Crockpots and Slow Cookers: What Is a Good Slow Cooker Recipe?

In case you haven’t noticed, slow cooker recipes are the latest trend in the cookbook trade.So there’s no problem finding recipes.The problem lies in choosing a couple to actually make.While a lot of that choosing is a matter of personal taste, here’s one thing I’ve learned specific to slow cooker recipes:

Look for recipes that take advantage of a slow cooker’s advantages.

Obviously, if you wanted to make chicken stew, you wouldn’t turn to your countertop grill.Similarly, you wouldn’t turn to your slow cooker for crispy grilled chicken.That’s because specialized kitchen appliances all have their tradeoffs.In other words, being really good at one thing makes it not so good for other things.

Slow cookers, for instance, are really good for:

  1. Cooking the heck out of tough characters like stew meat and dried beans, transforming them into melt-in-your mouth goodness.
  2. Hands-off cooking, i.e., being able to throw everything in a pot in the morning and forget about it until dinnertime.It’s probably no coincidence that slow cookers became popular when women started working outside the home all day.

The downside of a slow cooker, of course, is that dishes can come out pretty mushy, especially if they include delicate things like sweet peppers, zucchini, asparagus and chicken breasts.

So when you’re looking for slow cooker recipes, don’t fight the machine.Look for recipes with ingredients that require long cooking times, that can be thrown together and left alone, and where a certain amount of “mushing” is not a huge issue.Think classics like pot roasts, stews, soups, chilis and other bean dishes.

This all sounds so self-evident.Why do I even write about it?Because it’s easy to get tripped up by what I call “gourmet slow cooker recipes.”Lately I’ve noticed that many of the newer slow cook recipes have become quite innovative:ethnic chicken dishes, risottos, Cornish game hens, poached salmon, banana cakes.I got all excited about them—until I saw the cooking times:2 hours on HIGH; 4-5 hours on LOW; or LOW 4 hours then HIGH for 30 minutes.

What happened to the “fix it and forget about it” principle?

Here’s my theory:Remember that slow cooker collections are the latest growth category in the cookbook trade?That means a lot of new recipes have to be developed .Necessarily, authors are getting creative, and the tradeoff for more flair is less “fix-it-and-forget-it.”

So as you scout for slow cooker recipes, be mindful of cooking times.If the slow cooker makes good meals feasible because you can turn it on in the morning and walk out the door, then watch out for dishes with odd cooking times.They are better for people who work out of the home or for weekends.

Even if you fall in these categories, it’s worth questioning whether slow cooking is the best option for certain foods like chicken breasts, fish and some of the more tender foods.They are so great cooked fast on the grill or stovetop, why bother using a very slow pot that you can’t control very well?What’s more, cooking them to be moist and succulent requires close watching over their cooking minutes.Achieving such delicious exactitude with a hard-to-control slow cooker would be tedious, if not impossible.

So in my search for slow cooker recipes, I am leery of ones that treat the slow cooker like a glorified stove top pot, since that leaves me suspended in a funny limbo, with a meal that can neither be left alone all day nor cooked in one fell swoop before dinner.

Does this mean those recipes are bad or that I won’t ever use them?Not at all.I’m sure the recipes are delightful, but I will only choose one for my slow cooker repertoire if it benefits my cooking schedule and makes a good meal easier to get on the table.In other words, I’m looking for recipes that take advantage of the slow cooker’s advantages!

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Crockpots and Slow Cookers—Invest and Reap the Benefits

If you’re a big time outdoor (or indoor) griller, making meals is pretty easy. You’ve got a few recipes you know by heart, you have the right kind of grill accessories, you automatically stock up on the spices, sauces and meats that are good on the grill, you know what sides to put with a grilled dish and you know what to get at the grocery store.

You can enjoy the same kind of ease with the slow cooker, by just setting yourself up:

  • Find a few recipes that work for you, your family, your budget and your health needs.
  • Then get the right ingredients at the store and stock the pantry for slow cooking with things like dried beans, broths, onions, potatoes and stew meats.
  • Finally, plan a specific night each week or two for experimenting with a slow cooker dish, bearing in mind that it may take a couple tries to adapt a recipe for your tastes. Be sure to note on the recipe any changes you did or would like to make.

