Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Partial Solution to our Winter Heat Problem

Thanks to all who weighed in on my Sun Oven woes. You all gave me food for thought and I have not given up the fight! Now, for something completely different...
I spent the majority of my prepping budget this month on a few tools to help keep us warm if the power goes out.

This is the Mr. Heater Big Buddy, plus a hoseand propane tank. The good thing about this heater is that it is approved to use indoors and it automatically shuts off if it tips over. You can run it off 2-1 lb propane canisters OR a 20 lb tank (like those for grills). According to the manufacturer, one 20 lb tank will heat 400 square feet for 25-110 hours, depending on how high you have the heat turned up.

I use the major ice storm we had a few years ago as the benchmark for a winter power outage. That time we were without power for 8 days. Assuming that is the length of an archetypal winter disaster, two 20 lb tanks would provide enough heat to get us through. Four tanks would give us considerably more cushion.

But wait! We have one of these in our yard:

We always keep our 500 gallon propane tank topped up during the fall and winter. Wouldn't it be handy if we could find a way to refill our little propane tank from this big one? I did a little online research, and it appears that it is indeed possible to fill grill-type tanks from a big tank like this one. You need to have a special hose or something (love my technical terminology?) installed, but it can be done if you own your propane tank rather than rent it. I'm thinking about calling our propane co-op and seeing if this is a possibility.

A wood stove and a generator are definitely in our future, but a propane heater is certainly better than nothing.

Now that it is officially fall, it's time to be thinking about the challenge of keeping warm during the winter. What preparations have you made in case your heat goes out in the winter? 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sun Oven, Part III: Using the Sun as a Crock Pot

This is the third part of my Sun Oven series. Part One is here and Part Two is there. I wasn't quite ready to post about my attempt at cooking soup in the Sun Oven. As you'll read, I had some more issues to work out and I wanted to play around with it a bit more. The problem is that the weather hasn't been very cooperative.

Great weather for watching football on the TV, not
so great for using a Sun Oven! 

The test of whether there is enough sunlight to cook in the Sun Oven is if it casts a shadow. That's not going to happen when the weather has been like this for a week. I'm going to post my initial experience today and revisit the topic soon.

After the chocolate chip cookie debacle, I'll admit that I was feeling pretty deflated. What's the good of cooking with the sun if the end product tastes like the tire off an SUV? Nevertheless, I pressed on. I announced to the family at breakfast the next day that I would be making dinner in the Sun Oven. Hubby Dear shot me a skeptical look and mumbled under his breath, "I guess I'll be picking up dinner tonight."

The recipe I selected is a simple potato soup recipe that I have been making in the Crock Pot for years. It only takes about 3-1/2 hours to cook in the Crock Pot, so I felt sure that if I started it around noon in the Sun Oven, it would surely be ready by dinner time.

First, the setup:

Cooling rack in place in the bottom of the chamber

Any pot big enough to hold a batch of soup for my family will not fit on the leveling shelf.  I removed the shelf and placed a small cooling rack in the bottom of the Sun Oven. It is imperative that there is air circulation all around the pot so that it cooks evenly, hence the cooling rack.

Pot covered with a dish towel

I chopped the vegetables and assembled all the ingredients for the soup and placed them in a stainless steel pot and covered it with the lid. Since stainless steel is reflective, I covered the whole ensemble with the darkest dish towel I could find and took it outdoors.

It didn't take long for me to notice a problem.

The wind pummeled the reflectors

See the reflector on the left? It's not supposed to be bending like that. Our notorious country winds kept flipping the reflectors around. I didn't know what to do about that, so I just left the reflectors alone and readjusted the position of the Sun Oven throughout the afternoon to maximize the sunlight.

I was a bit disappointed that our local Jehovah's Witnesses didn't stop by that afternoon. The last group that stopped by asked me who I thought was in control of the universe. I was ready if they had visited while my Sun Oven was out. I was going to say excitedly, "You know who is in control? Really? Can you take me to your leader? We're establishing communication with our mother ship!" Maybe that would have weirded them out enough to keep them away for a while. As a rule, I try to be kind to proselytizers. We're just overrun with Jehovah's Witnesses who won't take no for an answer.

