Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Middle-Class Cooking: The Return of the Crock Pot!

I can't recall dedicating a blog to anyone, other than the one I wrote for my stepmother on Mothers' Day, but this one is for Tina and Suz, two of my pals from Starbucks who made a request for recipes for their slow-cookers.

So: dear Tina and Suz: Dis one's fer yinz 'n'at.

The first thing I should review, I suppose, are the few, but crucial, rules of cooking in a crock pot.  I mentioned them in a previous blog* but they bear repeating.  

a.) Don't cook pasta in a crock pot (unless you're monitoring it, and have put it in near the end of the cooking cycle); otherwise, it will turn into a glob of starch.

b.) Dried spices end up being much stronger than fresh ones in a crock pot.  If the recipe calls for fresh and you have only dried ones, you'll need to cut back by roughly half, depending on the flavor or what the recipe offers as an alternative.

c.)  You musn't keep lifting the lid to check your meal every fifteen minutes!  This allows heat to escape, and the crock pot needs to "recapture" the steam - and momentum - due to that heat loss.

d.) Not every recipe can be adapted for the crock pot.  For those that can, ensure you adjust measurements, especially liquid, accordingly.  Cut liquid measurements to about half of what the recipe requires.  You generally need very little or no liquid at all, depending on what you're cooking.  For example, I recently cooked a whole chicken with no added liquid at all and ended up with almost 2 1/2 cups of chicken broth in the pot!

e.) Although it seems contradictory, it's true that browning your meat before placing it in the crock pot produces a better flavor.  It seals in the juices and prevents the meat from getting too mushy.  However, it's by no means a requirement.  It depends on the time you have available to you...as well as how ambitious you feel!  The only exception is ground meats like beef or turkey, which end up producing a lot of grease in the crock pot unless browned and drained beforehand.

f.) About one hour on HIGH is equal to around 2 1/2 hours on LOW.  Plan accordingly.

Well, that's about all the rules I ever adhere to.  Now, here are some things that I like to make.

Classic Creamy Chicken

The most sturdy and time-tested of slow cooker recipes is among the simplest - even if it's not very glamorous!  Place four large boneless chicken breasts or six or seven breast halves in a medium-sized crock pot.  Combine one can of cream of mushroom soup with one can of cream of chicken soup.  Add a dash of pepper, some garlic powder, some onion powder.  Pour over chicken.  Cook on low for about 8 hours.  Serve over rice or noodles.   

Spicy Chili

This particular recipe is best in a smaller crock pot, which is the kind I generally use.  Brown a half-pound of ground beef and about a half-pound of "fondue-style" steak chunks (they're less tender than other cuts).  Drain, then place in the bottom of the crock pot.  Add one can of petite-cut diced tomatoes (I use the no-salt-added variety), one half-can of drained, rinsed black or kidney beans, one half-can of drained, rinsed sweet corn, one can of cream of tomato soup (again, I prefer the brands with less sodium).  Spices, of course, vary by individual preference, but I load my chili - stove-top as well as slow-cooked - with onion powder, black pepper, red pepper, cumin, garlic, and a sprinkle of both curry powder and cinnamon.  (You'll notice I omitted fresh onion from the menu.  Despite my European heritage, I've never been able to handle cooked onions.  I like the flavor and the scent but I can't stand the texture, and my husband feels the same, so we're an onion-free household!)  Cook on low for about 7 hours.  Great mixed with rice, topped with cheddar cheese!

 Pulled Pork

This one's easy.  Put into a small crock pot about a pound and a half of boneless pork loin.  Ribs are fine, but I prefer the loin because there's a lot more meat there.  In a separate bowl, combine a cup and a half of prepared barbecue sauce (I use Open Pit.  It's not the healthiest on the market, but it's cheap and it's what I remember from my childhood) with several splashes of hot sauce, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder and about quarter cup of ginger ale or cola.  Pour over the meat and cook on low for about 7 hours.  When it's done, turn off the heat, remove the lid and let it sit for several minutes.  Then, take two forks and begin to pull apart the pork.  It will fall apart pretty easily.  If you prefer sauce that's not quite as runny, omit the ginger ale or cola.  Serve on toasted wheat buns or, for a twist, top with sauteed peppers, cheese and beans and serve atop tortilla chips or in a wrap (it's great with cole slaw).

