Crock-Potting – a verb. To some, a sport. For me, it’s a time-saver. In the late 1930s, Irving Naxon (one of my heroes) applied for a patent for a portable cooking device that would be able to cook evenly and replace hours of someone miserably and inefficiently standing over a stove stirring. The two-part appliance contained the crock housed inside a casing that contained the heating element. Can we say genius? I have attempted to crock innumerable meals in my life. Some have been huge successes, while others went straight to the coop for the chicken’s bonus dinner. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly.
The brutal truth: I have never followed any of the directions listed in any recipe. I see recipes more as suggestions or inspirations. I mean seriously, Food Network? If I had time to tenderize and sear the meat first in a hot pan, chop the spices on the cutting board, then blend with wet ingredients in a separate bowl and alternate the mixtures in layers in the Crock-Pot, I would have effectively already cooked dinner (hence I wouldn’t use the Crock-Pot to dirty another dish).
My entire relationship with a Crock-Pot is based on efficiency. How much time can you save me, Mr. Crock-Pot? How quickly can I dump a bunch of food into your magical ceramic canister and create something healthy for my family (and get to work on time)?
Facts: I proudly own three Crock-Pots – one large, one mini and one double Crock-Pot. They are all my favorite. The large one I use for feeding a party size of people or if I want leftovers. The double I typically use for sauces or smaller batches of soup and allows for variety. The cute little guy I use for dips like queso or sometimes I accidentally use it for chocolate fondue.
Preheating does make a difference – think oven.
It takes more than one attempt to perfect a meal. This is one time where “Try, try again” actually works.
Use your artistic license when it comes to spices. Side note: a little bit of crushed red pepper goes a long way.
Three rules to live by
Rule No. 1: You must purchase the Crock-Pot liners. I cannot stress the importance of this. They are literally a game changer (I use Reynolds Wrap brand). It is like a shower cap for the ceramic part of the Crock-Pot. Somehow it doesn’t melt or taste plasticky. When you’re done, you simply peel it out and throw it away and it takes 60 seconds to rinse clean the Crock-Pot.
Rule No. 2: There are no rules to Crock-Pottery. I see it as an opportunity to use whatever I have in my pantry. Let’s face it – nothing ever truly looks appetizing coming out of the Crock-Pot. Most of the time, no one even knows or cares what it’s called. For some reason Crock-Pots get a pass on presentation and fancy names. You can put it on a decorative plate and add some parsley garnish, but somehow it always looks like a homogenized mess.
Rule No. 3: There is an art to transporting a Crock-Pot. I have firsthand experience of dumping out an entire French onion soup in the back of my car. Trust me when I say there is no way to erase that smell from my nose. I have tried every possible way to safely travel with a Crock-Pot. Here is my fool-proof method. First, use a twist tie to close the removable liner and place the lid back on. Then take a large rubber band and place it around one handle – through the top of the lid and back over the handle on the other side. Place in a cardboard box lined with an old towel. Lastly, securely seatbelt this contraption in the back seat.
Troubleshooting 101: Don’t panic if it is too soupy. Simply add flour or corn starch (in small pinches) to thicken and make it more stewlike. You can also cheat the system by using a ladle and scooping out some of the excess liquid. I typically put it in the garbage disposal, but if you’re feeling fancy and inspired you can reduce it on the stove and use as a sauce or glaze. I have done this exactly one time when I thought I was a contender for mother of the year. Need I remind you this creates another pan to clean.
Conversely, if your crock is too dry – which can happen – add more liquid immediately. Depending on the recipe, it can be water, chicken broth, or vegetable broth or a liquid of your choosing.
If you experience the dreaded overcooked/undercooked situation, here’s a quick fix. Perfect, oh-so-tender meat, but the vegetables are complete mush? Strain out the vegetables that are overcooked, puree them and add back into the sauce or cook a new vegetable and serve it on the side (no one will ever know).
I use some of Betheny Frankel’s best tips in my kitchen. Most importantly, know the Crock-Pot’s limit. “The high setting is for when you just want to heat things up.” If you want vegetables to stay whole, don’t put them in the slow cooker on high for 12 hours unless they’re hard-shelled, like squashes. “Delicate vegetables like zucchini or peppers will melt into nothing,” Frankel explains. “That’s a bad thing for zucchinis but can be great for peppers. When you’re slow-cooking vegetables, put the slow cooker on a delayed start for about three to four hours and keep it set to low.”
There are so many options for Crock-Pots: Crock-Pots with timers, programable ones and ones that connect to an app on your phone that you can control remotely. Although I have only cooked with my Crock-Pots, I have seen them used for potpourri, a double boiler, melting crayons, and a DIY for removing paint from handles, drawer pulls and hinges. No matter what you choose, have fun and experiment. It really can save you a significant amount of time.
My current and favorite Crock-Pot this month – “Southwestern Rice and Beans”
2 cans black beans (drained and rinsed)
1 can low-sodium chicken broth (approximately 2 cups if you’re using a carton)
1 can diced tomatoes (use any variety you like)
1 can green chilies (undrained will make it more zippy)
1 jar chunky salsa (I buy the fresh refrigerated kind)
1 cup frozen corn
1 tbsp parsley
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp pepper
3 cups brown minute rice (I add this in the last hour before serving)
Place in Crock-Pot and turn on high for 2 hours.
(Crystal Reynolds is an owner at 43 Degrees North Athletic Club and an avid Crock-Potter.)