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Side by Side: Potatoes on hand (white or sweet potatoes)

One of my priorities in giving Thanksgiving recipes here is to make things as simple for the cook on the Day Of as possible.  The challenge for Thanksgiving every year is that most of us only have one stove and one oven, and managing turkey plus pies plus sides plus gravy plus all this stuff at once is the main headache, because all of a sudden everything is done at once and you’re not sure how to navigate it all…the slow cooker can take a lot of pressure off on that front. And this, by the way, is not just a holiday idea–try this year-round, it makes life much simpler at dinnertime!

Today I’m talking about potatoes, and prepping for both sweet and mashed: you have to cook the potatoes first before doing anything else with them, which can be either done on the stovetop in two big pots (basically, cut ’em up, boil them for twenty minutes or so or just until fork tender, and drain ’em in cold water to stop cooking) or in the crockpot overnight the night before.  Stephanie over at “A Year of Slow Cooking” has crockpot baked potato instructions that will work perfectly well for this–essentially, wash and dry your potatoes (sweet or white), poke ’em with a fork a few times, wrap each one individually in foil, and cook them on low in the crockpot for 8-10 hours or so or until soft all the way through.  Then you can take them out, let them cool, and deal with them as you wish.  Note: you are not really baking the potatoes in here, you are steaming them. Which is better for most Thanksgiving applications anyway.

Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams: the eternal debate, happens every year. Is there a difference? Yes.  Will it have any effect at all on your cooking them for Thanksgiving? Not a damn thing. According to this site, the confusion comes from mis-naming sweet potatoes as yams for a long time, alongside with the other confusion that there are tons of different sweet potato varieties–bottom line is that normally we are eating sweet potatoes even when we think they are yams, because sweet potatoes are the ones indigenous to most of our climates, and 95% of genuine yams are grown in Africa and are indigenous to Africa and Asia.

Types of Potatoes to Mash: This is really up to you. But you should know that the whiter, starchier potatoes (the ones we usually bake) like russets and Idahos (Idahos are usually Russets, actually), have more starch in them and don’t stand up to boiling as well, and the smaller waxier ones  have more moisture and tend to turn to glue if you smooth them too much. I like “smashed potatoes” better than the smooth creamy ones we all usually think of as “mashed” (really more “whipped” potatoes)–most sites I look at suggest that “Yukon Gold” is a good sort of middle-of-the-road potato…

I’m giving this potato-pre-prep thing its own post, because really this is something you can do any time–toss a few potatoes into the crockpot in foil before you go to work in the morning, and by the time you get home you can turn them into all kinds of things in a matter of minutes.  Mash ’em, smash ’em, add a little salt and butter to the white ones or brown sugar and cinnamon to sweet ones, you can do all kinds of things. And put some in the fridge for tomorrow or the next day too.


Side by Side: Brussels Sprouts that Don’t Suck!

I was going to be more polite and title this, “Brussels Sprouts that Don’t Stink”…but unfortunately when I made these yesterday I came home to a pungent cabbagey-smelling house that caused my 8-year-old–the one who farts with such odorous abandon–to spend the next half hour pretending to asphyxiate.

These are really really good, seriously–but if you make them on a non-turkey-or-other-very-yummy-smelling-cooking day, you might want to open the windows or put your crockpot on the patio while they cook. 🙂

Brussels sprouts are one of those things that have always been a Thanksgiving Must, though I have always had a tolerate-hate (as opposed to love-hate) relationship with the little things. At last, we’re learning to get along.

It’s not my recipe: Got this from Stephanie O’Dea’s “A Year of Slow Cooking” website–“The Very Best Brussels Sprouts Recipe in the World.” (Bookmark this site! It’s a gold mine! And I’m desperately grateful that she didn’t have to take it down once she published her cookbook…)

Now okay, I have to admit: I don’t think this is the best brussels sprout recipe in the world, because that honor goes to the recipe our family friend Nancy makes every year at my mom’s house.  It involves, as I recall, sauteeing shallots in like a whole stick of butter, then adding salt and pepper and sliced up brussels sprouts and then sprinkling chopped toasted pecans or something in it.  Beyond amazing, seriously.  But that stick of butter puts that recipe into the “special occasions only” category for me, plus I can’t be bothered to slice up brussels sprouts.

Stephanie’s crockpot recipe is really a good way to go–definitely, click the link, but to summarize: it involves sprouts and a little water in the crockpot with salt, pepper, a little butter (I think I only did maybe a tablespoon instead of her 3), and Dijon mustard. Very nice blending of flavors, very delicious. And it frees up a stove burner, always key on Thanksgiving, am I right?

Give it a try. Very very good stuff…

Afternoon of domesticity (crockpot rice pudding risotto)

This is my busiest work week of the year.  It’s insane.  Way too much to do, and way more organization than my brain can deal with.  (I’m just not a linear thinker, I tend to jump around–and this week I not only have to be linear and cover a lot of big-picture and small-detail bases, but I have to do it in several linear streams at once. Oy.)

