Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In Praise of the Crockpot

Almost everyone has one lurking on the bottom shelf of the pantry, hiding behind the stockpot in the cupboard, lying forgotten out in the garage with the bread machine and the Vita-Mix. Well, throw out the 2 pots or pans you use the least and haul your crockpot into its rightful place among your most useful cooking implements. Maybe even in between the coffee maker and the tea kettle because you just might get addicted.

Before downsizing, I had 2 crockpots and I used both of them. Living in 1500 square feet requires some hard choices, however, so I passed the smaller of the 2 along to a friend where I believe it continues to lead a happy and productive life.

So, why do I evangelize about the lowly slow cooker? Several key reasons:

First, contrary to general perception, the crockpot does not only excel in meals that consist of the contents of a few cans and a jar poured over ground beef and then revisited after work. I use my crockpot to cram as many healthful things into one dish as I can.

Second, it makes healthy eating easy. Once you get the hang of it, you can make your meals as simple or complicated as you choose and rarely need much of a recipe.

Third, it cuts down on clean-up, which leads to the most important reason, for me, which is:

Fourth, whatever work, mess, and clean-up you have to do is done in the morning, leaving right-before and right-after dinner as pleasure and leisure time for yourself or with your family. If you cook from scratch a lot anyway, you might find yourself truly surprised at the amount of time that opens up.

And, finally, it frees you from the tyranny of the stovetop. You can take your favorite soup, chili, or pasta sauce recipe and adapt it to the crockpot. You still brown and saute on the stove, but then you dump everything into that beautiful appliance sitting all self-contained and safe on the counter. You wash up your pan, throw your scraps out to the hens (or into your composter) and you, my friend, are out the door or in the garden or off to work. You no longer have to babysit those wonderful foods that just need to burble and simmer all day to reach their full yumminess.

Another myth: crockpots are for winter when we crave heavy foods. Not necessarily so. I find that my friends and I are much more inclined to cook during the cold season. Everyone's inside and it gets dark early and the rain is pelting the windows. Warm ovens and sizzling pans seem right at home. But, as the afternoons lengthen and the occasional warm breeze beckons, I find it harder and harder to motivate in the kitchen. I just long to be outside - whether its planting things or just sipping wine on the front porch. Spring is the perfect time to dust off this versatile machine and free up your evenings.

So, in celebration of your coming liberation, a pasta sauce recipe I adapted a while back from Pasta & Company's first cookbook, published in 1991.

P&C Bolognese Sauce

Make up a double batch and freeze it for easy pasta dinners anytime. We especially like this served over wide silky papperadelle noodles.

1. Brown about a pound each of bulk hot or sweet italian sausage and lean ground beef. When no pink shows, pour both into the crockpot.

2. Chop up one yellow onion and saute it over medium heat in the oil left from browning the meat (there shouldn't be more than a few tablespoons). After the onion has been cooking 3-4 minutes, throw in 3 each chopped up celery and chopped peeled carrots and 6-8 cloves of minced garlic. Saute all until the onion turns translucent. Dump into the crockpot.

3. Wash and quarter 8-10 mushrooms. Heat your pan back up to medium. When it's hot, pour in 3+ tablespoons of olive oil. Toss your mushrooms in, stir to coat them, then pour a healthy splash of dry white wine in. Saute mushrooms, careful not to stir often, for about 5-7 minutes. Toss into crockpot.

4. Cut 2 zucchini into rounds, then quarters. Add to the crockpot.

5. Crumble a healthy tablespoon each of dried oregano and basil over the contents of the crockpot. Throw in a bay leaf or two.

6. Open 2 28-oz cans of Muir Glen diced fire-roasted tomatoes and add them to the crockpot. Stir.

7. Add a little salt and pepper.

8. Turn crockpot to "Low" setting. If your version has a timer, set it for 6-8 hours. Stir occasionally if the spirit moves you.

Put a large pot of water on to boil 20-30 minutes before you're planning to eat. Cook and drain pasta and ladle sauce over individual bowls.


No comments: