Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Apple Coffeecake

Erica and I run every morning, heading out the door somewhere between 9:30 and 10. We got in the habit of walking a mile to loosen up, but it's really just an excuse to gab a bit and postpone the actual running. I mean, who really wants to run? Well, I guess Rick does. But then he's fairly crazy and thinks a 20 mile run is the ultimate in fun things to do. For me, however, 3 miles is like an ultramarathon, but it does give me a good excuse to eat a piece of coffeecake every now and then.

Anyway, Erica and I end the same way we started—with a mile walk home to cool down. In between we run 3 and 4 miles respectively. (I keep cutting down streets to "catch up.") Best of all, though, we're gone the perfect amount of time to cook a coffeecake in the solar oven. I usually put them together before we leave and take them out as soon as I'm home and showered.

1½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter
½ cup milk
1 egg beaten
1 apple peeled, cored, and sliced thin
¼ cup chopped walnuts (chopped to whatever size you like. I like them to be slightly smaller than pea size.)
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons extra sugar

Lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch pan.
In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, and ½ cup sugar. Cut in ½ cup butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. (I usually just cut the butter in small pieces and use my hands to mix it for that crumbly look. I'm all about the hands on method!)
Scoop ¼ cup of the flour mixture and set aside.
Add the milk and egg to the flour mixture, stir to mix (but don't over stir). Pour batter into the greased pan.
Arrange the sliced apples over the top of the batter.
Sprinkle the chopped walnuts over the apples.
Add 2 tablespoons sugar plus the ½ teaspoon cinnamon to the flour mixture you set aside. Sprinkle this over the top of the apples and walnuts.

Annalee holds the finished coffeecake. Photo by me!
Set cake in the solar oven and go for a walk or a run. Of course, cooking time will depend on how hot the solar oven got. I'm pretty sure, on this day, it was hovering between 300º and 325º. And between the walking, running, and showering, the coffeecake was in the solar oven for close to 90 minutes. 

For those of you who don't have a solar oven, or you put this together and the sun decided to disappear, preheat your oven to 375º and bake for 30–35 minutes or so until golden brown.

I'm tempted to try this with blueberries or peaches. Next time!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rainy Day Bread

 We had three days of rain and had been out of bread for as long. The forecast was for more rain over the next two days, our solar oven was forlornly sitting in the basement, and I was in full fledged bread withdrawal. If you read my first post, you know I love the bread Rick makes in our Romertopf clay baker in the kitchen oven. You also know I love bread period. What to do? Well, I annoyed him Thursday night until he mixed his dough so we would have some freshly baked bread for lunch yesterday. Unfortunately, I was busy all morning so wasn't able to remind (pinch, poke, prod?) Rick into remembering to actually put the bread in the oven. Minor technicality. I wandered in at noon, looked around, and whined to the best of my ability. To his credit. Rick volunteered to stay home, but he was all dressed and ready to go run 9 miles in the woods, so I told him I'd take care of it. Besides, I figured maybe I ought to make use of a hot oven, so decided to make a focaccia-style bread to go along with our dinner at the same time.

*Rick's bread recipe, hinted at in post #1:
3 2/3 cups unbleached white flour
1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
2 cups water
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

No knead bread cooked in clay pot. photo by Rick
Mix the flours, sea salt, and yeast together in a bowl. Add 1 3/4 cups of the water and the apple cider vinegar. Mix quickly. Add the extra 1/4 cup of water as needed. Do not knead, just make sure it's well mixed. (The dough might be stickier/wetter than you're used to.) Cover and let ferment overnight for 12 – 14 hours. The next day, soak your unglazed clay pot in water. After it has soaked for 10 minutes or so, place the clay pot in a cold oven on a rack in the second lowest position. Turn the oven on to 475º. While the oven is preheating, scoop the bread dough out of the bowl and onto a piece of parchment paper (cut to fit the clay pot) that has been dusted with some wheat flour. Sprinkle more flour on top of the dough along with some wheat germ, if you have it on hand. Cover and let rest until the oven comes to temperature. Carefully take the clay pot out (never put it on metal, but rather on a thick potholder). Plop the dough, parchment paper and all, into the bottom of the clay pot. Cover and place back in the oven. If you're only cooking the one loaf, then leave the bread in at 475º for 40–45 minutes, covered. If you think the bread needs a little more color, you can leave it in for an extra minute or two uncovered. Once done, the hardest part is to leave the bread alone for 45–60 minutes before slicing and eating.

