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.

DSCN5233 DSCN5249

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.

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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.

woodgas stove 2015-08-26 porridge 1

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.

woodgas stove 2015-08-26 porridge 2

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,

woodgas stove 2015-08-26 porridge 3 mortar

ground up with some salt

woodgas stove 2015-08-26 porridge 4 mortar

and a couple of sage leaves.

woodgas stove 2015-08-26 porridge 5 mortar

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

woodgas stove 2015-08-26 porridge 6 stir
(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.)

woodgas stove 2015-08-26 porridge 7 stir

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.

Cooking with (wood) gas: rice pilaf

I’ve built three wood gas stoves so far, and this evening I cooked on one of them.  Having cooked rice on my rocket stove before, I decided that a simple rice pilaf should work for testing out this new gasifier.

In a later post I’ll write more about wood gas stoves and my experiments with building them.  Suffice to say for now that the stove I used this evening I made from a #10 can and another large can whose exact volume I forget – it was a family size chili can, almost as tall as the #10 and quite noticeably narrower.  I wasn’t sure how well it would work to have so much space between the two, but today at least it put out a very impressive flame, for long enough not only to cook my rice but . . . we’ll get to that.

This is the recipe that I improvised:

  • 3 cups jasmine rice
  • 4 cups water
  • butter (maybe 3 Tb?)
  • 1 cube vegetable buillion
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • dash of cinnamon
  • a bit of salt – not quite enough
  • some leftover fried red onions

I put everything together except for the onions in my wide shallow pot and let it soak while I fired up the stove.  I loaded the stove with fruit wood chunks – plum and apple, I think (salvaged from a neighbor’s pruning).  I brought the pot to a boil and stirred in the onions.

Woodgas stove 2015-08-23 02 flames

Woodgas stove 2015-08-23 01 pilaf uncovered

Then I put on the lid.

Woodgas stove 2015-08-23 03 pilaf covered

I was afraid that it might boil over, but it didn’t.  I did wish I had made a taller pot stand, because the flames often licked around the sides and up to the lid.  Fruit tree prunings are good fuel!  I cook pilafs on low heat on a conventional stove, so I was a bit nervous as to how this would turn out.  But I kept it on the flame until the pyrolisis phase stopped, and then, when the only flames were those nearly invisible ones coming up from the coals, I took out the pot stand (had to use two layers of leather gloves) and sat the pot right on the stove opening – partly to help smother the char, partly to make the best use of the heat from the coals.

I think that was my mistake: upon serving out the pilaf (after letting it sit for about 20 minutes), I found a burnt spot on the bottom, about the diameter of the stove opening.

Woodgas stove 2015-08-23 04 pilaf served

Despite that, the rest of the pilaf turned out wonderfully.  The rice grains were cooked through, separate, and had that certain chewiness that I personally prefer.  So I call this a success.  The family thought so too.  It went wonderfully well with pan-fried chicken and a yogurt-cucumber sauce.

Things to do next time:

  • Time the cooking!  I was too lazy to go and get my phone to keep my eye on the clock today: I set up the stove at the back of the back yard.
  • Take the rice off the stove when the gas jets stop, or after 15 minutes of cooking time if that comes first.
  • Maybe try making that taller pot stand.

My confidence in cooking with my stoves has grown another step with tonight’s success.  I noted that although the pot was coated with soot, it’s the shiny, enamel-like soot, of which very little rubs off.  After washing, the pot is still black, but I can touch it without getting my fingers blackened.  It’s different from the matte black soot from the rocket stove (which I think would make a good ink base).  I personally don’t mind having a separate set of cookware with a permanent black sheen; I think it looks rather spiffy.