Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Solar Picnic

As the sun was rising to its zenith on June 21st of this year, I was busy speiling about solar cookers, and soaking up the diluted solar energy which in concentrated form can fry crepes and bake pies. On June 21st I got a sunburn while cooking local organic food with solar energy at Kensington Car Free Day, together with Brook Kavanaugh, chef at La Palette.

Both Brook and I were profiled in an August 22nd Globe and Mail article on solar cooking in Canada. The article is behind a paywall, but you can read it here.

Ironic - I am writing about the Solstice as the Autumnal Equinox approaches, and the season changes once more. If we know one thing about the sun, it always comes back. And I get to my blog eventually....summer is my busiest time, as I work in the solar energy biz....

On June 21st Brook Kavanaugh and the Guerilla Gourmet whipped their sun drenched cadres into shape with a selection of locally sourced vegan crepes with Asparagus and goat cheese, and a strawberry tart that was perfection - all cooked with 100% local solar energy. This was the lowest carbon impact gourmet meal any of the diners had ever eaten.

Asparagus was gently cooked until tender in the Sun Cook solar oven.

Our two chefs and their helpers worked all afternnon, shaded by an awning in front of an emtpy shop on Augusta Ave.

Over the course of a couple hours, chef Brook cooked his tasty crepes on the El Sol parabolic solar grill, available from Sun Baked at www.solarcooking.ca . The Sun Cook solar oven is also visible.

Here you can see the crepe cooking with sunlight focused by the parabolic mirrors onto the bottom of the pan. It acts like a stovetop burner.

Brook's crepes were a "build it yourself" kind of project. Below are the raw ingredients, solar cooked asparagus and rhubarb, solar fried mushrooms, goat cheese and the locallest pesto - with basil grown in in Kensington.

Crepes were constructed by all....

The guerilla gourmet and Brook also made some strawberry solar tarts. Both berry and pastry were baked in the sun using the Sun Cook solar oven from Sun Baked at www.solarcooking.ca .

Imagine dining al fresco in the middle of the street on the summer solstice, on a bed of rose petals.....

The table was set so beautifully...a magic carpet of flowers, food and good feelings....

We aslo feasted on a tasty tomato salad.

The diners were slowly enjoying the solar feast, when along came the Toronto Samba Squad, marching to the beat of a different drummer....

...and they marched around our merry picnic....

...and the beat went on....

Solar cooked local food and tango dancing in the street....am I in heaven? Why can't life always be this slow, happy and enjoyable?

A fleeting moment of perfect satisfaction - captured on film!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Garden 101

My Riverdale property boasts a large variety of perennial flowers and decorative plants such as ferns, violets and lilies. It's a great place to be.

This year I decided to turn every available square foot over to the production of heirloom food crop varieties. The goal was to see how much food I could grow on my own property in the city. This represents year two of an ongoing experiment I've been carrying out, to test - on myself - to see how self reliant it's possible to be with limited resources of land and solar energy.

Below you can see the garden as it looked in April. This was my first real gardening day, when I organized the plots. I also celebrated with a solar cooked feast of polenta and grilled veggies. Here they are, cooking away on my parabolic solar bbq...they were tasty!

Alas - the veggies were not local at this time of year. In our temperate climate before the advent of fossil fueled agriculture, the early spring was often a time of meagre rations or near famine, as the food preserved from the previous season would be running short, stale or even rotten. The expansion of fossil fuelled agriculture - where we literally consume the energy from oil and gas in the form of fertilizer and mechanized power - ended famine for a couple hundred years, and enabled us to enjoy peppers and eggplants in April. Despite the fact that it's second nature to eat this way today, eating out of season veggies is a luxury born of a temporary fossil fuel feast.

As frequent readers and friends of mine know, we're on the edge of two earth shaking developments, both growing out of the interactions of human beings with the earth. The first is peak oil and gas, which arises out of the depletion of finite stocks of fossil fuels limited by geology. The second is climate change, which arises out of the limited ability of the atmosphere and oceans to act as a "sink" to absorb the additional carbon released by the burning of the fossil fuel resources.

We're about to go back to a way of living that is governed by limits: limited energy from renewables, limited food, limited ability to pollute our environment with wasteful emissions. Used to living in a world where natural limits have been suspended by a feast of seemingly limitless energy, I've found that most people are allergic to the true implications of scarcity. Dealing with it, other than as an abstract, unreal idea, is difficult, because it confronts some of our most cherished ideas about progress, and our imagined place at the centre of the universe.

Eating local, in season food, and better yet - growing it yourself and learning to enjoy it, is an empowering way of dealing with the unpleasant realities of scarcity.

