Solar Cooking Is Heating Up
Forget your gas-powered barbecue grill -- solar ovens are hot this summer. While they're putting a fun, fuel-efficient twist on backyard cooking in this country, they’re saving lives in others -- and there’s a Sacramento connection.
Monday, June 19, 2006
Former Sacramento mayor Anne Rudin is in the kitchen of her South Land Park home. It’s about 9 in the morning, but she’s not making breakfast. She’s getting an EARLY start on dinner. She’ll need it.
“I’m going to use my solar ovens today to prepare a meal. And I’m planning to use both of them.”
Rudin has been cooking unplugged nearly 20 years. Today’s SOLAR menu is a whole roasted chicken, potatoes and a chocolate pudding cake that makes its own sauce. She’s learned that anything that can be conventionally braised or baked can be solar cooked. But it takes time.
“This is what they’d call in Europe “slow food.”
In a solar oven, the chicken and potatoes need 4 hours, maybe five. The cake needs two hours. Rudin says she can put an entire meal in her solar cooker in late morning and when she returns home in the afternoon, it’s done.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s the easiest way imagineable to cook.”
She heads out the sliding screen door. In the yard -- two solar cookers are preheating under partly sunny skies. The biggest one is a solar box cooker. It’s got thick walls, a black interior, a glass top and a foil reflector aimed at the Sun.
“Take the lid off, the top off. I just lined it with some new foil, because it was getting pretty shabby. And I’ve got a rack in there. And I’m going to put two pans in here. Here goes the chicken…clang, and clang, clang,.and here go the potatoes. I feel like Biba”
A solar cooker should hover at about 200 degrees on a mild day, but THAT’S out of Rudin’s control.
“The temperature dropped to 100 when I took the lid off, so it has to build up the heat again, and I’d be very careful with chicken.”
It’s 10:30. Whether the chicken fully cooks -- and the cake rises – it’s up to the Sun. Rudin won’t find out until afternoon.
Solar cookers like Rudin’s are having an impact that goes beyond the American backyard. In SOME Third World countries WHERE FUEL IS HARD TO COME BY, solar cookers are preventing starvation,, thanks to a Sacramento nonprofit called Solar Cookers International. BEV BLUM IS SCI’S executive director is Bev Bloom.
“Wood is becoming scarce in many parts of the world. And it’s an expensive commodity that used to be free. People are having to barter away part of their food to get the fuel to cook the rest.”
That’s where solar cooking comes in. SCI has helped an estimated half-a-million families CAPTURE the free rays OF THE SUN in a contraption of shiny foil panels called the Cookit.
“This humble little piece of cardboard lasts about 2 years with regular use and it saves about a ton of firewood a year.....”
Today, SCI fields a call from French-speaking Chad where nearly 300 solar cookers have reached Darfur refugees.
“It feeds 4 to 6 people. It cooks meats, vegetables, nutritious slow cooker, purifies water.”
Adapting local African favorites to solar cooking has had some tasty surprises. SCI’s Pascale Dennery has been to Africa several times. Dennery saw kids clamoring for a lip-smacking fish called omena from Lake Victoria.
“It’s not as good tasting if cooked conventionally on a fire than if it’s cooked in a solar cooker. That is what the kids want. It has less of a fishy taste, more flavor, the spices come out more….”
The solar cooker seems to do it all without any bother.
“Except in India. Monkeys are most notorious for interfering with solar cookers because they’re not afraid of the reflection.”
SOLAR enthusiasts here shouldn’t anticipate such disruptions. Back at Ann Rudin’s, the solar cookers have had a typical yawn of an afternoon. She’s got all the food back in the house NOW for the BIG REVEAL.
Rudin:. Let’s see what this looks like. Elaine: oooooo. Rudin: Um, I think that’s done. The skin is crisp and it’s got a broth around it.
Rudin holds out hope for the cake. .
“ It’s a little liquidy. I’d like it a little more syrupy under the cake. Would you like to try it?
It’s gooey, so she spoons it into dessert dishes and we sit at the table.
“Ready? I’m excited. Oh, this is good, so chocolaty. This is good.”
Outdoor SOLAR cooking during the day may NOT have the excitement of a fiery grill. But one day, don’t be surprised if the grill is eclipsed by the sun.