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January 2006

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Crock Pot, Co-op Style

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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.

Back in the day

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.

Nuts and bolts

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 advantages of a Crock Pot

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!

Safety measures

There are a few general safety measures to keep in mind when using a slow cooker:
• Do not add cold or frozen ingredients to a hot crock—the ceramic insert could crack.
• Always let the insert cool before cleaning-again to prevent cracking.
• Never immerse the outer shell containing the heating element in water.
• Never let food stand at room temperature or on the Keep Warm setting for more than two hours.
• Always be sure that your hands, crock, cutting boards, knives and other utensils are scrupulously clean before starting to cook.

How to use a Crock Pot

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:
• To convert your favorite recipes, try this formula: one hour at a stovetop simmer or in a 350ºF oven equals eight hours in the slow cooker on low or about four hours on high.
• Don’t peek! Every time you lift the lid, you need to add 20-30 minutes to the total cooking time.
• Reduce added liquids by 25-30%. One cup is plenty for most recipes other than soups. Slow cookers do not allow moisture to evaporate like other methods, so for some things you may want less than a cup of liquid.
• When starting with raw meat, always allow eight hours on low.
• Always thaw frozen ingredients before adding to cooker.
• Prepare your recipe the night before and refrigerate right in the ceramic insert. To be safe, refrigerate any meat ingredient in a separate container. In the morning, start up the cooker and add an extra hour to allow for the chill to wear off. (This also buys you extra time if more than eight hours will pass before your meal.)
• If you need a delayed start-up of two hours or less, plug the unit into an outlet timer.
• Read the manufacturer’s instructions. Most cookers should be filled at least halfway, but if more than 2/3 full you run the risk of a messy boil-over. If the finished quantity seems like too much, freeze half for another day or share with another hungry soul.
• Whole spices and herbs hold their flavors best. If you use ground or crushed, increase the quantity or add near the end of cooking time. Fresh herbs should always be added at the end of cooking to preserve their flavor.

A walk through the store

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...

Produce

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.

Bulk: grains and beans

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,
green onions, tamari, bok choy, etc. This can be especially soothing if you are feeling a bit under the weather.

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.

Meat

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.

Meat alternatives

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.

Cheese

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.

The final touches

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!

Easy recipes

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
This stew recipe goes by the name “root stew” at my house. It is very flexible, so use your favorite veggies. This is a great showcase for local winter storage vegetables, and, except for seasonings, this can easily be a completely local dish. Add some good bread or hot biscuits, maybe some fruit and cheese and you are all set. You can also serve this over any cooked whole grain or rice that you like.
All vegetables should be cut in one-inch pieces, unless noted differently. Any vegetables can be used; you will need 8-10 cups total.
2 leeks or 1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, quartered
1 cup celeriac or 2 stalks celery
2 large carrots
3 medium potatoes
1 parsnip
1 cup turnip or rutabaga
1 cup peeled winter squash chunks
1 cup mushrooms
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock or water
1/2 cup dry white wine or sherry (optional)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Directions: Layer vegetables in cooker in order listed. Add stock, wine, bay and thyme. Cook on Low 6-8 hours until tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, adjust other seasonings and let simmer a few minutes to blend flavors. Remove bay leaf and stir in parsley just before serving.

Old Fashioned Apple Raisin Cereal
The next recipe is adapted from the book Fresh From The Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson. It will get your day off to a warm start! Any leftovers can be reheated in the microwave or on the stovetop, though you may need to thin the cereal with a bit of extra liquid.
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup rolled barley
4 cups cold water, apple juice or a combination
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 apple, shredded (Granny Smith is a good choice)
3-tablepoons raisins
Directions: Lightly oil the cooker insert to make clean up easier. Combine all ingredients in the cooker. Cook on Low about 6 hours. At serving time, garnish with chopped nuts, sunflower seeds, or granola if desired.