Cooking With The Sun!

Look what I got!

Cooking with a Sun Oven

My new baby! I couldn’t wait to try out my new Sun Oven Solar Cooker!

I have been reading the Taylor Made Ranch blog for a couple of years now, and have been so jealous of Tammy’s beautiful Sun Oven.  I have several plans that I found (here’s a good one in Mother Earth News Magazine) to build my own, but somehow my husband and I have never found the time to build one.  When the Sun Oven went on sale this past fall, I jumped at the opportunity to own one!

The oven can do so many things.  Of course it can cook and bake, but it can also be used as a dehydrator and a water sterilizer!  Since Ray and I are trying to live a self-reliant off-grid lifestyle, we decided it would be a great idea to have several methods of cooking food, and the Sun Oven is one of the best off-grid cooking methods we have found!

Cooking in a Solar Oven

Wild blackberry pie filling – nothing better!

I couldn’t wait to try it out.  The oven was out of the box and cooking within an hour! 😉

For my first item, I decided to bake a blackberry cobbler.  Ray and I live in an area where wild blackberries are very abundant. Every year in July and August we gather the blackberries and either freeze them to use in muffins, infused water, cake filling, etc. or make blackberry pie filling. I can the pie filling in pint (for cobblers) or quart (for pies)sized jars. So, I got a pint jar of the blackberry pie filling and made the cobbler, then set it into the preheated Sun Oven.

Wow!

Just…          Wow!

Even though it was early November with the sun low in the sky, the cobbler cooked very well, browning nicely around the edges!  It was really good and I was so impressed! In a normal oven this recipe takes about 45 minutes to cook.  In the Sun Oven, it took almost an hour to cook.  No matter – it wasn’t using any electricity, natural gas or propane, so I was happy to let it bake away!  It was delicious!  (and gone within 24 hours 😉 )

Solar Oven Baking

The cobbler is almost done. You can see that it is starting to brown a bit around the edges. You can also see the temperature dial, showing approximately 340 degrees inside the oven.  Niiiiiiccceee!

Next I wanted to try cooking some kind of meat.  I had a pork loin in my freezer and I also had a bottle of Morse Farms Mandarin Jalapeno Barbeque Sauce, so I thought the two would make a wonderful pulled pork sandwich.

Cooking in a solar oven

Here is a pork loin roast sizziling happily away in my Sun Oven!

Without bothering to preheat the oven, I stuck the roast in and let ‘er go! No, I didn’t add any liquid.  The instructions that come with the Sun Oven says that it’s almost impossible to burn anything, so I decided liquid wasn’t necessary! Within an hour the roast was sizzling and browning and smelling oh so good.  I let it cook for about 3 hours, as the temperature never really got over 325 that day and actually hovered between the 275-300 degree fahrenheit range, due to the overcast skies.  What’s cool about this is that the oven was working much like a slow cooker or “crock pot” and I knew the meat would be good and tender after several hours.  After about three hours, I shredded the pork loin (easily done with 2 forks) and added about 1 cup of the marinade. But wait, there’s more!  I decided to try stacking an apple/raisin/walnut crisp on top of the now shredded and flavored pork loin.  The Sun Oven came with these stacking pans and they work wonderfully!

Here is the apple/raisin/walnut crisp baking, stacked on top of the pork roast! The smell coming from this box was amazing!

Here is the apple/raisin/walnut crisp baking, stacked on top of the pork roast! The smell coming from this box was amazing!

After just another hour, the pork was moist and delicious and the apple crisp was done.  I had dinner and dessert!  The stacking pans really come in handy.  If I was just a bit more industrious, I could have also put in a small loaf of bread on the rack right next to the pans!

Pulled pork in Mandarin Jalapeno barbeque sauce, with a slice of Swiss cheese on a hamburger bun. Sooooo Gooooood!

Pulled pork in Mandarin Jalapeno barbeque sauce, with a slice of Swiss cheese on a hamburger bun.

