Monday, July 31, 2006

Solar breakfast and thoughts on food security

On Sunday morning I decided to take advantage of some of the only sun we had over the weekend to make my breakfast using solar energy. Once again, I turned to my parabolic solar cooker from Germany, which is the only solar cooker that can fry up bacon and eggs, which were on the menu at my mother's house where I was visiting.

I had initially planned to cook breakfast for the whole family, mother, father, sister, brother in law, nephew and family friend. The sun came and went, but my family was more interested in eating "on time" using "on demand" fossil energy than in eating renewable energy. So I was able to get away with a single solar meal, for myself. That's the way you use solar energy. Go with the flow. Take it when it appears, just like you'd eat whatever's on the plate your mother serves to you.

We're used to consuming energy "on demand." Want to cook? Turn on the gas. But the world is changing, and we're going to have to get used to capturing "flows" of renewable energy where we can. Up to now, energy demand has governed energy supply. If we wanted more energy, they pumped more oil. Not any more. Peak oil has arrived. North American natural gas production is in permanent decline. Now supply limits demand. In the world of peaking energy and runaway populations (at least for now) all available fossil energy will be consumed, no matter what the price. Somebody will pay for it.

Many geologists and scientists who have investigated these facts and thought deeply about them expect the future of the fossil fuel economy to look something like this:

This future would be one of decreasing per capita energy availability, economic shock, and social upheaval, to say the least. Can we afford NOT to use solar energy wherever we can? I think not.
So how did my breakfast turn out?

Bacon placed in the hot cast iron skillet started to sizzle straight away. Pre-heating took about 10 minutes. So did cooking.

Next, two eggs. Sunny side up. Neither bacon nor eggs stuck to the pan, and both yokes were perfect. Three minutes.

Food Security and Solar Cooking

A decreasing number of my friends think I'm nuts for being so concerned with solar energy, the environment and peak oil and fossil energy. Would that they were right, and there was nothing to worry about. Unfortunately their approach to the questions of sustainability, food security, environmental collapse and peak oil is one of denial. "Things will just keep on going. They always find a new energy source. Peak oil is just a scary conspiracy theory." Would that these were true. The real facts of life would be a lot easier to deal with.

The real facts of life as I see them are these.

Earth's "resources" of land, plant and animal life, water, minerals and fossil fuels are finite.

There are 6.5 billion people and growing, demanding an ever greater share of these finite "resources." (are these things only "resources" for humanity, or do they have an existence outside their "use value" for people? Does that existence impose limits on our behaviour?)

Exponential population growth of any species in nature always leads to a crash and "die-off" once the indispensable resource present in the least amount is consumed. This is Leibig's Law, or the "Law of the Minimum" (for those of you who remember your Dune.) Think algae in a pond once all the dead leaves are consumed.

Global peak oil is happening now. The US military thinks it's already happened. Oil is analogous to the food upon which algae depend.

Runnaway climate change seems to be happening: acid oceans, massive droughts and hurricanes, Europe's bees are dying, I haven't seen a toad in my yard for ten years, melting ice-caps, global ocean conveyor is slowing down, Europe could become like Siberia while the Amazon dries up and burns.

Climate change is directly linked to increased C02 emissions from fossil fuel burning.

Conclusion: we have to do something, whatever we can to reduce our footprint, scale back our use of fossil fuel energy, and get into a harmonious relationship with the cycles of the earth. We all have to eat. Everybody should try to cook with as much renewable energy as they can.

We are living at the peak of human achievement, and at the edge of humanity's hubris. The sane way of living, from my perspective at least, is to take advantage of all that we can accomplish to equip ourselves for "the prosperous way down."

For me, that meant different things than it may have meant to somebody else.

I rent my home right now, so I can't invest in a solar water heater, build a strawbale house, or put a windmill in my backyard. Yet.

I've had the good luck to work in the Canadian solar energy industry for the last several years, but in 2005 we suffered a body blow when the new Canadian federal government under the Tory Stephen Harper decided to suspend funding (recently released) to solar energy projects. A more foolish government could not be imagined. This policy hurt many small solar energy businesses and people who wanted to use solar.

My response was to start my own business selling small scale solar powered products that somebody in my situation could use. I love cooking and really care about where my food comes from, so why shouldn't I care where the energy to cook it comes from? Ten calories of energy from oil and gas are required to produce every single food calorie we consume. That's before cooking.

There are millions of other people like me, who want to use solar energy, but who won't be investing in a PV system any time soon, either because they'll never have the money, or because they'll never have a house to put one on.

