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It’s Too Darn Hot (or, Crockpot Woes, why did they raise the temperatures to make them cook hotter??)

Did you know that Bob Fosse, that Great and Bizarre choreographer of the sixties and seventies choreographed a small dance sequence in 1953’s Kiss Me Kate? His first on-screen choreography ever? …Sorry, strange stream of consciousness there–the musical Kiss Me Kate, to the song “Too Darn Hot” from said musical,  to my crockpot woes coming rapidly to a boil…

Pun intended.

Confession time: All these months I’ve been blogging about my deep love for my slow cookers, I have neglected to mention the frustration they have caused when they heat up too fast, boil too hot, and finish my food way ahead of when I wanted them to. I’ve always assumed I was doing something wrong, and eventually I’d figure it out and enjoy the delight of blissful slow cooking like the rest of the world.  But guess what–the rest of the world is apparently in the same boat.

Turns out, over the past 5-10 years the manufacturers of crockpots decided it was too dangerous to let food cook slowly all day, so they raised the cooking temperatures by about 20 degrees for each setting…which is to say, now “low” is more like “simmer,” and “hot” is more like “boil rapidly,” and either option has the high likelihood that your food will dry out and burn about an hour or two before your recipe is scheduled to be finished.  It means that anything you wanted to just sit there quietly and let flavors meld over a few hours will get much of its flavor boiled off, or changed, that red sauce must be babysat, hot cocoa must be closely monitored to prevent icky-scummy-skin formation, and meats must be tested periodically before they become shoe leather.

(There are ways around this…but for the moment let me just rant a bit.) This ticks me off supremely.  To me it’s another facet of our litigious society, where the manufacturers have to protect themselves from the ignorance of their customer base, and make everything as idiot-proof as possible.  Also of the fact that our food supply is fundamentally unsafe, so manufacturers have to make sure we take every possible step to cook the pathogens and unfriendly bacteria out of everything we make so that we won’t be made ill by the food produced by the guys in the flu factories. Yes, I want to be safe. Yes, I want to eat Real Food, cooked well. But dammit, I want my slow cooker back.

There, I’m done. Yes, that was sort of a stupid rant.

But, then…is there any way to reclaim the working stiff’s ability to throw ingredients into the pot in the morning and come home to a beautifully cooked dinner, which is after all the reason we love–or used to love–our crockpots?

A couple of thoughts:

  1. If you have a crockpot that’s more than 5 years old, keep it!!! Do not even think of tossing it for a new model. (Or if you are, think about asking me if I’d like to take it off your hands.)
  2. Shop for vintage crockpots on ebay or at your local thrift store
  3. Babysit your new recipes the first time you cook them, and take good notes about what you had to change to make things work correctly in whatever crockpot you have. You may need to add extra liquid or shorten cooking times significantly to make it work out.
  4. Make sure your crock is always pretty well filled. The instructions will say that it should always be “2/3-3/4” full of food when you start, but if what you’re cooking will cook down significantly, you may need to try for “completely full” at the beginning in order to be at 2/3 full by the time things cook down and the thing starts simmering busily, which the old crocks never did on low heat.
  5. Bear in mind, when cooking pieces of meat, that the meat will usually go through a stage of “too dry” before it hits “soft and tender and falling apart.” I’m sure there’s a chemistry lesson in this, but I don’t really know how it works.  But it’s why you have to cook pot roast and stew so long. Again, in a hotter crockpot, you may need to add more liquid to make sure it doesn’t all cook off (which it shouldn’t do in a closed system, but somehow it always does anyhow), but if you cook your meat long enough it should eventually hit that tender stew-y stage. Or you could just follow Michael Pollan’s suggestions and not eat so much meat.
  6. I have not tried this yet, because in my desire to not be a big old consumer-buyer-of-things-i-don’t-really-need and also to cope with my small kitchen the idea of purchasing a fourth crockpot seems a little ludicrous, but if you can kick in the extra money to buy a programmable slow cooker, either one where you can set the temperature to which you want your food cooked, or one that lets you set the cooking time precisely and then have it automatically kick down to “warm” (which is somewhere just a little cooler than the old “low”–not really hot enough in most pots to actually cook on, but when you’re cooking basic vegetable products it can last a good long time on the warm setting) after a set amount of time. My current pot only has 8-hour and 10-hour options on low, which at the current heat setting is ludicrous; beans are the only thing I cook that can take that much time in the crock. A programmable cooker also would give you the option of exploring some of the lovely breakfast recipes you can make in a slow-cooker–oatmeals and bread puddings and stuff of that nature–and let them cook overnight. (A friend just sent me a couple…I will post about them as soon as I get to try them!)