Yesterday afternoon I had a little respite, though, and in my usual vein, rather than doing something intelligent like, oh, taking a nap, I went into this burst of homey activity.  None of it was difficult, but it was all the kind of thing that I hope will yield long-lasting (through the week, at least) rewards.

Risotto Rice Pudding in the Crockpot–This is one of my favorite comfort foods, right after baked egg custard (which I now know how to make in the microwave).  I previously posted a recipe for making this rice pudding in the oven, which was absolutely delicious, but tonight I tried it in the crock instead.  Lower maintenance, and easier to make more of.   It was yummy, and much easier than any of my previous incarnations–I put 8 cups of milk, 1 cup arborio rice, and 8 tbs. sugar into the crockpot, added a few generous shakes of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and ground cloves (very generous with the cinnamon; not as generous with the cloves), maybe a tsp. of vanilla extract, and cooked it all on low for about 3-4 hours. I was lifting the lid and stirring a lot during the last hour, too.  In the meantime, I soaked 2/3 of a cup or so of currants in maybe half a cup of frangelico liqueur–you could use brandy or any other liqueur if you wanted, or cream sherry would be nice too–or you could use juice if you don’t want any alcohol–for the duration.  At the end of the 3-4 hours when the rice was all soft and the whole thing had a sort of creamy texture (it thickens up a good bit when it cools), I dumped the currants and liqueur into the pudding. (Most recipes say to drain the currants; I say the hell with that.) Stir it up good–since the pudding is still steaming hot, I figure most of the alcohol cooks off, right?  I added a lot more spices at this point too, to sort of freshen them. This is a lovely, yummy, comforting pudding with no fat in it beyond whatever was in your milk to begin with, and not an excessive amount of sugar either. (Verdict from later that night…okay, this is beyond lovely and yummy, this is flipping AMBROSIA.)

Black Beans–now that my husband is allowed to reintroduce some of his potentially allergic foods one at a time, we’re starting with the black beans.  I did the quick-soak method (bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, turn off the heat, let sit covered for at least an hour), then drained and rinsed them and simmered them slowly for a couple of hours with a little salt and thyme in the water. (I would have used a bay leaf, but I discovered too late that I’m out.) These will go into chili, burritos, quesadillas, soups, heck, all over the place!  And I will freeze a bunch of them by putting half a cup into each muffin tin and freezing them, so when I need to thaw smaller quantities they’ll be there and ready to go.  They’re also really easy in the crockpot, but my crockpot was busy and my counter too messy to allow for two going at once. Sigh.

Brown Rice–again, cooked in quantity, it’s something I can pull out all week for breakfasts, snacks, dinners, to throw under chili, whatever.  Two parts water to one cup rice, simmer half an hour or so till done.  I make 6-8 cups at a time and they last the week.

Chili–okay, I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s what the rice and beans were in preparation for…and The Man has been Craving Meat.  So I bought a measly pound of organic ground beef (which I know is still not sustainable for all its organic-ness–but if doing this once every 4 months or so can keep the “why don’t we eat more meat” pleas at bay, it’s worth it), and into the crock this morning I threw the beef, a bag of frozen bell peppers, a chopped up onion, and a few cups of beans.  Threw a few tablespoons of chili powder on top of that and added some extra ground chilis and garlic, a pinch of unsweetened cocoa powder, and a good shake of cinnamon, and threw a can or two of diced tomatoes on top of that.  When I come home from work I’ll futz with it and check out the seasonings, make sure they’re what I want them to be, and doubtless add a bunch  more chili powder and other seasonings.  This chili is not particularly sexy, no one’s famous secret family recipe, nothing to go “ohmigodwow” over–but it’s a good solid filling healthy (except for that beef) dinner that is easy to freeze portions of for later, or save for other nights this week when I know I won’t have energy or time to cook.  (Now my crockpot green chicken chili recipe is something to wow over a bit, but I’m not making that this week.)  Served over brown rice, it’s a Real Dinner.

And then the Man and I watched 24 (if the world recycled its goods the way that show recycles plots, we’d be in good shape!) while munching on homemade multigrain fresh artisan-baked bread with olive oil and grated parmesan. I guess as fattening vices go this is as good a one as any, and better than ice cream or chips.  It’s our weekly (whenever I’m home and have time to make bread–which is to say maybe monthly if we’re lucky) ritual, and it wasn’t a bad way to spend the only evening I’ll have at home this week…

[UPDATE: I made the rice pudding again yesterday with 2/3 cups arborio rice and 8 cups of milk; it’s an even nicer texture, IMO…depends whether you want more of the rice or more of the creamy part…]

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.


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…

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…

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, 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!

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…