No doubt about it: a specialized appliance can make cooking a lot easier, save a lot of time and produce really delicious meals—but only if you first invest a little time getting ready to use it.

Most of us buy an appliance, stick it in a cupboard and then wonder why it’s never seen again. So whether you just got a pressure cooker, panini press, rice cooker or vegetable steamer, here’s the secret to reaping its benefits: Take a few minutes to figure out how to use it, then make at least a semi-concerted effort to start using the darn thing on a somewhat regular basis. That’s how it becomes second nature, like the aforementioned grill.

Tomorrow’s post will talk about the most important investment of all: finding those few good recipes. . . .

Crockpots and Slow Cookers—Why Are They Sitting in the Back Bottom Cupboard?

The idea is perfect: throw a few ingredients into a stoneware crock, turn it on and voila! At the end of the day, you walk in the kitchen and there waits a richly aromatic meal, all cooked and ready to go.

For a lot of people, the great crockpot dream comes true all the time. But it seems that for an equally good number of us, it’s more dream than reality. Of course we all have crockpots, we clearly see their advantages, we want to use them, but we don’t. Hopefully, this blog series will be of some help.

Crockpot or slow cooker?

First off, let’s get the terminology right: “Crock-Pot” is actually the brand name for the slow cooker created by the Rival Company. “Slow cooker” is the correct generic term for these devices. It’s kind of like “Kleenex” and “facial tissues.” So in fairness to the Rival folks, we’ll use the correct generic name.

Isn’t the middle of summer the wrong time to talk about slow cookers?

Seems like it, but one of my clients alerted me otherwise. She loves her slow cooker in the summer because it doesn’t heat up the house. The fact is, even in summer we eat hot cooked meals, so what if they’ve been cooked in a slow cooker instead of a sauté pan?

Also, if you’re serious about taking advantage of your slow cooker, there’s some getting ready to be done. Start gravitating that way now and there’s a good chance you’ll be ready when the weather begins to cool. The next blog will talk about getting ready for slow cooking. . . .

Doubling Your Vegetable Dollars

There are a lot of stems, stalks and tops going down the garbage grinder that could actually be put to use. It’s called “doubling your vegetable dollars,” and it just takes looking at vegetables in new and creative ways. Remember the article on Radishal Solutions?  It talked about a new way to use those radishes that are almost always available and always cheap. I promised some suggestions on using the tops. Here’s one:

Asian Hamburger Skillet

  • 1 lb. lean hamburger
  • 1 med. red onion, sliced about ¼” thick, then cut into 2” lengths
  • 1 bunch radishes, cut in matchsticks (or halved and sliced about 1/8” thick)
  • 4 carrots, julienned or cut in ¼” slices
  • 1 bunch radish tops, cut roughly into 1” pieces
  • 1 ½ tsp. ginger paste
  • 2 Tbsp. fish sauce

In a large sauté pan, cook hamburger over medium high heat, until just beginning to brown, breaking into small bits with spatula. Stir in onion and radishes and cook another 2-3 minutes. Stir in carrots, radish tops, ginger paste and fish sauce and cook about 5-10 minutes, until onions are softened and hamburger is cooked through.

  • 1 lime (optional)
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Sprinkle with lime juice (if using) and pepper, to taste. Serve immediately.

Convenience Foods Are Costly, But Can You Make Dinner without Them?

My last grocery bill got me thinking. There was a $2.49 line item for a box of instant brown rice. (I always keep a box on hand in case I forget or am unable to make my weekly pot of rice.) Putting it away, it was such a lightweight, especially compared to the bulk bag of organic brown rice I had also gotten. I ran some numbers to see just how much I pay for the privilege of convenience:

$2.49 buys me

1 box of instant brown rice = 6 cups of cooked rice (enough for about 2 meals)

OR

2 1/2 lbs. of bulk brown rice = 20 cups of cooked rice (enough for 6+ meals)

That’s a pretty dramatic difference, and likely as not, the same ratio applies to most other packaged foods in the store. So why are convenience foods like instant rice flying off the shelves when we’re all being squeezed by high grocery prices? Simple: because they’re so darn convenient! Who’s got time to cook from scratch?