The pulled pork turned out very moist and delicious.  The apple/ raisin/walnut crisp was to die for!

The best part?  Nothing burns!  Really!  To be honest, folks, I am notorious for burning things.  In fact, when my kids were growing up they used to tease me and say that the smoke alarm was their dinner bell!  😉  Even after cooking the pulled pork for an hour in sticky barbeque sauce, they were very easy to clean up afterward.  I literally swished the pans with warm soapy water, rinsed them off and – et voila’ – clean!

Speaking of bread…

Cooking bread in a Sun Oven

Two full sized loaves of french bread happily baking away in the solar oven. They didn’t really brown much, but that’s okay because they tasted amazing!

I had to try baking bread.  French bread.  On a day with lots of white puffy clouds.

Hmmmm…  It was sunny first thing in the morning.  Not a cloud in sight!  So I made some french bread dough, let it rise, made it into loaves and let it rise again.  Just when I was ready to pop them into the preheated oven, a few clouds obscured the sun.  Then a few more.   Lovely.  Can you hear my sourchasm?

It didn’t matter!  It took almost 2-1/2 hours to get these loaves baked, but by golly, they baked.  And they were good!  The insides achieved a great crumb with really nice texture in spite of the weather.  I thought they would be concrete inside, or perhaps gooey, but no – perfect french bread minus the browning.  I read that I could get the bread to brown if I put either a sugar glaze or an egg white wash on the loaves, but that’s just to make them pretty.  We don’t care if our bread is pretty, we just want it to taste good!

My next experiment?  Brownies!  My youngest son was coming up for a day to help out with some of the heavy chores, and one of his favorite desserts is brownies!  Michael graduated from college recently with a Major in Social Science and a Minor in Sustainability, so he was excited to see how the Sun Oven performed.  Well…

Baking brownies in a solar oven

Mmmmm… these brownies turned out great!  And I didn’t have to worry about burning them!

These brownies turned out so good!  I could have left them in the oven just a tad bit longer, however, because the very center was a bit on the gooey side. Since foods cooked in the Sun Oven don’t burn, I shouldn’t have been so hasty to take them out. No matter, that’s how Michael likes them anyway!

So, what have I learned so far?

  1.  Cooking in a Sun Oven is a lot of fun, and it really does work!
  2. Food does not burn in the Sun Oven, so if in doubt whether the food is done, cook it a little bit longer instead of constantly opening the door to check it.  Every time the door is opened, you loose a lot of heat and it will take just that much longer to cook.
  3. The food cooking in the oven smells so good, it will attract various wildlife along with your local neighborhood dog.  Place the oven where you can see it at all times or, better yet, put it somewhere the dogs can’t get to it.
  4. Wear sunglasses.  The reflection from the oven can be blindingly bright!
  5. Use hot pads.  Yeah – for some reason I had it in my brain that these don’t get very hot.  They do.  If the temperature gauge reads 350 degrees, your food and pans will also be 350 degrees.
  6. Place the Sun Oven on a level surface.  Since I have been cooking during the winter, the sun is very low in the sky, so the Sun Oven is tilted at it’s max!  If you don’t have a level and sturdy surface, the oven just might tip over!

My next experiment is going to be making zucchini chips and hamburger jerky, because I am curious to see how the Sun Oven works as a dehydrator.

I am so glad we bit the bullet and bought this Sun Oven.  We still plan to build our own solar oven with the plans mentioned above (here is another DIY solar oven), because there will be days during the summer when we will want to cook down tomatoes for canning, bake bread, dehydrate vegetables and fruits, etc., all at the same time!

The solar oven is another important tool for our off-grid homestead.  On days when the sun is shining, even in the winter, we have a free energy source to cook food.  If the time ever comes that our well goes dry and we need to drink our collected rainwater, the solar oven will provide a way to sterilize the water and make it safe to drink.

Have you ever cooked in a solar oven?    0001

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Here’s The (Ground) Beef!

I bought 40 pounds of 93/7 hamburger and processed it all into meal sized portions for the freezer last weekend. Whew!