My project is to get ready for a future of scarcity by living the change I want to see. I'm growing my own food, and cooking it with renewable energy. The goal isn't 100% off the grid independence - at least not yet. The goal is to define the limits of my dependence on larger systems for the energy I need to live. I'm defining those limits by testing them in life.

I divided my garden into six plots: a small plot at the front (barely 2 square feet) was devoted to herbs and some Chinese long beans.

Against the south side of the house Matt's Cherry Tomatoes self seeded from last year. This year I added Market More and Lemon Cucumbers. Last year the Matt's Cherry Tomato literally took over a 12' X 12 ' area, and passively cooled the house as it absorbed incoming solar energy before it could heat up my pad. Cool!

Here are the self seeded Matt's Cherry tomatoes in May. Right now they've taken over the house, and I can't eat them all. More photos soon....

Here's one of the delicious lemmon cucumbers I grew. I'll be posting more photos of these soon too.

In the third plot, also against the south side of the house on the east side, I planted various heirloom tomatoes, including White Queen, Green Zebra, (my fave!) Caspian Pink, June Flame, and Blondkopfchen - also self seeded from last year.

Plot # four features Bok Choi, Peppers, Romanesco Broccoli and Purple Carrots. Here you can see the carrots being germinated under a board. Bok Choi is in the foreground. Those ended up getting stir fried on the parabolic grill.

Plot # five is my salad bed, devoted to arugula, dandelion, Oak Leaf lettuce, spearmint, lemon mint and chocolate mint, radicchio, tarragon, perennial sage, thyme and sweet peas. Here's the bed in early may, when I'd just planted radicchio and Boston lettuce seedlings. Interestingly enough, the seedlings all got attacked by slugs, while the heirloom varieties I planted from seed seemed totally slug proof. More on that later.

In the final plot I attempted to grow the three "Sisters of Life" corn, squash and beans. The corn failed alas, as there was not enough sun on this plot. However the New England Pie Pumpkin worked out just fine, producing both fruit and edible flowers, while the Aztec runner beans are only now beginning to fruit in August / September.

Above you can see the gorgeous five fold symmetry of the pumpkin flower. Like many other flowers (Hollyhock, many tomato flowers) the pumpkin flower is shaped like a pentacle. This shape embodies the golden ratio (1.618033....to infinity) because the ratio of the length of the petal to the width of the whole flower is exactly this ratio. I'm a golden ratio geek, it's true.

Above, pumpkin flowers battered and deep fried - using only energy from the sun! I used a Bengali recipe for the batter, just some organic cornmeal (substituted for chickpea flour) egg and some hot chilies....it was so tasty.

I'll be detailing my project in subsequent posts. There has been little time to keep this blog updated over the summer due to visiting relatives, lots of solar energy projects and gardening.

More updates soon now that I've got more time.....

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Winter 2007

Wow, did we ever have some nasty weather here in Toronto from mid January until late March. There was little sun, and when there was sunshine, it was cold. Brrr!

However, yours truly was cooking without carbon on sunny days. My solar cooking was limited to a few easy things I could prep indoors then cook outside on my El Sol parabolic solar cooker. I made some stir fries, some vegan dumplings and my famous "solarspresso."

Here's a shot of me "working away" on my Sunday morning coffee in early March. The red thingy in the middle of the parabolic reflector is my orange Palazetti stovetop espresso maker. The organic fair trade coffee came from the Zapatista Communities of Chiappas Mexico. Viva la revolucion! I put my money in the peoples' hands every time. If Hugo Chavez had a coffee, I'd drink a toast to him every morning! We need a leader like that in Canada. Hugo, this one's for you....

Sun Baked also participated in Toronto's "Seedy Saturday" organic seed exchange. I grow many of my summer veggies in the backyard (you can see the faded remnants of last year's Dinosaur Kale at the bottom of the picture above), so Sun Baked was happy to participate. Thanks also go out to the Riverdale Meadow Community Garden, which provided a shared table space for this event. Personal thanks also go to Kyla Dixon Muir who has been such a stalwart supporter of my efforts over the past winter.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Solar Solstice Vegan Patty

I love a good burger, and so does just about everybody. This burger from Sun Foods in Toronto uses only vegetable ingredients. Sun Foods makes several different types of veggie burger. I'm using their Falafel patty today.

In late December on a clear day, there's plenty of energy you can get from the sun to fry your veggie burger using the El Sol parabolic solar grill. The El Sol is a 1.4 M parabolic reflector that focuses sunlight at the centre, creating a very hot spot like a burner. Anything you place at the focal point - in this case a lightweight steel frying pan - will become very hot. The El Sol uses only free sunlight, and thus has no polluting emissions.

