Don’t snub the humble can

I wrote in an earlier post about hoboes and their rumored sterno habits.  But sterno stoves are far from the only cooking devices used by those romantic wandering men . . .

(Really, what makes that so romantic: the Great Depression, riding railcars, John Steinbeck novels, etc?  I’m sure it was no picnic for all the homeless men who eked out their marginal living in those times.  I’m reminded of a Suzanne Vega song I once heard.)

If you’re traveling light and don’t have much and want to cook over something more efficient than a bare fire, what better technique than just to put the fire in a simple food can?  And so we have the hobo stove, operating on the most basic principle: to concentrate the heat of a fire, contain it.

If you look up “hobo stove” on youtube you’ll find several videos of people making and using these variations on the basic theme.  And apparently if you want a lightweight bit of hiking gear that gives a touch of aluminum grace to this design, there’s the Swiss Army Volcano Stove (3 Piece Set), which has many very good reviews.  I think I’d like to get myself one.  (Again, that’s the thing about getting into simple light stoves: it can be addictive.)

There’s also a company that I’m watching called Siege Stoves, who make ingenious crosspieces with sharp fangs that you can use to punch holes in cans of various sizes, and then put on top for pot stands.  Siege Stoves is planning a big expansion and I hope they make it, and make it soon.  Their product can be used to make a simple hobo-style stove as well as a woodgas stove.

Really, all this is very much like what I have done with my Sterno Single Burner Folding Stove – 50002, using it as a firebox, after watching some videos like this one.  My daughter and I still remember the picnic we had with that, out on the pebble bar in the Snake river, before the dam let the irrigation water down for the summer.  Bright sun, cool breeze and a bald eagle in the sky above us.

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Rocket rice and woodgas woes

A couple of days ago I set out to cook dinner on two of my stoves: the larger woodgas one, and the rocket, also homemade.  Both of them are made out of #10 cans, with the fire hole from the rocket stove slightly smaller.  I’ve cooked over the rocket stove and found it both powerful and easy to control.  The downsides to the rocket stove are that it blasts the heat in a small area and leaves thick soft black soot on the bottom of the pot or pan.  I’ve contemplated scraping that soot off and collecting it to make ink – I don’t know how much I’d have to collect or where I’d have to store it, so I haven’t worked up the gumption to do that.

I cook over these stoves with pots and pans made for camping or bought from the local thrift store, so I don’t worry about them too much, but I do fear that having so much heat concentrated in the center will wreck a pan after a while, and I really would like to find a way to use these stoves that would spread the heat more evenly over the bottom.

In the two occasions when I’ve cooked rice over the rocket stove (maybe not very imaginative, but it’s easy), the rice has cooked up uniformly enough even though the heat was blasting in the center.  So that’s encouraging.  And on this occasion, when I did a simple stew in a pan . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Cooking short-grain rice in July, shortly after I finished my rocket stove

Since I had had success cooking rice on my rocket stove, I decided I’d do a simple sort of Indian-style dinner: jasmine rice and stewed garbanzos.  I’d cook it on two stoves.  After my previous attempt to cook over the large gasfier using pellets, I thought I knew how to make it run properly.  So I set up the stoves and gathered my ingredients.

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The stoves ready to be lit, with fuel and pot stand

From the start, this was beset with problems: my quest puts me to the test.  I had to set up utensils and ingredients in a less than ideal space (on the driveway) and deal with the “help” of neighbor children and the wanderlust of a child who keeps running off into neighbors’ yards down the street out of my voice range.  At least they went and got a bunch of fresh Roma tomatoes from the garden as I asked.  I put the rice on the rocket stove to give it a head start and melted the butter in the frying pan over the gasifier . . .

which went out again.

Later I figured out that I’ve made the holes too small in this bigger gasifier to work with pellets, but at the time I was very, very annoyed: why wouldn’t the thing work?!  This is the kind of thing that you have to go through when you’re on a Quest.

I got the rice cooked over the rocket stove then (with a couple of green cardamom pods in), and then put the frying pan back on.  To the melted butter I added some garlic and ginger paste, then my spices: black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, chili and lots of cumin.  Then – calling for my child – I cut up the tomatoes from the garden and fried them in that fragrant mix for a while.

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After that I dumped in the can of garbanzos – nothing fancy.  I didn’t cook them from scratch this time.

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I let that simmer/almost boil for the next while, as I continued to call for my wayward child and stave off the usual parental panic.  I live in a safe neighborhood, and she has a history of blithely running off to play with friends at its edges, but I had told her not to go far, and I was annoyed at my gasifier not working, so I was on edge . . .

I brought in the food and then my daughter appeared, safe and sound, of course.  And I tasted the food and it was nothing fancy, but it was good.  I had cooked another meal over an efficient fire.  Despite the setbacks, I had achieved another feat of voluntary simplicity.  It didn’t feel simple at the time!  Juggling all of the components while sitting on a driveway, rather than in a furnished modern kitchen.  But I did it.  And having read and thought and reached conclusions about voluntary simplicity, I stuck with a frustrating and difficult experience in putting them into practice.

That is always the key to making real changes: staying with a course of action after the initial motivating emotion has evaporated.

Temporary setbacks

I know that Labor Day weekend has come and gone. I meant to do some outdoor cooking over the weekend: specifically I wanted to learn to fry onions over my woodgas stoves.

