Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nothing Says Lovin' Like Something From the Crockpot

As the wheel of the year tips into autumn there is nothing so wonderful as coming home to a hot meal ready and waiting for you. Since I don't have a significant other/housekeeper/cook/slave to do my cooking for me I've had to rely on menu planning and my trusty crock pot to keep me warm and fed. What? You don't have a Crock Pot? They cost like 20 bucks. Go get one. You've never liked any food that came out of a Crock Pot? Well, I've got some tips and recipes for you to try right here.

My aunt bought me a crock pot a few years ago for Christmas but it took me years to get the hang of it. I tried recipe after recipe, but everything had that overcooked "Crock Pot" flavor. Stuff was dried out, smelled burned, was generally gross. One of the hardest obstacles to overcome was the fact that with an 8 hour work day and commuting time I am often out of the house for 10 hours at a time. Very few dishes require 10 hours of cooking in a crock pot, and even fewer are edible after that long. Also, so many recipes I found called for cream of whatever soup, velveeta cheese or other foods that don't belong in my kitchen.

The second problem, though not completely solved, has been gotten around with some well chosen recipes. Though she doesn't always use 100% real food I absolutely love Stephanie over at A Year of Slow Cooking. Her writing and recipes gave me permission to throw some slop in the crock pot and call it dinner. Thanks! On the other end of the spectrum are the Cook's Illustrated slow cooker recipes. As with all Cook's Illustrated recipes they are extensively tested and rather complicated. The upside is that if you follow the recipes, you get a really good dish every time. I also am a big fan of Leanne Ely's Saving Dinner recipes. She uses real food and uses a slow cooker at least once a week in her autumn and winter meal plans. She also sells ebooks of slow cooker recipes on her website.

For the other problem I was relying on a rather unreliable boyfriend or housemates to turn on the crock pot after I left the house. After one too many teary evenings of cold food and a hungry me, Dave finally came home with a lamp timer. It was a brilliantly simple solution. You plug the crock pot into the timer and the timer into the wall, set the little pins and voila - crock pot turns on and off when you tell it to! You do have to make sure you have set the timer correctly, and that the crock pot is in the "on" position, but I have been so happy with the results. No more 10 hour chicken, no more crock pot flavor!

One of my very favorite crock pot recipes is so simple it's hardly a recipe. It's just a whole chicken, seasoned as you see fit, and shoved in the crock pot. The result is tender, moist chicken meat, well seasoned and way, way cheaper than one of those grocery store rotisserie chickens. If you shove the bird in with the legs down and breast up you even get a decent amount of almost crispy skin. Home and cooking gurus like to talk about Rubber Chicken meal planning (getting three or 4 meals out of one chicken) and the crock pot makes it so much easier. In addition to the chicken meat I got 2 cups of gelatinous chicken broth, bones for more stock, about 1/4 cup of chicken fat for cooking AND I roasted a head of garlic in the cavity of the bird. I'll be eating off of last week's chicken well into next week.

The last time I did chicken in the crock pot I seasoned the bird with Chile Grill Salt with extra garlic powder and black pepper on all sides. I shoved a little butter up under the breast skin and cooked him for 8 hours. My other favorite seasoning is to put a quartered lemon in the cavity of the chicken, season with salt, pepper and maybe some oregano and put as much of a rosemary branch as will fit into the crock pot all wrapped around the chicken. Serve with a little extra lemon juice for fantastic greek chicken.

Last night I made another well loved crock pot recipe, tamale pie. This is a chili topped with cornbread batter and baked or crock potted until the chili is hot and the cornbread cooked. I made a chili the night before out of ground bison, canned beans, random tomato products, garlic, onion, and chipotle in adobo sauce. I also mixed up some cornmeal and kefir for Sue Gregg's Blender Batter Cornbread. In the morning I poured the cold chili in the crock pot and went to finish the cornbread batter. Oh wait, my blender broke. I realized I could just mix everything up by hand since I was using cornmeal instead of whole grains. Hooray! I poured the batter in, set the timer so the chili would cook for six hours and be done when I arrived home and off to work I skipped. I came home to perfectly cooked cornbread, hot chili and a very happy me. Topped with spicy carrot pickles, sour cream and garden tomato it was a fantastic late autumn meal.

So what's cooking in your crock pot? Do you use yours regularly? What are your family's all time favorite crock pot recipes? What recipes have been a total bust? Any tips or tricks for doing real food in the crock pot?

For more real food tips and recipes, check out Real Food Wednesday!

Special thanks to Kamphora and (Cup)Cake Eater for their fantastic photos. Go check out their flickr streams for more!