Other than that…I got nothin’. It’s a sad thing. Once a food hits boiling and sits there for a while, you lose so much of the flavor, and it’s just tragic. Mulled cider, marinara sauce, pretty much anything you make loses all subtlety of flavor after that much time at a Real Boil. And forget anything like mulled wine or glogg–the alcohol just cooks right off, and what’s the point of that?

So…anyone got any other tips? Ways of getting past this annoying quality in our crockpots? Because this is just…sad.

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Not-Quite Meatless Sunday: Slow Shortcut to Mushrooms! (Crockpot Garlic Mushroom Recipe)

Okay, do any of y’all go to the Renaissance Faire, in whatever incarnation it might be in your own locality?

There are lots of reasons to go–people-watching at its best, costumes, cool dialogue, great comedy, great music…and then there’s the food.

The giant roasted turkey legs are, I think, a staple of Faires everywhere.  And they are actually fairly easy to make onesself, once one actually has the turkey legs; one year instead of roasting the whole Thanksgiving turkey I instead dismembered it, roasting the breast separately, cutting up and freezing the thighs, making stock from the carcass and wings, and roasting the legs in a little barbecue sauce in a 350 degree oven for an hour or two.  Absolute yum.

But this post is not about the turkey legs; this post is about the shrooms.  The giant vat of garlic sauteed mushrooms swimming in broth, from which the guy will dip you out a serving complete with styrofoam bowl (grr) and plastic spork (grrr), or ladle out a quart in a Ball jar to take home.  These shrooms are lovely–soft and flavorful and generally absolutely delicious, and one of those rare things you really can’t get anywhere but at the Renaissance Faire.

Except, now, my kitchen, and my crockpot.

Well, I found a recipe for them online. And discovered today that my local grocery store, the one I almost never go to, was selling mushrooms on sale at a huge discount.  I couldn’t resist; I bought 3 lbs, even though it meant incurring 6 horrible styrofoam containers, and a quart of organic beef broth, even though it meant ridiculous amounts of sodium and a non-recyclable tetrapak container.

Renfaire Garlic Shroom Nirvana (so simple I can hardly even call it a recipe)

I came home, I washed the shrooms, I put all 3 lbs of them into my biggest (6 quart, I think?) crockpot, with one chopped onion and about half a cup (okay, in my case more like 2/3 of a cup) of minced garlic (or “jarlic,” actually, it’s the pre-minced stuff, sue me) and the quart of broth.  Also a splash of lemon juice and a little black pepper.  I put it on low in the crock, and went to work.

I came home from work. My husband was speechless with joy and amazement. Okay, actually, he tasted them and said, “Hmm. Not bad.” –which is from him the equivalent of “Delicious, honey, please make this again!” (As opposed to “It’s okay,” which means I’ll eat it when you cook it and I won’t complain or else I know you’ll tell me to cook next time, but it ain’t my thing.”)  But he also knows I know he loves these, so I’m hoping I have garnered a few Wife Points from this…

These are really good.  And they taste a LOT like what we get at the Faire, only not as salty, which is good.

Three pounds of mushrooms gave me two quart jars of mushrooms and broth, plus an extra pint of very intense shroom-garlic-onion-beef broth. If you wanted to store them or give them away, you’d fill each clean hot quart jar with mushrooms and then fill it to the top with broth, so they can continue sort of marinading in there.  And store in the fridge. I honestly can’t speak to how long they should last in there, but I suspect it’s a good long while, and the Shroommeister at the Faire said you could also freeze them almost indefinitely.