There’s the rub. It would be nice to save some money at the grocery store, and cutting back on convenience foods is an obvious target, but how can we possibly assemble decent dinners without a convenience crutch? Here are three strategies that work for me: Strategic Substitution, Stretching and Simplifying

Strategic Substitution

Strategic is the key here, i.e., where can significant price savings be had for little or no extra time? If you’re hankering for something like tamales or sushi or ravioli, making your own probably doesn’t make sense. But things like rice, beans, meatballs, fish sticks and chicken nuggets are all so easy, why should you pay someone else to make them?

Rice is perfect example. The preparation time is identical: Mix water, rice and salt in a pan and put it on the stove to cook. The only difference is the cooking time: You can’t wait until 10 minutes before dinner to cook regular brown rice. Instead, get in the habit of making a pot of at the beginning of each week. Then it’s just a microwave away from being ready. (In case you don’t use it up, just freeze it.)

How To But what if you don’t know how to cook rice except from a box? Or beans, fish sticks, chicken nuggets or meatballs? Jump to these links:

  • How to Cook Rice
  • How to Cook Dried Beans
  • How to Make Fish Sticks
  • How to Make Chicken Nuggets
  • How to Make Basic Meatballs

More Numbers Here are some more numbers to justify cooking outside of boxes:

  • Dried Beans: $1.00 of dried beans produces the same amount as $6.00 worth of canned beans. Think of the additional savings if those beans serve as a protein substitute for meat!
  • Breaded Fish Fillets: Gorton’s Crunchy Breaded Fish Sticks are $7.49. A 10-minute substitute, using the same kind of fish, costs $3.08, less than half.

More Good News

  • Healthier Cooking lower on the convenience chain not only saves money. It results in meals built from real, straight-from-the-earth foods, without gratuitous additions for fat, salt, sugar, colorings, preservatives and flavors.
  • Tastier Better yet, those real foods taste a whole lot better than cheap, mass-produced factory-made foods.
  • Kinder to the Planet And the icing on the cake: look at all the packaging that’s avoided, the dyes and inks that aren’t being used, and the energy that isn’t being devoted to shipping frozen foods around the country. Hooray!

Ready for more strategies? Read on. . .

Stretching

Sometimes our hand reaches for packaged foods at the store because we’re not too comfortable in the kitchen. The thought of making something completely from scratch sounds impossible. So buy a convenience “starter” but stretch it, and while you’re at it, use healthy “stretchers.”

Soups are a great example. Imagine Foods and Pacific Foods both make pureed soups in large, 1 quart sizes, which are just about half the per-ounce cost of smaller canned soups to begin with. With great flavor and a healthful vegetable base, they are a perfect backdrop for all sorts of easy and equally wholesome “stretchers.”

Remember the pot of brown rice I suggested cooking and keeping on hand? It makes an easy and inexpensive addition to any soup. Ditto the dried beans you’ll want to start cooking once a week to have on hand. Leftover chicken would also taste good in practically any soup.

Now bring in some vegetables. Chard is an easy to prepare, fast cooking and usually pretty cheap option, as are broccoli (be sure to use the stalks, too), spinach and zucchini. Red peppers and snowy white cauliflower are great for color. Frozen vegetables are especially good in winter or when you’re particularly short on time: chopped spinach, peas, corn and diced green beans.

Let color be your guide when deciding on combinations. Imagine golden butternut soup, for instance, with kale and white beans, or deep green broccoli soup with rice and cauliflower florets. You get the picture. . .

In the end, enjoy an easy meal had inexpensively and without sacrificing great flavor or health.

Simplify

No doubt time is a another big reason we keep gobbling up packaged foods despite their price tags. While picking out my box of instant rice, a hurried mom grabbed a box of scalloped potatoes off the shelf next to mine then darted off for the next aisle.

