Last week I made dinner in the solar cooker from another recipe from the Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipies. Got it in around 10:30 am, took it out around 4pm. I'm still surprised any time this cooks anything, but it does.
Not bad, but kind of boring. I probably wouldn't use this recipe again. The chicken was cooked well but had that slow cooker blandness. I've heard that if you cook chicken with the bone in you don't have this problem. I need to try that.
Last night's dinner was chili cooked in the solar cooker using a bastardized version of the recipe for Hard Time's vegetarian chili.
I couldn't figure out why Hard Times would give away their recipes for free until sometime after I'd read the recipe for the fourth or fifth time and realized that it called for a 6-ounce bag of "Hard Times spice mix," which, presumably, is only available from Hard Times. However, I was not intimidated by the bullies at Hard Times, Inc. I whined about it to Cristy, who concocted a mixture of chili powder, oregano and cumin, to which I added a healthy helping of chili flakes and some minced garlic. I cut the whole recipe in half, so I used approximately 3 ounces of said mixture.
Got it in the oven around 10:45am. Kind of late, but I was busy.
Checked on it a little before 4pm. A few important notes here.
1. The pot was so hot that when the condensation from inside the oven bag dripped onto it, the water sizzled.
2. When I cracked the lid on the pot, the steam that came out was hot enough to cause permanent injury.
3. The combination of heat, condensation, metal and plastic makes for a sticky mess if you happen to drop the lid the wrong way into the chili, the design of these oval oven pots (or whatever they're called) being such that it is possible to drop the lid into the pot.
4. Once I opened the oven bag, the pot never really got hot again - the built-up heat within the oven bag is really the key to success.
The chili turned out pretty good. We took it over to the neighbor's house and ate it while watching the final installment of Hell's Kitchen, which was somewhat gratifying because I picked Rock for the winner during the first episode.
How far will I take this craziness? How far?
Yesterday I made vegetarian chili in the solar cooker. Went fairly well. Put it out around ten o'clock, had to take it in around four o'clock because it looked like it might rain (and it did). It was a recipe from the Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipies, which calls for pasta, but we ate it straight up, no pasta for us. We regretted this decision, as the chili was very tangy, zesty to the point of repulsiveness.
We had it again tonight, but Cristy put some cumin and a little sugar in it, which improved it considerably. You see, as much as I like foraging in the backyard for herbs (Have you noticed yet that I haven't been outside my yard for the foraging? It's because I'm a shut-in.) I am maybe not what you would call a very good cook. I don't know spices and things. I couldn't tell you what cumin is or does or tastes like, but I do know now that it is a vital ingredient in vegetarian chili.
Yesterday I attempted to make lasagna in my new solar cooker. Careful readers of this blog may remember that I said I was going to throw out my old solar cooker. I did, too. I threw it out numerous times, each time with more disgust and determination than the time before. First I threw it into the giant dumpster that was parked in my driveway for the purpose of disposing of demolition and construction debris. The workmen tossed it out. I never mentioned it to them, but I got the feeling that they didn't like anything but their own trash in their dumpster. Didn't matter that I was ultimately paying for the dumpster - it was theirs. Somewhat perturbed, I stuffed it into my trash can (really one of those large black plastic dumpsters on wheels) and put it out on trash day, only to find that the oven was wedged into the can so snugly that it wouldn't fall out into the trash truck when it was overturned by the big pincer robot thing that dumps the cannisters. So more garbage got piled onto it. Next week, same thing. The garbage on top was disposed of, the oven and whatever garbage was below it was intact, mocking me. I felt sure, however, that the next garbage day would be different, that something would shake loose and I would pull the garbage can in from the curb empty. But I was to find that my Theory of Things Shaking Loose was based more on faith than anything else and so I was, in the end, forced to dig through the garbage and rearrange it in such a way that elimination of the hateful solar oven was possible. Good riddance.
