Sun shines on Arizona woman’s cooking

Marilou Johnstone uses a Fresnel lens to set maple wood chips on fire at her home in Green Valley, Ariz. Johnstone uses a solar oven to cook ribs and other recipes. Enlarge photo

Brenna Goth/Green Valley News

Marilou Johnstone uses a Fresnel lens to set maple wood chips on fire at her home in Green Valley, Ariz. Johnstone uses a solar oven to cook ribs and other recipes.

GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. – Avid chef Marilou Johnstone can stand the heat – but she’s still getting out of the kitchen.

The Green Valley resident is braving outside temperatures and capitalizing on Arizona’s sunshine to make her meals this summer. She’s a self-described solar cooking nut and can make anything from cakes to pork chops using her specialized cookers and the power of the sun.

Solar cooking is a fuel-free method used in countries throughout the world. Cookers mimicking stoves and ovens come in a variety of forms and can heat to 300 or 400 degrees.

Johnstone bought her first solar device – a Sun Oven – about 13 years ago after moving to Green Valley from Montana, originally fearing that power outages would leave her unable to cook inside for several days. That never happened, she says, but solar cooking became more fun than using traditional appliances.

“You have to be adventurous,” says Johnstone, 61. “You have to be willing to take chances and make horrible mistakes.”

Johnstone has an outside room next to her pool where she keeps a solar oven, two solar panel cookers and a stove-like parabolic cooker. She brings them outside in the mornings and cooks during the sunniest – and hottest – part of the day between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

For an afternoon meal, she starts a loaf of bread in a solar panel cooker, stirs spaghetti sauce on the parabolic cooker and adds a cupcake liner full of maple wood chips to a rack of ribs before they go into the oven. Johnstone says she gets a smoky flavor by setting the chips on fire using another solar tool called a fresnel lens.

“People say it tastes better cooked in the sun,” Johnstone says.

Most recipes can be executed using solar cooking, with the exception of food that requires steam to cook, Johnstone says. Cooking time is generally longer in a solar oven but the process is otherwise the same.

An egg takes about 15 minutes to cook on a solar panel cooker while pasta can take between 30 minutes and an hour. Standard food safety is still important, and cooks should check the internal temperature of meat before eating it.

For Johnstone, who says her friends call her “the hippie chick,” the use of solar cooking is also a way to cut down on using fossil fuels. And in the hot summer months, solar cooking saves electricity by not using appliances that heat up the house.

“I don’t know how to figure that,” she says. “But I would have to think that I’m saving a bunch.”

Transitioning from traditional to solar cooking didn’t require many changes, she says. The main difference is adjusting to cooking during the day when the sun is out.

Johnstone often makes large batches of food and freezes the leftovers to cut down on work. She then reheats them using the solar panel cooker, which can act like a microwave.

For people interested in trying solar cooking, Johnstone recommends starting with a solar panel cooker. Solar cooking appliances are readily available online but more simplistic models can be built using household items such as cardboard and aluminum.

Solar ovens cost about $300, while parabolic cookers can cost around $375. Panel cookers are a less expensive investment, says Johnstone, who purchased hers online for about $33.

Local organizations also offer solar cooking classes and tips. Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture, an organization focused on sustainable food production in Southern Arizona, hosts solar cooking demonstrations and competitions every year.

The organization sells solar Sun Ovens to members at a discounted price of $250, which includes delivery and a one-year membership to the organization. About 135 solar ovens have been sold since 2006, says director Meghan Mix.

Solar cooking may take more planning but is also more rewarding than traditional cooking, she says.

“There’s a personal connection with the food that you might not otherwise find,” Mix says.

Johnstone cooks using solar power every day she can. And if clear skies give way to clouds or monsoon storms, she finishes the food inside.

“I’ve had plans and I’ve had to change them,” Johnstone says. “It’s not the end of the world.”