Many working folks would agree that getting a home-cooked meal on the table every night seems like an impossible task. Enter the slow-cooker, the single greatest kitchen tool ever invented, next to a sharp knife.
What can you do with a slow-cooker? Simply put, just about anything! Soups, stews, roasts, even preserves—really, anything you’d normally cook in a soup pot on the stovetop, only this is a tool you can plug in and walk away from for eight hours without worrying about burning the house down.
Slow cookers (a.k.a. crock pots) allow us to buy tougher (i.e. cheaper) cuts of meat and soften ‘em up with a good long simmer. If you’ve been buying a lot of canned soups and commercial soup bases with their high sodium content, a slow cooker will allow you to convert the Thanksgiving turkey rack or leftover bones from Sunday night roast beef into a lovely, healthy and economical soup stock, literally while you sleep. Simply add the bones, an onion (you don’t even have to peel it!), some carrots, celery, salt and pepper and water to the pot, plug it in and let the games begin! In the morning, you can sieve the solids out of your stock and either use it right away for a soup (that you can also create in the same stock pot, natch!) or freeze in smaller glass or plastic containers for later use.
For variations on the theme of baked beans, a slow cooker can’t be beat. We know that beans are extremely nutritious, versatile, and economical, especially when made from scratch. Soak a couple of cups of them overnight in the slow cooker and plug it in the morning with ingredients that can be as vegan or carnivorous as you like... You can also cook a crockpot full of dried beans or chickpeas in water, then divvy them up between a soup, main dish like chili or curry, and a little tub of hummus for when the kids get rooting through the fridge for after school fodder.
To get you inspired, I’m including two hearty slow cooker main course recipes I’ve made many times over and loved:
Thai-Mexican Hybrid Slow-Cooker Chicken
4 chicken thighs
1 cup tomato salsa
¾ cup natural peanut butter
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 medium sized tin of black beans or 1 cup of precooked black beans (pintos also work well)
1 cup frozen, fresh or canned corn
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
(Note: You can start your slow-cooker before you leave for work for it to be ready at suppertime, or you can do an overnight cooking session if you’d like to pack this dish for lunch—start right before you go to bed).
Add all ingredients except beans, corn and cilantro to the slow cooker and turn on high heat.
About 30 minutes before serving, add beans and corn to the slow cooker.
Serve this dish over rice with a generous garnish of cilantro and a squirt of lime juice.
Lillian Hellman’s Pot Roast
In 1983, Nora Ephron wrote a great novel called Heartburn; the protagonist was a food writer who talked about her work a lot, so the book is full of awesome recipes. One of my favorites was the pot roast recipe credited to Lillian Hellman. Her version bakes in the conventional oven; this one goes into your slow cooker!
3-4 pound roast (sirloin or rump roasts are good choices).
1 large chopped onion
3 cloves chopped garlic (or more! You can’t go wrong with garlic)
2 cups red wine (go for the cheap $10 or less bottle…)
2 cups water
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 package of onion soup mix
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon basil
Add all ingredients to slow cooker. Cover and cook overnight (or all day) on high heat—about 10 to 12 hours total. Meat should be falling-apart tender.
To avoid dirtying another pot, throw in three or four peeled potatoes (in chunks, if you wish) and the same number of peeled carrots about 2 hours before end of cooking time.