 In the midst of my musings about Jehovah's Witnesses, I did notice that the thermometer didn't seem to be climbing as high as I expected it to. The oven hovered around 225 degrees.

I finally took the pot out around 5:30 PM and brought it inside to check the results.

More disappointment. The potatoes and other vegetables were still mostly raw. The soup smelled good, but it was far from edible. At this rate, it would take another 10 hours to cook the soup in the Sun Oven! Since my family wanted to eat dinner sometime before dawn, I went ahead and finished cooking the soup on my stove.

I'm still not entirely sure what happened, but I think the wind might have been the issue. Since the reflectors were moving about frequently, there had to be a drop in the amount of sunlight that was getting directed into the cooking chamber. I found a solution to the wind problem on the Sun Oven website, but since my Sun Oven is only on loan, I didn't feel like I should be drilling holes into it!

When we have a sunny, calm day, I'll try again. This shouldn't be so hard!

Sun Oven owners: any input on why my soup didn't cook?  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sun Oven, Part II: Chocolate Chip Cookies

This is the second part of my series on the Global Sun Oven. You can read part one here.

The next thing I did after I unpacked my Sun Oven and familiarized myself with it was to put it through the pre-use cleaning regimen. That involved heating a pot full of soapy water for about 2 hours and then scrubbing down the inside of the chamber and on the outside around the gasket.

Soapy water heating up. By the end of the two hours,
the glass was completely fogged over with condensation. 

Even after all that, my Sun Oven still had a lingering chemical smell. I pushed my doubts to the back of my mind and decided that the first recipe I would try would be chocolate chip cookies. After all, I had successfully baked chocolate chip cookies in my mini-van in July. This would be a great test of the merits of the Sun Oven.

While I made a batch of standard chocolate chip cookie dough, I set my Sun Oven outdoors to preheat. It would easily have reached 300 degrees in the cooking chamber within 20 minutes but I forgot to latch the glass lid. Oops!

Once the oven thermometer finally read 300 degrees, I slid the cookies into the chamber.

Cookies in!

A less than impressive amount of cookies, eh? Well, I had a hard time coming up with an appropriate pan that would fit into the oven. I settled on using this nonstick cake pan but I could only fit three cookies in at a time. If you are going to get a Sun Oven, I highly suggest that you invest in some cookware. Brownie pansor these toaster oven sheet panswould be ideal. The cool thing about the Sun Oven is that because it is  uniform in temperature throughout the entire chamber, you can stack the pans by crisscrossing them and fit several in at one time. They will all cook at the same rate. In my case, the tiny amount of cookies I baked on my solitary cake pan turned out to be a good thing. More on that in a bit.

It took about 20 minutes for the cookies to brown and look like they do when I pull them from the regular oven. They looked great, but what would closer inspection reveal?

The end result

The first thing I noticed was the texture. They came out very crispy. When cookies get this brown in my regular oven, they end up chewy, which is the way we prefer it. Lesson #1: Obviously, I can't use the level of browning as an indicator of doneness in a Sun Oven. Next time, I would take the cookies out about 5 minutes earlier.

I took a big bite of a cookie. It tasted like I had eaten a spoonful of baking powder - it was a bitter, chemical taste. I can't even describe how repulsive it was and, needless to say, I ended up spitting it out. I baked the same cookie dough in my regular oven and they came out perfectly, so obviously the chemical smell from the Sun Oven had permeated the cookies baked inside it.

This was disappointing to say the least, especially when you compare the results from my mini-van experiment.

Mini-Van vs. Sun Oven

Outside temperature and season:   110 degrees, late July     vs.    75 degrees, mid-September
Time it took to bake the cookies:  2 hours    vs.    20 minutes
Appearance:   pale    vs.    browned
Texture:   soft, a bit crumbly    vs.    crispy
Taste:   Kids loved them    vs.    Ended up in the trash

Obviously the Sun Oven is a powerful tool. It certainly has the capability to harness the sun's energy, even on cool days. The chemical taste, however, is unacceptable.

I did the cleaning routine again and the chemical odor has diminished yet further, though it has not completely disappeared. The next thing I cook will be in a covered pot so the odor can't affect the food. I'm hopeful that I'll get this to work yet!