Now, future iterations of this recipe will happen with vegetable broth, or faux-beef-broth such as I found a recipe for here (essentially adding a little vegan Worcestershire and soy sauce to regular veggie broth), the low-sodium version, and hopefully mushrooms I got in bulk somewhere with my own produce bags.  (No apologies for the jarlic; I will keep using that.) That would make this a recipe actually appropriate for a green blog.  For the moment I just get maybe cheap-and-homemade points, since for maybe $8-9 I got a lot of shrooms.

God, I love mushrooms. Just send me to the Shire and invite me to dinner at the Gamgees…

Crockpot Lemon Rosemary Chicken

Yesterday was the quintessential Really Cruddy Day*. Serious Mondayness. However, dinner was a bright spot.

I had a few pounds of chicken in the fridge approaching their sell-by date…and I needed inspiration.  So of course I consulted with Stephanie the Fabulous Crockpot Lady…

What I finally did was sort of a hybrid of two of her recipes: her Lemon and Herb Roasted Chicken recipe, and her Pesto Chicken and Sweet Potatoes Layered Dinner.   Here’s what I did:

Lemon Rosemary Chicken and Roasted Sweet Potatoes:

  • Slice 1 onion and separate into rings; place in bottom of crockpot
  • Place chicken on top of onion. (I used 4 large boneless breasts.)
  • Sprinkle chicken with a little salt and pepper
  • Sprinkle chicken with several tbs fresh chopped rosemary or 1 tbs dried
  • Slice 2 or 3 organic lemons, lay on top of chicken
  • Place a sheet of foil lightly over the chicken and lemons
  • Wash several sweet potatoes (I did about 5, but they are the skinny kind) and prick skins with fork. Lay over top of foil.
  • Cook on low 7-8 hours.

VERDICT:

It actually seemed “done” in about 4 hours.  I happened to be home, so I turned it to “warm” at that point.

The sweet potatoes were incredible–the lemon essence sort of flowed up and infused them, and they were lovely.  And this seems like a method one could use over almost any crockpot meal, assuming of course it’s not too soupy…lay foil over whatever’s being cooked and then lay sweet potatoes (or white ordinary ones, I guess!) on top.

The chicken–nice, but it didn’t bowl me over.  Next time I make it I would change a couple of things: For one thing, I probably would cook it longer, until the chicken really went to the fall-apart stage; it was a little dry.  On the other hand, my daughter liked the chicken and my son liked both the chicken and the sweet potatoes.  So the idea of a dinner I can cook for the family that the family will eat is a fairly appealing concept.

So future edits: Either cooking longer or I would probably want to combine thighs with breasts to get a little more moisture (and unfortunately fat) into the whole thing.  And three lemons was too many; two small or even one large would be lovely, but 3 overpowered.  This would probably be lovely with any variety of fresh herbs too–fresh tarragon in springtime would be nice with the lemons.  I also may try it with oranges instead someday…or maybe limes, with some cumin and a cilantro garnish.  Lots of possibilities here!

(Ooh! Same recipe, but use the “throw 20 garlic cloves into the pot” method, with little yellow potatoes…that would be DELISH!)

So–a success!

*Oh, the Monday misery–long story short, the bolts that hold in the driver side window gave way, the window fell down inside the door, and on its way it apparently took out the motor.  Today I’m really wishing for a basic ordinary crank window, which I don’t think most auto companies even make any more…and it’s going to be horribly expensive, which will hurt much more since it’s not a transmission or the steering system or something obviously crucial to the car’s operation…but on the other hand, it’s not something I can get away with not fixing, since I live in Chicago and it’s November.  After checking with several places, all of who said it would take the whole week to even get the part, I’m having to suck it up and go to the dealer, who can do it quickly and who will give me a loaner car for the duration.  This is where, on the green front, I want to start complaining about living in such a non-walkable area–I’m a mom, I’m employed, and I can’t get everyone (including myself) where I need to go without transportation, and there’s no public transit that can get me where I need to go…and the dealer will charge an arm and a leg, I know it.