She was right in thinking there wasn’t time to make the traditional bubbly baked potato dish. But a box isn’t her only option. “Simplify” and more alternatives present themselves.

In the same amount of time that it takes to make a packaged potato mix, you could simply scrub and microwave potatoes and top them with grated cheese for a tastier and fresher alternative. For just 5 extra minutes–and half the cost–you could make another simpler option: the microwaved Cheesy Potato Casserole recipe below.

Betty Crocker’s Scalloped Potatoes (including added milk and butter) = $2.70

Homemade Cheesy Potato Casserole: = $1.39

Here’s the Recipe:

Cheesy Potato Casserole

  • 1 ½ lbs. potatoes (about 6 sm-med)

Scrub and puncture several times with a fork to prevent them from exploding. Microwave three minutes, turn each potato and microwave another 3 minutes. Repeat this process until potatoes are soft when squeezed.

While potatoes cook, combine sauce ingredients in a small, microwavable bowl or Pyrex measuring cup:

  • 2 oz. cheddar cheese, finely shredded (about 1 cup)
  • 2 Tbsp. low-fat sour cream
  • 1-2 tsp. stoneground mustard, more or less to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. milk

When potatoes are done, microwave sauce 20 seconds, then whisk to combine. Repeat this process 2-3 times, until sauce is smooth. Avoid overcooking or sauce will become stringy.

Assemble the casserole: Butter a 9” x 5” loaf pan. Slice potatoes about ¼” thick. Lay half of slices in the loaf pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with half of the cheese sauce. Repeat with remaining potatoes and sauce. Eat immediately or, to better meld flavors, microwave entire casserole 30 to 60 seconds.

______________________

We’d all like to think of ourselves as highly intelligent beings, but we’ve been hoodwinked by food marketers. We’ve been hoodwinked into believing we’re too busy or stupid to make anything on our own. Of course marketers want us to believe that. It’s the only way we’ll buy inferior-tasting convenient foods.

So stop believing the marketers. With just a bit of courage and willingness to try, we can do this food thing on our own. Not only will we save money and end up with better–tasting and more wholesome food, it’s very likely we’ll find that being self-reliant is pretty rewarding.

How to Cook Dried Beans–Stovetop, Slow Cooker, Pressure Cooker

There are several ways to cook dried beans:

Stovetop

Surprisingly, small pebbles can sometimes be found in dried beans, so start by spreading them on a plate and check for intruders, as well as any shriveled or darkened beans.

Place 1 cup sorted beans in a saucepan and fill with enough water to cover beans by about 2″. Soak the beans overnight (or at least 4 hours) for a better textured bean and to improve digestibility.

Pour beans into a colander to drain off soaking water. Return to pot and add 4 cups water.

Bring the water to a boil for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are tender and the water is absorbed-which can take as a long as three hours. Beans are done when they can be mashed with a fork. If necessary, add more water if the initial amount of water is absorbed before the beans are fully cooked.
Note:  Unlike rice and pasta, SALT SHOULD NOT BE ADDED to beans before they are cooked. Salt and acidic ingredients (like tomatoes) toughen beans and greatly increase the cooking time. So salt to taste only after the beans are cooked.

Slow Cooker

Follow the same procedures for cooking on the stovetop, but soak and cook the beans in slow cooker.  Cook on high about 6-8 hours on the “high” setting for a soft, easy to mash bean. Note that slow cookers vary in their heat output, so some experimentation may be necessary to find the cooking time that suits your cooker and tastes. Refer to your cooker’s instruction manual for more guidance.

Pressure Cooker

For a fast-cooking option, invest in a pressure cooker, which can cook beans in as little as five to ten minutes. Because the water amounts and cooking times vary widely depending on the type of bean, however, reference your cooker’s instruction manual or Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna Sass, for the exact information on each bean type (as well as great recipes.) As with the previous methods, the beans should be pre-soaked. Also, adding a tablespoon of oil to the cooking water helps reduce foam.

More TipsRead more about successful bean cooking.