(Note: Since I was also cooking the focaccia, though, I put the bread in at 475º for 20 minutes, then lowered the temperature to 450º while the focaccia baked along with it for the second 20 minutes. Once the focaccia was out I left the bread in for another 6 minutes or so uncovered to brown.)

I was fairly proud of myself for how the bread came out since the last time I had tried to bake a loaf of semolina bread in our smaller Romertopf baker I had forgotten to put it in the cold oven. When the oven came to temperature I went to plop the bread in the clay pot and saw it still soaking in the sink. I handled that in the best way possible: I stomped downstairs and scolded Rick for not reminding me to put the clay pot in the cold oven before turning it on. He just stared at me as if I'd lost my mind (probably have) and said he had no idea what I was talking about. Husbands can be so thick at times! So I stomped back upstairs and, after a moment of muttering, stuck two of my regular old Calphalon metal bread loaf pans in the oven. I let them heat for about 15 minutes then dropped the dough in one loaf pan and carefully placed the other on top. It worked perfectly, even if it was a bit clumsy. So if you don't have a clay baker, improvise. The standard bread loaf pans worked in a pinch. Jim Lahey, of the Sullivan Street Bakery, advises using a Dutch oven (we don't own one, though). The idea is to have a pan that can go in a very hot oven, that can be covered, and that was preheated first.

Next time we have a super sunny day and I think I can get the solar oven up to 350º or even 400º for awhile, I might give this recipe a try outside. My feeling, though, is that whatever bread goes out in the solar oven needs to have a firmer dough and a longer second rise in the loaf pan. You know, the old standard where you let the dough rise the second time in the pan it's being cooked in until it's about an inch above the rim. That's what I did with my first attempt at bread outside (post #1). Rick wants to see what would happen if we used my oops-I-made-a-mistake method mentioned above using two loaf pans. i.e. heat the loaf pans in a hot solar oven for an hour, then drop the bread in one loaf pan and cover with the second and leave in the solar oven until done.

A peak at the crumb. photo by me!
This bread is awesome, but we probably won't make it too often during the summer months. With no AC and loads of hot humid days here on Long Island, turning the oven on isn't very desirable. But on those cold, snowy winter days when you actually want the oven on inside it's heaven. I guess it wasn't too bad for a dreary chilly June day, either, when you despair that summer took a vacation.

*This recipe is Rick's adaptation of Jim Lahey's revolutionary no knead bread. And rather than go into the science of no knead bread dough (I would never be able to explain it as well anyway), please visit seriouseats.com's explanation of how and why no knead bread works, the reason for the really hot oven, and the covered pot. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer Solstice Fish Stew

"Summer solstice celebrations . . . [are] a testimony to the vastness of the universe, to the strength of the sun and to our incredible insignificance." Huffington Post

The focus of this blog had been to create delicious, healthy, and especially, cheap meals. But cooking in the solar oven is a huge plus 'cause it simplifies the whole cooking process and it's perfect for creating those frugal meals. And since it was another beautiful sunny June day—and the summer solstice—another solar meal was on the agenda.

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, when the sun is at its zenith. Ancient peoples celebrated this day with dancing and bonfires. Festivals featuring music, art, and environmental awareness activities that focus on using the sun as a source of energy are held around the world, including a yoga gathering in Times Square. But, it was also a Tuesday, so I took my 5% off senior coupon and headed to the grocery store. Not an especially exciting way to celebrate the solstice, but I found a great $1 package of not-good-enough-to-sell-anymore vegetables that looked absolutely fine to me: an eggplant, a zucchini, a yellow squash, 2 leeks, and anise. I also picked up a $3.99/pound piece of scrod. (I had forgotten my seafood watch fact sheet, so I hope I chose correctly.)

