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Summer sunshine cooks the valley – literally

Renewable energy can be fun, easy, inexpensive — and good tasting. Yes, it’s all those things and more when you get into the joy of cooking using a sun oven. We’ve had our sun oven now for about five years and this summer we’ve been using it more than ever (they work during the winter, too, by the way). Who needs a hotter house, a bigger gas or electric bill, or food that has to be constantly watched to keep from burning? Solar cooking is the new barbecue – and it is a lot of fun!

A solar oven is an amazingly simple device. You know how hot a car can get when parked in the summer sun. Now imagine a much smaller, well-insulated box with a tempered glass door on top and some shiny panels on all four sides, angled just right to reflect and concentrate extra sunlight through the glass. The black interior of the oven absorbs the light and turns it into heat — lots of heat.

Setting up the oven takes less than a minute and simply involves unfolding the reflector panels and adjusting the angle of the oven to face the sun. Once the food is inside and the glass door is latched shut, the temperature gauge starts to rise almost immediately. It will easily reach 300-350 degrees and stay there all day with a few occasional adjustments to keep the sunlight at the right angle.

Basically, anything you can cook on a stove or in a regular oven, you can cook in a solar oven. I’ve talked with other solar cooks who have verified that the only limitation is one’s imagination. Stews, pasta, veggies, casseroles, bread, cookies — you name it and it’s probably been cooked successfully in a sun oven.

For example, this morning I made a delicious curry-vegetable lentil stew. It took about 10 minutes to chop some onions, carrots and celery, mixing them in a large pot with some dry organic lentils, vegetable broth, water and spices. The covered pot went into the sun oven around 9 a.m. I adjusted the oven a couple of times to keep it aimed at the sun as the day progressed. By midday, I enjoyed a steaming hot bowl of delicious vegetarian lentil stew that was cooked to perfection.

Unattended cooking is also an option. Simply aim the oven for max exposure at high noon and leave. It will never overheat or cause a hazard. As the sun travels across the sky it will slowly warm the oven at first, cook at maximum temperature for a few hours, then gently reduce the temperature as the sun gets lower in the sky. You come home to a freshly cooked meal that is still steaming hot and ready to eat.

Because a sun oven cooks so evenly, the food never burns and nothing ever sticks to the pan. It’s really about the easiest way to cook I know of. The glass door is sealed with a rubber gasket to hold in the heat and moisture so the food cooks but does not dry out. Our solar-cooked dishes consistently get rave reviews. Guests often comment that it’s the best they’ve ever tasted — no matter what the meal happens to be.

There’s a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment when enjoying a meal that’s been cooked with 100 percent sunlight. The benefits include zero carbon emissions, no pollution, a free inexhaustible fuel supply and delicious food. What better way to enjoy renewable energy?

Sun ovens are accessible to many since they are relatively inexpensive. You can buy one ready to use or find plans online that show how to build your own. Not all solar ovens are the same though. Our Sun Oven (that’s the brand name) is still like new after five years of use. Watch the video at www.sunoven.com. Now get cooking; go solar!

Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, a company committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. Steve can be reached via e-mail at steve@greendream.biz. More information relating to this column is posted at www.greendream.biz.

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