Natural Perspectives: Now we're cooking

Whenever Vic goes off to teach, leaving me at home with the Internet and a credit card, I have so much fun while he's at work. Most days I just read, garden and play with my chickens.

But once in a while, I see what trouble I can get into with online shopping. That's what happened recently.

A number of years ago I made a solar oven out of a Styrofoam box, some aluminum foil and a sheet of glass. It didn't work very well. It took all day to heat up a can of baked beans. I had looked online for solar ovens back then, but didn't find one with all of the features that I wanted.

You may be wondering why I would want an oven that cooks with just the heat of the sun. It can be used for camping, but that isn't the primary reason why I bought it. It can be used for emergency cooking in case of a power outage, but I would use our gas grill or propane camping stove in those cases. So that isn't why I bought it either.

I got a solar oven as part of my ongoing fight against global warming. For every meal I cook in the solar oven, that's a tiny bit of natural gas that I didn't burn. By using a solar oven, I'm not contributing to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And in part, I got it so Vic could laugh at me. He thinks it's really funny that I cook outdoors in the sun when I have a perfectly functional indoor kitchen.

After my experience with my homemade solar oven, I wasn't impressed with sun cooking. But for some inexplicable reason, I looked again at solar ovens online and found one with every feature that I wanted, at Sun Oven International.

It's portable, has a carrying handle, and the attached, one-piece, collapsible reflectors fold up for storage. It has a built-in thermometer, and a built-in elevation leg. An essential feature is a swinging shelf so food stays level when the angle of the oven is changed to better face the sun. And best of all, it's made in the U.S. The Sun Oven had everything I wanted in a solar oven, so I bought it!

I also purchased the optional emergency preparedness package and a couple of solar cookbooks. The emergency preparedness package included two bread pans, a set of two stacking pans with lids, and three stacking shelves that can be used to dehydrate foods. They are used for making sun-dried tomatoes or beef jerky. It also came with a CD with 80 solar oven recipes and preparation tips.

The oven was $299, or $364 with the preparedness package. Given that this is just an insulated box with a glass lid and folding reflectors, the price is a bit steep. But after using it for two weeks, I'd buy it all over again. I just love it. I'm hoping that this column inspires a few other people to buy one and get cooking with the sun.

Sun Oven International has a video that shows how to use the oven and demonstrates how things cook in it. You can see the video at http://www.sunoven.com.

I could hardly wait until my new oven arrived. I had so many things that I wanted to try to make in it. You put the oven in the yard, unfold the aluminum reflectors, orient it toward the sun, and let it preheat. It will get up to 350 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit when the sun shines straight down.

After preheating the oven, you put your food in a thin enamel pan with a lid, and let it cook. For best cooking, the oven needs to be turned every 20 to 30 minutes so it faces the sun.

The first thing I did with my solar oven was boil water. Whoopee, the water boiled. Then I made a beef stew, with carrots, onions, potatoes, and a sauce of tomato paste, a bit of vinegar, brown sugar, spices, and raisins. The beef was wonderfully tender and the vegetables cooked perfectly.

Next I made a pot roast, then a chicken casserole. Because you don't add much liquid, the flavors are fabulous. I baked potatoes in my solar oven too, and cooked rice in it.

I even baked two loaves of bread in it. I wasn't sure that the tops of the loaves would brown, but I coated the dough with olive oil before putting it into the preheated solar oven. The bread baked perfectly with a fine toasty brown crust. My next meal in the solar oven will be roast pork loin with a nice mustard sauce.

The solar oven will bake, boil or steam foods. About the only thing that you can't do with it is fry foods.

The optimal cooking hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but the food stays warm if you just leave it in the oven. If you want to use it like a crockpot, you put the food into it in the morning, orient the oven toward where the sun will be at noon, and leave it.

By dinner time, the food is cooked and still hot. I like the more proactive cooking method of reorienting the oven every 30 minutes. I've cooked two separate things in a day using this method.

The solar oven needs a sunny day to work. If the weather is overcast, the oven doesn't heat up enough to cook. I'm not sure my new oven will get much use during Gray May and June Gloom. But I'm going to be cooking with the sun until then, doing my bit to fight global warming.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LmurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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