Smile Politely

Solar powered meals

In the event you missed it last week, the University of Illinois took second place in the biennial Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. U of I beat all of its U.S. competition, but trailed team Germany by a mere 11 points.

The team’s houses couldn’t have been more different: The well-funded Germans opted for a sun of Bauhaus / Borg black cube completely clad with energy conducting glass. The U of I house, which cost a fraction of the German’s, was clad in white reclaimed barn board and featured a student-designed heating and cooling system. The efficiency of this system allowed the students to use a traditional gabled roof with solar panels only on one side. This makes the house a much better fit with the existing architecture of most U.S. neighborhoods, especially in the Midwest.

However, performance is what truly counts in the Solar Decathlon. The U of I house operated so well that despite the hordes of visitors entering and exiting, as well as everyday tasks like cooking, the students were able to maintain near constant humidity and temperature levels. Yes, cooking. As part of the competition, team Illinois had to serve dinner in the home entertainment portion of the decathlon.

Despite competition from areas known for fine food and hospitality like Spain, Louisiana, New York, and California, the University of Illinois students proved they were the hosts with the most.

Architecture graduate student Katherine Bayer headed up this event for team Illinois. “We had to host two dinner parties with two people from each house on our block, which meant Minnesota, California, and Puerto Rico for us,” she says.

Bayer began prepping for the competition early in the semester, practicing on and off, and getting menu and preparation advice from Ben Lubchansky of the Food Nanny, a “community supported kitchen” that delivers prepared meals to its member clients in Champaign-Urbana.

The U of I team wanted a menu that matched the rural themed house and used organically grown local ingredients. According to Bayer, this was her first experience with cooking a “nicer meal.”

“I like to entertain for my friends, but I do things like roasted vegetables. I keep it simple,” she says.

However, what Bayer did for the competition was anything but simple-six courses featuring some of the best produce, poultry, flours, and cheeses East Central Illinois has to offer.

Bayer had to learn to make sushi, pie crust, polenta, and confit. “Ben taught me how to make sushi and he gave me an excellent tip about freezing the fat and grating it into the flour for the crusts,” she says.

Her first major trial was the team’s open house on September 10 on the U of I campus, where she served beet and goat cheese crostini, soy succotash in a blanched swiss chard leaf, vegetarian sushi, and squash soup shooters.

Despite the trial run and the fact that she had prepared the confit and soup in advance, Bayer says she was still anxious about the competition. However, all of the teams were very gracious and kind. “It was actually fine,” she says, adding, “I’m really glad I got to be a part of it.”

If you are looking to recreate the winning menu for your own fall dinner, here it is:

Vegetarian sushi with Tiny Greens China rose radish and sprouted sunflower sprouts served with pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce

  • Fritter of Moore Family Farm polenta with ricotta and sour cherry compote drizzled with honey
  • Fall soup of Moore Family Farm squash and root vegetables, celery, and Guanciale lardon courtesy the Food Nanny
  • Entrée of root vegetable pot pie with turnips, rutabaga, potato, parsnip, and sweet potato in whole wheat flour crust OR chicken confit with Moore family farm pastured chicken, served with roasted beets, braised collard greens, and soy succotash
  • Arugula salad with sliced daikon, apple Prairie Fruits Chevre, thyme vinaigrette, and honey
  • Rustic pear and cheese tart featuring a whole wheat and cream cheese crust with thinly sliced pears, cinnamon, and sugar, served with a drizzle of honey, walnuts, and Prairie Fruits Krotovina cheese

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