Well, I think that's all the inspiration I can muster regarding cooking this afternoon.  The hubby is getting healthy veggie burgers tonight, whether he likes it or not, since we enjoyed a humongous, rich and delicious dinner at Mallorca Restaurant in the South Side last night.  I was still so full even this morning that all I've eaten today was a bowl of cereal and an egg white wrap.  Hope I'm hungry when the man gets home!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Middle-Class Cooking Strikes Back!

While writing my last post, "Middle-Class Cooking", I was torn between wallowing in self-pity (because my cooking style is not "chic") and writhing in indignation (because my cooking style doesn't HAVE to be "chic", dangit!).  Eventually, I screwed up my courage and returned to the offending magazine with a greater sense of caution to read a little bit more.  To give it another chance.  Let bygones be bygones and whatnot.

This time I decided that even the picture of the editor is too upscale for me.

So, instead of lamenting over not knowing which roasting pan is appropriate for a pheasant, I decided this: if I ever do need to roast a pheasant, I will know exactly which magazine will have the appropriate, if slightly haughty, answer for me.

Until that day, I will, in my middle-class kitchen with my middle-class ingredients and tools, come up with fun, easy, reasonable recipes like the ones I will share with you below.  I do not specify amounts for spices because I always adjust them depending on what I'm serving the meal with; besides, to each his own when it comes to flavor.  Ross is heavy-handed with red pepper, cayenne and freshly ground black pepper, while I prefer dill, mint and lemony flavors.  I tweak each meal accordingly, and you probably do to.  So, I include the spices for a flavor profile, but it's wisest to season to taste.

Mushroom Couscous

Heat about a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a medium skillet.  Add a generous sprinkle of sesame seeds and flaxseed.  Toast lightly.  To the pan, add about 2/3 of a cube minced firm tofu and 1 cup of roughly chopped mushrooms (I prefer the mighty portobello myself, but any type is fine).    Saute for several minutes, until tofu begins to brown slightly and mushrooms become tender.  Add a healthy splash of lemon juice.  Sprinkle with reduced-fat feta and allow it to warm slightly.  (Don't bother trying to melt it; it doesn't get gooey like mozzarella.)  Remove from heat.  In the meantime, prepare 1 cup of couscous and stir in black pepper, salt, garlic and lemon juice to taste.  Stir the mushroom mixture into the couscous and top with more cheese, if desired.  Serve with mint iced tea for a light lunch, or serve as a side dish with chicken or lamb.

Wonder-Bird Burgers

Combine about a pound of ground turkey with chili powder, onion powder, black pepper, sea salt, red pepper, oregano and a little cumin.  Form into 4-6 patties and cook in a grill pan over medium heat (turn only once).  At the same time, fry up several strips of turkey bacon and drain on paper towels.  While the meat cooks, peel and halve one ripe avocado.  Slice for sandwiches and lightly sprinkle with lemon juice; set aside.  Thinly slice a ripe beefsteak tomato for the sandwiches as well.  (I'm not a fan of onions, but red onion would be great on the burger, too.)  Lightly toast whole wheat or hearty whole grain buns and spread with light olive-oil based mayonnaise and/or spicy brown mustard.  Top the turkey patties with reduced-fat cheddar cheese, bacon, tomato, avocado, and a few leaves of spinach.  Serve with a salad of dark leafy greens, mushrooms and olives topped with a warm balsamic vinegar dressing.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Middle-Class Cooking

Recently, my awesome mother-in-law loaned me a big pile of cooking magazines.  Although I rarely follow recipes, preferring to invent my own, I enjoy reading cookbooks and magazines for ideas, flavor combinations, and helpful hints.  I looked over the thin pamphlet-style magazines this morning while I ate a bowl of humidity-stale Reese's Puffs and day-old iced coffee, and man, did I ever feel inadequate!

