Well contrary to popular belief, apparently I was very good this past year! I have been itching to share my excitement over the lovely things Santa brought me this year and have finally found a quiet moment to do so, so sit back & relax as this is sooooo cool!
From left to right let me introduce you to the super exciting Wonderbag, a new 9 cup (Stovetop) Espresso Maker, and my 5 Level Food Dehydrator with adjustable temperature controls. Can you tell I might have made my Christmas list during Hurricane Sandy when many of my nearest and dearest were without power for up to 10 days? For the sake of brevity (my signature strength) I am only going to focus on The Wonderbag in this post, but fret not as subsequent adventures of espresso on the BBQ and home-made jerky will follow soon.
Now, onto the Wonderbag.
I first heard about this marvel just about a year ago when my husband brought this article home from his commute (he’s good like that). This write up told the story of very enterprising woman based in South Africa named Sarah Collins, who after experiencing a frustrating round of power cuts and subsequent half-cooked meals in 2007 remembered her grandmother packing cushions around her pots to keep them hot. She tried it, it worked and once she partnered up with friend and poverty activist Moshy Mathe in 2008, *SHAZAM* the Wonderbag was born. At the time of my reading the article these were not yet available in the UK (as it is now) but my interest had been piqued.
The Wonderbag itself is basically a super-insulated bean bag that acts as a slow cooker. You cook your stew, curry, casserole, chowder or pasta bake up to a boiling temperature for anywhere between 5 to 15 minutes depending on the dish, you remove it from the heat, cover securely and place it in the bag with its hat and pull the drawstring tight. The food will continue its cooking and stay hot for up to 12 hours without any additional energy, allowing you to create deeply flavoured, healthy meals that are flat-out impossible to burn!
Not only is this just great kit but depending where you are in the world (such as Africa), it can help reduce the average family’s fuel consumption by up to 30%, which is not nothing when you consider many families need to spend up to a third of their income on fuel. Worst still the fuel available to those same families is often in the form of paraffin or dung which may require huge amounts of time to gather and often forces them into places that are not so safe. When burned these fuel sources can produce nasty toxins in the home for all to breathe. The Wonderbag actually works on the same principle as burying a pot in the ground as humans have done for thousands of years (think cowboy baked beans & New England clambakes but with portability) and in more modern usage in the ‘hay boxes’ in Britain during WWII.
According to Oliver Thring writing in the Guardian newspaper, “Collins calculates that a family of four using the Wonderbag two or three times a week will save $80 a year on fuel. (Zimbabwe, for example, has a GDP per capita of $471.)”. For every Wonderbag purchased in the UK, another is donated to a family in Africa, so the £30 price tag doesn’t sting so much. They retail for about £14 or $22 in South Africa or at a reduced price (or even free) for those in need.
The company founded by Collins is called Natural Balance and in 2011 it presented the Wonderbag to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa. After impressing the likes of Ban Ki-Moon and Microsoft, the product was picked up by global distributor Unilever. The Wonderbag is now in over 150,000 homes in South Africa, has created over 8,000 jobs and Unilever has placed an order for over 5 million more bags to begin world-wide distribution. Not too shabby, eh?
I have left a few messages and emails as to when this will be available in the States & Canada and will post the information accordingly. The Wonderbag website is here http://nb-wonderbag.com/ if you want to check it out.
Right then, that is the Eco bit – let’s get down to how super cool this can be for absolutely everybody, not just those experiencing fuel poverty. Now, I have been loving my slow cooker for the past several years, but it does indeed have a few drawbacks. Firstly, I am not entirely keen on leaving it plugged in overnight or when I am not at home for great lengths of time (I am a Nervous Nelly I can’t help it). Also, I do not have a massively spacious kitchen where power outlets and counter space can accommodate 6 litres of simmering hot stuff for extended periods, and finally I have had some experiences with larger stews that can burn on the bottom imparting a bitter taste if it gets mixed into the dish. I have also found that conventional slow cookers are not terribly flexible as to the amount of food you would like to cook, so you are kind of stuck with very large or very small amounts depending on your unit.