I'm turning off my gas stove, and going to spend more time outside in my backyard, making healthy, delicious food. One day in the next couple years I hope to build my own Strawbale house, help create or move into an eco-village. I'm moving towards living sustainably, one step at a time. For now, I'm cooking without carbon.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Solar Espresso

This past week I put together my new "Long Life Single" solar cooker from Germany. I will be selling these cookers to Canadians who want to cook some of their food without burning scarce and polluting fossil fuels.

I placed my old espresso pot on the cooker, and aligned the parabolic solar dish reflector towards the sun. (The best type of pot would be black. There are a couple black espresso pots out there, but none in Toronto. I have looked.)

I use only Fair Trade certified green coffee beans from the Merchants of Green Coffee which just happens to be co-located in the same building as my Solar Cooking supply company, Sun Baked. . Fresh roasted coffee tastes 100% better than stale coffee, which is what most people are used to drinking. The Merchants' coffees are solar dried. Now they can be solar brewed! In the future we will try solar roasting. I am unaware of any other coffee in the world that is solar dried, roasted and brewed. If there is one, let me know.

See the "sun flames" lick the bottom of my old Ikea espresso pot? This is concentrated solar energy, boiling the water for my java.

The parabolic mirror - made out of highly polished aluminum - focuses sunlight on one spot, where the pot holder just happens to be. The pot quickly became hot to the touch.

And in about 7 minutes I had a perfect pot of steaming hot, black espresso to start my work day.

It was actually tastier than many coffees I have made with my gas range at home. There was no sputtering coffee pot begging to be removed from the hot stove. No burnt taste, just tasty, fresh fair trade coffee made with free solar energy, with no carbon dioxide emissions, and no fossil fuels wasted.

Enjoy a cuppa solar energy! For more information, contact .

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Solar Pizza

Today I'm going to cook my pizza in the Sun Cook solar oven from Sun Co, a Portuguese company that makes the most sophisticated solar cooker in the world.

The Sun Cook is also the sexiest solar box cooker I've ever seen. The design has been refined to appeal to European sensibilities, and you can tell every aspect has been thought through. This cooker should be in all the High Street appliance stores. Soon it will be.

The package is elegant and streamlined. The colours are fun and cheerful. The durable and long lasting shell is resistant to dents. This cooker will travel well, and has two discretely hidden handles, one on each side, for easy lifting. The solar sundial shown projecting from the front in this picture should be removed and stored inside the cooker when not in use, or in transport. The Sun Cook also comes with two cooking vessels; a pot and pan, lightweight and dark coloured for solar cooking.

Open the cooker's lid with the self locking latch and you can see how the side reflector folds away neatly for easy storage. The other reflector is integrated with the lid. I love it!

The double glass oven door with lock prevents heat from escaping the cooking chamber and unwanted access to the solar oven, from children or animals. Thick insulation on the sides prevents solar heat from escaping into the ambient air. There is also a little vent to release steam.

The solar clock allows you to time cooking using a sundial. Orient the cooker so the sun's shadow falls on a number, represnting the cooking time in hours. Adjust the reflectors so that there are no shadows in the cooking chamber. Walk away. Again - I love it! They've thought through everything.

Inside the cooking chamber, reflective mirrors focus sunlight on a flat plate solar absorber, which heats up, as does the lightweight cooking vessel. I like to pre-heat both the cook pot and chamber together if possible. Not all recipes allow for that.

I added my own oven thermometer to monitor the temperature inside the cooking chamber.

The Sun Cook pre-heated to 300 degrees Farenheit on a July day with intermittent clouds. This took 50 minutes, which is how long it took to prepare my pizza for the oven.

So to the pizza.

I use a thin crust, pre-made. You can make your own pizza dough if you have a good recipe.

I take an organic heirloom tomato, one of the first to ripen in my garden. Store bought tomatoes are often tough and flavourless. Mine are sweet. Remove all the seeds and watery juices, and chop into fine peices. (It's important to remove the watery juice around the seeds, as extra moisture could make the crust soggy in the solar cooker. This juice prevents the seeds from sprouting inside the fruit.)

Add fresh basil and oreganno to taste, salt, pepper, olive oil and a touch of lemon juice if you like. Mix this fresh "sauce" in a bowl, and then sprinkle on the pizza crust.

Add sliced onion and mushrooms. I finished this pizza with organic goat cheese and some ground pepper. You can use whatever cheese and toppings you like. I simply used what was close at hand.

Pop the pizza in the solar oven.

The top of the oven door fogged up somewhat. But that cleared up after an hour. It's amazing to see steam comming out of the steam vent, and to think that - that's solar energy cooking my food! I'm not burning any fossil fuels or emit any greenhouse gasses to cook my dinner.

