Posts Tagged ‘Wonder Box’

Preliminary Review of Off-Grid Cooking Methods

Several people have inquired about the results of my various attempts at the off-grid or minimal input cooking methods I mentioned in an earlier post. Well, here’s an update.

The Sun Oven

Sun Oven

Sun Oven

I love it! As someone who used to be a 100% raw foodist, I have missed the high energy sunshine of 100% raw foods. It’s just that living in Northern Indiana, 100% raw seems so out of touch with our climate and local foods that I’ve switched to somewhere between 50-80% raw, depending on day and season. Having just picked from our garden fruits and veggies seems to offset eating them raw after they’ve been transported to the produce aisle and sat there for who knows how long. Still, I have missed that amazingly joyful, just ate sunshine feeling it’s so easy to imbibe in California and Arizona.

Well … the Sun Oven gives that same vibe to food! It’s amazing, and yet makes total sense, that concentrating solar energy into food would transmit that sunshine quality right into the food. At first, I thought I was just excited to have cooked lentil or mung bean stews with no electricity, but after continued use, I’ve realized that the Sun Oven makes everything taste and feel more alive. Even potatoes. OMG. I never used to like potatoes, but sun-cooked potatoes with cloves of garlic that get all melty in the sun? Over the top joy and goodness!

I have no financial interest in Sun Oven’s, but imho, they are awesome. The only downside is that you do need a sunny day to make use of them. If I still lived in the desert, I’d be using a Sun Oven every day. (They are built to last for 20 years of daily use.) Here in the cloud belt of Northern Indiana, I will get significantly less use from this little gem than in other parts of the country. I remain thrilled with my purchase, though. I did get a super discount sale on it, and I’m awaiting the right timing to try the ultimate of making homemade bread with a wild sourdough starter in the Sun Oven. I just have too many gardening and harvest chores in a week of clouds and rain to try that one anytime soon. Hopefully, some frigid, sunny morning in winter will give me a chance to experiment even further.

The Wonder Oven, aka Wonder Box

Stuffed and ready for action.

Stuffed and ready for action.

Again, LOVE it! Mine’s on the left. I sent the other to my (biological) sister, and I have fabric and filling on hand to make myself another one and to send one to my West Coast “sister,” Tania Marie. Unlike the Sun Oven, this one’s not weather dependent. I’ve even used it to finish off a hot pot from the Sun Oven after the sun went behind clouds or down for the evening. If you don’t use a Sun Oven, fire, or rocket stove outside, then you would need to use a short bit of gas or electric indoors to get the pot contents nice and hot. Instructions recommend boiling for 15 minutes before transferring the pot to the Wonder Oven, where it will continue to cook like an off-grid crock pot.

Does it work? Yes! I have had such fun not needing to babysit pots on the stove, trying to tinker with the dial to keep things warm but not boiling over. A few tricks to keep in mind:

1) You need to use the smallest pot possible for your food, as you want very little air space to cool off. This initially means watching the pot more closely so that it doesn’t boil over on the stove. I rarely boil for the full 15 minutes, and my food has turned out great. I just make sure the items are heated through and then wrap in a towel before snuggling the pot into the Wonder Oven.

2) Online instructions can be a little tricky to follow (at least for me). I found this video super helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXyyytHCP5U . You can get a free pattern from the lovely Megan, who’s doing such great service in the world by providing patterns for these amazingly empowering items. You can also find the patterns online if you don’t want to bother Megan or wait for her to mail out the patterns, since this is not a daily activity of hers but more from a sense of volunteer service. I’ve found each Wonder Oven winds up costing approximately $40 $30 [Doh! I added wrong at first!] in materials, plus several hours of time, depending on how adept or challenged you are at sewing. I suspect this second batch of two will go way faster than the first batch. They really are quite easy once you get the hang of the pattern. [Update: please see comments below for more information on cheaper DIY options or a link to purchase a pre-made Wonder Oven on etsy.]

3) You can make yogurt in this by heating up your ingredients to 110 degrees and then adding yogurt starter before putting into the Wonder Oven for twelve hours. I used to make yogurt in a dehydrator set to 110. This works better and is obviously much less energy intensive!

