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When the sun is shining, break out the solar oven Add to ...

Solar cooking has long been the domain of wilderness campers looking to harness the sun's energy to make backwoods brownies.

But with global warming in the collective consciousness, a small, growing number of urban dwellers are turning to solar grills and ovens to whip up carbon-free meals at home.

And while the solar-cooking movement has been fuelled by NGOs working in the Third World to provide a cheap, low-tech way to prepare meals, in North America there are solar-cooking aficionados in the gourmet set.

Brook Kavanagh, chef at the French bistro La Palette in Toronto, is a recent convert. Cooking with the sun, he says, is no different thanconventional means.

The ovens easily reach a temperature of about 350 degrees and are perfect for slow-cooking techniques such as braising, stewing and roasting vegetables, and for soufflés and baked custards.

"There is really not much limit to it," says Mr. Kavanagh, who has used a solar cooker to prepare duck confit and crème caramel. "The food tastes the same. The benefit is that it's not using any electricity or gas."

Mr. Kavanagh's restaurant menu already includes a lot of local produce and meats, such as wild boar and fresh vegetables from nearby farmers' markets, so carbon-free cooking was naturally the next step.

A solar oven works by capturing the sun's rays in a heat trap - often an insulated box with a thermal glass lid - on which the pot is placed. Mirrors reflect as much light as possible into this area; black pots are used to intensify the heat.

As long as the sun continues to shine, it takes only a few hours to cook a meal. Some people make their own ovens out of cardboard boxes, while others purchase high-end versions that start just below $200 apiece and run upwards of $600.

But you won't find one at your local department store. They are available largely through stores that specialize in environmentally friendly products and through non-profit organizations such as the Minneapolis-based Solar Oven Society, which says it has seen sales rise 10-fold in the past few years.

Solar grills, which sell for more than $600, use a large parabolic mirror to focus the sun's rays on the grill. It heats up like any cooking element, and can quickly reach temperatures high enough to sear meats as quickly as a barbecue.

Trish Robinson of Guelph, Ont., uses her solar oven as other families would a slow cooker. She sets it up in the parking lot in front of her renewable-energy store and lets dinner - potatoes, meatballs, lasagna - cook itself while she works inside.

Stephen Kerr, who writes a solar-cooking blog and owns Sun Baked, an online solar-cooking store, brews his morning espresso with his solar grill. He puts his espresso maker on the rack and within five minutes, the gurgling of the percolator tells him it's ready.

This summer, when a family member's kitchen was under renovation, he used his solar cooker to make scrambled eggs and bacon.

For Jack Anderson, a solar-cooking guru in Lund, B.C., who designs and builds the ovens as well as raising money for solar-cooking projects in developing countries, North American interest has been a long time coming.

Having cooked solar feasts - including a 17-pound turkey and a Mexican pulled-pork roast - for 20 years, he believes Canada is ripe for solar cookers because we love to barbecue.

"It's something you do next to your barbecue," he says. "[But]it's more environmentally friendly."

While Mr. Kavanagh would like to cook this way more often, he does see limitations in a restaurant kitchen, which has to deal with large quantities of food.

Nevertheless, he's hooked. He has developed solar-cooker recipes for such dishes as braised beef cheeks with bread pudding, and has participated in a solar cook-off with another Toronto chef.

As his next project, he'd like to build a solar cooker to use on the roof outside his bedroom. "When the sun is shining, why not use it?" he says.

*****

Brook Kavanagh's Solar-Braised Beef Cheeks with Bread Pudding

FOR THE CHEEKS

WHAT YOU NEED

Oil to coat roasting pan

1 carrot, 1 onion and 2 stalks of celery, chopped and sautéed

3 cloves garlic, whole

2 pounds beef cheeks

A few sprigs fresh thyme

3 bay leaves

Bottle of Henry of Pelham 2005 Baco Noir

Salt and pepper to taste

WHAT YOU DO

Arrange your solar oven in full sun, around 9 a.m., with your black roasting pan inside. Coat pan with oil. Roast carrot, onion, celery and garlic for one hour. Add beef cheeks, thyme, bay leaves, 2 cups of wine and water to cover cheeks. Braise for 2 hours. Strain braising liquid into another pot, place in solar oven and reduce the liquid until it is thick. Reserve cheeks and discard the cooked vegetables.

FOR THE BREAD PUDDING

WHAT YOU NEED

1/2 an onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

8 large heirloom tomatoes; dice 6 into cubes, slice 2 and reserve for garnish

6 eggs

1 cup 35-per-cent cream

4 cups bread, diced into cubes

8 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

WHAT YOU DO

Roast onions, garlic and tomatoes. Thoroughly whisk eggs into cream. In a bowl, stir the egg-cream mixture into the bread cubes. Stir in roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic, thyme and Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer mix to a nonstick cake pan. Bake for 2 hours, or until a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean. Season braising jus reduction to your taste. Remove pudding from pan, cut into four portions, place in centre of each plate. Slice beef cheeks and fan out on top of pudding. Spoon jus over cheeks and drizzle on plate. Garnish with basil seedlings and tomato slices. Serves 4 to 6.

*****

How solar ovens work

The SOS Sport solar oven heats by absorbing sunlight through the clear lid onto the surfaces of dark pots and a dark metal floor where the light rays are changed to heat rays (much like the interior of a locked car on a summer day). Insulation between the aluminum oven walls and housing increases the retention of heat, normally from 210-300 degrees F to cook safely.

Housing:

The outer shell holds the insulation in place and provides a ledge for the lid to rest on. Made from recycled plastics

Clear lid/glazing: Double layered to hold in heat like a greenhouse

Insulation (not visible): Closed-cell, air-filled foam that holds in heat and keeps out cold

Clips: Hold lid on to seal in heat and secure lid in wind

Aluminum liner: Absorbs heat and protects insulation

*****

DURATION OF TIME FOR SOLAR COOKING ON A SUNNY DAY

2 HOURS OR LESS

Eggs, rice, fruit, vegetables,

fish and chicken

3-4 HOURS

Root vegetables and potatoes, some beans/lentils, breads and most meats

5-8 HOURS

Large roasts, soups and stews and most dried beans

*****

Your oven lid should be facing the sun at all times

SOURCE: SOLAR OVEN SOCIETY

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