Solar cooking could save the day during power outage

By LORRAINE EATON, The Virginian-Pilot

© August 15, 2006

LEAVING SLABS of raw pork in the sun to cook? It just doesn’t seem right.

How about eating an ear of corn that has been baking outdoors all afternoon inside a black sock? Or diving into a bowl of chicken and beans that has been stewing in the sun for hours?

Lorraine Anderson has this advice: open your minds, coast dwellers. “It’s a survival skill.”

Solar cooking has been around for centuries. Harnessing the culinary power of the sun could deliver you from a hurricane-induced power outage and into a nice, flavorful dinner while the neighbors gum Dinty Moore, again. And you won’t mess up the kitchen doing it.

The science behind solar cooking is simple. Basically, a shiny solar cooker reflects as much sunlight as possible toward a dark cooking vessel placed upon it. The energy is converted to heat inside the pot, and an insulating bag around the pot makes sure that heat stays put and keeps dinner cooking.

“The only thing you can’t do in a solar cooker is fry and scramble eggs,” said Anderson, who co-authored “Cooking With Sunshine” a guide to solar cooking, complete with 150 recipes, with Rick Palkovic.

And if you do it right (which seems pretty easy), it’s safe.

“That’s the first thing cooks want to know: Is it safe?” said Anderson, who lives in Oregon and cooks on her driveway at least three times a week. “I tell them that one of the primary promoters of solar cooking is a professor of microbiology at Sacramento State” University in California.

That professor, Robert H. Metcalf, and others in his field proclaim it is safe to put refrigerated or frozen food inside a solar cooker in the morning, several hours before the sun begins to cook it, Anderson said. The food will stay cold enough to keep it out of the germ-growing danger zone until the sun starts to heat the cooker. At that point, temperatures inside the pot rise quickly to 160 degrees , the point where harmful microbes are killed.

But what happens after the cooking is critical, Anderson said. Food should not be left in the cooker more than three or four hours after the sun quits beating on the cooker. That’s when the temperature will dip below 125 degrees , and the harmful bacteria will begin to bloom.

Before the local hurricane season kicked into high gear – which is usually in mid-August – we decided to give Mr. Sun a chance. Our companion on this culinary adventure was “Cooking With Sunshine,”

Anyone who lives between the Earth’s 60th parallels and has a patch of sun on their property can cook with the sun, according to the book. We’re at about 37 degrees north latitude, which means the sun powers us up plenty for cooking.

Of course, rainy days are out. On sunny days, when the UV index is 7 or above, prime cooking time is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Have potholders ready because cooking temperatures range from 200 degrees to 600 degrees, depending on what type of solar cooker is used.

First, we needed a cooker. If you decide to work solar cooking into your hurricane prep plan, you’ll want to do this while the lights are still on.

Solar cookers come in many designs. One Web site, http: //solarcooking.org, shows how to turn an old umbrella into a parabolic cooker.

“Cooking With Sunshine” gives complete instructions on how to construct two other types of inexpensive cookers. A “solar box cooker,” which is an insulated box inside a box with a hinged top that reflects rays into the box, generally cooks at 200 degrees to 300 degrees . It is the more complicated of the two to make.

Being mechanically challenged, we opted to make a “panel cooker.” This cardboard and aluminum foil device, the authors promise, would simmer our dinner between 200 and 275 degrees .

The hardest part was finding the right size cardboard, a sheet that measured 36-by-48 inches. (Note: Once you start looking, you’ll notice that large sheets of cardboard abound. We got ours from a man delivering easels to our office.)

Then, we got a yardstick, pencil and box cutter and a roll of aluminum foil, the only thing we actually paid for. We commandeered a young person’s school glue and a watercolor paintbrush.

An hour and five minutes later, we were ready to cook.

The book says that almost anything can be cooked with the sun. Recipes include Crustless Crab Quiche, Veggie Lasagne, Lemon Rice, Twice-Baked Potatoes, Braided Wheat Bread and Deep Dish Fruit Pie.

Yeah, right.

We were skeptical. So we decided to go all out and try Pulled Pork and Buttermilk Cornbread.

Thursday, July 27 dawned hot and humid. The UV index was a perfect 10 . As the temperatures outside rose, we mixed up the corn bread batter and poured it into a dark cake pan and secured another one on top with two binder clamps we found in a desk drawer.

We loaded a pound of country pork ribs into a black metal pot, sprinkled finely diced onions on top and doused it with bottled Italian dressing. Both items were loaded into cooking bags. The grates from a stove top served as a base (to allow rays to reflect onto the bottom of the pot).

Twice between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., we turned the panel cooker to follow the sun’s arc. By 4:30, our pork was perfectly cooked. The cornbread didn’t fare as well, probably because we missed turning the cooker between noon and 3 p.m. (Anderson cooks her breads on a brick placed on a dark baking sheet positioned inside the panel, says it keeps it hotter.)

But the pork was a hit. One brave dinner companion, a fine cook with a discriminating palate, deemed it “better than most people eat most weekdays.”

And when the power has been out for days, it just could be better than what most of the people are eating all around you.