Showing posts with label slow cooker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label slow cooker. Show all posts

Monday, October 8, 2012

Slow Cooker Savvy: Mile high vegetable lasagna

I love lasagna! It is delicious, filling and great to warm your belly on a cold winter night. If you're a sneaky vegetable ninja, you can load up your lasagna with gobs of vegetables. Pair that with whole grain noodles and reduced fat cheese, you've created a nutrition powerhouse. Did you know that you never have to boil the noodles? Follow your favorite recipe, don't cook the noodles, add 1/2 of extra water and cover the pan with foil. Once the noodles are soft, remove the foil for a few minutes in the oven to let the top brown. This saves a lot of time!

I used to baby-sit for my cousin and cook dinner for the family. Her four year old son and I would make several batches of lasagna at once - one pan for dinner, and several more for the freezer. Did you know that kids love to help in the kitchen? While he was standing on a kitchen chair and stirring the huge bowl of the cheesey-veggie filling, he suddenly looks up at me and excitedly asks, "Holly, do you know what we're making?". "Lasanga?" I reply, not sure if this was a trick questions. "Witches Brew!", he corrects.

Is that not the cutest thing?

I usually make lasagna in the oven, but wanted to try using the slow cooker. I gathered the usual vegetable suspects in my kitchen and reviewed several recipes for slow-cooker lasagana when I realized that they were also using much larger crocks; 4 to 6 quarts. Mine is a much smaller 3-quart slow cooker. Well, I like a challenge and so just gave it a try. The result? A very delicious, and very TALL lasagna! Perhaps not traditional, but dinner will be on the table none-the-less.

Mile-high vegetable lasagna
  • 15 ounces reduced-fat ricotta cheese (or cottage cheese)
  • 1 1/2 cups reduced-fat mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup thawed frozen spinach, water squeezed out
  • 2 cups chopped broccoli, frozen and thawed, or fresh
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • pinch of ground nutmeg
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto (or 1/4 minced fresh basil, or 1 tablespoon dried basil)
  • 24 ounces marinara sauce
  • 1 package whole wheat lasagna noodles, uncooked (not no-boil kind) - about 9 noodles
  1. In a large mixing bowl, add ricotta Parmesan and 1-cup of mozzarella cheese. Add eggs, pesto, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
  2. Thaw spinach in microwave; use hands to squeeze our excess water. Add to cheese mixture. 
  3. Chop broccoli, if using fresh, or thaw if using frozen chopped. Add to cheese mixture, along with minced onion. 
  4. Pour half of marinara sauce in the bottom of the crock. Make an even, single layer of noodles on top of sauce, breaking as necessary. Spread 1/3 of cheese mixture on top of noodles.
  5. Layer the rest of the noodles and cheese mixture, pressing down on noodles after each noodle layer. You should have four layer of noodles and three layers of cheese, ending on the noodles. Tip: if you alternate the direction when layering the noodles, the lasagna will be easier to cut.
  6. Pour the remaining marinara sauce on top of the last noodle layer and top with the remaining 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese. 
  7. Cover and cook on low heat for 4 to 6 hours or until hot, bubbly and noodles are tender when poked with a knife. 
  8. Turn off heat, remove lid and let lasagna rest for 10-20 minutes - this will make it much easier to cut.
Note: if using a larger crock, make three layers of noodles and two layers of cheese for a not-so-tall lasagna. Cooking time should remain about the same. 
Note: if you don't have lasagna noodles, use macaroni or ziti noodles, uncooked, instead.  

I served the lasagna with this salad - yum!

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Slow cooker savvy: which slow cooker do I need?

Steaming fresh pumpkin
Fall is here and it is time to bring out the slow cookers so that with all of the back-to-school hubub, you can have a warm dinner ready when you get homw. If you don't have one, here are some tips for figuring out which slow cooker is best for you, your cooking style and cooking abilities.

