Monday, January 19, 2015

Cooking in a Wonderbag

The Christmas season was really nice this year, fairly peaceful and relaxing with quite a number of family get-togethers, some great food, and interesting (and thoughtful!) presents. Our last holiday celebration came on January 6th — Little Christmas, the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, whichever name you choose for the day — and, as always, I took the decorations down the next day. I was sad to see it all get packed away, but my waistline was probably pretty happy. With the super rich and fattening over-abundance of foods behind me, I turned my attention to one of the presents hubby Rick gave me: the WonderbagTheir Web site claims the “Wonderbag is a simple but revolutionary, non-electric portable slow cooker. It continues to cook food which has been brought to the boil by conventional methods for up to 8 hours without the use of additional electricity or fuel.” I was pretty skeptical about that claim and I think I let my lukewarm response to my present show because Rick kept saying we could re-gift it to someone. I’m a sucker for keeping things no matter what and trying to make them work, though. Think pink fuzzy sweater I received from my grandmother when I was in high school and into wearing tight ratty jeans that I had to lie on my bed to get on while sucking my stomach in until I thought I would faint, then pull the zipper up with all my might, along with t-shirts and beat up Keds sneakers. Not to mention how could you possibly wear a pink fuzzy sweater when heading off to Grateful Dead or Hot Tuna concerts. I wore that sweater, though, whenever she visited just to see her happy.

Anyway, my first attempt using the Wonderbag was making tomato sauce. Instructions for cooking in the Wonderbag are pretty simple. Bring the food to a boil, keep it boiling for 15 to 20 minutes, then put it in the Wonderbag for hours to presumably finish cooking. There’s a lot of flaws there in my mind. First off, I don’t cook a lot of meals with enough liquid in them to boil them on the stove for that long. Seems like you could boil all the liquid away and burn the bottom of the pot pretty easily, and what does that do to the consistency of the food? Second, if I was, say, making soup with carrots and potatoes in it, the soup would be pretty much done after a 15 to 20 minute hard boil without much need to sit in the Wonderbag for any length of time. And third, there’s no heat source except for whatever heat has been trapped in the pot due to the bubbling liquid, which starts to cool down as time goes by. How could it possibly retain heat long enough to actually cook anything? But I had to try despite my misgivings since it was my husband’s main present to me, so I put all the ingredients for a sauce together with some extra wine, brought it to a boil, let it bubble away on the stove for 15 minutes, put the pot in the Wonderbag and left it there for 4 hours. When I took the sauce out it was barely lukewarm. It tasted fine — pretty good, in fact — but I think it would have tasted fine if I’d simply left the pan sitting on the stove covered after that 15 minute boil for the same 4 hours. Rick was pretty disappointed and I felt bad that I thought it was a somewhat useless present.

Enameled cast iron works best
Either way, one thing was clear: we needed a new pot to use in the Wonderbag if I was seriously going to try and make it work. Apparently glass pot tops are okay, but don’t work as well as a solid lid. Also, the pot can’t be too large for the contents or it can’t retain heat. And no pots with long handles. Since I tend to make sauce in either a pot with a long handle or a larger pot with too much extra space and a glass top, I was striking out right off the bat. Enameled cast iron was said to work best. We took our Christmas gift cards and went shopping at Kohl’s, coming home with a Food Network 3.5 qt. enameled cast iron dutch oven. (Le Creuset or Lodge are both good choices also, but La Creuset is way more expensive and we were taking advantage of gift cards. I love Lodge products, but unfortunately Kohls doesn't sell that brand. So far the Food Network pot has worked wonderfully, though.)

My next attempt was to make (white) rice just to test the new pot. Easy enough. It worked like a charm. I brought 3 1/2 cups of water to a rolling boil, added the rice, let it boil for one minute, put the lid on and allowed it to continue boiling for one more minute to make sure inside the pot was nice and hot, then transferred it to the Wonderbag. All told, after coming to its initial boil, it only boiled on the stove top for two minutes. I left the rice in the Wonderbag for 40 minutes while I made the rest of the dinner. Yeah, I cooked the rest of the meal on the stovetop, but I guess I did save the 20 minutes of propane I would have used if the rice had been left cooking as usual.

