I have always loved those rice pilaf mixes that come in a box. The ones with rice and pasta or rice and another grain, that come pre-seasoned. You know the ones! They are easy to make and they go well with lots of foods. Unfortunately, they tend to be really high in sodium, the price per pound is shocking unless you have a coupon, and when I was a vegetarian, they were out of the question entirely. (And if you have food allergies? Forget it!) I have spent years trying to come up with a simple, vegetarian recipe that was every bit as delicious as the box without any of the added expense. I’ve made things that were delicious, but complicated. I found vegetarian products that were even more expensive. I conducted a lot of recipe trials that were best described as disappointing. Finally, with help from my mini crock, I have done it! I made a rice and lentil pilaf that I love every bit as much as any other pilaf side dish I’ve ever tried. The ingredients are inexpensive, it goes together quickly, and cleanup is a snap. The slow cooker version can be set up ahead of time to be ready at dinner, so you can give your full attention to the main dish. I will probably never buy the box mix again, even on sale, since I have limited storage space and I always have rice and lentils on hand.
When my husband and I were a family of two, I loved the mini crock for making smaller meals with all the convenience of my big crock pot. Since he is one of those people who don’t like leftovers (I don’t understand it either) it worked out to be easier for me to make smaller portions than to try and figure out what to do with the rest of a full size recipe. I also cooked smaller quantities when I lived alone, because even though I personally LOVE leftovers, there’s a limit. I sort of thought that once I moved on to cooking for a family of four, my mini crock would languish, unloved, in my pantry- but that hasn’t been the case. The mini crock has been an unfailing convenience for side dishes. I also sometimes deploy it for something that I know only my husband and I will eat- making a smaller amount and integrating it into our dinner plans means we don’t have to stop eating those foods or endure a picky eater rebellion when we just want to enjoy something spicy. It is also the perfect size for keeping dips warm at parties. I can definitely say that my mini crock has turned out to be a surprise star in my convenient-family-cooking lineup.
or, if you don’t think a mini crock is right for your kitchen, you can make this in the microwave in a 2 quart stoneware casserole. (We all have to be selective. Much as I would love to own every tool and gadget known to humankind, I find that I have to edit, because one kitchen only holds so much.) You can use a glass casserole if that’s all you have, but I’ve found that the ceramic and stoneware casseroles do a better job of making microwaved food taste like it was cooked on the stove or in the oven, and avoid the “microwaved” pitfalls like chewy meats or overdone grains.
I made this in my Kitchenaid 1.9 Quart ceramic casserole and in my Pampered Chef Round Covered Baker for test purposes. You could use any stoneware casserole of a similar size.
1 cup brown rice
½ cup lentils
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
¼ cup dried onion
3 cups vegetable broth
Rinse and pick over lentils.
Combine brown rice, lentils, canola oil, parsley flakes, and dried onion. Stir well.
Add vegetable broth and salt.
Microwave on high 16 minutes, stirring every 4-6 minutes. Check for doneness. If there is still a great deal of liquid in the casserole, microwave in 2 minute increments until it is mostly absorbed.
Let stand, covered, for four minutes. Nearly all liquid should be absorbed.
The slow cooker version needs more liquid because of the longer cooking time. The reason I can't give you a single, firm cooking time is because microwave power varies, and mine is fairly low power. If you have a high power microwave, I recommend you do the initial cook for 8 minutes and test it every two to four minutes until you arrive at the right time for your microwave.
I have featured my bottom of the line, workhorse 4 quart slow cooker in my photos so often that I have occasionally thought maybe I should get a new one just so you guys would have something new to look at. I kept using it even after the original handle broke off- I just picked up an orphaned lid from the thrift store and turned it into the Frankenstein’s Monster of slow cookers. (A nice perk is that the new handle is much easier to grab, so I don’t worry as much about dropping the lid. It also doesn’t get as hot. I’m dangerously close to advising you to void your warranty by modifying your cooker with off-list parts… I’ll stop before I get us all into trouble.) If I need any further credentials regarding my expertise in the world of slow cooking, well… I don’t have much to offer you except that I’ve been a dogged fanatic for almost 16 years now.
