Friday, May 29, 2020

Powered by the Sun. And Beans

By guest blogger Sergio Avila*

Time at home can help feed some creativity, or at least allow some leisure time to try new things. Some people are gardening and/or cooking at home; some are working out, painting or playing an instrument. In my case, it has been a time for trying, learning and even experimenting, and I acknowledge it is a privilege. A few weeks ago, I decided to dust off my solar oven and cook some meals while taking advantage of the longer, warmer days. This time has allowed me to experiment with my cooking, new recipes and also to share with other people who haven't considered cooking with the sun. 

The solar oven (also known as 'sun oven') is a box made of wood, metal or another material, lined with insulation on all, but one side; with a small door to insert cooking pots and pans, sitting on a metal plate at the bottom. The box is open on one end, but covered with a glass to allow the sunlight to heat up the metal plate. The way this works is by heating up the metal plate where pots sit (like your stove) while also keeping the heat inside the box (like an oven) while it sits directly under the sun. Sometimes people add metal “wings” over the box to capture more sunlight. In my case, my solar oven is large so the sunlight comes in through a glass window; temperature inside can get up to between 250 and 300 degrees F. 

It's important the solar oven rotates to always face the sun with the glass side. There are many ways of doing this, from just moving the box with your hands, adding wheels or even a solar sensor that will rotate the box when shaded - which I saw once while visiting Tucson's Festival of the Sun, an annual solar potluck and exhibition at Catalina State Park. 

Generally, vegetables are the easiest to cook. I like to cook beans (black, pinto or tepari beans), lentils, calabacitas (a dish made with squash, onions and other veggies.) Pre-soaked beans will cook in around 3 hours, and with enough water, they can stay there a little longer. Once I made Mexican rice and I was pleasantly surprised! I'm not much of a baker, but sugar or oatmeal cookies would be easy to make.  At the Festival of the Sun I saw people cooking meat, ribs, cakes. I think this takes practice, and knowing your oven well, but it's worth the try. You can even use it to boil water, make sun tea or dry fruit (though this requires air circulating).

If you are a do-it-yourself kind of person, there are many plans to build your own solar oven online; a quick search should give you lots of results, ideas, and photographs. You can use mostly recycled materials, and might need to buy a piece of glass, a metal plate for the base, and the insulation that covers the walls. If you want to invest some money and buy one already made, that's also a good route and you should find many alternatives.

In Tucson, you can experience the flavors of solar-cooked food and learn about appliances and solar arts from Citizens for Solar and the Solar Guild. Their annual Solar Potluck, co-sponsored by Catalina State Park, is an educational, family-friendly event to learn about solar cooking, energy conservation and other topics on sustainability.

A little practice will help you estimate cooking time, amount of water or other details for successful, delicious meals. In years past I left food cooking, went to the office and came back to a ready pot of veggies or lentils. Solar ovens can be used at home, at the work place, the park, or even during camping trips. I like the solar oven because I can cook some meals with little supervision and zero energy. My solar oven also provides me with the opportunity to show and tell, to share ideas for sustainable alternatives, and inspire others to create their own. It makes me feel independent and taking advantage of a resource we enjoy in Arizona pretty much all the time. 

Sun’s out. Solar oven’s cooking!

*Sergio Avila is a wildlife biologist and conservationist, an immigrant, a trail runner, and a desert dweller. He works as Local Outdoors Program Coordinator with the Sierra Club, and is a Commissioner in the City of Tucson’s Commission on Climate, Energy and Sustainability, and a Society for Conservation Biology Board member. He can be found in Twitter and Instagram @Sergio_concolor

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