Clouds lenghtened my cook time to about 1.5 hours. No matter. Everybody at 2 Matilda St. devoured my solar pizza. The onions melted, the mushrooms browned up and the cheese melted nicely. The crust was crispy and good. I'm making this one again!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Solar pie

Canada Day, July 1st, 2006. Parry Sound.

Welcome to Cooking Without Carbon, which chronicles my attempt to cook more of my food without burning up fossil fuels, or emitting carbon into the environment. "Cooking without carbon" is something most Canadians can do.

Please visit the website of my company, Sun Baked, at Sun Baked is promoting the mass adoption solar cooking in Canada. Yes, Canada. Contrary to popular belief, we have enough solar energy to cook with. Don't beleive me? I'll prove it too you.

Here's a recipie for my strawberry solar pie, cooked with the sun in Parry Sound Ontario at 45.20 degrees north lattitude on Canada Day 2006 and consumed with relish by my friends and I.


I like to make the filling first.

Clean and cut enough strawberries to fill your pie dish. I like to use a scalloped, non-stick French tart pan.

TIP: The tart pan works with solar cooking because of its dark colour, and because it weighs almost nothing. Heavy, ceramic cooking dishes don't work well with solar cooking. The mass of the cooking dish sucks up all the energy from the solar oven. You want your food to be much heavier than your cooking vessel.

I also used Rhubarb with this dish, donated by my neighbour Barb from her own garden. Cut the Rhubarb into small peices, and put in a small pan with sugar to taste and a tiny bit of water. Put the pan in the solar oven, and let it cook for 1/2 hour until Rhubarb is soft.

TIP: Preheat your oven with the pan inside first. Cooking time will be shorter.

For the dough, I am sharing here for the first time my favourite recipe for the flakiest pie crust you will ever eat. I'd been making this crust in both gas and convection ovens for a decade before I "went solar" on this recipe. It works with solar ovens too.

Crust ingredients

2 1/4 cups organic all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 orange, grated
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons cold (put it in the freezer first) shortening
8-10 tablespoons fresh organg juice

How to make the flakiest pie crust.

It's not just the proportions of ingredients in baking, but also the process of making the dough that creates a magical, flakey crust. Here's my secret.

Mix the dry ingredients above in a large mixing bowl. I like a heavy, ceramic bowl for this. Lightweight stainless steel bowls I like less, but are still ok. Chill the bowl beforehand.

Cut the butter and shortening with knives. Don't know how to do this? Hold two butter knives, one in each hand. Place the tips of both knives in the centre of the bowl, and cut outward rapidly, breaking up the small peices of butter and shortening, and "cutting the butter into the flour." Do this for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the butter and shortening are the size of peas, and well blended with the flour. This "cutting in" will tire your arms, but it's the frist step to flakey short pastry.

When the butter and shortening have been cut in, give your arms a rest for 20 minutes and put your bowl back in the refrigerator. (Yes, you are using some carbon energy in your fridge. Renewable refrigeration can be had if you have a cool basement.) Cooling down the dough prevents the butter and shortening from melting into the flour as its temperature is raised while being worked. Prevent melted butter at all costs during dough making.

When the mixture is chilled, you can add the orange juice. Use no water. I add a bit of juice at a time, and blend it in with a fork until the dough starts to stick together. Then I use my hands to gently knead the doough and work the moisture through. Seperate the dough into two balls, roll in flour, wrap with two clean cloths and put back in fridge or basement to cool down. (Kneading the dough raises its temperature. You want cool dough to work.)

Roll out the dough. I like to use my hands, to press the dough flat with the ball of my hand and work it outwards in a cricle from there. Or you can use a rolling pin, which is not as warm as your hand. (I run my hands under cold water first, then dry them off and flour them before kneading. What can I say? I'm a die hard baker.)

Place the crust in the bottom of the pan, and use a small dough ball from the side to gently work the dough into the grooves of the pan.

Now add your filling, the cut up strawberries and cooked rhubarb together and spread evenly in the crust filled pan. Take an egg and beat it. Glaze the outer edge of the bottom crust with the egg mix, then place the top pie crust on top. Cut away the excess with a knife for a nice clean edge (my preference) or else bunch up the crust between your thumb and fingers for a thicker more homestlyle pie crust. Glaze with the beaten egg mixture, and cut some holes.

I chose to write something in the crust. "1oo% made with solar energy."

Now the pie is ready for the solar oven.

In Parry Sound, we had some early clouds, so I didn't get cooking until around 3:00 PM, well past solar noon.

No worries. Though the baking took more than two hours, we enjoyed a lovely solar pie, together with whipped cream. I added some lemon juice to the whipping cream. It tastes better and also whipps faster, due to the acidity of the lemmon. There were no leftovers.