My copy of "The Wicca Cookbook: Recipes, Ritual, and Lore" by Jamie Wood and Tara Seefeldt states that some of the traditional foods of the summer solstice include yellow squash, zucchini, summer fruit, yellow and orange food, pumpernickel bread, ice cream, ale, and mead. Okay, how can I fit that information with what I had on hand?

Here's a fish stew recipe that came out delicious and used some of the recommended vegetables (and colors). 

Eggplant cut into 1/2" cubes
1 medium zucchini cut into 1/2" cubes
1 medium yellow squash cut into 1/2" cubes
1 medium yellow onion chopped
1 leek chopped into rings
1/4 tsp. cumin x 2
1/4 tsp. coriander x 2
pinch of cinnamon
3/4 cup water
fish bouillon (I actually used 1 tsp. Thai fish sauce)
2 cloves garlic minced or crushed
olive oil
lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped tomato (canned or fresh)
fresh parsley and cilantro
a handful of olives (no pits!)

Cut fish into fairly big chunks. Mix 2 cloves crushed garlic, 1/4 tsp. cumin, 1/4 tsp. coriander, pinch of cinnamon, 2 tbl. olive oil, generous sprinkling of salt & pepper, and a Tbl. of lemon juice. Marinate fish for one hour.

Chop eggplant into 1/2" cubes and saute until browned. Add zucchini, yellow squash, onion, leeks, 1/4 tsp. cumin and 1/4 tsp. coriander. Saute to mix for another minute. Add 1/2 cup water and fish bouillon. Cover pot and put vegetables in sun oven.

Fish stew on its way to the table. Photo probably by Rick.
The next step I might do differently, but at this point I went out for an hour run. When I came home I got a phone call and was delayed another 20 minutes. I think the vegetables went a tad too long, but again, that would depend on the day and how hot the solar oven got. Add the marinated fish, the tomatoes, the parsley and cilantro, the olives, and the lemon juice to the pot. Put back out into the solar oven. That's it! I left the food out there until we were ready to eat dinner.

I made some cous cous on the side (it's perfect since all you need to do is boil water, add the cous cous, turn the flame off and let it sit for 5 minutes—plus it was yellow for the sun), and a salad from the greens in Annalee's garden. 

Once again, you can make this conventionally. Follow the same steps, but simmer on the stovetop until the fish is cooked through. This meal fed all four of us with some extra leftover.

Off to eat the recommended ice cream!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In the Sun: Tomato Sauce & Schiacciata

As promised, here are photos of the tomato sauce and schiacciata that I made in the sun oven. Not as promised, I still did not take the photos. Rick did, and he also pointed out that I haven't given him photo credit for his other photo contributions to this blog. Oops. Thanks Rick!

I tend to start a lot of my solar cooking indoors. I think some meals come out best that way. The sun will cook your meal all day—and solar oven makers and enthusiasts claim nothing can burn—but at the same time it doesn't quite brown the same way. The food will, however, retain more of its flavor and moisture than a traditional oven. The option is yours as to whether you'd prefer to jumpstart the sauce, or simply put it straight outside. I prefer to give a quick saute to some foods—quicker than I normally would if cooking on the stove, though. For those of you who don't have a solar oven, well, make the sauce in a crockpot and let it simmer on low, or put it on the back burner of the stove on low. It's all good!

Solar Oven Tomato Sauce

Yum, smells good! photo by Rick
Mince two garlic cloves and about 1/4 of a medium onion and saute for a minute or two in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Next add some fresh basil, parsley, and oregano, amounts up to you. (I let the herbs saute for as long as it took me to get the wine out of the cabinet). Add about 1/4 cup of red wine and let it simmer for a few minutes. I like the Pomi brand of tomatoes because of their lack of BPA, but add whatever brand you like and heat for maybe another 2 or 3 minutes. Cover the pot and put in the solar oven. I set mine out at about 10:30 a.m. for three hours. The flavors blend wonderfully and the taste is rich and mellow. There have been times I've left the sauce out all day, but I wanted to get the schiacciata out also. 