I pre-heat my pan for about 5 minutes, and coat the pan with fair trade organic olive oil. The slices of yellow zucchini go in first for about ten minutes.

The veggie patty takes another five minutes to cook. Then it's time to dress the burger.

I just love St John's Bakery bread. It's baked in the traditional French method, using organic ingredients including flour from Mennonite farmers here in Ontario. St John's Bakery also has a social mission - helping people on "the margins of society" get training and job experience as bakers. It's a mission I support by buying bread baked from St John's. They're also as local as it gets, being located around the corner from my house!

I drizzle some balsamic vinegar onto the patty.

Next comes an orange organic tomato. You can use whatever fresh organic produce is in season. Live watercress spouts are also delicious. I like to dress a burger with live sprouts instead of lettuce, as the nutritional value of live, sprouted food is higher, and there are a wide variety of exciting taste combinations to choose from.

I've also sprinkled some Matt's Cherry tomatoes dried with solar energy, and picked from the massive 12 foot wide by 12 foot high vine that covered the south side of my house this past summer.

This burger was delicious, nutritious, made with vegetarian, organic, local or else fair trade ingredients.

Alternatively, you can also prepare this veggie burger with a salad, forgoing the bread for a totally vegan version of this dish. I used the live watercress again, with English cucumber, Chinese parsley, solar grilled yellow zucchini, the solar dried tomatoes, fresh orange tomato, and balsamic vinegar. When the solar day gets longer, I'm going to try making my own solar balsamic vinegar reduction using the El Sol.
This dish was prepared on December 21, 2006, the shortest and least intense solar day of the year, which also happened to be clear and cloudless here in Toronto.

Solar Cooking in Winter - Indian Style Kale

Because Canadians live with winter and cold temperatures, we perceive that Canada has little sunlight to use. The reality is however that on clear days, of which we have many in December and January, we can concentrate enough sunlight to cook our food.

I grow Dinosaur Kale in my back garden. This kale is an heirloom variety dating back 200 years, and it tastes wonderful.

Using my El Solito small parabolic solar grill, I fried the kale Indian style.

First I heated organic, fair trade olive oil from the Zatoun Co-Operative in Palestine. From now on, I will be using Zatoun's olive oil exclusively in my solar cooking.

I fried some black mustard seeds until they popped., then added onions, organic sea salt and turmeric. If you've ever wondered how curry powder gets its lovely colour, all the credit goes to turmeric, which doesn't really have much of a taste. We use it for the colour.

Then I added the raw kale, and covered the pan with a black enameled pot lid. The moisture in the kale helped to steam it.

After about 10 minutes, I had an Indian style cooked kale dish that was simply delicious, in addition to being local, organic, fair trade and vegan. Though I'm entering this blog in late December, this dish was prepared in mid-November in Toronto on a clear day.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sun Baked Lasagna

Once again, I'm returning to a staple dish from my father's kitchen. Lasagna has graced our Saturday night table on autumn and winter evenings for many years.

Lasagna is literally an ancient dish, dating back to Roman cuisine. It was also eaten in the court of King Richard the Lion Heart, who is recorded to have feasted on a similar dish called "loseyns." (lasan) Perhaps the recipe was passed down to Richard? Thank goodness the original meaning of the word was not. The word "lasagna" actually comes from the ancient Greek word for chamber pot! (an ancient dish indeed!) The Romans somehow misappropriated the word to mean a cooking pot. Whatever the origins of lasagna, the original version did not use tomatoes, which were not introduced to Europe until Spanish conquistadores brought back tomato plants from Mexico and the Andes.

My father now makes his own tomato sauce from the organic, heirloom tomatoes he grows in the back garden, sprouted from the first seeds I gave him. We save our own tomato seeds, and we even provide them to others. It's his home made sauce that I'll be using today, which includes San Marzano, Caspian Pink, and even some Black Plum tomatoes. The peppers, garlic and onions he uses were all grown in his garden.

That said, my lasagna is a bit different from dad's recipe. Where he used ground beef, in the traditional way, my lasagna is 100% vegetarian, with eggplant and brown Crimini mushrooms substituting for beef. I still eat a bit of meat, though I'm trying to wean myself off of it. Meat eating, as it's practiced in North America at least, is not sustainable, and uses a tremendous amount of energy we could be saving.

For every food calorie we eat, 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are required to produce it. That's before we cook it.

Today, I'm going to make a healthy lasagna and cook it (with the exception of the noodles to save time) using 100% renewable solar energy. Because of the local nature of most of the ingredients and the free fuel used to cook the food, think of this as a sustainable lasagna, with low "embodied energy."