  • Size - Slow cokers come in a wide range of sizes; teeny for making dip (1.5 quart) to huge for feeding a crowd (7 quart) - Are you usually cooking for 1 or 2,  or a larger crowd? I am usually cooking for a smaller group, so my 4-quart slow cooker is perfect. Size also applies to your cupboard space. How much storage space do you really have?
  • Programming - some slow cookers simply turn on or off, others can be programmed to cook for a certain amount of time and then reduce to "warm" until you get home.
  • Stove to slow cooker - there are a few slow cookers that allow you to put the insert on the stove to brown meat and then directly to the slow cooker without washing another pan. If you love pot roasts, this may be a valuable feature. Are you vegetarian? Probably don't need it.  
  • Washable? Can the insert go in the dishwasher?
  • Chickpea Curry
  • How snugly does the lid fit on? This is only important if you intend to carry your slow cooker to potlucks and parties. There are also large slow cookers that come with a hindged lid; makes it easier to serve with one hand.
  • Shape of crock? If you're usually doing soups and stews, this doesn't matter. But, if you'd like to roast a whole chicken, an oval shape will probably work best. 
  • Does it come with a carrying case? Just like the lid consideration, this is only important if you intend to bring the crock with you to parties.
  • Do the handles stay cool? Some do, some don't, but this may or may not be important to you.
  • Peeping Tom? Some lids are see through and others aren't. If you like to keep tabs on your slow cooker as it works, you may be interested in a glass lid so that you're not letting out heat when you look at the cooking food.
This is the slow cooker I have: not too big (4 quart), nothing fancy. I don't usually take the slow cooker with me, so the features related to travel didn't apply for me. I don't eat red meat, so browing meat wasn't a factor for my cooking. If you're ready to take the plunge, this slow cooker is amazon prime eligible and well reviewed.

Reader Poll: What would you like to learn how to cook in a slow cooker?

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cooking class: the principles of pumpkin

How do you eat seasonably in the winter?

You store the produce when it is ripe. Today's lesson: cooking pumpkins!

Last weekend I spend a glorious Sunday with three friends picking apples at Green Truck Farms in Markham Virginia. Four girls, one zip car, an iPod full of tunes and before we knew it, we were taking in the glorious weather amongst the apple trees. I had never used the picking tool that we were provided, but it did make it easier to reach the fruit! But... I also had to climb the trees too (of course!)

The farm was not limited to apples - throughout the season they have blackberries and raspberries and the owner told me that they just planted 18,000 (eighteen thousand!) strawberry plants which will be producing fruit this spring. They also had a HUGE pumpkin patch with all sorts of pumpkins and other winter squash. I was originally scouting the field for a pumpkin to carve until I realized just how many different kinds of squash they had...and then my thoughts wandered to the kitchen.

I met Brian, the farmer, and he was able to help me distinguish between the carving pumpkins (edible, but not tasty) and the different "food" pumpkins - pie pumpkins are the little baby pumpkins, the reddish, disk shaped ones in the back are called Cinderella pumpkins and the bluish one is called a jarrahdale. All are winter squash, meaning their skin is tough and they will store well, as is, for several months. This is in comparison to summer squash, like zucchini and yellow squash which spoil quickly. 
As pretty as they are to look at on my table, I am thinking with my stomach and can't wait to try eating them. I tried three different ways to cook the pie pumpkins and have them documented to share with you.

I was curious just how many pounds of pumpkin I had purchased (when my friend dropped me off, she looked in the trunk and gasped.."tell me those are not all your pumpkins!", yes?)  but when I plopped  the small pumpkins on my bathroom scale they didn't register. So, I used the trick that comes in handy when you're trying to weigh a wiggly toddler - I weighed myself, weighed myself holding the pumpkin and subtracted the difference.

For any of these cooking methods, the start is the same. Wash off any dirt with water (no soap needed). Using a serrated knife, hack the pumpkin in half using a sawing motion. This is a good workout for arms, and a good stress reliever if you pretend the pumpkin is that person's head. You know who.

Using a heavy ice-cream scoop or a spoon, scoop out the seeds and guts until the cavity of the pumpkin is smooth. The seeds can be saved for roasting (healthy snacks!) or if the pumpkin is an heirloom variety, they can be saved for planting next year.

Method 1: the microwave

I cut the pumpkin into small wedges and tucked them into a large, glass, microwave-safe casserole dish with a lid. This felt like tetris getting all the pieces to fit. (If you don't have a casserole, try a large microwave safe bowl with a plate on top; should work just as well. But, keep your eyes peeled at the thrift store or garage sales for your own casserole dish). I added 1-2 cups of water and microwaved (with lid on) for about 20 minutes or until the pumpkin was very soft when poked with a fork. I checked the pumpkin after 10 minutes and added on 5 minutes at a time until it was soft. Let cool until you're able to handle.