Proofing the Yeast

Meanwhile, I had proofed some yeast as I was starting the sauce. Normally I use instant yeast and long ferments, but in this case I added a tablespoon of active dry yeast to 1/4 cup warm water with a pinch of sugar. I left it for 10 minutes to do its thing while I got the sauce together. Once the sauce was outside, I finished getting the schiacciata together.


Solar cooked schiacciata. photo by Rick
Put 3 cups of flour in a bowl. Make a well and add the proofed yeast and as much water as you need to make a dough that isn't too dry or too wet. I know these are pretty loose directions, but it's all about developing a connection with your food and improvising not only with what's at hand, but what the weather is like on any given day (dry, humid, pouring rain, etc.). For a better estimate, I used a cup of water along with the 1/4 cup already used for the yeast, for a total of 1 1/4 cups on this particular day. Knead the dough for 5 minutes, cover with a clean cloth, and leave for an hour or two.

Erica and I went off for our daily run, distance unknown, but it takes an hour. Hopefully it's more than a mile! Kidding. Anyway, once home and showered I shaped the dough onto a tray sized for the solar oven and let rise for another hour. Poke some holes all over the top, drop some kosher salt in the holes, liberally drizzle top with extra virgin oil, and sprinkle rosemary all over the top. Place the schiacciata in the solar oven until done. Time will vary according to how hot the solar oven gets. For those of you who are cooking it in a conventional oven, cook in a 450 degree oven until brown on top.

Happy eating!!!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Oh, Deer

After a very noisy overnight storm, we woke up this morning to a foggy wonderland that eventually burned off for another gorgeous June day. I put some tomato sauce out in the solar oven at 10:30 a.m. and left it out there until 1:30 p.m. I replaced it with a schiacciata that is outside baking as I write. Photos and recipes on those to follow in another post.

But I wanted to share these photographs that I took of three deer that made their way into our yard. I have to admit to being a horrible photographer. I went to college for fine arts and, although I understood the how of taking a good photo, the actual doing was always a trick (pen & ink was my thing). Well, in order to do a halfway decent blog the ability to take a halfway decent photo is sort of a must. Digital cameras don't automatically mean you can take a good photo, though, they only mean you can take a zillion shots and hope for one that's passable. 

Anyway, I came home from my morning run to find three deer out in the backyard. The deer perked their ears up and watched me, ready to bolt if I looked at all threatening. I snuck into the house and started searching for the digital camera Annalee gave me, desperately trying to find it before the deer took off. Okay, some people are used to deer meandering through their backyard, but it's not usual in my neighborhood.

We're very lucky where we live. We're sandwiched in between a 5,200 acre preserve and the Long Island Sound (our house is 1,000 feet from the beach). RCA (Radio Corporation of America) operated a large transmitting and transmitter research facility on the 5,200-acre site, known as Radio Central, and began transmitting transatlantic radio messages from there in November 1921. In 1927, AT&T initiated the first transatlantic commercial telephone service from there. The site was decommissioned in the 1970s, although you can still see the concrete ruins, old telephone poles, and radio towers if you go back there. The site is now owned by the State of New York and is part of a natural resources management area, which is in the Long Island Central Pine Barrens. As close as the woods are, though, the deer still need to cross a fairly busy road and make their way one mile down to our house through residential streets. Rick says they head down to the beach where he often sees them in the early morning.

Me and the deer watching each other!
So there I was trying to take a photo to prove to the rest of the family that we had three deer in the yard. I tiptoed outside and made soothing noises (probably sounded deranged instead) while I silently cursed the camera and tried to figure out how the thing worked (Rick's been taking my food shots for me, guess I can take over now!) I eventually snapped some photos—or at least hoped I did. All proud of myself I came back inside and took a shower. Afterward I quietly went back out to see if they were still there. Yup. And they were eating the vegetables. Okay, guess it was time to scare them off and save the lettuce. I headed out to the garden and asked them politely to leave. Didn't happen. So I had to make a bit more noise and wave my arms, except they came running toward me instead of away. Being on a narrow garden path with nowhere to go, I turned around and dashed for the back door with the deer, much faster than me, charging right alongside. Well, that went well. If the neighbors were watching I'm sure they were on the floor laughing. The deer did make it out of the yard and continued on toward the beach, the garden looked fine, and I got some photos. I suppose all's well that ends well.