Okay, the rice worked. It came out fluffier than normal and was kept nice and warm while I prepared the rest of the meal. I wondered what else might work similarly and thought of mashed potatoes. I peeled and cut up some potatoes (slightly smaller pieces than normal), threw them in a pot of water, brought the water to a boil, covered the pot, allowed it to boil one more minute with the lid on, and transferred it to the Wonderbag. Half hour later I checked on them and the potatoes were nice and soft and ready for mashing. Success #2. 

I decided to get a little more complicated and the next meal I attempted was stew. No way did I believe Wonderbag’s cooking instructions and claims, so I rearranged my thought process and switched up the steps based on how the potatoes had cooked the previous night and the fact the sauce was only lukewarm on day one. I decided to break the cooking into two steps by first cooking the meat alone, then reheating when I added the vegetables. I browned the chunks of beef stew meat on the stove top, added garlic, some wine and beef broth (a little more of both than I would normally use) and brought the whole thing to a boil. This time I allowed the liquid to boil for a full 12 minutes (10 minutes with the lid off and another 2 with it on to trap the steam inside) before transferring the pot to the Wonderbag since I was more cautious about meat cooking properly. I left the pot in the Wonderbag for 90 minutes. When I removed the pot, the liquid was still hot, or maybe really just very warm, but not hot enough to eat if I was planning to serve it at that point. But I wasn’t since I still needed to add the vegetables. In went the onions, celery, carrots, peas, and potatoes, plus some herbs. I added another half cup of wine and a little water mixed, and brought the liquid back to a hard boil. I let it boil on the stove for 12 minutes again (same 10 minutes with lid off and 2 with it on) before putting it back in the Wonderbag for a final 90 minutes. When I brought the stew out I have to say it smelled and looked delicious. Everything was done to perfection. The meat was tender, the vegetables were soft but not mushy. I suppose I saved propane since I used up about 25 minutes worth vs. my usual method of cooking stew in a clay pot in the oven for 4 hours on low heat. However, I did use the stovetop for maybe 40 minutes all told between browning the meat and boiling the liquid twice. I bet everything would have actually been cooked (i.e. safe to eat) in that time. The advantage was that the time in the Wonderbag gave the meat time to get super tender and for the flavors to develop.

Last Sunday, I made sauce once again. This time I used a method similar to the stew since I intended to make a meat sauce. Rick and I were performing that afternoon and were leaving around noon and expected to get home at dinnertime. So I started off at 9:00 a.m. by browning the meat (very thin beef, the kind you use to make braciole) then adding wine, beef broth, and minced garlic. I brought the liquid to a boil for 12 minutes, then placed the pot in the Wonderbag. At 11:00 a.m. I took the pot out, added a can of crushed tomatoes, diced onions, oregano, salt & pepper, and brought it all back to a boil for another 10 or 12 minutes. Back in the Wonderbag it went and it was left there until we got home at 5:30 p.m. All I had to do was cook the pasta. The sauce was still fairly warm (still within the safe range for leaving meat unrefrigerated for the 6+ hours it was in the Wonderbag while we were gone), but I threw it on the drained pasta and gave it all a brief rewarming for a minute before serving since I like my food a bit hotter. I found this a huge success, though, because it allowed me to leave the sauce “cooking” and developing flavor while we were away from home with no worries. Usually we get home from shows and I’m frantically trying to cook dinner even though I feel emotionally drained and exhausted. This had me pretty excited. Technically I suppose I could have cooked it in the morning and refrigerated it while gone, then reheated it once home, but I think this definitely was a much better choice. Less steps, less fuss, less stress, and it was delicious.