The Wonderbag solves all these issues in a one go as demonstrated by my Cuban Black Bean Chili. (It is really Black Bean Soup but I renamed it for my British friends for whom it makes more sense to call it “Chili”.) On Christmas Night I put a 500 g (1 pound) packet of dried black beans in a pot with a few bay leaves tucked in, covered with water and brought it to a boil for about 5 minutes and reduced to a simmer for 5 minutes more. I removed it from the stovetop and packed it into its bag. Now, here it where it gets good…
I could stick it in an entirely different room, away from harm’s (and turkey sandwiches’) way and leave it fire-hazard-free all night! And it did just what it said it would, 12 hours later it was still hot and the beans had soaked up to perfection. I removed the pot from the bag, sautéed up some veggies, spices and a garlic sausage that I dumped into the pot – brought it all back up to the boil for 5 minutes and simmer for 15 – back in the Wonderbag until we felt like eating our a wonderful post-Christmas lunch! I have included the recipe below which can be made with canned/tinned beans but there is a difference in the overall flavour when they are soaked warm overnight. Apologies for the over exposure of this image, but it is hard to make black bean look yummy at the best of times – but trust me it tastes divine.
This is the obvious way to use this bag, but think of heading out for a long car ride to a holiday or ski home. After several hours you reach your destination in the dark, cold & tired – but clever you stuck a big pot of Beef Stew, Veggie Chili or even Mac & Cheese into your Wonderbag before heading out and now have a hot home cooked meal upon arrival instead of a rubbish takeout! What about hot pulled pork sandwiches at the soccer game or ice rink and just think about what you could do at a tailgate! It is also great for camping or fishing trips and since it can keep food cold as well as hot it would be fabulous for big summer salads for picnics, reunions or a trip to the beach (without getting waterlogged in a regular cooler and/or squashed by your drinks).
My next trial is to pour some hot milk over oatmeal with maybe some cinnamon & raisins as I hear you can wake up to perfect oatmeal every time even on a school day – will let you know.
The Wonderbag comes with a handy little cookbook to get you started which included roasted meats (once seared) and even some sweet dessert recipes. However, when I was first getting started in slow cooking I had great luck with this next baby. The reason being I wanted to be THOROUGHLY convinced of the science and safety of slow cooking and also of how to adapt many of my favourite recipes to the slow cooking process. This book provided all and has become a fast favourite.
The one single negative I have come across about the Wonderbag is that some reviewers are quite sniffy that it currently uses recycled, but non-biodegradable polystyrene (Styrofoam) beans as the insulator, even though they are working to develop a biodegradable polyurethane. My thoughts are, “Hey, we just had Christmas and if any of that polystyrene that is still heavily employed in packing can stay out of the ground as landfill and be put to work as an Eco Cooker and reduced carbon emission - rock on babe”.
And finally, I wish you could all have seen the look on my Scottish Mother-in-Law’s face when I unveiled each of these Santa treats, but then again she did give me a live plum tree for my Christmas and even snuck into my yard with her gardener to plant it, so maybe she’s getting a kick out of all this as well.
Wishing Everybody a Happy & Healthy ( & Reduced Emissions) New Year!
- 500 g dried black beans soaked overnight OR 3 cans/tins ready made black beans with liquid.
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 large mild pepper, red or green is fine
- 2 stalks celery,
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- salt & pepper
- 1 can/tin of chopped tomatos
- 2 cubes of beef boullion dissolved in 1/4 cup water or Brewers Yeast if veggie
- 1/3 cup (or one big glug) red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1/4 cup or 50 mls of jarred/tinned jalapeño peppers with some liquid, chopped
- 250 - 300 grams or half a pound of cooked smoked ham, or smoked pork sausage, diced.
- - If soaking the beans from dry, put them in a large lidded pot with a few bay leaves tucked in the beans. Cover with water and bring to a boil for 5 minutes and simmer for 5 more minutes. Cover and turn off heat for 2 - 10 hours OR if using the Wonderbag, cover, remove from heat and place in bag for 4+ hours but 10 hours or overnight is best. (If using an electric slow cooker please follow instructions for your appliance.)
- - In another pan sauté/ fry diced vegetables (not including beans) in a bit of oil for 3-5 minutes.
- - Once softened, add vegetables to the large pot with the beans.
- - Add remaining ingredients to the large pot, stir to combine and bring back up to the boil.
- - Reduce to simmer until ready to eat or place in a Wonderbag for 1- 4 hours or longer until you are ready to eat.
- - Garnish with grated cheese and spring onions/scallions.
- - Serve with rice, cornbread or simply a butter roll - Super Yum!