Now I just hope my tomato sauce and schiacciata come out better than my photos.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mexican Style Beef

“Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.” ~ Al Bernstein

June is my favorite month. Okay, I'm biased. My birthday is in June, as is my anniversary. But despite that, June would still be my favorite month. It's a month of promise. The garden is looking good and beginning to produce, flowers are blooming, the air is warm and the sun is generally shining. It hasn't gotten too hot yet here on Long Island, although we did have a few extraordinarily super hot days last week, but for the most part it's pleasant. I can still feel the excitement, buried deep down from years past, of anticipation: School is almost over and summer is around the corner. Growing up that meant vacations to historical destinations with my family, or maybe even a summer crush. In high school I began dating Rick near the end of June, 6 years later I married him in the beginning of the month. June is named for Juno, a goddess of the Roman Pantheon. She is the goddess of marriage and the well-being of women. Perfect.

Dinner on its way in after cooking in the solar oven
1/2 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
salsa made from 1 tomato chopped, 1/4 – 1/2 cup finely chopped onion, 1 teaspoon of salt, a bunch of cilantro, and a splash of lime juice. Keep adjusting to your tastes. I used a lot of cilantro.

Friday, June 10, 2011


"The genius of our country is improvisation." – Ken Burns

Tuesday was my birthday. Rick kindly cut out a 5% off coupon for seniors 55 and older at the local grocery store and gave it to me along with my birthday present. I didn't realize 55 made me a senior. I'm not sure whether my frugal tightwad side should be dancing for joy—5% off groceries, what's not to like?—or if I'm bummed to be, gulp, so old. Time sure has a way of flying by especially, as Rick likes to say, when you're having fun.

And, I suppose, I am having fun. The past few years have been financially scary, and 2011 is the scariest so far, yet it has still been a time of learning and contentment. Despite an almost nonexistent budget, I have never felt less stressed over paying bills and I can look around and honestly say I like my life. One obvious place to trim money is in the grocery bill, and although I cook almost everything from scratch, I've been trying to be even more conscious of my food spending. Tonight's meal was delicious and fairly inexpensive. Granted, Rick and I ate alone (the girls were both busy), but had they been home I would have only bought a slightly larger cut of meat and bulked it up with more vegetables. I used what I had on hand. Feel free to improvise. It's been way too hot to turn the oven on so, once again, I cooked this meal in the solar oven. 

Ingredients (dinner for two):
3/4 – 1 lb. beef round shin bone-in (my piece was .88 lb. and cost $3.50)
1 large onion cut in chunks
1/2 bell pepper cut in chunks (I used a green pepper that was partially red)
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 1/2 tsp. curry powder
1 slice ginger, chopped
1/2 cup yogurt
1/2 cup beef broth
1/2 cup of canned crushed tomatoes
handful parsley

Cut meat off bone and into cubes
Dust with flour, salt & pepper
Warm some oil in a pot.
Brown the meat
Add onions, bell pepper, crushed red pepper, and garlic. Saute a few minutes.
Add the chopped tomato and chopped ginger. Saute another minute or two.
Add 1/2 cup yogurt, 1/2 cup beef broth, and 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes. Bring to a boil.
At this point, if you have a solar oven, cover the pot, put it outside in the oven, and leave for several hours. I put this outside just before noon. My solar oven read 325 degrees. I actually left it out in the oven until 5 pm, when it got cloudy and the solar oven dipped to 175.

If you don't have a solar oven, then this can be cooked slowly in a crockpot or a regular oven until you feel the meat has become meltingly tender. 

