Tag Archives: sustainability

Solar Cooking, Part 2

Last week I decided to experiment with the Haines 2.0 Solar Cooker & Dutch Oven Set. This week I thought I’d try both the Haines and the GoSun Sport.

GoSun is the top of the line when it comes to solar cooking. When I first started looking into solar cookers around a decade ago, I seem to remember them making things that looked a lot more like the Haines. Then a few years back they started selling solar cookers with this black vacuum tube surrounded by metal reflectors. They now have a variety of sizes. I’ve got kind of the middle-range one, the GoSun Sport. The tray that slides into the vacuum tube is narrow, but holds enough food for me and my hubby. I’ve used the GoSun a couple of times before, so I know it’s a little difficult to clean if things get stuck on it. I recently bought some of GoSun’s tray liners. It’s basically just parchment paper that’s been cut very narrowly.

I really like the GoSun company. They are helping people in developing countries use the power of the sun to replace less sustainable, dirty fuel sources, such as wood or fossil fuels. They also now have solar powered coolers, solar lights, and a variety of solar panel options to charge small devices.

The GoSun is kind of like the superhero of solar cookers. Its strength is that it cooks really fast compared to the other solar cookers. Its weakness is that once the glass vacuum tube has warmed up in the sun you can’t put a cold tray in it, especially if it’s got liquid in it. I once watched an episode of America’s Next Top Chef where they used GoSuns and one shattered when one of the chefs put something wet in it while it was hot. The GoSun Sport comes with two trays, but I’ve never tried switching them out once the tube is hot. I read on an a forum that some folks let their second tray sit in the sun to warm up before switching the trays. I haven’t tried doing it yet, so I’m not recommending it at this point.

Anyhow, today I decided to make quinoa in the Haines and pork tenderloin in the GoSun. I got the pork tenderloin at a local butcher shop and chose it specifically for its long, narrow shape. Other cuts of meat would work too, but they may have to be cut to fit the tray. The tenderloin didn’t take up the whole tray, so I filled the rest of it with mini red potatoes, carrots and green onions. The quinoa and the pork tenderloin were seasoned with Moroccan Res El Hanout seasoning, while I seasoned the veggies with za’atar. I guess I was missing Middle Eastern flavors today.

Knowing that my hubby takes his lunch break at noon, I put the quinoa on the Haines cooker at 10:00 am. I had mixed 2 cups of veggie broth with one cup of quinoa, some salt and the Ras El Hanout. I wasn’t sure if it would be done in time, but if it wasn’t ready for lunch I figured we could have it for dinner.

I set out the tenderloin & veggies at 11:00 am. The GoSun cooks faster than the Haines, so I knew it would have our lunch done in time. The GoSun has a little device on it that helps you find the best position so that it gets the most sun. Once I had the GoSun positioned correctly, I repositioned the Haines to mirror it. Soon after I realized that the quinoa was actually simmering. I didn’t see that with the polenta last week. Maybe I didn’t have it positioned correctly.

At noon I used a digital thermometer to check the pork and it was a perfect 165 degrees. The quinoa also appeared perfectly cooked. I brought the whole GoSun inside and the Dutch oven from the Haines. I dished up the quinoa and veggies while the pork rested a few minutes. Then I sliced up the pork and served us up a delicious meal without using a bit of electricity or gas and I didn’t have to heat up my house!

Our house is situated between two tall hills, so we have limited hours of direct sun. This means that I can really only prepare lunches with my solar cookers, at least until summer. Solar cookers work through cloud cover, but not in the shade. From what I’ve read, solar cookers even work in cold temperatures, they just take longer.

I am going to start planning out our lunches so that I’m using one or both of our solar cookers more often while we’re working from home. That should save us a little money and it’s better for the environment. We don’t know what the world is going to look like after Covid-19. I’m really hoping we come out of this with a more equitable world, one that is more sustainable. If that future is to come we have to start utilizing renewable energy sources, such as solar power. Solar cooking will have to be part of that future. That future starts with us and it has to start now.

