What’s for dinner?
Even though I love cooking and can happily spend all day in my kitchen, I can also appreciate quick and easy meals that require a minimum of time and fuss. I’ve been turning more and more to those easy meals in recent days. Between appointments, the release of my lastest novel, family birthdays, and other “must-do” items on the schedule, I’ve had little opportunity for cooking.
All the same, my family’s good health is still important, as is food economics. I keep to a careful budget and take pride in eating well without spending much money.
Yes, I’ve had to take short cuts over the past week. We all do it now and then. The results can still be delicious if we choose quality foods and simple preparation methods.
Enter the crockpot.
Yes, if you’re busy, there’s nothing like a good crockpot. I probably use ours at least once a week. There are a few tricks to creating the best crockpot meals, but overall, nothing could be easier than having a meal slow cook while you’re busy doing other things.
Here are the tips to keep in mind:
- Use the right size crockpot. Slow cookers come in many sizes. If you’re following a specific recipe, make sure your crockpot is the recommended size.
- Don’t overfill the crockpot. If the crockpot is too full, foods might not be thoroughly cooked. Most manufacturers recommend having the crockpot no more than two-thirds full.
- Don’t touch that lid! Every time you remove the lid, you’re adding at least fifteen minutes to the cooking time. It’s tempting, I know, but leave the lid on. About 30 minutes before serving time, you can take off the lid to test doneness.
- Plan ahead. I’m a firm believer in meal planning — and proper preparation. Don’t grab the crockpot at the last minute and throw in your food. Instead, plan your meals and give yourself time to do it right. If you plan to start the crockpot early in the morning, cut up meats and vegetables the night before. Keep them refrigerated, then toss them into the crockpot the next morning. Having everything ready makes an already “quick and easy” meal even quicker and easier.
- Maximize the flavor by browning. You don’t have to do this, but if you have a little time, it makes a big difference in flavor. Brown meat before adding to the crockpot. Same with vegetables like carrots and celery. Add a bit of broth to the pan afterward and get all those delicious little bits of flavor. Add the liquid to the crockpot.
- Avoid the “danger zone”. Food safety is essential when using a crockpot. Don’t put frozen meat or vegetables into the crock pot, and don’t use large chunks, either. If you’re using the crockpot on a low setting, it’s also a good idea to heat up any sauces before adding them.
My menu for Thursday was simplicity itself.
Green Salad with Artichoke Hearts
Italian Pork Chops
Gnocchi with Pesto
Green Beans with Pimentos and Bacon
Garlic Bread Sticks
Okay, so maybe it doesn’t sound all that simple. Again, it’s a matter of planning and preparation. Making this truly delicious meal began with bonless pork chops, fat trimmed, and ready to cook. I skipped the browning step since I was especially busy, and into the crockpot they went. Out came the seasonings. A bit of basil, some oregano, a sprinkle of thyme. Another tip: Grow your own herbs. Nothing adds flavor to cooking like fresh-cut herbs.
One of the staples I keep in my cupboard is canned tomatoes. I always have diced tomatoes on hand, in the “regular” variety as well as Italian and Mexican. Step two in my Thursday meal was opening a can of Italian diced tomatoes and pouring them over the seasoned chops.
Next, I was off to the produce drawer in the refrigerator. I always have peppers — usually in a variety of colors. Since it was the near the end of the week, I only had red and green on that day. If I’d had a yellow or orange, yes, I would have added them, too. But, red and green were fine. Chop, chop, into the pot. I also keep minced fresh garlic in the refrigerator, ready to use. I added a bit, then grabbed the V-8 juice off the shelf, too. I added a bit of juice. I typically don’t use salt in my foods, but I do love seasoned pepper. A generous shake…and I was ready to put on the lid and turn on the crockpot.
The green beans were already cooked. I’d made them the previous day and made certain to have enough for a second meal. So, nothing more to do there. The breadsticks I’d purchased at a local bakery, so again, nothing more to do there than warm them up slightly at meal time.
Making the salad is a quick and easy task, of course. Fresh lettuce, grated carrots, artichoke hearts, a bit of onion, a handful of sunflower seeds. We like our salads very fresh, and it only takes minutes to make a delicious one right before dinner.
Now…what about that gnocchi? Okay, I’ll admit. I’m a gnocchi coward. I would never attempt to make my own gnocchi. That’s what Italian grandmothers are for. Too bad I’m not Italian and don’t have any grandmothers living. Fortunately, I’ve found gnocchi on the grocer’s shelves in the Italian section of the food aisles. It’s not as good as home-made, but it’s good. And using it is quick and easy.
Shortly before dinner, I fixed the gnocchi — they cook in about 3 minutes once the water boils — and then tossed them with a bit of olive oil, pesto, and Italian cheese. When the meal was on the table, we also ladled a bit of the sauce from the pork chops onto the potatoes. Yummy, yes.
It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d forgotten the mushrooms. I’d meant to grab fresh mushrooms from the produce drawer and saute them in a bit of butter before serving our dinner. Oops! You know what they say about the best laid plans, but even without the mushrooms, we had a delightful, delicious meal.
Of course, I think it helps to have a nicely-set table and centerpiece, and a little quiet music playing in the background.
Mealtime is family time.
Make the most of it…even if you have to do it the “quick and easy” way.