However, I did stop at The Farm, our local farmstand that’s closing tomorrow for the winter, while walking home from the first place I took the car, and bought a couple more pie pumpkins at 40 cents a pound…so I can make more of my Crockpot Baked Stuffed Pumpkin with Apples

UPDATE:  Next night for dinner we had chicken quesadillas, with shredded leftover chicken, some of the onions from the bottom of the crockpot, and pepper jack cheese, with a little salsa. (Would have added other veggies, but there wasn’t time to chop a thing.)  Very good!

Yes, I CAN! (my first boiling water canning bath)

Today I was seriously productive. 

For starters, upstairs in the smaller of my two crockpots there’s a big pot of chicken noodle soup with mushrooms and vegetables.  And there’s a fresh baguette to go with it. 

Simultaneously, I filled the bigger crockpot with apple slices and spices and brown sugar, and turned it into applesauce over the course of a few low-maintenance hours.  Last month we visited the apple orchard and I brought home half a bushel of nice cheap “windfall” (i.e. heinously ugly) apples, just waiting for a day when I’d be home to transform them into spicy autumny goodness. My kids helped core and slice the apples with our cool little corer-peeler-slicer, and the crockpot did most of the rest of the work. (My “recipe”–which hardly even qualifies as a recipe, it’s so simple–is posted over at the Green Phone Booth.)

applesauceAfter taking a much-needed lunch break to watch a Criminal Minds rerun and drool over Thomas Gibson a little bit (sigh…), I dragged my daughter out to the store to get some mason jars.  I was a little surprised the grocery store didn’t have any at all, but the hardware store did, so we were good to go.  By the time we got back, the applesauce was done.   I washed and sterilized the jars and lids, filled ’em up, boiled them in the water bath, and took them out to cool.  I used a combination of this website and my birthday book Preserving the Harvestthe book had really good general instructions, and the website was applesauce-specific, so between the two of them I was all set.  And now I have preserved applesauce. I am very proud of myself.  (And disappointed that my giant-packed crockpot made only a total of 2 quarts–i.e. 4 pints–of applesauce.  Well, a little more, because the kids and I had some for a snack after school before actually canning it…) It was much less work than I thought it would be, even with my substandard supplies. I had only a big pot to boil things in, and I had to use a spatula and oven mitt to transfer things in and out of the boiling water, but it worked just fine.  I think I had always before felt threatened by the whole process and never wanted to Go There unless I had a giant amount of stuff to can (my whole cooking in quantity thing), but just doing this small project was pretty easy.  Next time I’ll just fill both crocks with apples and make twice as much applesauce, and can them in quart jars. (Except that I’ll need a taller pot to boil them in, because the tallest one I have is barely high enough to manage pints.)

Now upstairs the crockpot is in action again, this time hopefully to result in a bunch of holiday gift half pints of apple crockpot applesbutter for teachers and stuff.  I had to stuff it much fuller than I normally would, because I’d already sliced the rest of the half bushel of apples and honestly have nothing else to do with them–so I filled it once, let it cook on high for about an hour, and then mushed down what was there enough to get the rest of the apples in.   This will quietly cook all night, and in the morning I’ll attack it with the immersion blender.  And if there’s any leftover baguette come morning, it would probably be divine with a little fresh hot apple butter.  Or maybe we’ll eat oatmeal…

This planning a meal around a condiment is a fairly new thing for me, but I like it.

Crockpot+chicken pieces+jar of sauce=dinner.

And by the way…leftovers + broth + whatever’s in the fridge=dinner tomorrow.

I think I’ve mentioned before the Wonderful Ease involved with throwing chicken breasts, some vegetables, and a jar of Some Sauce From Your Pantry (or salsa, or pasta sauce, or whatever) into the crockpot and cooking for 8 hours on low or 4 hours on high.  The stretch-the-end-and-make-soup method works for pretty much every one of those, too.   The Crockpot Green Chili recipe with broth and some extra veggies and beans and corn and stuff works like a charm.