If you don’t want to make your own, you can search online to see if someone’s selling them. Otherwise, you can buy a similar item called the WonderBag. These are pricey, but each purchase also sends one to a third world country, where saving fuel more obviously means saving lives. Here in the West, we don’t often make the connection that we’re using massive amounts of energy in our cooking, but in Africa, where you need to haul the wood yourself, you really make that kind of leap.

In the West, with energy costs rising and the energy companies growing more corrupt by the day, I personally enjoy stickin’ it to ’em with the Wonder Oven. I can make the same food — only moister and tastier — without needing to line the pockets of energy giants or babysit my pots on the stove. A few weeks ago, I even planted a bag of daffodils while “cooking” lentil curry! I’m not one who likes to smell crock pot food all day long since I work from home. I love that the Wonder Oven traps the heat and odors, so that I’m not sick of the smell of my food before I even get a chance to eat it.

Here’s a video comparing the WonderBag, Wonder Oven and a Solar Cooker (not sure this is a SunOven):

(BTW, David, king of kitchen gadgets, has one of those onion choppers shown in the video. They work well! We don’t use it all the time, but it’s great to make uniform diced onions, cucumbers or tomatoes.) It sounds like the woman in the video made her own WonderBag, although I’ve not seen those instructions and patterns online. I’d encourage anyone interested to look around online. You can get a WonderBag on Amazon, or you can make multiples of your own Wonder Oven at home for multi-dish meals.

Those interested in cooking outside with very little fuel might enjoy these Rocket Stove posts. That’s next on my fun DIY list … but again … I’ve got lots of garden and harvesting chores (and sessions!) before I get to experiment with one of these:

Another time I’ll update about the fermentation crocks and mesh dehydrator also mentioned in the earlier post. Let’s just say, I wish someone had been filming me while I unpacked the mesh dehydrator. LOL! It was like a snake in a can — only 3 feet by 5 feet tall! Too funny. I’ve not used it yet to review it, but for packing into a tinier space than I could imagine possible, I give it five stars. 🙂

Off-Grid Food Preservation: Little Faery on the Prairie …

Well, it appears I am beginning to live up to my namesake, Laura Ingalls Wilder, as I continue to find ways of preserving the harvest that don’t involve electricity. Mostly, I’m just tired of listening to the dehydrator run 24-7! I leave it on the porch, but that fan is a loud energy hog. Yes, I could can, but David and I really don’t eat much canned food. We’re still making our way through last year’s salsa, so I’m reluctant to make gallons more of it. We decided that time and again, we just love dehydrated tomatoes from the garden all winter long.

As warnings continue about solar flares, CME’s, terrorist attacks on the power grid, and the general weakness of America’s power grid, I’ve continued to daydream about a life less filled with whirring noises and EMF’s. Enter: my latest round of off-grid food processing that keeps things in their raw, live state:

Homegrown tomatoes awaiting transformation into truly sun dried tomatoes

Homegrown tomatoes awaiting transformation into truly sun dried tomatoes

Sun Oven

Sun Oven

After much research, I finally decided to get a Sun Oven rather than hodge-podging one together myself. This one is designed and crafted to withstand 15-20 years of daily use, plus it came with dehydrator trays, a water sterilizer and various pots and pans for all manner of solar cooking. Supposedly, I can even bake homemade sourdough rye bread in here from fermenting guru Sandor Katz’s recipe if I so choose. We don’t usually eat much bread and little to no gluten; however, I’ve read enough of Weston A Price and others indicating that fermented rye bread provides key nutrients and a different profile than wheat or other grains. We shall see. I’ll make it at least once to say I did it — and also because it will go so well with all that sauerkraut I’ve been making!

The last afternoon of this red acre cabbage

The last afternoon of this red acre cabbage

That's a mighty big "Brussels sprout" on the left, huh? Those seedlings were labeled wrong at Whole Foods,  but I'm happy for the mistake. Here are two homegrown cabbages with a new fermenting crock from Lehman's.

That’s a mighty big “Brussels sprout” on the left, huh? Those seedlings were labeled wrong at Whole Foods, but I’m happy for the mistake. Here are two homegrown cabbages with a new fermenting crock from Lehman’s.

