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Summer Cooking

Greenpa asked me to talk about how we cook in the summer, and that’s a very good subject to talk about – what does a woman who “dances with wood” and cooks on a wood cookstove all winter long do in the summer? Well, part of the answer is that when we’re lazy, we use the electric stove that came with the house. Now from an environmental standpoint, electric stoves are a pretty lousy option. Using electricity to create heat mostly means burning coal in the US. Now my family purchases renewable electricity and also my region uses a fair bit of hydro-power, but that’s something of a grey area in a state where functionally there is not enough renewable energy to meet the demand for it – ultimately someone is burning coal if we’re using our local renewables. So even though there’s a case for our electric usage, we try to keep the electric stove use to a comparatively minimum. As Greenpa himself has written, choices of fuels for cooking are complicated.

We do a number of things to keep inside temperatures down. First, we eat cold food as often as possible in hot weather – salads, sandwiches, cut up fruit for dessert, hummus and bean dips, cold legumes, etc… During winter our “default” (ie, I’m too lazy to think about anything creative) meal is often soup cooked on the back of the stove or baked potatoes with steamed greens and some kind of sauce. In summer it is large salads with a mix of whatever greens and veggies are in the garden, and various other stuff – fruit, cooked beans or lentils, cheese, hardboiled eggs or what have you.

Next, when we do cook, we build summer fires in our wood cookstove when the temperatures are reasonable. What you want in a summer fire is a very small, hot fire that heats mostly directly above the firebox. I’d tell you how to do this, except my experience is that it is very different with different types of stoves – it is one of those things that I learned to do by practice, and it is very hard to explain exactly how it works – what you want generally is a lot of small pieces of very dry wood, and to aim your draft so that almost no heat is going towards the oven. This is somewhat different in my Waterford Stanley than in a friend’s Pioneer Maid or an older stove that another friend has, so I’m not sure I can usefully explain how to do it.

But what if you want to bake? Well the trick then is to do your cooking very early in the morning or at night, and to watch the weather forecasts. Our woodstove oven can take four loaves of bread at a time, so I do eight loaves at a shot (most people probably don’t have six sons who eat like Huns in their house and may have to bake less often ;-) ), starting the fire at 5:30am when we get up (if you were a night person, you could do it at night, but I’m too sleepy to remember to take bread out of the oven on time at night). Where we live you can often also count on a day in any given summer week that is cool, rainy and dreary enough that a fire is not a horrifying idea, but that’s certainly not true everywhere – and it isn’t even true here during the hottest part of the summer.

I do as much cooking ahead as possible early in the day, and as much as possible ahead on cool days if the forecast looks hot. I try to think ahead about meals whenever possible, so if I’m going to run the cookstove I’ll be cooking beans for the next day’s tacos, boiling potatoes for salmon cakes at lunch and making dessert for the day after tomorrow if I can pull it off. It doesn’t always work, but whatever I can do ahead of time (as long as it is the sort of food that holds up), I do.

We have a very good solar oven – The Global Sun Oven – that I use whenever the weather is sunny enough to get temperatures up. In hot places, these are perfect substitutes for the oven in many ways. Consider Chile’s log of her sun oven usage. Up here in upstate NY, we can’t do that all year round, but there’s much we can do that is worth doing. I try to have my sun oven in use every day that it is possible, and am at least heating hot water for tea and cooking in it. We use it a lot to hardboil eggs, cook beans, steam potatoes and for any recipe you’d use a crockpot for. I do bake in it occasionally, but it doesn’t do well with bread – biscuits or cookies are more viable. Still, even far northerly folk like us can save money, electricity and heat in the house with one of these – they are usable here into mid-October most years, and as early as mid-April, although most years (this one excepted) I can’t bake reliably until late May.

We do some outdoor cooking – we have a propane grill and every year we make a small firepit for open outdoor fire cooking. I will admit that we do the latter more for the kids than to save heat – it is really about the fun of cooking things over open flame and modelling fun stuff like dutch oven campfire cooking, rather than being a significant energy-saving practice for us. A fair number of the things cooked on it are also ummm…not the most sustainable, in that I do feel that as long as they are available, kids need occasional summer infusions of S’mores. Something about carbonized marshmallows and chocolate stains says “childhood” to me. We do use them for good stuff, though – for example I love roasting peppers and eggplant in late summer over an open flame. Nothing else tastes that good.

Our rocket stoves are also in summer use for when one wants a quick cup of tea, a boiled egg, etc… I don’t have a large one right now that can really make a dent in the quantity of cooking that a variable household of at least 8 requires. It is on my to-do list for this summer – something along the lines of this:

That’s actually the limitation of most of this – with the exception of open-fire stew and hard boiled eggs in the sun oven, I just don’t have ENOUGH cooking equipment to really feed my fairly large household plus the guests we have regularly (summer interns, friends, family visiting, etc…) That’s one of my upcoming projects – another sun oven, and a bigger fire pit, and some other infrastructure for larger scale outdoor cooking, so we can move things outside more.

My eventual goal is an Earth Oven like this:

We had a very primitive one some years ago, but it fell to a combination of weather and goats climbing on it, and I really want to build one under shelter in a goat-free location, but I never seem to get around to it. But it is in the plans…

If I had to do entirely without the fossil fueled items (electric stove, propane), I’d want the rocket stove and the earth oven badly enough to actually get them done – which means I should just get them done. I’m putting them on my “take seriously” summer project list now. Also on my dream list is some kind of summer kitchen – even a sheltered spot with a pump, my earth oven and the rocket stove. So far, it has just never made the high part of the project list.

So how about you? How do you cook and keep the heat out of the house?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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