Frozen chopped spinach is wonderful in soup.  Wait till the last 5 minutes and throw a handful into almost anything; I have yet to meet a soup (okay, except for some schmantzy bisques, which I don’t cook anyway) that couldn’t benefit from a handful of chopped spinach.

I love getting domesticity points with very little effort put in. 🙂

One crockpot. One afternoon. Dinner for half a week.

Dinner Saturday Night: Crockpot Chicken Piccata

At about 2pm, later than it should have been, I started dinner and threw into the crockpot:

  • 5 big frozen chicken breasts (in hindsight, should have done 6.  They cook down a LOT.
  • half a pound of pre-sliced baby bella mushrooms (though ordinary white would have been fine too), and
  • a jar of Trader Joe Piccata Sauce.

I turned it on high. I went to work, letting it cook for about 4 hours.

At 5:45 my husband put the big pot of brown rice on to cook.  At 6:30 we sat down to dinner: He and I had lovely chicken-and-mushroom piccata over brown rice, and the kids had brown rice with butter and salt. (My daughter always adds parmesan, or “sprinkle cheese” as she calls it.) We put away the leftovers.

Doing Chicken Piccata this way won’t give you what you’d get  if you ordered it in the finer restaurants; there’s a lot of liquid, way more sauce than chicken, and in fact any self-respecting Italian cook would probably curse at me for putting that name on it. So I’ll be clear: I call it Chicken Piccata because it uses chicken and a jar of Piccata sauce, not because it’s particularly “authentic.”  Sometimes I thicken the sauce at the end with a little flour-and-water mixture stirred in.  It’s very saucy, but the sauce is wonderful for this meal’s later incarnations…

(Sunday we had relatives in, so we ate out.  Normally when I cook a multi-meal kind of thing, we eat it one night and then take a break from Whatever it was, and then revisit the third night…)

Dinner Monday Night: Crockpot Chicken Piccata redux, Part Deux

Reprise, only this time we each have a chicken breast and piccata sauce over pasta.  The kids have pasta with butter and salt.  And sprinkle cheese.  Raw carrots on the side. Their repertoire is still sorely limited.

Dinner Tuesday night: : Chicken and rice soup with spinach and mushrooms

At this point there is one chicken breast and a bunch of sauce and mushrooms left.  Enough for one person, or …since it’s a dreary rainy night, I opted for soup. Here’s what I did:

  • Saute 1 cut up onion in a little oil till soft.  Maybe add a little crushed garlic too.
  • Add 2 cups chicken broth
  • Add leftover Chicken Piccata, meat shredded or cut up into small pieces (1 breast and maybe 3/4 cup of sauce?); stir til hot
  • Add about a cup (or more, or less, it’s up to you) leftover cooked rice from the first night’s dinner; stir til hot
  • Add a handful or two or four chopped frozen spinach; stir til hot
  • Serve in bowls with a little ground pepper and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan (optional)

And believe it or not, there’s leftover soup now, if not enough for two adults for dinner, certainly a couple of lunches worth.

The kids had naan pizzas.  That’s where you take a piece of naan flatbread, put a little cheese on it, and melt it in the toaster oven. Raw carrots on the side.  Sigh.  We’re trying. They don’t much like the brown rice with butter and salt thing, though they’ll eat it when that’s all there is.

peace,
J

Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart

Actually, they say that if you soak the beans, dump that water, and then cook them in new water, you’ll avoid a lot of the…side effects.

They also say that if red kidney beans aren’t cooked really well, there’s a toxin in them that can make you pretty sick. (I don’t actually care for the red beans as much, so I don’t cook them on anything like a regular basis.)

So for me, “beans” means either black or white, and if white, usually Great Northern because they’re easier to find than cannellinis. (Cannelinis are yummy, though.)  One of my ways to try not to generate so much throwaway packaging (not to mention the cost to transport beans in metal cans full of a lot of liquid that’s going to be drained away anyway) is to mass-cook dried beans in my crockpot periodically.

I have a big 6-quart cooker, so I can do 4 cups of dried beans at a go. (Not really more than that, though. I think that’s about 2 lbs.)