I served this over cous cous. On the side, I steamed some garlic scapes from the garden then dressed them with little olive oil, salt, and pepper. I also picked some lettuce and radishes and made a salad topped with feta cheese and croutons I made from a loaf of homemade bread that was pretty stale.

Improv solar cooked beef dinner over cous cous

I'm not sure the photo does the meal justice, but it was delicious.

Again, the whole idea of cooking frugally is to use what's on hand and be creative. Enjoy the adventure. Every recipe is really just an outline. I never make the same thing exactly the same way twice because I never have all the ingredients each time. I made this today because I had picked up some bell peppers and tomatoes at the farmstand as seconds—there were about 6 tomatoes and 4 peppers in a bag for $1 because they all had slight bruises, none of which were all that bad—plus it was a perfect sunny day to slow cook the inexpensive beef shin cut of meat. I make yogurt every few days, so there's always some in the fridge, and I have a huge selection of herbs and spices on hand. (I have to admit, though, that I don't use canned tomatoes because of the BPA in the cans, but instead use Pomi tomatoes in a box. I try and avoid all canned foods, but that's up to you. Canning my own is a goal for this year.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Solar Bread

Bread is often used as a metaphor for life. In fact, the word is used just as often as a metaphor as it is a food. Peter Reinhart has written some wonderful books on bread, many of which I own and refer to every day. In an interview, he states "bread making parallels the stages of how our souls unfold in search of meaning and purpose . . . it is whether each of us can find the links, the metaphorical and actual bridges that connect us to something bigger than ourselves." 

I'm not nearly as eloquent as Peter Reinhart, but I share his sentiment. As a mother and wife, making bread is a prayer of love. To me, a meal isn't complete without an accompanying loaf of bread. The smell of it cooking brings a sense of satisfaction and well being (but the 45 minute wait to slice it open is absolutely agonizing). The look on everyone's face as they eat a still warm piece of bread, though, is the best reward.

Our Global Sun Oven out by the garden path.
Rick, my wonderful and talented husband of 32 years, recently discovered the art of bread making and makes such awesome bread that that I've pretty much delegated him as baker of our daily bread. That leaves me to make the sourdough baguettes, the bagels, pita bread, and whatever other bread strikes my fancy. He's been absorbed in his new inkle loom, though, so I decided to experiment with the bread making process. Knowing that we were going to have a bright sunny hot day today outdoor cooking seemed the way to go, so I thought I'd give the solar oven a try. I make coffeecakes in it—and they come out great—so I was wondering how bread would turn out. It would save on our propane use and keep the house cooler than if we had a 475 degree oven on for an hour. Anyway, I mixed some dough at 10:30 last night so I could get the bread out by 11 a.m. 

Rick's recipe is super simple—flour, instant yeast, sea salt, and water. That's it. Mix together and leave overnight. Normally he'll cook the bread in a Romertopf clay cooker, but I was planning on using two regular loaf pans in the solar oven. Because of that I increased the flour and added more yeast because I wasn't sure if the solar oven would be hot enough to pop the dough up nicely. And I couldn't resist adding some honey and powdered milk.

The finished loaves.
My solar oven bread recipe:

4 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp. yeast
1/4 cup powdered milk
1 Tbl. honey
2 cups water
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar

I mixed the dough and left it over night. I put the solar oven outside first thing to heat up. Then I divided the dough into the two loaf pans and let them rise a bit while I ate breakfast. I left the breads in the solar oven while I ran 5 miles and took a shower. When the internal temperature of the bread reached 210 degrees and the top looked brown, I took them out. The bread didn't rise as much as if I had left it for a longer second rise, or baked it in a hotter oven, but it did taste great and had a good crumb. Next time I might let it rise a bit more. Rick says I should use less yeast, especially since I'm leaving it overnight to ferment, but I'm not sure about that. I feel that the bread should be risen about an inch or more over the top of the bread pan before it goes into the solar oven.

We have a Global Sun Oven, which they say can reach temperatures of 400 degrees. Ours tends to average between 300 and 350 degrees. It's wonderful, though, and I'll post other solar recipes.