Monday, August 30, 2010

Lentils and Rice in the Solar Oven- Attempt #2

We've had cold, cloudy weather the last few weeks so when a sunny day was forecast, I got busy.

The night before afore mentioned sunny day, I prepared a Lentil, Rice, Black Bean, Vegetable soup and settled it in the solar oven. I wasn't too worried about food borne illness with a few veggies in tomato water.

At ten on the morning of the sunny day, I when to check the oven's temperature and realized that the morning sun had yet to shine on the spot I thought was sunny! I moved the oven directly south of our house where there's additional reflection off the cement walls. I also lined the oven with tin foil and added a wool blanket to the bottom to improve insulation. On this #2 try cooking with  Coalfree (the oven), she got hotter than last try- creeping up to about 175 degrees F.

At six that night, Lily and I tried the soup. It was steaming,  piping hot. The peppers were cooked nicely, carrots were a touch crunchy. The beans (canned) were fine, however the Lentils were about 90% and the rice 75% cooked.

In review, I need to continue to improve insulation so Coalfree will hit the magical 200 degrees mark. I choose this number because it's equivalent to the low setting on a slow cooker. At this temp, I can convert any slow cooker recipe and not feel insecure about cooking meat (though I think this is my western, uber-bacteria conscious sensibilities! See my last post on solar cooking for food safe temperature links.)

My pot also needs more sun time. On cooking day, the oven had about 8 hours of sun (a thunder storm approached at about 6 pm and we wouldn't have had any more cooking time);  my slow cooker recipe book suggests that rice needs from 5 to 9 hours at 200 F where veggies will do with 2 to 4 hours.  Coalfree's current location should allow for this, as she'll catch the sun's rays as early as 7:30 am, giving supper a much better chance of being ready.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Mouse Slayer Becomes Part of the Family

We moved into our house, built in 1913, six years ago. I didn't notice the mice families that made my home their home until the winter of our first year here. They decimated a box of Red River cereal that had fallen in a back cupboard.

This sad, sick mouse sat here in the kitchen for Madi's viewing pleasure.
Mice are curious creatures. They feature strongly in christmas carols (it was the night before christmas/and all through the house/not a creature was stirring/not even a mouse), poems (Of Mice and Men's title was a line taken from an 18th century ode to a mouse family who'd nest was tilled), and films(ahh, sweet Stuart Little). They are kinda cute for a rodent. You also have to respect the house mouse's resiliency. They can enter a space the diameter of a pencil and are always willing to try new foods.

Much of their resiliency is surely due to their capacity to breed. Five to 6 young are born 3 weeks after mating and they become sexually active from 6 to 10 weeks old. So, not theoretically, females could have 6 litters per year equalling 36 new mice. Half of them then go about breeding just like their mamas.  

Of course if I were looking for a house now, I'd notice the 'mouse' signs: the steel wool around entrances and jammed around plumbing, the baseboard joints with slightly curved exits, the black poison boxes tucked behind furniture. Controls in our home has also included traps but I can't do the sticky paper! Sometimes I feel that our mice have become super-evolved. They are complacent about peanut butter, and have worked out how to steal chocolate without setting off the traps. They are ambivilent to the poison (and I'm squeamish about putting it out).

But two weeks ago I snapped. On two separate nights I heard the familiar scratching of a soon-to-be mama mouse tearing off the insulation from the ceiling tiles to use for her nest. The thought of more babies made be set aside my peevishness about cleaning litter boxes, cat hair on my clothes, dead mice at my door and itchy excema... I went out and got me a mouse slayer.  
What's worse? Dead dried mice in my walls or dead mice as presents on my bed side. Its a draw. 

Dubbed Biscuit by the three year old in the house, this mouse slayer hangs out in the basement's joists- choice mouse highways. In fact, one morning last week we awoke to find ceiling tiles on the floor. He'd fell from the roof in his hunt for choice morsels.