Another success was our Wednesday band practice. I made some sausage and peppers using my now familiar steps: brown the sausage, saute the green peppers and onions on the stove. Keep the peppers and onions out, but toss all the makings of the sauce on top of the browned sausage in my enameled pot, bring to a boil, boil for 12 minutes, put in the Wonderbag by 3:00 p.m. I took the pot out at 4:30, put the peppers and onions in, brought it all back to a boil, and placed it back in the Wonderbag. We practiced from 5:00 until 6:30. When we were done, I put the salad on the table, which I’d made earlier in the day, cut up the sourdough baguettes I’d made the day before, and took my pot out of the Wonderbag. It was still plenty hot to use straight from the pot, and the sausage was incredibly delicious. Again, after band practice everyone is usually clamoring for dinner and I have to hustle to cook or reheat the food. This time all I had to do was set it all on the table and we were eating in a matter of minutes. Everyone's tummies were pretty happy.

I don’t know the math on how much energy, and therefore money, you use when you boil something on high heat on the stove top for 25 minutes vs. slow cooking in the oven at a low temperature for a longer period of time. That’s my next project since, ultimately, you want to know that you’re saving money also. For this post I was just looking at the ways I could use the Wonderbag to my advantage and how to make sure the food is cooked through and safe. I did learn over the past few weeks that it helped in various ways to save time, stress, and can be a handy addition in the kitchen. I use it almost every evening. If nothing else, it can keep a dish warm and free space on the stove top. Since I make rice often, using it for various rice dishes has worked extremely well. If I’m making a more complicated dish — think the beef stew or meat sauce or certain soups — I have found that breaking it into two steps so the liquid is brought back to a boil halfway through yields better results than doing it all at once, especially where meat is involved. Some days I make a one pot meal and other days I simply make a side dish that I can leave in the Wonderbag until I’m ready to serve the rest of the dinner. I’ve learned to use it to cook potatoes to make potato salad, too. I found the ideal time to take the pot back out and have the potatoes ready for cutting into potato-salad-size pieces. 

Maybe others will have different experiences cooking in a Wonderbag. There are numerous positive reviews on Amazon. Many people claim to let rice boil for 10 minutes before placing in the Wonderbag. I’ve never done that. White rice normally cooks in 20 minutes on the stovetop, brown rice a little longer. Why boil it for 10 minutes just to save 10 more minutes? So far, my short boil with rice has yielded perfect results. Yesterday I made a rice and lentil dish, so I did boil the lentils in the water for a few minutes before adding the rice then boiling another minute. Still, I think I only boiled it for 5 minutes all told, but left it in the Wonderbag for maybe 50 or 60 minutes for the lentils to soften. I’m still very very skeptical about Wonderbag’s exact cooking instructions and claims, and there are quite a number of meals that don’t call for enough liquid to boil for 15 or 20 minutes so how to rethink those dishes? But so far I have managed a number of recipes and it has definitely come in handy in numerous situations. Rick is happy to see it put to use and happy that I now enjoying using it. I keep thanking him all the time now. He enthusiastically took the photo below for me.

I crocheted a pot cosy and lined it with felt that acts as an extra heat retainer and a trivet in one, which I placed inside the Wonderbag and that I place my enameled cast iron pot into when cooking. The Wonderbag is a bit big to store in any kitchen space I have, so it has become a permanent fixture in the bathroom. I have a blue and green Wonderbag, which matches my green bathroom perfectly. It sits on the rug in the corner by my basket of folded towels. Any guests going into the bathroom probably thinks it’s a fancy cushion to sit on while putting on makeup or maybe even a small hamper (?) or storage basket. Or maybe they even think it’s a cat bed. I’m actually surprised the car hasn’t discovered it and tried to sleep on it. Maybe she knows better. 

The last thing I should mention is that every time you buy a Wonderbag one is donated to a family in need in Africa. You can read more about the history of the Wonderbag and their mission to create healthier cooking environments on their Web site. It's a wonderful goal and every time I read about it I think I should try harder to utilize it even more and use the propane less. I'm adapting as many recipes as I can. I'm wondering if I'll be able to combine the Sun Oven and the Wonderbag come summertime for even more energy savings. 

My Wonderbag Christmas present alongside my new enameled cast iron pot, ready to rock & roll!