Method 2: the slow cooker

Take your pumpkin wedges and arrange in the slow cooker so that you can get the lid on. Add 2 cups of water, or enough to have about 1/2 of an inch of water in the bottom. Cover, and cook on low for 4-8 hours, or high 2-4 hours or until very soft. Every slow cooker is different, and it will depend on how thick the pumpkin flesh is and how big the wedges are. Poke with a fork - when very soft, they're done; spread out on a plate to cool.

Method 3: roasting in the oven.

Take large wedges and slice into smaller, more manageable slices. Using a very sharp chefs knife, cut the peel off the outside edge of each piece of pumpkin (you can also do this after the pumpkin is cooked - your choice!). Place on oiled cookie sheet and roast until soft. I added some salt and pepper to the roasted pumpkin (not to the slow cooker or the microwave). Your oven can be anywhere from 350-450. When are they done? You have three clues:
  • texture: the pumpkin is very soft when poked with a fork
  • smell: your nose will tell you something magical is happening in the oven
  • sight: the edges will brown a bit
My wedges that were about 1 inch wide took about 35 minutes in a 400 degree oven.

Roasted! I tried peeling when raw and roasted and prefer cutting the raw pieces.

So you have some cooked what?

I pureed my pumpkin so that I can use it instead of canned pumpkin. I used a soup spoon to scoop the pumpkin flesh into a large bowl and then tried a potato masher and an immersion blender. If the pumpkin is really soft, the potato masher works just as well. If the pumpkin is a bit or firm, or is a bit stringy, the immersion blender works better. If you have a food processor or regular blender, those are good choices too. When the pumpkin is smooth, it is ready to be used in recipes or can be frozen for future use. I portioned 1-cup of puree into labeled zip top plastic bags. Expel any air, seal and stack. They take up minimal space in your freezer.

Another option? Baby food: freeze in an ice-cube tray and you have baby-sizes portions to thaw out for your little one.

Was cooking pumpkin three different ways super fast? No, but I enjoyed it. I was listening to the new Mumford and Sons album, hanging out with my roommate and thinking about my weekend on the farm. I'd spend my time in the kitchen instead of in front of the TV any day. Just think: if we cancelled our cable, used that money to buy vegetables and spent the spare time cooking, how much healthier would we be? 

Reader question: Do you have any ideas of how to store pumpkin puree without making more trash? I don't love using plastic bags, but these take up the least amount of space.

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Slow cooker savvy: Chickpea curry

In many kitchens in the US, cinnamon is used for sweet things like cinnamon bread or rolls or cinnamon cookies. Around the world, cinnamon is often used in savory dishes too and we would be wise to follow suit for some delicious results! This recipe is so simple - just dump the ingredients in your slow cooker and go to work knowing that dinner will be ready when you get home.

Herbs and spices are loaded with antioxidants and phytochemicals - often in our food, good color and flavor is also good nutrition. For example, lycopene in tomatoes gives them their beautiful red color. Be sure to add a bit of vegetable oil to this recipe so that our bodies can better absorb those nutrients that are fat soluble. 

 Chickpea curry
  • 2 16-ounce cans chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans)
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large (or 2 small) yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons powdered ginger
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon, broken in half
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds (or ground mustard, or prepared spicy brown mustard...use what you have!)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes - look for low sodium
  • 2 cups of water
  1. Place everything in your slow cooker and turn on. The water should just cover the vegetables; not too soupy.
  2. Cook on high for 4 hours or on low for 8 hours.
  3. Serve as is, or on a bed of whole grain rice or couscous, or with a dollop of yogurt or with lime wedges.
I used both mustard seed (the little balls) and ground mustard (middle of the plate)
Add just enough water to cover the chickpeas
Cover, and forget about it!
Ready to go and the kitchen smells great!

Easy enough for you? Eating healthfully doesn't have to be difficult or bland. I like that this recipe has a lot of veggies and lean protein. I also think it would be good with even more vegetables - I'd like to try with other common Indian vegetables such as carrots or cauliflower. Comment below if you do try something new!

I am posting this recipe on Monday in support of Meatless Monday. Have you heard of this idea? Our bodies, the earth and our wallets can all benefit from reducing our consumption of conventionally raised beef, pork and chicken and bumping up the veggies. No, this does not mean that you have to commit to a vegetarian diet, but consuming less meat is something that would benefit most of us.

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