Coming Soon: Sun Oven, Part Three: Can the Sun Oven Work like a CrockPot?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Where Were You on Sept. 11th? How Has It Affected Your Preparedness?

My 9-11 Story: The Young and the Clueless

The morning of September 11, 2001 dawned bright and lovely in the large Midwestern city I was living in at the time. Well, as bright and lovely as it can get in a ozone-filled, back-to-back-car-jam-prone metropolis. Hubby Dear was in his second year of medical school and I had a newly-minted teaching license and was working at an inner city magnet school.

My first hour class began at 8:10 central time (approximately 20 minutes after the first plane hit). For some reason, I was a bit late that day and was not in my usual position at the front of my classroom when the bell rang. I ran into another teacher right outside my classroom door. I was eager to get inside to take control of the 35 hormonal eighth graders that would commence to riot if I didn't present myself soon. Mrs. M.,  a grandmotherly, rather flaky English teacher, grabbed me by my arm and said, "Oh, Mrs. Harried Homemaker! I wanted to tell all you social studies teachers - a plane has run into one of the Twin Towers. You should turn on the television." She smiled benignly and bustled away.

"OK. I can do that", I mused. "I'll give my class their quiz and tell them if they do well, we can turn on the TV."  In no way, shape, or form did I have a clue as to what was really going on. I pictured a small plane - you know, like a Cessna or something - crashing onto the side of a skyscraper. I really didn't see what would be historic about a plane crash that occurred so very far away from us, but decided to take Mrs. M's word for it. Heck, I could use an easy day and the TV might just transfix my students to the point where I could get some paperwork done.

I gave my students their quiz and, as promised, turned on the television. The scene that greeted us was far from what I had imagined. What in the heck was going on? It took us a moment to catch up to speed. Really, this is in New York? I didn't think this kind of stuff happened in America.

My students were excited more than anything. Perhaps that's because they had no relatives on the east coast to worry about. Maybe they were hardened to the imagery from watching too many action movies. All they knew is that the teacher was changing her lesson plan and allowing them to watch TV.

I did mention to them that they would always remember where they were when they heard of the Twin Towers tragedy - like my grandparents and Pearl Harbor, or my parents' generation with the Kennedy assassination. Some of them thought that was cool. Honestly, I kinda did, too. The idea that I was witnessing history was a bit intoxicating to this history teacher.

Clearly, I had no idea of the immensity of the tragedy. I didn't know that our nation was under a coordinated attack and that not one but four planes had been hijacked. Over the course of the day, we learned more about what was really happening along with the rest of the country. It took me a while - probably until I became a mother a couple years later, now that I think about it - to really grasp the enormity of what occurred.

 Did 9-11 Lead Me to Prep?

Remember when this was in the news? 

Well, considering I didn't start prepping until 2010, 9-11 didn't have much of an effect in that area. I continued living in that happy land called Denial. You know, the fairy tale land where nothing bad could ever happen to you or anyone you love? Do you remember when they created the Dept. of Homeland Security and started giving instructions on the use of plastic sheeting and duct tape? I totally ignored it. Nothing major was going to happen again in the USA, much less the Midwest, and certainly not in MY lifetime! In my opinion, Hubby Dear and I had all the trappings we needed to succeed and be happy and preparedness had no part of it. Nowadays, I measure success and happiness by a different scale and preparedness is part of the fabric of our family.

So, 9-11 isn't the main reason why I prepare, but the tenth anniversary of that horrific event reminds me to hold the course. We don't know what the future holds, but we do know that as long as we live, we will have the need for food, water, shelter, clothing, etc. I can't do much personally to stop Al Qaida, but I can certainly provide the simple essentials of life for my family.  

So what's your story? Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001? Did it affect your preparedness? I'd love to hear your stories. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hubby Dear's got Excel... and He's Not Afraid to Use It

Yesterday Hubby Dear and I took advantage of the amazingly lovely weather (76 degrees and very low humidity. Wow!) and went outside to measure and plot our chicken run/moat.