Ground Beef from Zaycon

The Zaycon 93/7 Ground Beef comes in four – 10 pound packages.

I have been buying my boneless/skinless chicken breasts through Zaycon foods for about a year now and just love it!  The breasts (also sold in 40 pound packages) are huge with hardly any fat on them! You can see what I did with all those chicken breasts HERE.

Then I tried their bacon.  Mmmmm…. bacon!   The Zaycon bacon comes in twelve 3 pound packages.  What I like to do is bake an entire package of bacon all at once (yes, I bake mine in the oven – so much easier!) and store them six strips wide on layers of paper towels in the freezer. I don’t bake them until they are crispy, just lightly browned and almost done. Then, when we want bacon for breakfast, or baked in squash, or to crumble on a salad, all I have to do is place some strips in a cast iron pan over medium high heat for just a few minutes to “refresh and crisp”!  It’s a great time-saver.

I was so happy with the chicken breasts and bacon, that I decided to try their 93/7 ground beef.  It’s unbelievable how much cheaper the Zaycon ground beef is than the grocery stores around town, and the meat is also a lot fresher!  Since I got four 10 pound packages of ground beef, I decided to use each package in a different way.  Every time someone uses the link on the right to purchase Zaycon foods, I am compensated a dollar – so, thanks to those of you who have supported this blog with your purchase!  :0  If you would like to see if Zaycon delivers in your area, the link has a map of all the delivery sites in the United States.

Zaycon Hamburger

I got this hamburger press from Tupperware many years ago. It makes perfectly uniform hamburger patties for even cooking! It also speeds up the process of making lots and lots of hamburgers!

The first package of ground beef was made into hamburger patties.  I got this hamburger making press many, many moons ago and have loved it ever since.  It makes perfectly sized hamburgers that are all just about the same weight.  That way, when cooking up the burgers, they are all done at the same time.  Using this press it took very little time to get a bunch of hamburgers formed!  I mean, a bunch!  The only thing I added to  the burgers before forming them was a little bit of sea salt and some black pepper.  That way, in the future, if I have run out of the frozen cooked ground beef, I can always use the burgers instead!  Once the hamburgers were formed, I layered them between parchment paper and placed them in the freezer. When they were frozen solid, they were packaged two by two with my sucky machine (aka Food Saver).

Then, it was time to make meatloaf. Or should I say meatloafs.  Maybe meatloaves?

Whatever.  😉

Hamburger from Zaycon

Some of the ingredients I put in this batch of meatloaf. I don’t think I have ever made my meatloaf the same way twice!

I don’t usually follow a recipe when I make meatloaf, just some of this and a little bit of that.  I always add eggs, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, catsup and onions.  Then, I tend to throw in whatever else sounds good and may be at hand, such as garlic, jalapenos or chiles, rice, carrots, parsley, cauliflower, etc.. Most of the time the combinations are really good.  Sometimes, not so much. Ask me how I know a combo of chiles, jalapenos, garlic and onions may be a bit too spicy in a meatloaf!  I usually combine all the ingredients in my mixer with the dough hook attachment, and then finish off with my hands.  When ready for making into the actual meat “loaf”, I have found that the small aluminum loaf pans or the plastic tubs that sandwich meats come in work perfectly.  We don’t buy sliced sandwich meat anymore, but these tubs seem to last forever, and have come in handy in so many ways! Then, off to the freezer.

Ray and I just love meatloaf and baked potatoes…   mmmmmm,  comfort food.

But I think Ray actually prefers to eat the left-overs the next day in a meatloaf sandwich.

What to do with Ground Beef

Nine dinners (and lunches) all ready to defrost and cook! Easy Peasy!