Solar Cooking, Part 1

I love the idea of solar cooking! Why waste natural resources and money when the sun is capable of cooking our food?

Ages ago when I was deployed to Saudi Arabia as a member of the Air Force, we were issued meals ready to eat (MREs) for a couple of weeks for our lunch. It was summertime in the Arabian Desert, so daytime temperatures were typically around 130 degrees. We would take the little pouches that contained the main dish, place them on rocks in the sunshine for 10 minutes, and they would get hot enough for steam to come from the pouch when they were opened. That experience really made me want to use solar power to cook food ever since.

Last year I purchased two kinds of solar cookers, but I’ve been so busy with school that I hadn’t really gotten a chance to experiment with them. This week I decided to give the Haines 2.0 Solar Cooker and Dutch Oven Set a try. The assembly directions were fairly straight forward, so I had it together in about 10 minutes. I decided to make something simple the first time out, so I chose polenta.

I had read that the secret to most solar cooking was to get the food on early and let it cook throughout the day. It’s difficult to burn food in this type of cooker. Since the pot isn’t in contact with a burner you don’t even have to stir it! The biggest thing I had to do was move the cooker to catch the best sun every couple of hours.

As the sun moved overhead the cooker’s configuration had to be changed to make the most of the sun’s rays.

It probably took about six hours, but at the end of the day I had a good sized batch of delicious polenta!

Next week I think I’ll use this and my GoSun Sport to cook an entire meal.

Big Life, Small Space

Three years ago my husband and I bought a lovely three-bedroom home on a little more than half an acre of land. If you’ve read my previous posts you know that we have put a lot of work into our land to bring fertility and beauty to an acidic, parched, sandy lot that had been neglected and abused for decades.

Our lovely house today.
Our lovely house today.

We busted our butts clearing scrub brush and overgrown azaleas, and breaking up the compacted soil by tilling almost the entire yard. I planted fruit trees and blueberry bushes, strawberries and asparagus – plants that will produce every year with a little care. I built raised beds and created soil out of yard and kitchen waste, composted manure, and peat moss. I tossed about 100 earthworms in the beds to eat the organic matter in them and turn it into microbe-rich worm dirt, then started heirloom seeds to grow delicious, nutrient-rich food.

Baby Chickipoos
Baby Chickipoos

Chicken Tractor
Chicken Tractor

We went further in our dream of a sustainable life by getting baby chicks and raising them up. We built them a chicken tractor and moved them to a new patch of grass every day or so. We were happily surprised about how much better the yard looked a couple of weeks after the chickipoos had scratched and aerated the soil,  eaten all the plants & bugs, and left a bit of fertilizer behind them. And at the end of the day, we had fresh, delicious eggs! We also built a worm bin. Whatever kitchen waste the chickens wouldn’t eat (coffee grounds, tea leaves, etc) went to the worms. That worked well for a while, but our worms decided to migrate and left the bin one day. It was kinda weird, but other folks I’ve talked to say that worms do that sometimes.

Along the way I discovered fermentation and took to it like a duck to water. I’ve made all kinds of fermented veggies, brined eggs,  soft and hard cheeses, bacon, prosciutto, kombucha, kefir, yoghurt, skyr, clabbered milk, mead, hard cider, beer, and wine.

Lots of fermentation going on!
Lots of fermentation going on!

When we bought our home we thought we’d be there for a very long time, but life happens. Neither of us were successful in finding employment that we were in the least bit happy doing. I spent many months trying to get our business off the ground, but after failing to get financing we came to the conclusion that we were simply in the wrong place. We had chosen our town because of the lovely little downtown area, but you know what they say about books and covers. There was really very little going on in the CSRA that we could do for recreation other than tending our animals and our plot of land. Those things were great, but we had left an amazingly rich life back in the Ozarks before moving to South Carolina.