Many women may claim to feel "judged" by beauty magazines.  They'll never look like the airbrushed girls on the front of Elle and Cosmo, so they get down on themselves.  They don't have perfect wavy honey locks or slim, sleek shoulders and upper arms, so they feel worthless.  It's a common problem with society as a whole and, specifically, the media, but I'm not getting into that now.  Maybe another blog.  And, although I've felt that way, too, when poring over articles titled "Get a Perfect Butt NOW" and "The Best Mascara for YOUR Eye Shape", I was shocked to feel the same sense of inadequacy when I read one called "Orange Chicken: Can This Third-Rate Chinese Restaurant Offering Be Turned Into A First-Rate Dish?"

I know it's not glamorous, but really?  Batter-fried chicken in a sticky, sweet sauce is third-rate?  And, if I like it, does that mean I have poor taste?

A slight digression, if you will: people who know me well know that I love to cook.  I really do.  I taught myself while in college and, although I still get cravings for Hot Pockets, Big Macs and Little Caesar's Hot 'n' Ready pizzas, I usually bring my lunch to work and cook dinner at home every night. To me, cooking is a gift I can share with others, plus, it keeps me from spending loads of money on takeout all the time. 

What's my style of cooking?  I'm not like "Semi-Homemade" Sandra Lee, who cuts massive corners but still produces pretty plates, nor am I Martha Stewart, whose reputation for "easy" crafts belies the serious effort I'd have to put into them.  I'm not the foodie scientist Alton Brown, who can produce an off-the-cuff lecture on the gases produced by a specific strain of grape to create the distinct flavor in a bottle of fine Chianti.  And, although I love her style and sass, I'm no Paula Deen.  I prefer olive oil to a slab of butter most of the time, and under 85% of what I cook is not, in fact, "southern-fried".  

I'm much more of a Rachael Ray, myself, although, I think my shoes are generally a little cuter.  Of course she's more famous and has more money so I think it evens out okay.  And when I say I'm a Rachael Ray, I mean that I enjoy cooking but I enjoy the creativity of it - rather than the "correct-ness" of it.  Plus, I'm short and Italian.

Back to the magazine on my kitchen table that was silently judging me.

It's a beautiful piece of literature.  There are artist's renditions of peppers or cucumbers or cilantro on the back of every issue, plus gorgeous hand-drawn step-by-step guides for many of the meals.  There are delicious-looking desserts and incredibly mouth-watering roasts photographed in charming settings.  There are reader tips on how to make life a little easier, or how to substitute everyday tools for hard-to-find specialty items.  There are also recommendations by the panel of writers regarding what type of pot you should buy for making pasta...what type of peanut butter makes the best satay sauce, and for what types of dish a saucier is really useful. 

And they made me feel stupid.  

One article in particular bragged about how the magazine's test kitchen baked nearly 3,000 cookies in order to recommend to its dear readers the perfect brand of cookie sheet.  Dear Lord!  Really?  I hope they gave those cookies to people who had no food to eat!  Or at least sent them home with the bakers to sugar up their children.  The articles rank products from "highly Recommend" to "Recommend" to "Recommend with Reservations" to "Not Recommended".  Well...I have eaten - and enjoyed - a veggie burger from the "Not Recommended" category.  Should I be ashamed?  Perhaps I should throw in my towel (and my apron) and give up on cooking and eating altogether, as I must be an abject failure at both.  

A rebellious part of my soul wants to intentionally purchase and force myself to like the items on the "Not recommended" list purely because of how haughty and judgmental the language is.  "This product's texture hardly provides the velvety-smooth mouthfeel its advertising implies."  I wanna root for the underdog. "Go, generic shredded cheddar!  I believe in you!  You melt just fine and you're cheap!  I LOVE YOU, GENERIC CHEDDAR!"

I'm willing to try exotic ingredients if I can afford them.  I like cooking with tofu and organic fruits and veggies.  I make my own spaghetti sauce.  But, I do not possess a brisket-slicing knife.  Nowhere in my kitchen does there exist a Dutch oven.  I don't keep almond paste or macadamia nut oil in my pantry.  I think bottled barbecue sauce is acceptable (provided the sodium content is not obscene).  I am okay with using frozen chicken breasts, rather than carving up my own roaster every time I want a casserole.  And it would seem that makes me fall far short of this magazine's intended audience.

Pass the middle-class green bean casserole, would you, please?