Throwing caution to the sun

Recently we treated guests to a brunch of champagne risotto, zucchini quiche, baked sweet potatoes, curried root soup and banana bread, all at one get-together. Yet we didn’t spend a second in our kitchen, and although we know one white-tablecloth chef personally, this wasn’t a catered event.

We cooked it all ourselves, but used zero therms of natural gas, likewise no kilowatts of electricity spun the meter. A bag of half-used charcoal from a July 4th years ago stayed in the garage gathering sawdust and cobwebs, and the logs from our neighbors rampant mulberry tree weren’t lit up since the past winter — and then only in our fireplace.

I admit we did break out some Sterno cans to keep the finished product warm for our dozen guests in the dining room, but that was the only flame involved.

You’ve read it before in these pages, in passing, but if not and you can’t guess, here I’ll expound on the Joy of Solar Cooking.

These days you can find a couple thousand “I converted a satellite dish into a solar cooker!” videos on YouTube. When you Google “solar cooking” you can click through many personal blogs talking about such cookers made from cardboard boxes and aluminum foil, worn-out printing press plates and recycled window panes, and even old shipping barrels with straw for insulation and vanity mirrors.

Although I’ve gone the more expensive, manic route and bought more than a dozen cookers manufactured mainly by NGOs, what you need to know is this: Almost anyone with grade school memories of magnifying glasses and terrified ants can understand the ideas behind solar cooking and can probably come up with their own model. (My brothers and I used a big magnifying glass and vegetable oil to brand our names into our pee-wee league baseball mitts.)  

There are nearly a hundred patents filed in the U.S. for a wide variety of cooker plans, but it’s not rocket science. In fact one of my favorite web-finds is a picture of a cooker, designed by Taiwanese grade-schoolers, that looks like three folding hand fans stitched together into an inverted cone, with a wire trivet to hold the pot steady. No — you don’t need to be smarter than a fifth-grader!

If you’re ready to give it a go the only other thing you need to know is that anything — and I mean anything — can be cooked using solar energy.  

Frying? Heck, if you can stick a two-by-four into the concentrated sunbeam of a parabolic cooker (that beam is called the focal point), you can stir-fry at the highest possible heat.  

Baking? Most of the 40 pounds my doctor said I should lose came from a steady diet of solar banana bread baked in box cookers.  

Slow cooking? Keep the crock pot handy for cloudy days, but panel cookers will fix up a stew for you rivaling any campout meal and you won’t have to gag on wood smoke as it cooks.

The added bonus is that you must be outside away from the boob tube, and closer to your flower or vegetable garden. Parabolic cookers need to be “focused” every 10 minutes or so — the perfect stretch of time for an aerobic workout pulling weeds or picking tomatoes.  

Box cookers need maybe an hourly nudge to face the sun as it moves and the tooth-pick “ready” gauge for breads and cakes works just as well in a solar cooker as in your Amana range. Panel cookers go Popiel one better — you can set ‘em and forget ‘em, plus you use no fossil fuels and don’t coat your lungs with irritating particulates in the process.  

If you’re one who sunburns just thinking of stepping outside, an earth-mother in Arizona, Barbara Kerr, has designed a cooker that you can set into your home’s south-facing wall and cook from inside.

In this era of Anti-Clampetts befouling the oceans and the best army on earth struggling against weaponized cows and jalopies 10 time zones away, there is just about no more peaceful worldly-woes-forgotten pastime than solar cooking.  

I shut off all electronic devices when the sun rises on a non-work day, and combined with a weeding or an onion harvest, and I use only the energy flooding down on us every day while burning off calories to boot. Even in Minnesota, deep in the “variety-weather belt,” solar cooking can be done most days of the week, most months in the year.

And it gives me time to reflect, undistracted, alone with my thoughts and the lasagna del sol baking on the patio: So much of today’s “green economy” thinking is geared toward not-yet-fossil fuels, like veggie diesel, biomass and reclaimed sawdust.  

Solar power is surely a big part of the conversation, but almost exclusively the topic is using the sun to generate more electricity — to run our microwaves and air conditioners.  

The great joy of solar cooking is making use of an energy source that can’t be co-opted back into propping up our consumer-based economy.

Luther Krueger is a crime prevention analyst for the Minneapolis Police Department.