Last summer my dear friend, Hope, and I had taken a trip to see Rock City. Both of us are fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and had always talked about going together to see where the battle scene in the book took place. I fell in love with Chattanooga! It reminded me of my old hometown of Fayetteville, AR, but it’s even funkier. I knew my hubby would like it because of the mountains and the wonderful local food culture. So when the opportunity presented itself, I encouraged him to apply for a job there and since he’s super awesome, he got it!

Now we’re living between two places: our house in Aiken and our rented apartment in Chattanooga. We realized a few months ago that we have a big house that costs a small fortune to heat and cool, but we only live in three rooms. The whole time we’ve lived there we’ve had one guest that took advantage of our guestroom… one! We have decided that if we want to seriously commit to a sustainable lifestyle and stop spending all our time dealing with household maintenance, we have to make a big change. In a few weeks we’ll have an estate sale where we will be selling off at least 70% of our belongings. It hurts a bit, but it’s just stuff. Then we are going to sell our house. I’m really hoping that someone comes along that wants to garden and falls in love with our property. The hard work has been done already, they just need to plant and tend the garden. Once the house is sold, we are buying at least five acres of property outside of town and we’re going to build a tiny house!

By selling most of our stuff we’re hoping to whittle things down to a much more manageable state. We won’t have room for a dishwasher, so we decided to cut down the number of dishes we have. Instead of a set of eight dishes, we currently have a set of four. We are thinking about cutting that down to a set of two. That way, I will wash each of my dishes when I’m done with it and not have a big pile of dishes to wash everyday. And if we do have company, they will be told ahead of time about our kitchen arraignment and to bring their own dishes.  With less of our time being spent on things that aren’t really important, we can devote ourselves to the things we really love to do: hiking, dancing, brewing, gardening, raising critters, reading, and hanging out with friends. And hopefully, we will start our business in Chattanooga. The culture here is much better for what we want to do.

I’m sad to think about what we are leaving behind. But I’m even more excited about what lies ahead!

No Till Garden

One of my neighbors recently had to put her 93 year old mother in a nursing home (poor thing is in too bad of health to ever come home again) and decided to tear down the massive wheelchair ramp to her front door. I scavenged some of the wood from her and built a raised bed about 2′ high.
raised beds
I had heard about lasagna gardening (aka no till gardening) and did some homework. The concept is that you lay down layers of leaves, grass clippings, food waste, etc. to compost into fabulous, nutrient rich soil. I began my layers with thick cardboard to keep all the weeds underneath from growing up in my raised bed. Then I began filling it with leaves, food waste, manure, more leaves, composted food from my compost barrel, and topped it all off with some high quality organic topsoil. I also went to a local bait shop and bought around 100 red worms and gave them a new home in the raised bed. With all that organic material, those worms should be churning out lots of worm castings to make the soil super rich.
Yesterday I transplanted some of the seedlings I started a few weeks ago, like spinach, kale, collard greens, and mustard greens. I have a little gardening stool that I sat on to do my planting. It worked wonderfully! No sore back or knees!
I also figured out the best thing to start seeds in… empty cardboard toilet paper rolls. I think I saw someone suggest this on Pinterest, so I started saving my spent toilet paper and paper towel rolls. I cut the toilet paper rolls in two and the paper towel rolls into four pieces, filled them with organic seed starting mix and planted my seeds. I screwed up a bit, because I planted kale, cauliflower and cabbage at the same time, but did not keep good track of what I planted where. I was using the toilet paper rolls and K-cups in two different plastic bins. Anyway, I transplanted one set of seedlings from the toilet paper rolls (I think it was kale) into the raised bed yesterday and it was so much simpler than anything else I’ve ever used. The cardboard was damp, as it should be, and rolled off of the soil leaving the roots completely intact in the seed starting soil. I’ll be saving all my toilet paper rolls from now on! I’ll just take better care when it comes to labeling things.

These are mostly K-cups, but there are a couple of toilet paper rolls on the right.
These are mostly K-cups, but there are a couple of toilet paper rolls on the right.