The next day was meatball day.  I searched for recipes on the internet and found one that Ree Drummond (Pioneer Lady) uses.  It was fairly simple and plain, so I could serve the meatballs in any number of different sauces:  teriyaki, beef gravy, spaghetti., etc..  Ray and I spent a couple of hours mixing together the ingredients, making the meat mixture into balls and then frying them on fairly high heat to get a good brown crust on them, but not cooking them completely through.  The meatballs were then placed on parchment lined cookie sheets and popped into the freezer.  Once frozen, I placed 25 meatballs into gallon sized freezer bags.  I got 4-1/2 bags, or 115 meatballs!  Now, whenever we want to have a meatball sandwich, or meatballs in gravy over mashed potatoes, I just pluck some meatballs out of the bag, let them thaw for a few minutes, then add them to whatever sauce I’m using – easy peasy!

Frying up the meatballs. I am so glad I found Ree Drummond's recipe - the meatballs turned out just perfect!

Frying up the meatballs. I am so glad I found Ree Drummond’s recipe – the meatballs turned out just perfect!

On top of spaghetti,                       All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball,
When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table,
And on to the floor,
And then my poor meatball,
Rolled out of the door.

It rolled in the garden,
And under a bush,
And then my poor meatball,
Was nothing but mush.

So if you eat spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
Hold on to your meatball,
Whenever you sneeze.                 Remember that blast from the past?

Finally, I had one more 10 pound package of ground beef.  Whew – almost done!  I decided to just brown the ground beef, wash it, then package it in 2 cup increments.  This is the perfect amount to make tacos, chili, stroganoff, etc..

Two cup packages of ground beef all ready to be thawed and made into a pasta sauce, chili beans, enchiladas, etc...

Two cup packages of frozen ground beef all ready to be thawed and made into a pasta sauce, chili beans, enchiladas, etc…  In the end I had 15-1/2 two cup packages!

“Wash it?” you ask.  Why, yes, I wash my ground beef by placing the hot ground beef under hot water running from my kitchen faucet. Tilt the pan just a bit. The fat floats up and over the top of the pan and runs down the drain, rendering your ground beef nearly fat free!  Or, you can put the ground beef in a colander and run it under hot tap water.  Either way works.  Yes, a lot of the flavoring does go down the drain with that fat, but if you are adding stuff back like taco seasonings or peppers and onions, you won’t miss the fat flavoring at all!  And it’s much better for you!  Caution: if you aren’t using a fairly lean ground beef, you may have a lot (and I mean a lot) of fat, which could be a potential problem for your plumbing. Try draining the ground beef in a colander that you center over a large pot and run the hot water over it that way.  If you do this, chill the fat/water combo and all the fat will rise to the top, solidify, and now you have tallow!  What can you do with tallow?  Make soap!  Tallow soap is wonderful!  Click on my Soapmaking link at the top of this page for more ideas.Olive Oil and Lard Soap Recipe

So, there you have it!  For a few hours of labor (it was actually fun making meatballs with my dearest) you can prepare lots of freezer ready food.  In the morning when I know I am going to have a busy day, I will place a meat loaf in the refrigerator (on the door where it is the warmest) and then around 4ish in the afternoon pop it and a couple of Idaho’s in the oven for a delicious, easy meal.  But then, the easiest thing for me is to tell Ray it’s his night to cook and have him grill up some burgers! 😉0001

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Try Asparagus Beans This Year!

It’s time to buy seeds for this coming spring, so let me tell you about one of my favorites…

My mother has been growing the most wonderful asparagus “yard long” green beans for a few years now.  Last year I asked her to save some seeds for me so that I might try growing the bean myself.   My mother got her bean seeds from her sister, my Aunt Sue, who got her seeds from an on-line seed company.

Asparagus beans

These are the blossoms of the Asparagus Yardlong green bean. They seem to always come in twos and are gorgeous!

On the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds website, they have one called Chinese Green Noodle Bean that looked similar, but not exactly like my beans. On the Johnny’s Seeds website they have some called Gita, which are again pretty close, but not exactly the same. Over at Park Seed, they have one called Orient Wonder Yardlong, and at Mary’s Heirloom Seeds there is a Chinese Red Noodle Bean.  Check it out HERE.  I can’t wait to try that one out!

