Wonderbag: Potato Cheddar Soup

On Christmas morning as Navah and I tore wrapping paper off a big box, my sister rushed to tell us that we weren't going to understand what she had gotten us but that she'd explain it. When we got enough paper off that we could see what was in the box, Navah and I both burst out laughing. My sister looked confused until we explained that we absolutely knew what was in the box because we had come *this close* to getting it for her.

It was The Wonderbag.

Even though my sister and I obviously operate on similar wavelengths, I'm guessing you may not know what the Wonderbag is.

It's this fabulous combination of amazing and the simplest thing ever. It is a non-electric portable slow cooker. Once food has been brought up to a boil on the stove, the Wonderbag continues to cook the food without the use of electricity or fuel for up to 8 hours. It does this by insulating the food inside its pot with a specially-designed, foam-filled, fabric "bag."

The Wonderbag was created in South Africa in 2008 by a woman doing humanitarian aid work and trying to come up with a way to help families during long, repeated electricity outages. The Wonderbag was a perfect solution for reducing the effects of indoor pollution from wood fires and allowing women and children to spend less time collecting firewood and more time outside the home doing things like going to school. 

Okay, but why do I have a Wonderbag? I'm not dealing with numerous electricity outages or with indoor wood fires. I even have an electric slow cooker at home that I use quite frequently. 

Well, aside from the fact that I received my Wonderbag as a gift, here are three reasons that I'm really glad I have it: 

1. The Wonderbag is completely portable. Once I get my pot of food into the bag, I can take it anywhere. That means if I have a potluck after work, I can prep everything in the morning, put the food (inside the Wonderbag) in my car, and then it can cook during the day without my having to go home again to get my cooked dish. Or I can run errands while it cooks it the backseat. The portability provides me more flexibility.

2. The Wonderbag doesn't use electricity. It's a small thing, but as we work on reducing our energy usage and take all those little steps like turning off lights, the Wonderbag is a super sustainable way to make a big pot of something delicious for dinner. Also, while I've never been one to worry about leaving my crock pot on during the day while I'm away from home, I know a lot of other people who won't do it. And to be honest, their worrying kind of makes me worry. Not a problem with the Wonderbag.

3. Someone else got a Wonderbag too. For every Wonderbag purchased, the company donates one to a family in Africa. From Wonderbag's website: "Their lives were completely changed. Within three months, the children only needed to gather firewood once a week, and they were all in school. They had money for shoes. It was a catalyst out of poverty for them." (Sarah Collins, Founder) I get something awesome, and so does someone else? Sign me up.

So, what do I make in the Wonderbag? I can make tons of things, including most anything that I'd make in a traditional slow cooker (and benefit from the same lack of evaporation that I get with a crock pot as opposed to cooking on the stove). I simply have to change my method a little bit to incorporate bringing the food to a boil on the stove and letting it cook for 5-10 minutes before I put it into the Wonderbag. It's not quite as easy as throwing a bunch of stuff into the crock pot and walking away, but it's pretty close.

And just to put this out there: There is something about the Wonderbag that feels like a party trick. It's just straight up fun to loosen the drawstring 4 hours after you put a pot of boiling vegetables in there and remove the lid to find a piping hot soup. It feels like magic.

Potato Cheddar Soup in the Wonderbag
Adapted from All Recipes

1/4 cup butter or non-dairy butter substitute (I used earth balance)
1 onion, chopped (whatever kind you have)
1/4 cup flour (I used whole wheat)
2 cups vegetable broth
2 large carrots, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
about 4 pounds of potatoes, diced (I used a mix of red and purple potatoes)
1 cup milk or on-dairy milk substitute (I used unsweetened plain almond milk)
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Chop up the onion and cook in the butter or earth balance on medium-low heat until translucent in a pot that will fit in your Wonderbag. (Tip: Food cooks better in the Wonderbag if there is less headspace in the pot. Try to use a pot that is not too big for the amount of food you're making. I used a 5 quart pot for this.)
2. While the onions are cooking, chop up the rest of the vegetables. (Tip: Huge chunks cook more slowly. Cut the vegetables up a bit smaller than you would if you were cooking the soup on the stove.)
3. Once the onions are translucent, stir in the flour until it's completely incorporated into the onions and then add the vegetable broth, milk, bay leaf, garlic, salt and pepper, and vegetables. Turn the heat up to high and let the mixture come to a boil, stirring occasionally.
4. After the soup has boiled for 5-10 minutes, remove the pot from the stove and place it into the open Wonderbag. Cinch up the drawstring tightly and leave the pot for about 4 hours.
5. When you return, remove the bay leaves and stir in the shredded cheese.
6. Using an immersion blender, blend about half of the soup so that the soup is creamy but also has chunks of vegetables. If you don't have an immersion blender, transfer about half of the soup to blender in batches and then return to the pot.
7. Garnish with a little cheese and some herbs and enjoy!

p.s. I fell in love with Rwanda a few years ago and marveled then at how much work goes into getting basic necessities

I did not receive any compensation from Wonderbag for this post. I just love it!