The news says they are making a “come back.” The theory is that the recession has led to fewer restaurant meals, and so the ease and convenience of the slow cooker is leading us all right back to it. Combine that with new demographics discovering the joy of entertaining, and slow cooker sales are booming. I am not surprised they are popular, but I confess I WAS surprised to hear they are “back.” I hadn’t realized they were ever gone. It would be impossible, in my opinion, to overstate the convenience they offer. Whether your household is DINK, WAHM, SAHM, SAHD, or one crazy cat lady, that slow cooker is a simple, inexpensive, hands off way to make sure dinner is ready when you are hungry. (And I have used mine in every situation but SAHD. YES, my crazy cat lady credential arrived early in life. DEAL WITH IT.)
That’s why I am so excited to have in my hot little hands a review copy of Easy Everyday Slow Cooker Recipes: 200 Recipes by Donna-Marie Pye. I think most of us look for similar things in a cookbook- ease of use, which means good organization, eye candy/food porn (PICTURES, okay?), and whether our family will eat the food. That last one is kind of a deal breaker… if it’s just got pretty pictures of food no one here will eat? I’ll browse it in the book store but it’s not going to live on my shelf. (Ok, maybe my virtual shelf? I could see having an e-cookbook just for the pretty pictures, but actual shelf space is at a premium around here.)
If you would like to do more than the “add a can of this” type of slow cooking, you’ll appreciate this book. Moving beyond soups and stews, this book not only offers recipes for a wide variety of dishes, it includes helpful ingredient hints, like how to cook with a tomatillo. I’ve never touched a tomatillo, but I may just make it a point to go there now that someone has brought it up. (Why have I never done that, you ask? Because you cook with what you can get your hands on, and I can honestly say I don’t remember ever seeing one in the small town I lived in before moving to the metro area I now call home. After 11 years, you get into habits, ok?) As you can see from the sample images I’ve included (with permission from the publisher, of course), it does indeed include attractive, full color, full page photos to make you drool while you plan your menu.
Easy Everyday Slow Cooker Recipes is organized by main ingredient or type of dish. The second to last chapter (right before desserts- my personal favorite) is called “Double Duty Dinners.” This section is devoted to meals you crock cook the first night, and then transform into something totally different the second night. Cook once (-ish, or and-a-half) and eat twice. I like it. This is a great idea for busy families, particularly since this type of forward planning tends to help you with your time budget and your money budget, both. Also, the size of slow cooker needed for each recipe is noted at the top of the recipe, so there will be no ugly surprises after you start cooking.
Much as I would like to have made (and eaten!) every one of these 200 recipes before writing about this book- and I did work up an appetite while I was reading them all- it would take weeks or months for me to do that. I did have a hard time picking just a couple to try, because a great many of these pass the “will my children eat this” test, and even more of them pass the “will I put the children to bed early so my husband and I can eat this in peace” test. In the end, I decided to test drive one of the Double Duty dinners, and I got permission from the publisher to share three of the recipes with you, so you can try them yourself.
I enlisted some help and JMM Danette Z and I tested some of the recipes from this book. We are pleased to report that the directions are easy to follow, the cooking times are accurate, and the recipes come out as they are supposed to. Like always, we got mixed reviews from our families depending on what we chose… but trying something new is always fun, and adding even three or four new slow cooker favorites to the family rotation means three more nights a month when I can set dinner up when I have time, and eat it when it’s ready! I’m in!
• Minimum 5-quart slow cooker Makes 6 to 8 servings This soup reminds of the one I’m served when I visit my friend Maria’s house. Her mother always has a pot of soup on the stove, or if she doesn't, she will quickly make one for you with whatever.
2 cups cooked small pasta, such as elbows, tubetti, shells or stars 500 mL
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
In a large bowl, combine beef, pork, Parmesan, bread crumbs, eggs, parsley, salt and pepper. Using your hands, roll into ¾-inch (2 cm) meatballs. Place meatballs in slow cooker stoneware. Gently pour in broth.
Cover and cook on Low for 8 to 9 hours or on High for 41?2 to 5 hours, until soup is bubbling and meatballs are cooked through.
Stir in spinach. Cover and cook on High for 10 to 15 minutes or until greens are wilted, bright green and tender. Stir in cooked pasta.
Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with additional Parmesan, if desired.
