Alan Morrison likes to cook outdoors. But he doesn't limit himself to a backyard grill: Often, he harnesses the power of the sun to make his dinner. For the past 20 years, Morrison, an elementary school teacher and avid outdoorsman in Quincy, California, has been cooking with a solar oven. Before heading out in the morning, he'll put the ingredients—often some combination of beans, grains, and vegetables—into the oven, placing it in a spot where the sun will hit directly at noon. At the end of the day, he returns home to a hot home-cooked meal that's ready the minute he walks into his yard.
Besides saving energy and money, Morrison says this method puts him in touch with nature. "It's a real educational tool to realize the power of the sun beyond a sunburn," he says. "You can learn the tracking of the sun, how high it gets in the sky, the length of days, and changes of the season."
The results can be delicious: Morrison's friends still wax rhapsodic over a dish made with meltingly sweet caramelized onions, slow-cooked for hours under a summer sun, that he served alongside standard barbecue fare and a salad.
Morrison belongs to a rapidly growing group of cooks using fuel-saving alternatives like solar ovens, pressure cookers, and grills to prepare the foods they love. Hoping to cut back on their energy use—and not wanting to forgo dishes like gooey cheese lasagna, creamy risotto, and tender baked goods just because it's 90 degrees outside—they're finding ways to make meals that save energy, keep the kitchen cool, and please finicky palates.
Solar cooking harnesses the heat of the sun to make delicious meals in a solar oven that you can buy or make yourself (visit www.solarcooking.org to find out how). These ovens are relatively light—many fold up like a suitcase—and typically consist of a glass-topped insulated black box and its surrounding polished aluminum reflective panels. When the sun hits the panels, the light is reflected into the box, where the food sits. Once the food starts cooking, the temperature rarely goes above 250 degrees, making solar ovens ideal for slow-cooked vegetarian stews. (It can be somewhat tricky to cook meat or fish in a solar oven; for details, see the food safety section of www.solarcooking.org.)
Using solar energy for cooking allows people to become more self-sufficient, one reason why Paul Munsen, president of Sun Ovens International, says his sales more than doubled from 2004 to 2005 and continue to rise. "Shortly after hurricanes hit or when there is a power outage," he says, "people can still cook by the sun."
With the exception of baked goods, everything cooked in a solar oven must be placed in a lidded pot, which traps moisture and prevents scorching. That's why sun-cooked foods taste so succulent. At last year's Blackhawk Solar Cook-Off, an annual sun-cooking festival in Taylorsville, California, some 2,000 people used solar ovens to make a slew of mouthwatering dishes, including a lentil stew loaded with veggies and Middle Eastern spices and a vegetarian lasagna packed with mushrooms, spinach, and ricotta.
Not to mention desserts: "There was this amazing chocolate zucchini cake," says Melody Rockett, co-owner of Blackhawk Solar Access, which makes solar ovens and electrical systems and hosts the cook-off. "It rose really high and had a rich chocolaty taste."
In addition to the oven-in-one-place technique that Morrison uses, solar cooks can also make a meal by moving the oven every 30 minutes to keep the temperature even. Whatever method you choose, be ready for solar cooking to be a bit unpredictable. "If some clouds come around, they'll delay cooking time," Munsen says. For instance, a peach cobbler that might take an hour to cook in direct sun could take twice that long on an overcast day.
Although it requires turning on the stove, the pressure cooker saves energy, too, be-cause it dramatically reduces cooking time. Although I've always associated these lidded pots with winter, pressure cookers are ideal for summer because they're extremely speedy, require little labor, and minimize fuel consumption. And believe it or not, they use less energy than a microwave oven to cook food such as creamy polenta.
"Pressure cookers are great because they can cut normal cooking times as much as 75 percent," says Lorna Sass, the author of 14 cookbooks, including Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure. Wheat berries, which usually need more than an hour of stove top simmering, take 35 minutes in the pressure cooker. After cooking, mix them with garden peas, feta cheese, baby spinach, and lemon vinaigrette, and you have a spectacular summer salad.
"The cooker does a fine job of tenderizing beans, grains, and dense vegetables, in record time. And it takes only 10 minutes to make vegetable stock," says Sass. She recommends using a cooker to make such vegetable dishes as barley risotto with wild mushrooms, Parmesan-stuffed artichokes, tomato-rich ratatouille, and spicy Thai curry with coconut milk, sweet peppers, and squash.
Pressure cookers work by combining various ingredients and some liquid in a tightly sealed pot over high heat. As the pressure builds in the pot, the ingredients break down quickly and flavors come together. The kitchen stays cool, and you'll save energy. Sass favors second-generation pressure cookers, like those made by Kuhn Rikon and WMF, which have a spring-loaded valve mechanism that is safer and easier to use than the standard removable jiggle top.
Go for the Grill
Perhaps the most common of the three cooking options is the grill, which is what I tend to use when the temperature spikes. When my husband and I moved into our Victorian home in Newton, Massachusetts, several summers ago, we celebrated the occasion with an extraordinary bottle of Burgundy and a dinner off the grill. Having come from a condominium whose fire code forbade using a grill except on the sidewalk, we couldn't wait to savor our favorite warm-weather meal: soft, smoky grilled eggplant rounds heaped on chewy, charred bread rubbed with fresh garlic. Just as the sun sank below the horizon, we lit some votives on the patio table and sat down to our feast. For the next 10 minutes or so, we exchanged nothing but groans; the meal was that satisfying, that primal, and that good. Aside from giving the eggplant that irresistible sweet sizzle, the grill kept us from heating up the kitchen, and fixing dinner took just 30 minutes.
"No other cooking method seems to bring out the flavors of food more than grilling," says Steven Raichlen, the author of The Barbecue Bible, How to Grill, and BBQ USA and the host of Barbecue University on PBS television. "It's a simple cooking method, yet it acts as a catalyst for all kinds of flavors through rubs and marinades." Vegetables are particularly well suited to the grill because the high, dry heat evaporates water in the plant's cells and caramelizes the natural sugars, resulting in more intense flavors with that tantalizing scorch. But don't just limit yourself to produce, says Raichlen. "In countries like Japan, you'll find grilled tofu. In Mexico, you'll find grilled cheese quesadillas." Raichlen even has several recipes for grilled pizza, which sounded daunting until I tried it. So easy!
In terms of what style of grill to use, gas, charcoal, and wood all have their merits. When I'm feeling lazy and want dinner fast, I opt for gas, since it requires nothing more than flipping some knobs. When I have more time, I use my charcoal grill because the smoldering embers give food a richer campfire flavor.
From an environmental standpoint, gas burns cleaner than charcoal, which burns cleaner than wood. "Microscopic soot [the byproduct of charcoal and wood grilling] can be problematic, but only if a clean-air advisory has been issued," says John Millett, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Program. "Other than that, it's rare that it would have a major impact on air quality."
One of the most important qualities of all these cooking options is that they're fun! The pressure cooker offers dramatic tension, as the sealed pot performs its kitchen wizardry. The grill lets you linger outside and enjoy the beauty of nature while you prepare dinner, and the solar oven—well, it's incredibly entertaining to have the sunshine cook your food.
On a sweltering summer night, sure, you could dine in a restaurant. Or you could eat a cold salad. But then you'd miss out on the soulful pleasure of savoring a hot homemade meal that nourishes you while safeguarding the earth.
Victoria Abbott Riccardi, the author of Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto, writes for Saveur and Vegetarian Times.</h6