How to Cook Brown Rice

A pretty pedestrian topic, I know, but I’ve run into a lot of people who are intimidated by rice cooking. Too bad, since cooking rice from the bulk bin is a lot tastier, healthier and cheaper than instant and packaged rices. (To see the dollars you stand to save, see “Convenience Foods Cost, but How Do You Make Dinner without Them?” ) So here’s a primer on rice cooking. In terms of ingredients, there aren’t many:

  • 2 cups brown rice
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt

Cooking it is pretty simple, too. Combine everything in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, put on a tight-fitting lid and bring it to a boil. Immediately turn the heat down to the lowest setting so the rice just simmers. Cook until all the water is evaporated and rice is tender. Makes about 7 cups rice.

Here’s the only hard part: Getting in the habit of cooking a pot of brown rice every few days or once a week. You can’t wait until 5:30 p.m. and then decide to have brown rice for dinner. Of course you could cook it while making dinner the previous night. But we usually don’t think ahead like that. Over the years, I’ve gotten in the habit of just cooking a pot about every week. then there’s always some rice at the ready for a quick stir-fry, to throw on a salad or soup, or to make a casserole. It lasts at least 4-5 days, but if you can’t use it up that quickly, just freeze whatever’s left.

Troubleshooting: So why do people feel uneasy making it without the help of a box? Likely as not, some rice disaster is lurking in their past, very often associated with the directions in italics. Most are easy to avoid/fix:

Simmer? A liquid is simmering when just the tiniest of bubbles are breaking the surface. Be sure your rice pot is covered and the heat is on the lowest setting to get the kind of simmer that’s just right for tenderizing rice.

Chewy Rice? Don’t forget to turn down the heat right after the water begins to boil. Otherwise, too much water will boil away before the rice has time to soften. If you get busy and forget, just add back a little more water, maybe 2-4 Tbsp. If the rice still isn’t tender when the water is evaporated, add a little more.

Gas Stove? Unless your gas stove has a very low setting, a gentle simmer can be hard to achieve. If your rice is drying out before it’s done, try getting a diffuser, a thick, cast iron disk that goes between pan and burner. It helps moderate the heat.

Tight-Fitting Lids This is not a place to use the “almost-fits” thrift store lid you picked up to replace the one you lost for your good saucepan. If it doesn’t fit well, once again, too much water will boil away before the rice has time to soften. Try adding water as in the previous hint, but for a more long-term solution find a better lid or a buy a new saucepan.

Heavy-Bottomed Saucepan? Speaking of saucepans, if your rice burned prematurely, make sure your pan is a heavy-bottomed one, with layers of metal, not just a single sheet between food and heat source. If you need help knowing how to buy a good pan, talk to me.

How can you tell if the rice is done? Take a fork and dig down into the rice, all the way to the bottom of the pan. You shouldn’t see any water, just nice fluffy rice. Also, taste a cross section. If all the rice is tender, you’re good to go. If not, add maybe 1/4 cup more water and simmer, with the lid on, a little longer.

No Stirring, No Peeking Once you put the rice on to cook, don’t stir it. That will turn it into mush. Also, don’t keep lifting the lid to gauge it. Wait until it’s almost done by the clock to begin checking.

Timing? Speaking of clocks, how long does it take to cook rice? It varies by rice type and altitude. Generally, it takes a full hour here in the mile-high Denver area. But when we visit relatives in Portland, the rice cooks a lot faster, maybe 35-40 minutes. The aromatic rices like basmati and Texmati seem to cook more quickly, too.

Rice Types That brings up the subject of rices. There are many different kinds and they are all wonderful. Use any of the whole grain (not white) rices, but don’t get stuck on just one kind. Bring in a red, wild or jasmine here and there, and try long, short and medium. Note some can be a little pricey, so they might be treats more than standbys.

Get the White Out! Warning, I’m going to be a food snob here. White rice is bland and void of nutritional value. You don’t want to waste your money or calories or time on non-foods like this.

Soaking, Kombu, Rice Cookers, Getting Creative. . . more on those later

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