We're going to begin work on the fencing soon, so it was imperative that we got accurate measurements. Mere measurements weren't enough for my uber-analytical spouse. Anything worth doing is worth doing with an Excel table, right? Here's the diagram he created:

A diagram of our future chicken palace/moat/garden combo 

We're researching the best fencing options to use (ideas welcome from experienced chicken owners!), but the point of greatest concern to me is the gate into the garden. In order for this to be a true chicken moat, the chickens have to be able to go all the way around the garden, but yet stay secure in the run. That means we have to either create some sort of tunnel (like the one used in this chicken moat installation) or bridge and underpass (see an example here).  What do you think? Will chickens actually go through a tunnel? Sounds kinda like a low-budget circus act to me.

Hubby Dear was on a roll after he finished the chicken moat diagram so he began to plot out our orchard-to-be. We have three pecan trees arriving in November and apples in the spring. You can bet Hubby Dear will have it all plotted out perfectly months in advance. Gotta love having a geek for a husband! (Seriously, I love it. Other than the fascination with Star Trek. That I could do without.)

Calling all poultry fanciers! Hubby Dear and I could use your best chicken run construction tips, plus your opinion on the chicken moat bridge vs. tunnel debate.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sun Oven, Part I: First Impressions

Welcome to the first installment of my series on the Global Sun Oven. First, my disclaimer. The Global Sun Oven Company sent me a Sun Oven to try. I'm not getting paid for this; I just get the fun of experimenting with the Sun Oven for length of time before I have to give it back. All opinions you'll read during this series are genuine and based on my personal experiences.

With that out of the way, let's get started.

The Box. Gee, I wonder what's inside?

My FedEx guy was chuckling and making snide comments as he delivered my package. Hey, guy, don't knock it before you try it! We'll see who's laughing when I'm eating freshly baked bread during a power outage! I've written before about how preparedness companies should ship their products in plain, unmarked boxes to help preserve their customers' privacy. A Sun Oven box doesn't give off the "crazy survivalist" vibes that some companies' boxes would, but still. Help preserve my OPSEC, Global Sun Oven, and I'll love you for it.

The moment I opened the box my nose was flooded with a strong chemical smell that nearly singed my nose hairs. Sorry for the ugly image but that's truly what it felt like. When I was doing some research on the Sun Oven prior to receiving it, I found several customers complaining that the Sun Oven lent a chemical taste to their food. My Sun Oven was packaged with explicit instructions on how to pre-clean it prior to use. I'll follow those instructions carefully and see what happens.

Out of the box and ready to go
The Sun Oven is very easy to put together.  It is already assembled and all you have to do is pop up the reflectors and put it in a sunny location. Done!  I appreciate the handy carrying handle and strap to hold reflectors in place during storage and transport. Even with my current handicaps, I had no problems lifting it and carrying it around.

The oven itself seems pretty sturdy. Reflectors are a bit bendy (we'll have to see how well they hold up to our legendary country winds), so if there's a weak spot, it's there. The case is plastic with wood surrounding the door. The door is made of tempered glass and it is attached to the body with sturdy metal hinges. The inside of the cooking box is made of anodized aluminum and it appears to be the source of the chemical odor. According to the company, the box has a food grade powder coating, so perhaps that's the culprit. I sure hope the pre-cleaning regimen works!

In position. The reflectors still have their protective coating

The reflectors come shipped with a protective coating that you have to remove. Hubby Dear and I had a hard time peeling it off and some of it clung stubbornly underneath the rivets. He and I are notoriously un-handy, though, so you would probably find it a breeze.

Looking inside the cooking box

Here's a shot of the inside of the Sun Oven. You'll see there is a thermometer included so that you can monitor the internal temperature. There is also an automatic leveling tray so that your food stays safely contained in its cooking vessel, no matter what angle you set your Sun Oven at.

The leveling leg

Speaking of angles, depending on the season and the time of day, you might find it necessary to angle the Sun Oven in order to capture the maximum amount of sunlight. There is a built-in leveling leg that makes this easy to do, even for me.