Last weekend I made myself a new solar oven, as promised, based on the Cookit plans. I really should start calling it a "solar cooker" instead, since it's not an oven.
I decided to make lasagna, mainly because it seemed easy to prepare, although I had doubts about the noodles actually cooking to the point where you'd want to eat them.
Anyway, I just sort of made something up. Used two partial jars of Newman's spaghetti sauce, ricotta, mozarrella, noodles, some pine nuts, and layered in a bunch of lamb's quarters, freshly harvested from the forest of lamb's quarters which occupies the space formerly known as our garden. I put it out in the yard at 12:21pm.
June and July would have been the perfect times to use the cooker - that's when the sun beats down all day relentlessly and it the temperature hangs around 100F all day long. Now we're in our rainy season. It's warm, partly cloudy, and there's a fair chance that it will rain in the afternoon and evening, but it seemed like it was sunny enough. After I put the pot into the cooker, I went to find some stones to put under the pot because I had apparently lost my homemade cooking trivot. When I came back a minute or so later the pot was already too hot to touch, which was reassuring.
I left it alone all day. Ok, I peeked at it once, but I didn't poke it and obsess over it. I figured if it was a failure we could eat soup for dinner.
The sky became cloudier all afternoon, and finally around 6pm it was completely overcast, so I took the pot in. The recipe calls for 2 hours, but I gave it about 4 and a half. No sense in bringing it in anyway, since it would just cool off and then we'd have to warm it up before dinner. And goddammit, do you know what? It worked. I tasted it and it and it tasted like lasagna. I coudn't believe it. The noodles were cooked perfectly. The top layer ws a little dry, but other than that it was completely appetizing. Not bad for never having made lasagna before.
I want to try the Chicken in the Pot recipe again.
Why "chicken in the pot"? Why not "chicken in a pot"? Beats me.
So this time I'm following the recipe a little more closely. Through exhaustive Internet research, I have discovered that 16 ounces equals 2 cups. Since the recipe calls for 16 ounces of chicken broth, I'm going to to use two cups of chicken broth, rather than "whatever is left in the container," which didn't work out too good last time.
It's partly cloudy today and the wind isn't too bad, so I think this will work out. The sun's going to stick around past 4:30, too, unlike last time .
Here's what it looks like going in at 11:16 am:
At 1pm, things aren't looking too good. The pot isn't as hot as it should be. It's just warm. I think it's the clouds. It's really clouded over. It's still warm outside. Why is the weather always against me?
Ok, it's not just the weather that's against me. It's the packing tape that I used to affix the oven bags to the top of the solar oven. I went out to check on things to find the oven bag top flapping in the breeze, which isn't good.
Now it's about 6pm. Turns out we're going out to dinner. Check on the stew one more time... not done. The chicken isn't done, the potatoes aren't done, nothing is done. Dammit! Now this will have to go into the crock pot again. This is very annoying to me in so many ways.
So to recap: Failure. Why? Probably a combination of the partly cloudy weather and the oven bags coming off the top. I would guess that's it's mostly the latter. If not, then that means that 4 hours of constant direct winter sun is better than 7 hours of (somewhat) intermittent spring sun. That doesn't sound right.
You know what? I'm going to jettison this stupid solar oven and replace it with one of these . This one takes up too much space anyway.
Well. Yesterday the weather report said the high would be 69 degrees, "mostly sunny," so I attempted to make chicken again using this recipe at solarcooking.org for "Chicken in the pot."
I followed the directions for the recipe to a T. To a T, I say, except that the recipe calls for 1 can of chicken broth, but instead of using "1 can," I used "what was left over in the fridge in one of those boxes of chicken broth that Cristy buys." Cristy is always harping on me about using enough liquid in these recipes, but what she refuses to understand is that I like finding things out for myself the hard way. That way it really sinks in.