Asparagus yard long beans

These plants grow tall, so prepare!

My Aunt Sue got hers from Burpee, and they are called Asparagus Yardlong pole beans. I prefer to grow only organic, non-GMO, heirloom plants, and was glad to see that these were, indeed heirloom!

Most long beans are of the vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis.  Sesquipedalis in Latin means “foot and a half long”, and this subspecies which arrived in the United States via Asia is characterized by unusually long pods, which lead to the common names of yardlong bean, asparagus bean and Chinese long-bean.

The plant is a different genus from the common bean, but like the common bean, is a vigorous climbing annual. It’s actually a variety of cowpea!  When I was doing some research on the long bean, I read that the plant will attract many pollinators including ants and yellowjackets. In fact, my plants had lots of ants, and I mistakenly had tried getting rid of them with a home made solution of olive oil, dish soap and jalapeno pepper juice! That was a classic hand-to-forehead moment. 🙂 In hindsight, the ants weren’t doing any harm (they weren’t farming aphids on the plant), so next year I will just leave them alone to pollinate.

Chinese yard long beans

This is one of the beans, about halfway grown. When ready to harvest, they are about 14-18 inches long (not really a yard long) and a little less in diameter than a #2 pencil. You can see the purple at the end of the bean, which fades a bit as the bean matures.

The pods on my long bean plant hung in groups of two.  My mother showed me how to harvest the beans, cutting the bean off the plant at the top of the actual bean, because the plant will set more beans on the same stem if it isn’t damaged by harvesting!  My plants were a bit slow to get started, and I will assume that’s because I don’t live in a subtropical climate, which is where these beans originated. Also, I didn’t amend the soil much where I planted them (I have some serious mountain clay) and only gave them a bit of fertilizer, but once the plants started to flower and produce pods – hoooeee – I got a lotta beans!

Chinese asparagus beans

Not quite a yard, but these beans are really quite long!

 

Chinese Asparagus Green Beans

Cut the beans to fit into a wide mouth mason jar with about 1 inch head space, pack vertically, then pour in a vinaigrette. After a few days in the refrigerator they are delicious! Add a few jalapeno peppers for a spicy treat!

Just five or six bean pods make a side meal for Ray and I.  They are really good when marinated (just about any marinade is great) and thrown on the barbeque grill.  The best part is that they are so long, one rarely falls through the grates!  The beans are also excellent in a stir fry.  They are virtually stringless but stay fairly crisp and crunchy when boiled, barbequed, baked, etc..  Throw them in beef stew or roast them with tomatoes, peppers and onions – yum-o!

To preserve them, I think canning (jarring) is best. I also like cutting them long enough to fit into pint sized canning jars, pouring in a vinaigrette, and letting them steep in the fridge for a few days.  Mmmmm…  just like pickled green beans, but still with a nice crunch! Blanching and then freezing them makes them a bit mushy, though palatable.  I would like to try dehydrating the beans, but this season’s crop is pretty much done, so I will have to wait to try this next year.

Once the blossoms are pollinated, they turn yellow and then drop off. Here you can see two baby long beans - aren't they cute?

Once the blossoms are pollinated, they turn yellow and then drop off. Here you can see two baby long beans – aren’t they cute?  See the buds between the beans?  If you carefully cut the first beans when harvesting just right below the top of the actual bean, you won’t disturb the buds, and more beans will develop!

If you have room in your garden, you should certainly try some long beans.  The kids love growing them! Be aware, however, that the beans are not only long, but the plant itself is “long” also!

Yard long green beans

Be prepared to either harvest with a ladder, or have room to let the bean plant fold over. You could even let this grow up and over an arbor and harvest from below!

The bean plant grows very, very tall – at least 10 to 12 feet tall!  To handle this, let them get about 6-8 feet tall, let them crawl over the top of something (strings? Wire? Another trellis?) and then down the other side.  If you can walk under the plant, it makes finding and harvesting the beans easier.