I usually start in an ordinary stockpot, though, just for speed, to get the beans soaked.  To do this, put the beans in a big pot, covered with at least 2-3 inches of water.  I use my pot with the pasta insert because it makes draining them really easy.  Bring it t a boil on the stove and let it boil for a few minutes (some sources say 2 minutes, some say 10, I figure it’s a pretty inexact science!), then turn the heat off, cover the pot, and let it sit for at least an hour untouched. (Again, some sources say an hour, others say 5, others say you can leave it up to 24.)   Basically, in the soaking process you’re just shortening the amount of time actual cooking will take, although some say it also affects how soft your beans can actually get after cooking…My MO is to start the process when I get home from work, boil the beans and then let them sit in their water for a few hours.

Then  (usually after the kids have gone to bed) I drain the soaked beans and drop them in the crockpot. At this point, there’s a lot more than 4 cups of beans because of all the water they’ve picked up, so they probably fill the crockpot 2/3 or 3/4 of the way full.   Fill it the rest of the way with water (it’s honestly at this point about as full as I can get it!)  Put it on low overnight, or for 8-10 hours, or sometimes more, depending on how old the beans were and how long you soaked them.  The only way to really tell is to test them and see if they taste right.

At that point, I drain them again.  At this point I have two choices: either I can put larger quantities in quart ziploc bags in the freezer (they stack very nicely and take up not much space), or if I have more time to futz I put half cup quantities into my muffin tins, and freeze the tins for a day or so.  Then I can take the nicely pre-measured “bean muffins” out of the muffin tins and put them back in the freezer in ziplocs, and I have nice, easily thaw-able, pre-measured cooked beans.  They are easier to get out of the muffin tins if you plunge the cup parts into hot water for a couple of seconds until the “muffin” loosens.  From the original 4 cups of dried beans I ended up with 24 “muffins,” i.e. about 12 cups of beans.)   I will have to again do the cost-benefit analysis of doing it this way, but in terms of greening my footprint, it’s a fairly easy no-brainer.

So now I have a freezerful of black and white beans, waiting for salads and chilies and all that good stuff…

Yogurt in the Crockpot

Those who read my blog with any regularity are probably sick of hearing me sing the praises of Stephanie the Crockpot Lady —-I don’t know if I’ve ranted much about her here on wordpress yet, but there ya go.

A month or two ago I became intrigued by her method of making yogurt in the crockpot.

The first time I tried it, it worked well, although it was very runny and didn’t strain well. (That was the time I followed her directions pretty much to a T.)  The end result was better suited to “kefir” (that yogurt drink you pay an arm and a leg for at Whole Foods) than any more traditional yogurt.

The second time I tried it, I made a gallon instead of a half gallon and threw in some powdered milk as well–the basic method I used:

  • heat a gallon (Stephanie did 1/2 gallon, so I’m adjusting) milk in crockpot on low for 2.5 hours
  • unplug crockpot and let sit another 3 hours
  • whisk a cup of plain yogurt in a bowl; whisk in a cup or three of the warm milk till it’s nicely mixed, then pour back into the crock. (Here I added a cup of powdered nonfat milk.)
  • Cover the crock, drape a couple of heavy towels over it for insulation, and let sit unplugged overnight.

This second time I let the yogurt incubate a lot longer–10-12 hours rather than the initially suggested 8. (Perhaps longer than safe…the greenmama is not responsible for your kids’ stomach upsets if you follow any bad advice I give on this blog.  I tried it, I felt fine, it tasted perfectly good, my kids ate it, all was okay.) This time it strained like a dream.  Turns out (thank you, internet) that once the yogurt incubates past a certain point, the whey and curd naturally separate, so the gelatinous fragility of lots of store-bought yogurt actually intensifies, and it just starts to “leak”.  (This happens with bigger containers of store-bought yogurt too, after you’ve cut into them with a spoon, you’ve probably noticed.)

This time I immediately strained it, putting a piece of natural muslin (from my fabric stash, prewashed of course and dampened before dumping the yogurt in) into a vegetable strainer over a big pyrex measuring container–I used a measuring container because I was curious about how much whey would actually drain out.  Also, every 10 minutes or so I scraped the muslin with a spoon, to clear away the already strained stuff and make room for more; not sure how big a difference this made.

