

Slow Solar Baked Asparagus

Asparagus solar baked in parchment paper comes out evenly cooked without being mushy or floppy. Ideally it should be baked at a low temperature, around 200ºF, for about 90 minutes. Keeping the Sun Oven at such a low temperature requires a bit of attention, it needs to be focused slightly away from the sun and adjusted every 30 minutes or so. If you get distracted the temperature could drop or increase too much. But with a little patience you’ll be rewarded with deliciously crisp spears infused with whatever seasoning you choose. For a quick lunch spread some asparagus on a sheet of parchment paper, drizzle them with olive oil, season with tarragon, toss in some sliced prosciutto and mushrooms. Using a stapler (or kitchen string if you prefer) make a pouch. Bake at 200ºF for 90 minutes. Serve over whole-wheat couscous. Experiment with different seasonings and don’t worry if the GSO gets too hot, it will cook a little faster but will still be delicious.