Tip: If you don’t have homemade chicken stock, use ready-to-use chicken broth. I like to keep 32-oz (1 L) Tetra Paks of broth on hand, especially the sodium-reduced variety. They come in handy when you’re making soups and stews. Another option is to use three 10-oz (284 mL) cans of broth and add enough water to make 6 cups (1.5 L). Avoid broth cubes and powders, which tend to be salty.
Makes 4 to 6 servings With its notes of cumin, cinnamon and chocolate playing off the gentle spices, this meatless chili combines the best of a mole sauce and a Cincinnati-style chili. Its rich body makes it a seriously satisfying dinner any night of the week. • Minimum 4-quart slow cooker
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large green bell pepper, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 can (19 oz/540 mL) diced tomatoes, with juice
1 can (14 oz/398 mL) baked beans in tomato sauce
2 cups cooked or canned romano or pinto beans (see page 84), drained and rinsed 500 mL
2 cups cooked or canned black beans (see page 84), drained and rinsed 500 mL
In slow cooker stoneware, combine garlic, green pepper, onion, tomatoes with juice, beans in tomato sauce, romano beans, black beans, chili powder, cumin and coriander.
In a bowl, combine mole paste and broth. Using a fork, gently stir together into a thin sauce. Stir into bean mixture.
Cover and cook on Low for 5 to 6 hours or on High for 21?2 to 3 hours, until vegetables are tender and chili is bubbling. Serve topped with tortilla chips, cilantro and cheese (if using).
Make Ahead: This dish can be assembled up to 12 hours in advance. Prepare through step 2, cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, place stoneware in slow cooker and proceed with step 3.
Tip: If you can’t find mole paste, substitute 1 tbsp (15 mL) unsweetened cocoa powder and 1?2 tsp (2 mL) ground cinnamon. Mole paste is a rich, dark, reddish brown sauce used in many Mexican poultry dishes. It is a smooth cooked blend of onions, garlic, several varieties of chiles, ground seeds (such as pumpkin or sesame) and a small amount of Mexican chocolate, which adds richness without being overly sweet. You can find mole paste in the Mexican foods section of the supermarket or in specialty stores.
Makes 4 to 6 servings My son, Jack, and I are caramel and butterscotch fanatics! Blondies are often described as brownies without chocolate, which I find silly: blondies have their own unique, delicious personality. While brownies depend on chocolate for their flavor, with blondies it’s all about the brown sugar. This tasty dessert combines a cake top over a creamy caramel sauce. Be sure to serve with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. • 4- to 5-quart slow cooker
1 cup all-purpose flour 250 mL
1 tsp baking powder 5 mL
½ tsp salt 2 mL
1 cup packed brown sugar, divided 250 mL
¼ cup butter, softened 60 mL
1 tsp vanilla extract 5 mL
½ cup milk 125 mL
½ cup soft caramels, wrappers removed 125 mL
1 cup boiling water 250 mL
In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.
In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat half the brown sugar and butter until creamy.
Stir in vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with milk, making three additions of each and beating well after each addition. Stir in caramels. Spread batter evenly in slow cooker stoneware.
In a glass measuring cup, combine the remaining brown sugar and boiling water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Pour evenly over batter.
Cover and cook on High for 21?2 to 3 hours or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes
Tip: It is best to use individually wrapped soft caramels, but you can substitute ½ cup (125 mL) butterscotch chips.
One dish dinners make scheduling a cinch. You won’t need much to go along with this- maybe some rice or a green vegetable. So cleanup will be easy, too. During my vegetarian years, I used vegetable stock and a good seitan in place of the chicken. If you want to prep this and then put it in a slow cooker on low, you can double it. For a family meal, three pounds of chicken pieces and doubling the other ingredients will also work. (I find that without bones, the white meat dries out too much, but boneless thighs would probably do fine.)
This version is not strictly traditional, I’m quite sure. I didn’t research how it ought to be done or sample authentic coq au vin… I just tinkered around and made changes until I had a dish I liked. But it’s got chicken, and it’s got wine, and it’s darn good, so coq au vin I shall call it. I like to serve this as a “company” dish with butter noodles or plain rice, or with a green salad and crusty bread for soaking up the sauce. Because trust me… you’ll want to eat the sauce. As a shortcut, I sometimes use baby carrots, but look for the really small ones. More slender pieces of carrot get a better texture in this recipe than thicker ones.