He's introduced my kids to the animal world's gladiator fight style.  This has brought up interesting questions for me. I want to shield my kids from the truth of what animals do to other animals. I also don't want to see it myself. Mice have brought the 'wild' into my house. And, like usual, I don't want to face the natural world unless its on my own terms. Like meat which I prefer to buy in a clean, non-animal-looking bundle on styrofoam, I want the benefits without the (necessary) 'gore' and 'mess' of the natural world.  I suppose this is one of the many perks of being at the top of the food chain: we can lie to ourselves then construct realities to confirm these stories. This cat, so languid and social, is teaching me a lot of about my own foibles regarding my role in the natural order of things.

Philosophical ramblings aside... our cat is an unrepentant mouse slayer. The mice are finally running scared.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Black pots are hard to find

After at least five trips to the second hand store in the past couple weeks, I have yet to find a used pot for my solar oven. I had read that its possible to paint a stainless steel one black, but I made one last ditch effort. This time I headed to Winners where they often have reduced, one-off pots.

Hurray! I may have broke the budget (I was hoping to score one for $5, but settled for paying $30), but I now have a black pot- as required. If you're on the hunt too, the pot must have a good fitting lid and should be sized properly for the meals you'll be cooking. Also, make sure its made of a relatively thin material; something thick like cast iron requires a lot more energy to heat the pot then heat your food.

Tomorrow is rumoured to be mostly sunny and I plan to put my fancy new pot to work.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Blanching- Terrible Word, Critical Step

Blanching. Its a really terrible word on the tongue and for a long time its one that's intimidated me.

So for wisdom, I sought out Louise Froese, a dairy and chicken farmer for decades who's got a firm handle on the various mysteries of food preservation.  Last week I visited her at her acerage to help her pick beans and learn about the secrets of blanching.

The main reason you would blanch veggies is to prepare them for freezing. The process helps to lock in the flavour, colour and texture of the food (so six months down the road you don't cook up a disappointingly mushy, bland stir fry!).

Basic Steps:

1. Pick or buy (bulk) fresh vegetables.
The large garden at the Froese's acerage
2.  Wash vegetable in warm water.
This variety is a bush bean called 'Royal Burgandy'. They grow purple, so are really easy to spot and pick, then they turn green when cooked.

3. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil on the stove. Add vegetables (if there is a wide variety of sizes, you'll want to seperate them into like sizes) and boil for the specified time. Over and under boiling will produce an inferior product. If your water doesn't return to a boil in a minute, then you are adding too many veggies. Also, some sources suggest that if you are blanching root crops like potatoes or  carrots, add them to the water when its cold and bring pot and veggies to a boil together, however I've yet to experiment with this.

4. If you have a pot suited with a basket, then this is a great blanching pot. I did not, so after the allotted time, I scooped the beans out quickly into a strainer next to the stove top.

5. The vegetables need to be cooled as soon as they are removed from the hot water. Place them first in a sink full of cold water. Then, transfer them to water with ice.  Cool the veggies for as long as you heated them.
I used a whole bag of ice from the freezer that I can simply refreeze for next time.

6. Spread out veggies to dry completely before freezing.
If you freeze the veggies before they are completely dry, you will have a block of iced veggies in your freezer. Then you will either have to thaw the entire bag's portion or stab yourself with a knife while trying to chip off chunks.

7. Place dry, blanched vegetables in freezer bags in your preferred portion size.
Sorry for the bad picture. But I've packed the beans four cups per bag, added a paper towel to soak up any liquid, and 'vaccuum packed' them (put a straw in the bag and as you zip, suck out the air).

The blanching process took me about two hours and garnered me about 24 cups (7 bags) worth of organic frozen beans.  It's not bad value for my time, though it doesn't take into account all the growing and picking time! The multiple steps is finicky and still a little intimidating to me, but crisp, nutrient rich stir fry- here I come!

For more on the science of blanching, check out this Free Culinary School podcast.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chard? Kale? Squash? what the hell do you do with it?

It's harvest time and this is when I begin to worry about cooking and storing all the weird veggies I've planted/ buy at the markets. The thought of food going to waste because of my insecurity at cooking (and eating!) it makes me panic.

