The return of longer, brighter days each February signals a change in how we cook and eat for the next several months. It’s time to turn away from the wood-fired hearth of winter’s dark days and transition to capturing energy from the nuclear fusion power plant located 93,000,000 miles away. We can use this energy either directly as concentrated heat in our outdoor, parabolic sun oven or indirectly as electricity from our photovoltaic (PV) panels which can power an electric hot-plate or small oven. This change in fuel sources means that we need to alter meal planning and prep in order to successfully put meals on the table. When cooking with the masonry stove “macrowave,” most all of the dishes for a meal are on the stove in a single batch, when the stove is fired in the late afternoon. Individual pots get moved onto cooler areas of the stove-top to simmer while the longer-cooking dishes occupy the hottest part. When using the sun to cook, each dish gets cooked sequentially, taking their turn with the oven or hotplate, and maybe being held to stay warm, or finish cooking, in our highly insulated “hotbox”. Needless to say, cooking with the sun means that the timing of everything is earlier in the day than with an evening firing of the wood-stove.
Yesterday, an appropriately cloudless Sunday, was a good example of how this can work. Our energy-storing battery bank was full before 9:00 a.m., and we turned on our home-made DC electric oven as a way to use some of the excess sunshine. We first cooked a small cast iron pot of oat groats, our breakfast for the next morning. After this boiled a bit, some raisins and dried apples were added and the pot was transferred to the hot-box to finish cooking. A pot of King of the Early (kidney type) beans that had soaked overnight was next in line for the oven. A batch of cornbread batter was mixed up and left to soak while the beans were cooking (1 C. Cornmeal – Roy’s Calais Flint, 1/2 C. Amaranth flour, 1/2 C. Sorghum flour, 2 T. ground Poppy Seed, 2 C. water, 1/2 T. Caraway Seed). As soon as the beans were fully cooked (about 1.5 hours), the cornbread batter was spread into an oiled cast iron skillet for its turn in the oven. A small cast iron pot with whole cumin seed also went in to roast. When hot and fragrant, the cumin was ground with a pestle to be added to the main dish later. Meanwhile, a couple of small squash with damaged spots were cleaned up and when the cornbread came out of the oven, a roasting pan of squash took its place. While all of this cooking was happening, the rest of the ingredients for chili were assembled. Dehydrated onions, garlic, eggplant, and zucchini were soaked in a quart of tomato juice and the cumin was added. When the squash were cooked, in went this final pot of the day. The presoaking of the dried veggies meant that it only needed a short time to cook. When the veggies were sufficiently re-hydrated and softened, a quart of canned tomato chunks and the cooked, drained beans were added. This was brought back up to a simmer. The final ingredients, dried oregano, tomatoes and peppers (sweet, cayenne, hot wax, and paprika) were stirred in at this point and left to sit a bit to soften before serving. Since the chili was ready about 1/2 hour early, it was left to stay warm in the oven with the door open. The excess oven heat helped to heat the house, which had already been blessed with passive solar heat from our large south-facing windows, along with 120 degree, fresh air from the fan-driven, solar air heat exchanger. The house was a comfy 75 degrees F. (dropping to 65 by the next morning), so no wood fire was required for heating, even though the night time low was around 25 degrees F., normal for this date in Minnesota.
The extra PV power also electrically heated our bath water to 145 degrees F., which felt great on our tired muscles after an afternoon of wood cutting with the electric, PV-powered chainsaw. Those tired muscles helped remind us of why we like having a “fresh” solar alternative to the “stored” sunshine of firewood.