The Sun Oven comes with an owners manual, CD, and a cooking pot

My shipment also included an owners manual, pot, and a CD. The pot is pretty small for my family of six,  but you can stack pots inside the Sun Oven to cook more food at once. Apparently you can use any dark-colored or glass cooking vessel (NOT shiny aluminum or stainless steel and thinner pots are better), but I appreciated having a pot included with the Sun Oven.  The CD includes a copy of Wendy DeWitt's very helpful food storage plan, the owner's manual, two short instructional videos and a recipe and cooking tips document.

Now that I've become familiar with the Sun Oven,the only thing left to do is start using it! I hope to clean it tomorrow and cook something with it, weather permitting.

Stay tuned for Part II: the Sun Oven takes over where my mini-van left off. Can sun-baked cookies compete with oven-baked ones?  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

August 2011 in Review and September Preps

I'm a bit late with my monthly summary, but here it is. To cap off a very interesting August, both of our water heaters died last weekend. It took five days for the parts to come in and for the water heaters to get fixed. No hot water when you have four young children home making messes all day in the middle of canning season? Life gets complicated and everything takes about twice as long to get done. It's going to take a few days to unearth my house from under the debris of dirty dishes, kids, and laundry.  I'm hoping September will be a better month.

August Garden:

Here's the bad news: the germination rate hasn't been great for our fall plantings.

Cauliflower hanging in there

We have a few tiny cauliflower and broccoli plants.

The Box of Death

This is the box we have christened "The Box of Death". All the strawberries we planted last spring died and now only one cabbage seedling remains. Lots of seedlings sprouted, but they mysteriously died. What gives?

Brandywine tomato plant gone wild

Our tomatoes are in a holding pattern. The insanely hot weather of July and early August caused the plants to drop flowers rather than produce fruit. Now the weather is better and flowers are setting, but we have to wait until the fruit is produced and ripe.

But there's good news.

The pumpkins are looking great. It won't be long before they're ready to pick. Our cucumbers and cantaloupe are consistently producing, too.

I'm harvesting and drying tons of cayenne peppers.

Green beans in September?

And, miracle of miracles, we have fresh green beans! Lots of them! Hubby Dear picked nearly two pounds just yesterday.

I reported last month that the green beans died, right? Well, in two of the boxes, the green beans bounced back and began producing with the mild weather we've been having.  How strange is that? It's fun to have some garden serendipity instead of garden catastrophe.

August Preps:
  • In addition to the odds and ends I picked up at Cabela's, I bought some more items for our long term food storage: local honey, oil, mayonnaise, molasses and evaporated milk. I broke down and shelled out the mega bucks for a case of dry milk. We are getting so close to having a full year's supply of food. Exciting!
  • I also added to our three-month supply: dry carrots, dry fruit, cornstarch, granola bars and cereal. My family is a crazy bunch of cold cereal addicts, so we have to build a big stockpile of it. Cereal is getting more and more expensive (like everything else these days) so it's a challenge to find bargains. 
  • Speaking of stockpiles, my budding toiletry stockpile was getting out of control. I had been just pitching items in the cabinets in our master bathroom and it was pretty chaotic. To solve this problem, I bought five storage bins and divided the stockpile into five categories: oral care, body wash & soap, skin care, deodorant, and hair care. The bins should hold about a year's supply of these toiletries for my family and items are much easier to find now.  
The beginnings of my hair and skin care stockpile

What's coming up this September? 

  • I'm so excited! Global Sun Oven is lending me a Sun Oven to take for a test drive.  I can't wait to put it through its paces. Will it really work? Is it worth the hype? Is it better for baking cookies than my mini-van? You'll be along every step of the way.
  • Of course I'll continue building our food storage. I plan to dehydrate a bunch of herbs and freeze pesto. Apple season is upon us so I'll begin canning applesauce, apple butter, and try my hand at dehydrating apples, as well. 
  • The advent of cooler weather reminds me that we need to get a back-up form of heat for our house. We plan to get a wood stove at some point, but for now, a propane heater will have to do. 
  •  I'm cutting back a bit on my prepping budget this month to start saving for my chicken coop. Hubby Dear and I are going to begin building the chicken moat this month. Since the two of us are ridiculously un-handy, that should be fun times indeed. Thankfully our marriage is strong enough to survive the trials and tribulations that are sure to unfold. ;) 

What did you do to prep or in the garden during the month of August? What do you have planned for September?