Experimentation – Solar Ovens and Lavender Cupcakes

SolarOven    

The idea of building a solar oven to cook something from the garden was inspired by one of the first parents who helped us build the garden in the summer of 2011. Neil and I were sitting at the garden one day in the extreme heat when he told me that you could easily build a solar oven with the kids and do a slow cooked recipe. At the time, we had little growing and less opportunities to create the solar oven so the idea sat shelved until this summer.

Eddie, a leader from The Grove Childcare Society and volunteer teacher in the school who’s been integrating curriculum all year with the various classes took this task on with great enthusiasm. Although he wasn’t able to attend the cooking class at the Grove during the week I was there to cook with the kids, he did manage to build the oven before he went on vacation.

We didn’t know for sure if the solar oven would work. We didn’t know it would cook anything let alone keep it warm. The weather had been really amazing with lots of sun in the past but there was no way to predict the future. All these factors were translated back to the kids. Despite the “unknowing”, we tried anyway because as Master Yoda says: “Do or do not. There is no try.”. So we did. We threw some sliced onions wrapped in foil, split up cloves of garlic, a head of garlic sliced open all drizzled with some olive oil, salt and pepper and a pot of pre cooked veggie soup to simmer.

All the kids were fascinated by the oven; each taking a turn to go outside and check on it. We even had the young 3 to 5 year old group come out and look. They asked questions like: “How does it work?” “What’s making the food cook?” These were just the questions needing to be asked. There was even a brief conversation about renewable and sustainable energy with a very bright 9 yr old.

The day started a bit cloudy but by 10 am, the sun was out full blast. The oven had to be moved with the sun a few times and it blinded you to look into it as it was just like staring into the sun. By 2 pm, the foils were warm and the onions and garlic were slightly translucent, yet not quite roasted. Anyone who has tried roasting garlic knows that this process takes time anyway and at the very least, an oven at about 300 degrees.

We used the garlic and onions in our spanakopita during the afternoon cooking session.

So were we successful? Was the solar oven worth the try? It was a free left over box and a few sheets of aluminum foil. The result wasn’t a meal to serve to the whole group and there certainly isn’t a need to patent the invention. But the oven did, ahem, spark curiosity and a few healthy conversations. Most of all, I’m hoping it encouraged the group to try, experiment and see what happens.

LavenderCupcakeImage

Lavender Cupcakes

Sound and even look a bit weird at first but the idea comes from the fact we try to use as many things we grow in the garden in recipes we cook with the kids. Lavender isn’t exactly edible but I was able to find a few sources of inspiration.

I first saw this recipe in Forever Summer, a cookbook by my personal domestic goddess idol, Nigella Lawson. As you can see from the link photo, the cupcakes looked whimsical yet delicate and fun. The recipe called for just a few drops if not just one drop of violet food coloring and a small sprig of lavender on top. Interestingly enough, I actually couldn’t find the original Nigella Lawson recipe online but it is in her original Forever Summer cookbook.

If you do want to look into Nigella and what makes her so fabulous, I actually encourage you to You Tube her and watch a couple of her episodes. Her food writing and recipes are so inspirational. Plus she keeps her nail polish in the fridge and munches on her leftovers in her pj’s!

Harvesting the lavender on the Saturday Work Bee, the lavender was at it’s peak and just finishing it’s blooms. Some buds were not yet open and this didn’t seem to matter. After drying for just 2 days, the cooking class was the following Wednesday, I removed the buds from the stems and layered a tsp or two in between layers of about 1 cup of white sugar. Yes, I used white sugar…only this once though I promise! In the middle layer, I broke up an old vanilla pod and the result was truly heavenly smelling.

The volunteer I had helping me the day of the cooking class wasn’t told to process or grind up the sugar mixture and simply added the whole lot to the cupcake batter. Wow, the result was really an experience. I can only relate it to “having a bath in your mouth” To some this might sound quite distasteful but really, it is worth a try. And all the kids did without much hesitation at all. None were left and little complaints were heard either.

Summer can provide the most amazing opportunities to spark creativity, inspiration and love of food. Gardens are at their peak afterall and if all you do is try a few recipes inspired by summer, you are at least sparking the imagination of your kids to plant seeds of fun, growing and cooking with food of all shapes, colors and sizes.

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