I did some very good burn tests of two of my stoves on Saturday and Sunday. I mentioned the difficulty I had had with fuel pellets. I tried pouring a bit of Heet over the top of the load before lighting, and it worked. Both stoves were a slow start. The small one (1 quart paint can outer, Progresso soup can inner) took about half an hour to really get going, but then it gave me a good solid 40 minutes. The larger one (#10 outer, large chili inner) took maybe 15 to really get going, and then burned for a solid hour.

I was quite pleased. Here are some pictures.

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The small stove, with nice bright flames at dusk.
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The large stove, with not-so visible, but still good flames at midday.

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I should have cooked on them during the test burns, but I confess: I was catching up with relatives I haven’t seen in awhile. Besides, I thought: now that I know these work, I’ll cook on them on Monday!

On Monday I decided I’d make the fire catch on and start pyrolisis faster by soaking some of the pellets in the Heet for a while before putting them on top. Unfortunately, I did two things wrong:

I soaked them too long, and found out that pellets turn to mush in alcohol like they do in water.

I overloaded the stove, obstructing the holes. I tried to clear spaces for the jets, but it wasn’t good enough.

I spent too much time trying to get it to work, and then I gave up and fried my onions inside. The afternoon was wearing on and we had to get ready for a long drive home (through beautiful mountain scenery: every time I drive along I-15 between Ogden, Utah and McCammon, Idaho I want to just park the dang car and go exploring for a few days).

So that is why I don’t have a blog post about frying onions today.

Cooking with (wood) gas: porridge

I’ve been trying to make my homemade woodgas stoves work with pellets.  I’m still figuring it out.  People like this guy are able to produce flames of 1500 degrees F with pellets in small can-built stoves.  My stoves haven’t been so carefully made, but they’ve performed well enough with sticks and chips and chunks.  Pellets, though: I keep having them go out less than halfway through.

This morning, since I don’t have to be at work until noon, I decided to try my little stove with another load of pellets to cook porridge, a favorite of mine for breakfast.

First, something about this porridge: I ate conventional oatmeal made from rolled oats when I was younger, but I never was fully converted to the texture, and after a while I decided I didn’t like it much.  Then I tried Scottish oats, and I fell in love with them.  I’ve had steel-cut too, which are nice, but I most definitely favor the texture of the coarse-ground groats when they’re cooked thoroughly.  I like to buy the groats whole and then run them through a hand-cranked auger grinder at a loose setting.

There’s something else I do: I add plenty of salt to them near the end of cooking, and I season them with herbs.  My standard recipe is a bit of ground rosemary and sage, and then maybe some pepper and butter in the bowl when I eat them.  Sometimes I’ll add nutmeg too, though I find I like that best with thyme.

Well, after getting the pellets started, I put the water on, in one of my outside pots.  It’s shallower than I like to use for porridge: I stir with a spurtle and I like to get it poked way down in.  But this was what I had.

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The gas jets flickered faintly and fitfully: it was hard to get a picture of them.  Their insubstantial blue color seemed like a good sign, but they were destined to disappoint today.

In went the oats, and they simmered away happily for a while.

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By the way, this was about three parts water to one part oatmeal: in this case 2 1/4 cups to 3/4.  While this was cooking I prepared the seasoning: a few rosemary leaves,

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ground up with some salt

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and a couple of sage leaves.

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I took that out to where I thought my porridge was simmering, to find that the dang stove had gone out.  This has not happened when I’ve used other fuel, so I’m not sure what I should be doing different with the pellets.  I like the idea of using pellets.  I like being able to burn scavenged and salvaged chunks and sticks too, but pellets are so convenient and compact.  I like their smell, I like paying five dollars for a forty pound bag.  I wonder if I need more or bigger intake holes.

Somehow, Lucia stoves manage to burn for up to 6 hours on a load of pellets.  So it can’t be only a matter of the fuel being packed too tightly: those stoves are much larger than mine.

I’ll keep posting about my experiments with them.  Meanwhile, here’s what I did with my porridge.  I stirred in my seasoning

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(My spurtle is a wizard wand I bought from local artisans at a festival, so I can conjure a patronus with it if I need to.)

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and then I ate it.

People are often surprised when I tell them how I season my porridge: Americans aren’t used to having savory oatmeal.  I’ve been eating it this way for years and I won’t go back.  Try sage and rosemary in yours, it’s delicious.

As Long As Their Soda Cans Are Red, White and Blue Ones

Sterno fuel, which I wrote last time about being so fond of, is a gel made from denatured alcohol. That is to say, ethanol that has methanol added to keep you from ingesting it in order to get drunk. In the old days that deterrent didn’t always work, and Sterno fuel was sometimes abused as a handy substitute for liquor (as made famous in the Tommy Johnson song “Canned Heat Blues”), by straining out the alcohol from the gel.

My grandfather used to tell stories of men in southern Utah drinking vanilla extract as booze – the only alcohol they could get in the old days, when the Mormon pioneer teetotaler ethic still reigned supreme (before all the Gentile tourists discovered southern Utah and inundated it with their worldly ways).

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather Continue reading As Long As Their Soda Cans Are Red, White and Blue Ones

It Started with a Sterno

I was at an outdoor store, looking at all the camping gear and dreaming of the overnight hikes I might do. Specifically, I was thinking about what I might eat and how I would cook. I like to hike, I like to camp, but I especially like to eat. I like to eat so much that I ought to hike more.

It had been years since I had been on a backpacking trip. I had used a buddy’s stove to boil water for my mashed potatoes, lentil soup, refried beans and suchlike. I was grateful for his generosity but wanted a stove of my own some day.

A cheap one. I’ve seen some of those backpacking stoves Continue reading It Started with a Sterno