Solar slow food

Sherwood Montessori students’ cooking skills expanded via new solar oven

Chef Richie Hirshen, cooking/gardening instructor at Sherwood Montessori K-8 charter school, and a group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade cooking students surround the school’s new solar oven in the school vegetable garden.

Chef Richie Hirshen, cooking/gardening instructor at Sherwood Montessori K-8 charter school, and a group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade cooking students surround the school’s new solar oven in the school vegetable garden.

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado-Breglia

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I put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we can tackle that. —Thomas Edison to Henry Ford, 1931

Chef Richie Hirshen—who teaches cooking and gardening at local K-8 charter school Sherwood Montessori—recently led a group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, sentence by sentence, through that well-known pro-solar-energy quote by the late inventor Thomas Edison.

“I put my money on the sun and solar energy!” Hirshen boomed, smiling.

“I put my money on the sun and solar energy!” the enthusiastic children responded, as if reciting a cheer.

“What a source of power!” Hirshen continued. And so on.

Hirshen and his students were celebrating the school’s recent acquisition of a new solar oven at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. The oven—made of kiln-dried wood, with reflective aluminum “wings” and a Plexiglas cover—operates solely via the power of the sun; the school purchased it from well-known Illinois-based Sun Ovens International Inc., which offers a discount for schools.

The slow-cooking, energy-saving oven, which can reach a temperature of up to 400 degrees, is a perfect tool for Hirshen’s food-education program, with its emphasis on carefully prepared, healthful food and sustainable practices, such as recycling and composting.

On a recent Tuesday, almost a week into Sherwood Montessori’s new school year, Hirshen and various classes over the course of the day—kindergarteners through eighth-graders—were doing their part to create a sun-dried-tomato, ratatouille and ricotta pizza, which was to be cooked in the solar oven the following day.

The pizza-making adventure was not, however, the inaugural test for the oven—that honor went to a rice, squash and almond dish prepared during the first week of school, featuring Massa Organics brown rice, Hirshen’s homegrown almonds, and heirloom tromboncino squash from the garden of his friend and longtime cooking-education cohort, chef Alex Cilensek, who runs a similar cooking program at Chapman Elementary School and Rose Scott Open-Structure School.

Eleven-year-old Lily Sajadi—who was in the school kitchen with fellow students in her fourth-fifth-sixth-grade combination class—joyfully added vinegar to the milk-and-salt mixture simmering on the stove, which would become the ricotta cheese with which to top the collaboratively made pizza. Ever the sustainability-conscious teacher, Hirshen had collected the unopened milks left over from lunch for use in the making of the cheese.

Heirloom tomatoes—some from the school garden, some donated by friends and family—as well as peppers and various types of eggplant were piled on the kitchen counter, awaiting their turn to be made into ratatouille for the pizza.

“I’m a gluten-free kid!” offered 9-year-old Sam Williams, when the topic of the use of gluten-free flour for the crust came up.

“We use gluten-free flour for health,” Hirshen said, before lining up the excited students to each add a portion of the necessary six cups of flour into a large mixing bowl containing water, salt and active dry yeast, and stir.

“Teaching the kids to do the right thing about food and sustainability is the way to go,” Hirshen said. “By using the solar oven, we’re saving energy—we’re saving the planet.” A solar oven “has a low carbon footprint,” he pointed out.

“We teach them about gardening, cooking and sustainability starting in kindergarten. So by the time they are teenagers, they will know all about what local and organic means, about solar energy, how to keep their own garden, how to take care of the environment.”

Hirshen and his students are in the early stages of planning a cookbook—their second—featuring “some solar recipes.”

“Our program is as organic and local as possible, completely vegetarian—often vegan—and uses only plant-based whole foods,” he said.

“As a teacher, I love to teach the things that are going to make the whole world better. And these kids will be in charge of that world someday.”

Sherwood Montessori pizza

Make this healthful sun-dried tomato, ratatouille and ricotta pizza in a solar oven (makes 2 pizzas):

2 cups cold water

1 tbsp. active dry yeast

1 tbsp. salt

1 tsp. organic sugar

1 tsp. rice-bran oil

3 cups Bob’s Red Mill organic brown-rice flour

3 cups Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose baking flour

3 cups Bella Sun Luci Rich & Thick pizza sauce

1 cup homemade ricotta (see recipe below)

2 cups grated parmesan cheese

2 large zucchini (seeds removed, diced small and pre-baked with 1 head’s worth of chopped garlic cloves and salt to taste)

8 small, long eggplants (halved and pre-baked with rice-bran oil and salt)

8 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes, sliced

Dough: Combine water, yeast, salt and sugar; stir a few minutes to dissolve everything, then stir in brown-rice flour and gluten-free all-purpose baking flour, a little at a time. Form a ball, cover with a damp cloth and put in the refrigerator overnight.

When ready to cook pizza, spread rice-bran oil on the pans. Pat down dough to cover the pans.

Top with pizza sauce, crumbled ricotta, grated parmesan, cooked zucchini and eggplant, and sliced heirloom tomatoes.

Preheat solar oven to 300 degrees, put the pizza in and bake for about 90 minutes (oven temperature may rise to about 350, which will brown the crust nicely).

Ricotta recipe:

Scald 8 cups milk (whole milk is best) with 1 tsp. salt mixed in. Simmering, add 3 tbsp. white wine vinegar. After a minute or so, the curds will separate from the whey. Remove the curds with a fine strainer; place on cheesecloth stretched over a colander and lightly squeeze some of the liquid out. Let sit 10 minutes, then refrigerate. When cool, remove the cheesecloth and … enjoy!

Note: While zucchini and eggplants can be cooked in a conventional oven, if you have the extra time (and a sunny sky), they can also be cooked in the solar oven, at 300 degrees for about 45 minutes or at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.