I found the original for this recipe in one of those regional cookbooks you can find in used book stores- the self-published ones that are full of personality and delightful surprises. After significant changes to accommodate my preferences, this became one of my signature dishes.
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup red wine (cheap works. I've tried a number of kinds and thought they were all fine.)
2 skinless, bone-in chicken breasts
1 medium onion, chopped
8 oz mushrooms, sliced
4 carrots, halved or quartered lengthwise depending on thickness
1 T olive oil
1 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup flour
In a large skillet, heat olive oil on medium high heat.
Coat chicken breasts thoroughly with pepper and flour.
Brown chicken breasts in oil on both sides. (About 6-10 minutes.)
Remove chicken to a plate and cover. Add onions and garlic to skillet. Sautee about 1 minute.
Add mushrooms and sautee until tender, about 2 minutes.
Return chicken to skillet. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 1 hour (or more) until done.
Note: It's probably not according to Hoyle, but I prefer baby bella mushrooms in this. I find they are harder to overcook than other kinds of mushrooms. I have used beef stock in a pinch and it came out just fine. Enjoy!
Hold the phone! This recipe is so easy that it’s actually not too late to add it to your holiday list! And let me give you a little tip if you are expecting vegetarians to dinner this week. Make this and some plain quinoa (BE SURE to wash it first. Here’s why.), and add a green salad and a dish of toasted almond slivers to the table. (That sounds really good, doesn’t it? Ask about nut allergies, of course, and if you are using a bottled dressing, check the ingredients for things like anchovy paste. Yes, really, they like to sneak that one in there.) When you look forward to hosting a big meal, part of what makes all the effort feel worth it is knowing that everyone is looking forward to eating. If you also make traditional favorites like sweet potatoes, squash, or (vegetarian) dressing, these additions will round out the meal for the veg folk and make sure everyone feels that excitement when they sit down at the table.
NOTE: To be absolutely certain that your veg friends and family can eat something, you want to make it vegan. That means, no animal products at all. If they eat eggs or dairy products they will have no trouble adding those foods, but a great deal of difficulty removing them if they don’t. If you are worried about the salad dressing, offering oil and vinegar and letting each diner dress their own is a safe bet.
I found the original recipe at Bon Apetit and adapted it for the slow cooker. (There are some other really good cranberry recipes in that article! You should check it out. Om nom nom…) Please note that this does cook down by about 50%, so if you’re making it for guests, you may want to double or even triple it. A triple recipe will still fit in a “regular” size slow cooker. If you cook these too long, the sugar WILL scorch, so if you increase the recipe watch your cook time.
Crockpot Cranberries (and tips for pleasing a veg*an at Thanksgiving!)
Author: Meghan Gray
Super easy, super fast, and it won't even take up room on your stove or in your oven! NOM.
1 12 oz bag of fresh cranberries
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
½ Tablespoon olive oil
Wash the cranberries and pick out any damaged or spoiled berries. Drain them and put them in a mini-crock.
Add sugar, oil, and thyme (just pinch the leaves off the stems with your fingers) and mix well.
Cook on high for 1 hour, or low 2-3 hours.
I am really going to miss my fresh herbs when the last of my garden is gone this year! If you don't have fresh, you can use ⅓ the measure of dried herbs. (In this case, 1 teaspoon.) If you are expecting a Vegan, use turbinado sugar or another unbleached, cane sugar. You can find them in the baking section next to the kind you're used to!
And if you are looking for an entertaining* holiday read, may I recommend the Famous Black Turkey Recipe of Morton Thompson? It so happens that the bird itself (which I have made many times, to much delight) is delicious, but so is the recipe. *The dish is not vegan in the slightest. In case the word “turkey” didn’t clear that up for you… 😉
You know what hits the spot on a cold night? A nice, hot mug of spiced cider while you sit by the fire. And this time of year, you can get wonderful, fresh apple cider pretty much anywhere you go- so here is a no fuss way to mull your cider and keep it hot so you can enjoy it at your leisure. (If you have leftovers, just refrigerate them and microwave them for a minute or so- it’s like instant mulled cider!) This recipe DOES leave the ground spices in the bottom of the pot. If it bothers you, just make a bouquet garni by tying the spices in a coffee filter and throw it in. Once you are ready to serve the cider, just discard the spice packet.