If you're like me and had no exposure to Kale or Quinoa or Swiss Chard as a child (or adult), check out Dani Spies videos. Thanks to Dani, I can slice up and fry up a piece of chard with confidence!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Our Solar Box Oven- First Attempts

A number of beautiful, Northern Alberta sunny days prompted us to try our hand at designing a solar oven. Why turn on the heat inside, when nature could do it for us?

There are many design possibilities and millions of such contraptions around the world (check out this site for a quick summary).

To build our cooker, I primarily referred to Joe Radabaugh's 'Making and Using a Solar Cooker'.

The box cooker I share here was built as-is based purely on the materials we had available in our house and garage. We didn't spend any money on this cooker, though we may have to in order to work out some kinks. For instance, my top temp has been around 155F which cooks but rather longer than I'd like, so I need to better insulate. I also need to find a suitable pot: black, thin, with a black, tight fitting lid.

Here are the initial photos of the Halton Solar Box Cooker.

To build a cooker, you'll need a box (could be cardboard), double glass (or plastic) for the top, tin foil for reflection and some type of insulation (cotton, feathers, wool- we use styrofoam on the outside of our box, but when heated this can off-gas rather badly!)

We sprayed the inside of the box black, but there is some debate whether it is better to simply cover with tin foil which reflects the heat into the black pot (which I have yet to find for free!)

We added styrofoam to the outside as insulation.

Then we sprayed the outside black. On the inside is a muffin tin to raise the food off the ground.

We used an  old window for the top (this isn't double, though that is recommended). In order to have it fit snugly onto the box, Mat fashioned weather stripping from an old tire tube then tacked it on. 

For the top reflector flap, I wrapped a wooden placemat with tin foil. It is a little flimsy, so I'm working on something that will withstand a wind gust.

Making the box cooker took us roughly an hour from start to finish. This has been a fun and rewarding project (I can cook for free). Its also been a little emotional. As I've fiddled and fussed with our oven, I've felt connection with and admiration for my sisters (and brothers) around the world who rely on this source of cooking for their daily food preparation.

Stay tuned for recipes that worked... The chili and stew that cooked in the solar oven tasted good, however took longer than they should have because of the heavy, red pot I used (I think!), and some holes in my insulation.

For more information, check out's Frequently asked questions. And here's their link for all your Food Safety Concerns.

As you experiment, please share some of your designs and expertise!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Drink Beer while Talking about Urban Farming and Local Food

Alberta Views magazine presents a public discussion on local food and urban farming with a panel and Show n' Tell featuring some of Edmonton's most interesting and innovative inner-city farmers. Come share your views (over a couple of brews) on important public issues that affect us all.

Where: The Dish Bistro- 12417 Stony Plain Rd. 
When: Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 7:30 pm
Who: Ron Berezan (The Urban Farmer) Patty Milligan (Lola Canola Honey) and Tracy Hyatt (Westworld)

Cost: $30 (includes 10- issue subscription to Alberta Views, two Alley Kat beers, spirited discussion and door prizes.

* Free to current Alberta Views subscribers. 

Cucumbers hurray

We came back from two weeks in BC to find the garden had become a jungle of green (weeds and otherwise). It was 9 pm and we had spent 8 hours in the car listening to Elmo and eating terrible food. Both Mat and I were craving vegetables.

As I peaked about the veggie garden in the near dark, I whooped with delight. A mama sized cucumber hung there, begging to be devoured. And devoured her, we did.

This recipe I cut out from Edmonton foodie magazine, The Tomato and modified a little:

Hungarian Cucumber Salad

1. Pick/buy 3 fresh cucumber. Peel if you wish.
2. Slice cukes into very thin rounds.
3. Sprinkle liberally with salt and let stand for 15 minutes.
4. Squeeze liquid from cukes.
5. Toss cucumbers with thinly sliced red onion.
6. Spread out on serving tray and pour dressing, 1 part water to 2 parts white vinegar, to cover.
7. Sprinkle with paprika.