Saturday, March 17, 2007

Saved by the Slow Cooker

Until R. was about 9 1/2 months old, he took an afternoon nap. While it was only 25 minutes long (to the minute, amazingly enough!), it was incredible what I could accomplish during that precious time. Somehow, knowing that I had to prepare dinner in that window meant a seemingly complex meal could emerge. However, like most little ones, as he began to crawl and pull himself up to standing (simultaneously-in one week), his excitement and pride at his new accomplishments meant that his nap was dropped. Now, mind you, he still needs it, he just thinks it is overrated compared to standing against the couch and dropping his toys into a bin.

So, once again my cooking shifted. For a few weeks I turned to the standby: Trader Joe's frozen foods. (We highly recommend the whole grain lasagna, sausage stromboli, pizzas and enchiladas, which, apparently may actually be Amy's brand, repackaged!) But, while healthier than some freezer born meals, the list of ingredients still made me wish for another way to create dinner.

Thus, the slow cooker, one of the best items Jay brought to our marriage, has been particularly helpful. I turn to it most frequently on the weekends. Then, as Jay and R. play together in the mornings (something that, as sappy as it is, makes me smile each time), I can throw ingredients in and even clean up, turn it on and by 6 p.m. we have dinner. I am just beginning to learn the art of adapting standard recipes for the slow-cooker, and, of course, I am not content with the recipes that consist of "add 2 cans of cream of mushroom soup to frozen beef". So for now I keep turning to the slow-cooker books by Beth Hensperger. Although the recipes involve a bit more preparation (e.g. dredge the chicken in flour and brown before placing them in), I also appreciate the Gourmet Slow Cooker (Volumes I and II) by Lynn Alley.

My favorite recipe so far is actually one I adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl. I first ate Harira at Amanouz Cafe in Northhampton. Simultaneously sweet and sour I couldn't identify the ingredients. I just knew it was one of the most delicious (and comforting) soups I had eaten. I now realize that saffron (just a pinch, Trader Joe's will do fine) is the secret ingredient. Somehow, though, lemon also brings out the flavors. Although the Gourmet recipe includes lamb, I created a purely vegetarian version. And, best of all, it freezes and reheats beautifully.

Another excellent breakfast standby: steel cut oats. Usually a time-consuming recipe that needs to be watched closely, the crock pot is perfect for this. Just follow the directions on the can: add one cup oats (I always use McCanns, not the quick version) to 4 cups water. Put it in the crock. Turn it on low. Then 9 hours later, breakfast is ready! You can also add dried fruit.

I always make double the recipe as it lasts for days in the frig. Just add milk or water to some in a bowl. Mix it and reheat in the microwave or on the stove.

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