The strainer held about a quart of unstrained yogurt and over about half an hour abandoned about a cup of clear whey, leaving a nice thick creamy yogurt in the muslin.  I did this three times, transferring the finished strained yogurt into old saved yogurt containers.  The kids took this to lunch and ate it for snacks, and we went through 2+ quarts in maybe a week.  I would put some of the yogurt into one of those little cup tupperware things and drizzle some honey or maple syrup or even chocolate sauce over it.  I bet apple butter would be yummy too. 

The last of the unstrained yogurt (1 gallon=4 quarts) I put in the muslin/strainer over the pyrex again, but this time since it was time to go to work I put it all into the fridge and let it drain for 6 hours or so.  By the time I got home it had given up just over 2 cups of whey, and  was honestly “yogurt cheese,” a thick stuff about the consistency of cream cheese.  I’ve made dip with it, or used it as a mayonnaise substitute on sandwiches.  Good stuff.

Cost Analysis: Okay, a quart of organic yogurt at Trader Joe’s costs about $3.  To make this, I needed a gallon of organic milk ($6–obviously WAY cheaper if you get conventional), a cup of regular plain yogurt ($1-ish, but once you’ve made it once you can keep using the starter for subsequent batches), and the powdered milk (hard to gauge, since I bought a giant box ages ago that I just keep around).  So, assuming I’d’ve gotten about 3 quarts of plain yogurt out of this, that comes to about $2 savings, which isn’t much.  Again, using conventional milk and yogurt starter would drop the cost of making my own dramatically.  Plus…well, it’s sort of fun.

I’m told that one can use instant gelatin in the milk to help it set a bit more, though I haven’t tried it.  And apparently when the fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts get made, they actually put the fruit in first, then the infected milk, and let it incubate right there over the fruit, so that’s how it keeps its nice still gelatin texture in the commercial brands.  That’s also, I presume, why the “yogurt makers” you buy use all the little cups instead of doing one big Vat of yogurt like the crockpot does. 

So…bon appetit!  It’s fun! And healthy! And reduces your footprint by not going through (as I do) 2 plastic quart containers every week!

peace,
J

(UPDATE: I’ve upped my total amount of GOOD usable yogurt to 4 quarts from a gallon of milk simply by paying attention to temperatures: the initial heat-up needs to get to 180 degrees; after cool-down, it should be back down to 116 degrees.  I think my crock wasn’t letting it cool enough and so when I dumped the yogurt in to innoculate the milk, the heat killed most of the yogurt culture and that’s why my end result was so runny. I’d recommend trying it once with an actual thermometer, if you’re having trouble at all, and then see what happens! When I made the yogurt with a cup of powdered milk to a gallon of liquid 1% milk, and observed these temperature guides, I got nice thick yogurt that didn’t need to be drained at all.  Which of course alters the cost-effective question a lot–I’m now getting twice as much finished product from the same outlay, i.e. 4 quarts of yogurt for $6 of milk plus a cup each plain yogurt and powdered milk, which I get in larger amounts anyway…that’s about half off from what I’d pay for organic plain yogurt in the store.)

Crockpot Pasta Sauce

A couple of weeks ago I made a huge mess of pasta sauce.

A lot of my green efforts come from an increasing p.o.’d-ness at how many pasta sauce jars and yogurt containers and applesauce jars I find myself throwing into the recycling bin.  It’s a a lot of refuse.  Makes me mad.

