Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How To Cook A Healthy Meal Before Eating Everything In Sight.

The last thing I want is to come home at 6:30 PM, hungry and tired, and have to decide what to cook. And then to have to cook it. And to have to wait for it. All the while snacking, impatiently, awaiting the real food to be ready. By which time I couldn't care less for the meal I’ve started to prepare.

Welcome crock pot cooking! Now the problem is solved. And perfect for the brisk Fall and winter temperatures. Do I sound like an infomercial? Let me remind you that no ads accompany this post!

Here’s how it works.
First, buy or acquire a crock pot 
(although it seems that many people have them stored away, forgetting they even exist, and, how convenient they can make life.) You don’t need anything fancy—high, low and warm settings have done the trick for me for years. And they tend to be rather inexpensive.

Add ingredients to the pot. You could cut up and toss in your ingredients the night before (then refrigerate) or in the morning, before heading out. And foods can be added while still frozen, right from the freezer! Trust me, I do it all the time. If you are adapting a stew or soup recipe, there’s no need to sauté or brown the food first (except if you are using ground beef or other meats which you might want to drain the fat from first. Foods generally can cook for 7-8 hours, depending on the temperature setting.

You can include all components of a healthy, balanced meal all in one pot: protein (chicken on the bone, skin removed, beef or pork, or dried beans or lentils for those of you looking for some vegetarian options), vegetables (fresh or frozen) a bit of oil (minimal is needed) and some grain or starchy vegetable (potatoes, winter starch, or rice, for instance). Root vegetables do quite well, including parsnip and butternut squash and add a good deal of richness to the flavor.

Add liquid. The liquid could be a combination of ready-made stock for convenience (vegetable or chicken generally work well) and water. But you could be creative and add things like apple cider, tomato juice, wine or beer (but obviously not together!). Okay, the last two don’t fit into a food group, but can enhance the flavor and be included as part of the liquid.

Add spices according to your taste.  Onion and garlic are always reliable, but dare to try ingredients like Chinese 5 Spice or cumin, two of my favorites and quite aromatic! Truly, the sky is the limit. Adjust for flavor once cooking is complete.

Return home many hours later to the aroma of delicious, read to eat, home-cooked food. It will certainly make it easier to avoid that out of control picking after work, school or errand-running all day.

Now I realize that many of you aren’t so comfortable with just winging it, without quantities, as in a recipe. So consider using any stew or soup recipe or searching the web or cookbooks for crock pot recipes. But don’t let it seem too overwhelming! From my experience, it’s rather difficult to ruin a crock pot meal. There are really only two potential issues you may encounter. There may be too much liquid, since liquid doesn’t evaporate from the crock pot the way it would cooked stove top. If you don't like soupiness use less liquid than your stovetop recipe calls for. Second--many grains, if added at the start of the cooking, will become too mushy in the final product. So if possible, add rice toward the end of the cooking (or cook it separately) or better yet, use a whole grain like brown or wild rice which tends to stand up much better.

The dish shown above contained carrots, parsnip, sweet peppers, scallion and frozen chicken breast on the bone. For liquid I used apple cider and water, and added Chinese 5 Spice and a few shakes of salt. I have also added dried fruit, including prunes, dried cherries and raisins in the past, which is quite nice. With the amount of liquid, it was more of a soup than a stew, but tasted wonderful nonetheless. 
Today's crock pot meal I decided to measure as I prepared it, so that I could hopefully inspire you to try it at home. 

So here goes!

Lori's Made Up Crockpot Recipe (Serves 4)


2 Tbsps. vegetable or olive oil
3 split chicken breasts, on the bone, skin removed (~2.5 lbs.)
1 large, peeled butternut squash , cut into chunks (buying it pre-peeled and seeded saves a bit of time)
4 cloves garlic
1 large onion
4 carrots, peeled, thickly sliced
2 large parsnips, peeled, thickly sliced
3 celery stalks, sliced
1 1/2 cups reduced sodium chicken stock
bunch of fresh parsley, chopped

Add the oil, then chicken, tossing all other ingredients on top. Feel free to be creative, according to your taste, adding additional vegetables or herbs or spices you enjoy.
Cover and cook on low setting, 6 or more hours (mine cooked for 9 1/2 hours--I put in a long day today)-- and was delicious! Serve over noodles, rice or couscous, if you like.

Crock pot meals freeze really well and can be reheated in just a few minutes. Besides the convenience, they help to ensure you (and your family) are getting a variety of vegetables and grains, with minimal added fats. And only one pot to clean! Enjoy!

Do you have a crock pot recipe to share? Please post it in comments!

1 comment:

  1. Big fan of crock pot cooking! I do many vegetarian and turkey chili dinners over the winter, bean soups, and good old pot roast! I’ve even made steel cut oatmeal in mine overnight (makes mornings easier).

    A few tricks:

    1. Many meats benefit from being seared before putting in the crock pot.

    2. Chicken thighs and drumsticks work best in the crockpot. Chicken breast is dry and tough when you over cook it. No matter how long you leave it in the crockpot. Leave the skin on, Brown it well first to render fat and crisp the skin. Braise the chicken w/ the skin on to keep it moist. Remove the skin before eating.

    3. For recipes that call for flour for thickening, substitute the flour w/ minute tapioca. Sprinkle the tapioca over the ingredients as the last step in the recipe. Flour takes on a really pasty, unappealing texture in a crock pot.