Crock Pot, Co-op Style
by Kathy Humiston, Newsletter Writer
January opens with a flourish for many of us as we celebrate the New Year. Then the days pass...we drag our holiday greenery to the curb or compost heap and settle in for winter’s passing. Many of us leave home in the grey, morning dawn and return after sunset, dreading the chore of making dinner for waiting family or friends. Imagine turning the key in your door at 5pm and being greeted with the warm, welcoming aroma of dinner ready for the table. A hot, wholesome dinner can be easy if you utilize a slow cooker, or Crock Pot.
Crock Pots first hit the small appliance scene back in 1970 when Rival acquired another small company and one of their products, The Beanery. This was a very basic unit with a ceramic interior for slow-cooking beans. It was soon renamed The Crock Pot, a name that has become synonymous with that style of appliance. It didn’t take long for folks to discover that lots of other foods could be slow-cooked, often to their advantage. The crock is famous for slowly tenderizing cheap, tougher cuts of meat, for example. You may share my memories of mom or grandma tossing in an assortment of mystery meat, pasta or rice, some canned veggies and then crowning the whole mess with a can of condensed soup or barbecue sauce and letting it cook all day. Often the results were a relatively unappetizing mishmash called goulash! No wonder I never understood the appeal—or potential—of this little gadget.
Today, busy people everywhere are rediscovering Crock Pots. It is estimated that 80% of American households possess a slow cooker, many of them collecting dust on a pantry shelf. Crock Pots can easily be purchased at neighborhood hardware stores, discount and department stores. Often you can get a deal on someone’s discard at a yard sale or thrift shop. The unit consists of three parts: the outer housing that encompasses the heating element, the inner, usually removable, ceramic crock and a lid. Lids can be made of metal, plastic or glass, with glass being preferable—you can see through it, glass is easy to clean and will not impart chemicals, flavors or odors to your food. A true Crock Pot-style of cooker offers two temperatures: Low or 200ºF and High or 300ºF. Some units have a “Keep Warm” setting that operates on a timer. Crock Pots now come in sizes ranging from one to seven quarts, and round or oval shapes. Most recipes are designed for a 3-1/2 to 4 quart pot. Cooker prices start at around $15 new, with most in the $20-30 range. When shopping, you may find something labeled as an intermittent slow cooker. These have a temperature control adjustable by degrees and normally have the heating element in the bottom, rather than around the sides of the unit. This carries a risk of food sticking and requires you to stir occasionally; otherwise these machines are much the same as Crock Pots. For simplicity, I will use the terms interchangeably.
The idea of your next meal simmering away for six to ten hours may seem kind of strange, but consider some of the advantages: An eight- to ten-hour Crock Pot recipe uses less than 25 cents worth of electricity; you could wake to a warm, creamy pot of cereal tomorrow morning; the kitchen stays cool in summer; your stove or oven has more space available for big holiday or party meals; crocks are great for keeping food warm at potlucks or on buffets; and, maybe most importantly, there is only one pot to clean after dinner!
There are a few general safety measures to keep in mind when using a slow cooker:
There are a plethora of slow cooker cookbooks on the market and several websites devoted to them as well. In general, though, it is easy to adapt your favorite recipes to this gadget. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
Slow cookers really shine at producing comfort food-soups, stews, and bean dishes are ideal candidates. And those mystery mishmashes of the ‘70s—well, we can do much better with the great selection of whole foods, produce and meats here at the Co-op. Let’s take a walk through the store...
The produce department is an obvious starting point for any tasty meal. Almost any vegetable (or combination) will be great in a slow cooker. Onions are a base flavor for many dishes; they will turn out best if you take a few minutes to soften them in a little oil or broth on the stovetop. You can do this in your cooker too—use high heat and expect the process to take 15-30 minutes. Other hard, root vegetables can also be pre-softened. This step ensures that they will be fully cooked in the end. Another benefit is the fuller, caramelized flavor you’ll enjoy. If you are making a soup with a high proportion of liquid, you can skip this step if you like. Hard vegetables should be cut into smallish, uniform pieces, no larger than one inch square. If they are organic, many only need a thorough scrub, rather than peeling. Layer them into the bottom of your crock, as they take longest to cook. Really delicate veggies like spinach should be added near the end of the cooking time. While you are in the produce department, remember that your slow cooker is ideal for creating fruit butters, sauces and chutneys, too.
It’s time to take that lovely produce over to the bulk aisle and find some partners for it. Beans are a natural in the slow cooker with a bit of care. First, beans (except lentils) must be soaked overnight. Before you add them to the cooker, drain and rinse. One cup of dry beans will yield two to three cups, cooked. For each cup of soaked beans, cover with two to three cups liquid. Do not add salt or acidic ingredients like tomatoes to the cooker until the beans are tender. For convenience, you may want to cook up a pound of basic beans ahead of time and freeze them in one or two cup portions so they are ready when you want them. In a pinch choose a quality, organic canned bean.
Want pasta instead of (or in addition to) beans? This staple is best cooked separately and added at the end of cooking time for proper control of doneness. You can add dry pasta to the cooker in the final hour of cooking, but remember that it will absorb a lot of the cooking liquid and may come out gummy.
What about rice, quinoa or couscous? Again, for best results cook these separately and add at the end. One exception is wild rice, which, not being true rice is not as starchy, and gives a better result. Creamy risotto also transfers well to the slow cooker—use about three cups liquid to each cup of Arborio rice in your favorite recipe.
Do consider making Chinese rice congee, though. This is a porridge-y dish that probably originated in the kitchen of a peasant trying to stretch a small amount of rice to feed many people. Combine one cup of short-grain or Arborio rice with six cups water or broth and slow-cook about six to eight hours. Additional ingredients often include garlic, ginger,
Most other whole grains cook beautifully in the crock. A cup of dry grain usually yields about three cups cooked. In most cases, you will want two to three cups of liquid for each cup of grain. This is a great opportunity to try something new in your casserole and, of course, cooked grains have been served for breakfast through the ages. Set up your cooker at bedtime and warm cereal will await you at dawn. Combine one cup of rolled or whole grain with 31/2 to 4 cups of water or juice. Try a mix of grains and toss in some dried fruit for your sweet tooth. Stir in a handful of chopped nuts at the end. Add milk at serving time if desired, but not during cooking; it will break down.
Let’s get back to our soup/stew/casserole creation. Now is the time to add some meat to the crock if you choose. Most will cook and tenderize through the day just fine, but if you take a few minutes to brown meat in advance you may be happier with the final presentation. Browning also helps to reduce the fat content of any meat you add. Fish or other seafood is best added to the slow cooker in the last hour or so of cooking time.
Tempeh and seitan are excellent choices for the Crock Pot, taking on the flavors you choose to add. Again, browning can be a nice touch, but is not mandatory. If you want to add tofu or a veggie burger or sausage product, in most cases wait until the end of the cooking time to preserve the texture. It is best to drain and press the excess moisture form tofu before using. Tofu can be added early in cooking as a cheese substitute when creating dishes like lasagna, though.
Speaking of cheese, it is best to add dairy products during the last 30 minutes of cooking. Milk proteins tend to break down when subjected to long cooking times and can leave you serving an unattractive dish.
What next? Is there at least a cup of liquid in your cooker? Have you added some seasoning to the pot? Maybe a few crispy crumbs or a bit of garnish just before serving and you are finished and not a can of condensed soup in sight!
Here are a couple of easy recipes to get you started. Both work best in a 3-4 quart cooker and serve 4-6 people.
Winter Vegetable Stew
Old Fashioned Apple Raisin Cereal