These crocks allow storage of kraut for up to six months without refrigeration or spoilage, saving precious fridge space for things that really need it.

After the sauerkraut project and delivery of an additional 4,000 pounds of wood chips for the area behind and on the south side of our landlord’s garage (oh, my, Mini Mount Mulchmore will be a different post), it was time to release my Genie her instructions:

genie sewing machine

Yes, indeed, yesterday I broke out my total 70’s throwback Genie “Singer” sewing machine that I had not used since 1998, in order to make … a Wonder Oven … another off-grid heating or cooling device, depending on how you use it. I posted about Wonder Ovens (sometimes also called Wonder Boxes) here. Megan of myfoodstoragecookbook.com was kind enough to send me a free pattern, and she feels strongly enough about the importance of these little beauties that she will send you one, too, if you request it.

I had some trouble deciphering her instructions, but this video cleared things up. (Note: for some reason, the video has loud music and an initial Star Wars theme, so feel free to mute it. She doesn’t talk; everything’s typed out. That said, the second song is very cheery. 🙂 ) Anyway, once I used my essential seam ripper to undo my initial misunderstanding, I found the sewing part very simple. The video really makes it a lot easier than most of the instructions I’ve seen floating about online.

A couple months ago, I saw a seamstress from South Bend was moving and needed to unload a bunch of fabric. I told her my various intended projects, and she picked out some coordinating cotton patterns and colors in the sizes I needed. I made two Wonder Ovens yesterday, one for me and one for my sister and her boys:

The unstuffed Wonder Oven for my sister and her family.

The unstuffed Wonder Oven for my sister and her family.

My own unstuffed Wonder Oven

My own unstuffed Wonder Oven

They are easy to sew, but not so easy to stuff. Maybe carded wool would work better than little recycled polystyrene beads? I was concerned about the wool getting stinky, though, so I opted for a Bed, Bath & Beyond extravaganza (read mess). Actually, it got much easier towards the end when David helped me. Judging by his barely controlled giggles when he observed my method, it wasn’t the most efficient. 😉 Nonetheless, I got them filled with a minimum of reprimands at the beads flying all over my floor by covering my comments with Deva Premal chants. That kept the vibe reasonably high for making something intended to nourish and support:

Stuffed and ready for action.

Stuffed and ready for action.

My sis and I are so excited to try these, because they really minimize electricity for cooking. You just heat a crock pot type meal or whatever else you’d like to cook for about 15 minutes and then place the pot inside a towel in the Wonder Oven. It will slow cook just like a crock pot, minus the burning and all those overwhelming smells all day long. In addition, you can use these for transporting potluck items, making dairy or non-dairy yogurt, keeping groceries cold on hot summer days, making dried beans with only 15 minutes of cook time, and even … apparently … to make muffins. I can’t remember the last time I made or ate a muffin, but some people are really jazzed that you can.

Something similar called a WonderBag is transforming the lives of abused women in Africa — giving them income, reducing fuel or wood needs, and encouraging healthier meals. I recently learned that one of the biggest energy drains of the current food system isn’t actually all the horribly long transportation to get food from farm to table — often thousands of miles away from harvest. Surprisingly, food preparation in the home accounts for an even huger ding of energy consumption. Personally, I’d much rather spend my money on garden seeds, soil amendments and supporting people making things for better off-grid living. Who wants to give money to nuclear power plants that get enormous tax breaks and even refunds from the IRS for letting things like Fukushima happen? Not me.

I’ve also got a much cheaper hanging black mesh dehydrator on the way from this place. My friend Sue saw these at the North American Permaculture Convergence, and a bunch of us went in on them locally to get free shipping. It hasn’t arrived yet, so I can’t comment except to say that it has a squirrel proof zipper and collapses for easy soaking or hosing out. Sue’s friend uses this “for everything.” I figure it will at least do a fine job dehydrating greens and herbs and maybe even tomatoes and kale chips. We shall see. In any case, it feels nice not to hear Excalibur rattling its sword fan. I’m sure I’ll still use the Excalibur, king of electric dehydrators for some things and during inclement weather, but I’m very happy to have alternatives.

“There is no one giant step that does it. It’s a lot of little steps.” ~ Peter A. Cohen