Anyway, the meal got into the oven at approx 10:30 am and came out at 4:30 pm. I would have left it out there longer, but around 4 the sky started to cloud over in a very unpleasant fashion. The chicken was done, but guess what? The vegetables were still crunchy. The chicken was done because I had layered it at the bottom of the pot and covered it with the broth, but the vegetables were essentially being "air cooked," which is probably not the best method for cooking vegetables.
In any case, I had to keep it hot until about 6 anyway so I tossed the whole thing into a crock pot and set it on high for a couple hours. We ate around 6:30. I told Cristy that my feelings wouldn't be hurt if she didn't want to eat the vegetables, but she saw through that lie and ate them. Really, it wasn't bad. Another two hours in the crock was really what the vegetables needed. Oddly, the chicken smelled and tasted to me like Kentucky Fried Chicken. I think it had something to do with the amount of black pepper in the recipe.
So was it a success? Sort of. Next time I'll use the proper amount of chicken broth. Also, there's only a month or less of cold weather ahead of us this season, so the sun is going to be getting stronger and stronger until it reaches it's skin-blistering climax in July.
One other thing. A few people who I talk to about solar cooking express doubt about how hot the oven gets. The oven doesn't really get hot: the pot in the oven gets hot. Even a day like yesterday in early March when the sun is still pretty weak in Albuquerque, the pot in the oven was so hot that it couldn't be comfortably touched. By comparison, put something in your crock put on low (or even on high) and when it heats up, touch the ceramic part of it. You can touch it without burning yourself.
It's been too cold here to do much in the way of the solar cooker or anything else. Actually, I used it the other day - made baked apples again, which turned out good. I was going to make dinner today since it looked sunny, but the weather report says it's going to be windy all day with clouds. Bummer.
Today's brave foray into solar cooking will involve the preparation of East African Spicy Chicken Stew from Savory Stews by Jacques Burdick.
I followed the recipe for the most part but skipped over the step of sauteeing the onions.
I got it in the oven at approx 10:45 am. This time I placed the oven in a spot in the yard where it will get maximum sunlight for the whole day.
It's 4:23pm - there's not enough light left for the solar cooker to operate at maximum efficiency. Here's the result:
It looks good. The chicken isn't done though. It's cooked all the way through, but not cooked as well as I'd like. Cristy won't be home for an hour or so anyway, so in the regular natural gas oven it goes. This is what happens when you use frozen chicken pieces that aren't all the way defrosted.
Ok, now for a real test of the cooker on a sunny February day. According to weather.com, the high will be 56F.
Recipe is simple: 4 chicken breasts in Soy Vey. They go in the cooker at 10:42 am. I preheated the pot in the oven for about ten minutes. The solar oven, that is.
The only drawback here is that the sunlight will be gone at about 4:30 or so. Cristy won't be home until 6:30 or 7, so I'll have to reheat the chicken before we eat.
Oh boy I am excited.
It's 3:32 pm and I've taken the chicken out of the oven. Done to perfection and as boring-tasting as anything every cooked in a crock pot! Next time I'll follow an actual recipe instead of just pouring on marinade. I really thought that would work, though.
After Cristy got home, she made some sauteed vegetables and rice and then we spent about 30 minutes waiting for the chicken to warm up in the oven (we don't have a microwave). I noted that if I hadn't cooked the chicken and we'd just put it under the broiler that we'd only have to wait 15 minutes. Three cheers for inefficiency!
Today I'm going to make some improvements to the solar oven setup.
First, the pot needs to be blackened so that it will absorb more heat.
It's so easy, even I can do it.
The pot needs to be propped up on some kind of wire stand. After several hours of painstaking research, I have come up with the following solution:
Take a wire hanger. Straighten the hook out, but leave the ends twisted together. Then, using whatever plier-like implement you happen to have on hand, bend a bunch of kinks into it so that you form a top and legs. While you are doing this, imagine that you are a genius inventor. Now you have a stand for your pot so that more heat will be reflected to the bottom of the pot when you're cooking something.