So I saved a few jars from purchased pasta sauce, and I made sauce in the crockpot.  A whole lot.  Again, the basic easy ridiculous recipe involves a lot of non-measuring and throwing of handfuls of stuff into the pot.  Something like this:

Vegetarian Crockpot Pasta Sauce:

  • Fill the crock about 2/3 full of various raw veggies: mushrooms (not more than half a pound unless you brown them first), cut up bell peppers, chopped onion, zucchini, whatever else you can think of.
  • Add maybe 3-4 (or more, if you’re me) spoonfuls of crushed garlic from a jar, or the real stuff if you’re up for it, in with the veggies.
  • Ditto a few teaspoonsful of Italian dried (or 3 times as much of fresh) herbs and spices.
  • Pour 4 big cans of diced tomatoes with juice into the pot.  Add 1 can of tomato paste.  Stir if you want to, or don’t bother.
  • Cook on low all day.  Give it a good stir when you get home from work.
  • About half an hour before serving, start some pasta to go under it, toss in a couple of glubs of cheap red wine, 1-2 tsp. salt, and more Italian herbs.
  • If you live with kids who won’t eat recognizable veggies, attack it (gently!) with an immersion blender to obliterate/disguise the veggie pieces.  (And as careful as you’re being, don’t wear your white tank top while you do it, because if you’re wearing a white tank top you’re guaranteed to splatter.  Murphy’s law.)

Got a total of 4-5 jars of pasta sauce this way, with very little work and not much cost either.  And it’s pretty darn healthy.

Think that’s what we’re having for dinner tonight…
–J

Crockpot Green Chili–easiest thing ever!

No time. Today or tonight. Early dinner needed.

Time for the crockpot (and can I just link once again to crockpot563.blogspot.com, Stephanie the Crazy Crockpot Lady’s site full of a gajillion really good recipes that also give one a whole helluva lot of basic learning about what one can and can’t get away with?)…

Crockpot Green Chili:
–Throw in a few pounds of boneless skinless Chicken Parts (in my case, breasts, because I ran out of thighs.  Why does that happen in my freezer but never on my body?)
–Throw in whatever assortment of veggies pleases you. In my case, that’s half a bag of Trader Joe cut up bell peppers and a medium sized diced onion.
–Throw over this 2 cans or so white beans, drained. (Or not. I always drain the beans, because someone once told me that most of the fart-producing things are in the juice)
–Throw over ALL of it a big jar of green salsa.

Put the crockpot on low until you get home from work. Make some rice or something to serve under it.

Now natch, this will work with lots of different meats, salsas, and/or beans.  Beef you have to be careful of unless you get the absolutely totally lean no fat in it kind, or else your chili will be swimming in grease.  I’ve never been one to bother with browning the meat first; why use the crockpot if you have to mess up another pot first? That’s not of the speedymama gestalt.  

This is one of my standby “what the hell are we eating tonight” recipes.  Frozen chicken, veggies, a jar of Something from the pantry. Italian veggies and spaghetti sauce? Chicken Cacciatore. Shrooms and marsala sauce? Chicken Marsala.  Beans and salsa? Chili. The possibilities never end.

Which reminds me:
Crockpot Veggie Chili
Disclaimer: I haven’t actually ever tried this one.  But it’s in my brain for when (I hope) my garden explodes and I have to find something to do with all the veggies.

This is easier still: chop up a bunch of vegetables into bite-sized pieces: onion, peppers, summer squash, whatever. Fill the crockpot about half full with them. Throw a couple of cans of beans (or a bag of ones I pre-cooked in my crockpot last fall that have been sitting calmly in the freezer waiting for this happy day) in; if they are still frozen, no problem.  A bunch of cut up peeled tomatoes too, preferably de-seeded, or a big can of pre-diced, with juice. (Remember that a crockpot is happiest when it’s 2/3-3/4 full.)

Throw a jar or two of salsa over this.  How hot would depend on how hot you want your chili and how hot the peppers you put in are–remember it’ll dilute a LOT, but also remember that if you included habaneros in the “bunch of vegetables” category you’ll want to be prepared!

Put the crockpot on low for a long time. I have no idea how long, honestly, but I’ll report back later–a workday’s worth of simmerage would probably be plenty. 

If anyone tries this before my garden does its thing, let me know how it goes!
–J

ETA on the green chili:  needed more veggies and less chicken, actually.  A second jar of salsa, a third can of beans.  More onions, more peppers, and actually more liquid. I also threw in about 2 tsp of ground cumin, which gave it a nice flavor…