My lasagna includes simple, healthy ingredients, most locally produced, (in southern Ontario) with the exception of the pasta (Canada), olive oil (Greece) and the ricotta cheese (Quebec).

Catelli, healthy harvest whole wheat lasagna noodles
A large Mason jar of Dad's homemade pasta sauce
A tub of soft ricotta cheese
Mozzarella cheese
Crimini mushrooms
Two Chinese eggplants
Dad's home grown garlic
salt and pepper

First step in preparing lasagna is the "mise en place." Everything needs to be "put in its place." This is a dish that requires organization and a process carried out in a series of steps. Mozzarella needs to be grated. Noodles need to be cooked, mushrooms and eggplant cleaned and chopped. And of course the Sun Cook solar cooker must be correctly placed in the sun to pre-heat.

Today I'm also going to use my El Solito parabolic solar barbecue to fry the mushrooms and eggplant before these ingredients go into the lasagna.

Mushrooms go into a light weight steel frying pan from de Buyer in France, which has been making professional cookware since 1840.

Note how the mushrooms have browned. The sun did that.

Eggplant gets a similar treatment.

Keep in mind: these results are achieved in late October, 2006 in Toronto Canada, using local, concentrated sunlight. Note how crispy the eggplant turned out. We can fry foods outside, all year round in Toronto, using nothing but the focused energy of the sun. All we need is a sunny day.

These flavours of the fried eggplant and garlic will blend into the lasagna for a much more sophisticated taste than simply adding raw eggplant.

Once the veggies and noodles are cooked, I take my noodles and create a layer directly onto a lightly oiled baking dish, that comes with the Sun Cook. Spread tomato sauce thinly, then layer ricotta cheese and mushrooms.

The next layer is pasta, ricotta cheese, the eggplant and some mozzarella.

The final layer contains the last of the pasta, tomato sauce and a good coating of mozzarella.

Now the lasagna goes into the oven.

After 2 hours, I took out the lasagna and showed it to my neighbour Barb, who was cleaning up her garden after the summer.

It was an opportunity to thank Barb for her help. This lasagna was prepared on Barb's garden shed, which sits on the other side of the fence we share. Barb is kind enough to allow me to user her backyard for solar cooking sometimes, because it's sunnier than my own. Barb also gave me some fresh carrots that she grew.

It's important to remember the value of community and the maintenance of good relations with our neighbours. In the "post oil" future, we will rely on our local neighbours for support and assistance as many of the services and goods we currently purchase on the market will have to be re-created locally. I'm lucky to have a neighbour like Barb, who just happens to be the aunt of one of my oldest friends. I moved into the house next door to Barb in a complete coincidence.

We can't always choose our neighbours, but we can certainly choose to at least say "hello" to them, and hopefully share the bounty of nature with them too.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sun Baked Garlic

My father is an obsessive grower of his own garlic. This year the garden produced over 100 fat, hard bulbs packed with juicy cloves full of pungent flavours. Next year's harvest will be even bigger, and it's no wonder. Eating fresh garlic from the garden for the first time is like seeing a new colour. You never knew it could taste like that!

Those faded, desiccated, peeling and flaking garlic lumps that languish in the supermarkets this fall seem to be of a different order altogether than those magnificent, tightly packed, white spicy garlic bulbs that spring from the dense clay soil in my parent's backyard. It's not just seeming. They are much tastier. But garlic does fade with time, whoever grew it. In November, we can transform the flavours of the fresh summer garden into subtler combinations that bring their own pleasures before the fresh garlic goes too stale.

Today, on a rather average solar day with some intermittent clouds, I'm going to bake two uneaten half cloves of dad's garlic before I put them into a lasagna that I'm going to bake in the Sun Cook tomorrow. I'm using a terra cotta garlic baker my mom bought me for my birthday. To use it, simply soak the terra cotta in water for 10 minutes, then place the garlic bulb inside.

To bake a garlic, you can either split it open, or else chop the stem off to expose the tops of the cloves without cutting into them. Pour organic extra-virgin olive oil over top, being sure to coat every surface. Then douse the garlic with a bit of sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

I placed my garlic into the pre-heated Sun Cook for two hours. The thermal mass of the terra cotta is relatively small, so it will not drain excess solar energy from the Sun Cook. I would avoid using denser ceramics, as the ceramic would absorb too much heat from the oven.

Baked garlic turned out lovely brown cloves with a creamy, mellow flavour, without any of the wassabi like sharpness that characterizes fresh, raw garlic cloves. The flavour of baked garlic is the perfect flavour to add depth to any pasta sauce. You can also use baked garlic paste to glaze a roasting chicken, for absolutely unforgettable results.