Oh, and those beans you didn’t see on the vine until they have matured beyond fresh eating?  Harvest the pods, let the beans dry out completely, and they can be cooked just like any other dried bean.  Delicious!

I plan to grow these beans again this next spring.  Although mine were a bit slow to get started, I harvested some of the beans after they were fully matured, so that I could save the bean for planting again.  Hopefully, if I select the best beans from the best plants year after year, they will acclimate to my elevation, climate and soil conditions, and my harvests will get better and better!

So…   while you are perusing your seed catalogs this winter, consider the long bean (or asparagus bean, yard long bean, etc.).  You won’t be sorry!0001

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Using The WHOLE Orange!

recipe for orange peel and chocolate candy

We had the most marvelous navel orange tree at our home in the valley.  We planted the tree soon after we moved in and enjoyed it’s wonderful, healthful fruit ever since. That is, until we had to leave it behind when we sold our home so that we could move up to our new homestead.

We eat oranges for dessert with dark chocolate…

A bite of orange.  A bite of chocolate.  Repeat.  Good thing mandarins are just as good this way, because we were able to move our potted mandarin up to our new homestead.

How to candy orange peelA while ago I followed a recipe for candied orange peels that I found in a wonderful book called 1/4 acre farm. They were absolutely devine!  The orange peels ended up with a wonderful chewy texture and were beautifully translucent.  Really, you have to try this!  I was so proud of the fact that we were actually using the whole orange!

But then I made those candied orange peels again yesterday, and when the candy was done, I kept thinking about how good they smelled and how my fingers got so slippery when I was scraping the pith from the orange peel oil.

Orange oil.

Wait…      ORANGE OIL!

I wondered – if I saved the water that the orange peels were gently boiled in, would there be any orange oil floating on the top when it cooled down?  I had to try it, which meant I had to make another batch of candied orange peels.  Ah Shucks.  😉

But, instead of dumping the water the peels were boiled in (the orange peels are boiled in water 3 times), I saved it all in a large pan.  When the water has cooled enough to handle, I used a funnel and poured the water into a large glass bottle, like these…

Brewing Fermented Sweet Tea

I bought the front two, clear bottles at IKEA. The darker bottle in the rear was purchased at a craft brewery nearby.  Just flipping the bale and slowly decanting the water seemed to work just fine.

When filled to the brim, I inverted the bottle, and carefully placed it upside down into the refrigerator.  Why?  Oil and water separate – especially when chilled.  After a few hours of chilling, I slowly (very slowly), without inverting the bottle, let the water trickle out of the bottom.  My thought was that oil generally floats, so if I let the water out of the bottom, the oil would be left on the top.  I stopped decanting the water when there was about an inch or so left in the bottle.  Then I poured in more water and followed the same procedure. Once I had done this with all the boiled water, I could definitely see a sheen of oil on the top of the water.

Yes indeedy, I had orange peel oil!

I poured the oil with the last bit of water into another smaller amber colored bottle for storage.  Since this bottle had a dropper, I got rid of more of the water by sucking out from under the oil layer – remember, oil floats!  This is what I ended up with before sucking all of the water out from underneath:

How to make your own orange oil

can you see it… right there in the middle of the jar? Orange Oil! Wahoo!

I know if I had a small distiller, I would be able to get a lot more oil out of the orange peel, and I also need to experiment with different methods of extracting the oil.  I am also going to see if it makes a difference whether I separate the water and oil when it is still hot, or let it get cold first. Then, I want to see if I can do the same thing with our lemon and mandarin trees!

What will I do with my orange soap made from turkey fatoil? Make orange scented soap!  Or my version of lip balm! Or orange scented beeswax candles!  Or…  well…  you get the picture.  

The best part?  I KNOW this is organic oil because the peels came from my tree which we do not spray! We already miss that tree, since right now is the time the oranges are beginning to ripen. Hopefully, someday, if we can build a walipini, we will again be able to plant another orange tree.

Have you extracted oil from orange peels?  Do you have a better method you would like to share?

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