Monday, 25 January 2010

Crockpot Goddess of my Kitchen

A Crock-pot or slow cooker, I have discovered is a gift straight from the Goddess of Kitchens.  I got my first one as a gift from my husband’s parents a few years ago, and have since added 2 more to my employ.

I’d actually discovered the art of the homemade soup a few years back.  I had grown imminently frustrated with the phenomenon of science experiments harbored in my fridge and how inevitably the one who prophetically rallied for the making of extra chicken legs or boiled eggs for school lunches no longer acknowledged their existence and I set out looking for some ways to make better use of leftovers.

My rough calculations showed way too much of our grocery budget being fed to the garbage can each month. A pork chop here, a chicken leg there, a couple cups of potatoes, well you get the idea - each item in and of itself perhaps insignificant, but on fridge clean out day the message was clear.

While I tried to use up what I could, I was often met with grief from picky eaters who would have me believe there was some unwritten rule about having the same food twice within a time period.  I was amused to later learn that this rule seemed to be applied at the discretion of the child doing the complaining and was only too happily revoked if the dinner in question was one of the convenience meals they loved most.  I took it as a major victory when I managed to sneak a meal made primarily from leftover spaghetti sauce into a second meal simply by changing the shape of the pasta that it was served with.  I guess you take your victories where you can get them, right?

I felt like I was in a no win situation and losing ground pretty fast.  At least in my mind anyways.  I was looking at a situation that I felt should have an easy answer, but in reality there were no answers, only more questions.  In a quiet moment I found myself reflecting on a tidbit shared with me by my mother-in-law.  She’d suggested that if what was happening was bothering someone else, well by all means let them deal with it, however – if it was bothering me then it was me that needed to do something about it.  At the time we were talking about something completely unrelated, but somehow that afternoon the words resonated with me and I set off on a mission.

I had hopes of coming up with a site or two that might lend some ideas for repurposing leftovers before they became science experiments.  Perhaps if I could cleverly disguise my leftover pork chop as something else I could fool my kids and impress myself in the process.  As with most research expeditions of this nature, I ended up finding much more than I had ever hoped for but unlike previous expeditions that resulted in pages of notes and a multitude of saved bookmarks in hopes of coming back to visit later, I wanted to equip myself with useful knowledge I could use – NOW!

I came upon various e-loops and chat rooms, books, websites and such devoted to once a month cooking, batch cooking, spendthrifts and frugalistas galore.  I started putting into practice some new ideas that gave me a feeling of satisfaction knowing that I had reduced my contribution to science that month by just a little bit.

As with most big projects, mine gets sidelined from time to time as I stray from the plan and come back to it time and again.  There are days when everything falls into place, and other days where you could convince me that the dust bunnies are really in on an evil plot to take over our home and make it their new head quarters.

When all is said and done, nobody can proclaim what is right for you; you have to find your own tune and set your own rhythm.  The great thing about being your own composer is that when you fall out of step, you can jump right back in where you left off and carry on – no harm, no foul.

If anybody had told me a few years ago that I could take a leftover portion or two of meat, add to it a few vegetables (if I don’t have any in the leftover category), add beans, rice or potatoes and seasonings and put them all into this magic pot and turn it on that later that day we’d would have a pot of soup that would have even the pickiest eater in our family coming back from more there isn’t a doubt in my mind that I’d have laughed myself silly.  The idea of putting a frozen roast into this magic pot, either alone or with potatoes, carrots, onions and spices and leaving for the day would result in coming home to a house that smells like you spent the whole day slaving over the hot stove was just amazing.  An idea based so far out of reality I knew I’d have to see it to believe it.

For those unaware of the whole crockpot revival, here is why slow cookers are fabulous.

  • They save time.  You place all of your ingredients into the bowl early in the day, turn it on and come home in the evening to a scrumptious stew, or soup – perhaps a pot roast and fixings. Already prepared and ready to eat.
  • Clean-Up time is greatly reduced.  One pot, one cutting board and whatever utensils you used to prepare whatever is in the pot.
  • They are simple to use. If you prepare the items ahead of time and put the crock in the fridge – your older child could remove the crock set it in the base and turn it on before school giving them a part to play in the craziness that is often dinner time in a busy family setting.
  • They save money – They don’t use as much energy as your oven or stove and as an added bonus you can safely let it run while you are not at home – something that most of us wouldn’t dream of doing with our stove or oven.  Even a normally tough cut of meat cooks up to be as tender as can be, coupled with root vegetables and some homemade bread and you’ve got an inexpensive meal fit for a king (or queen).
The crockpot chronicles are an event in our family now that bear frequent repeating.  Much like my Omelette experiments of my teen and twenty years I have reached a place where often what goes into the soup is directly dependant on what goodies I find in the fridge and pantry.  As with most things, necessity breeds creativity and we’ve come up with some truly interesting combinations on occasion.  I have been known to lay things out on the counter in groups trying to decide how best that the items I’ve found might work together.  I can honestly say that whether it’s a big change or a little tweak to the recipe I have rarely made the exact same recipe twice.  A lot of my online buddies call this method of cooking “garbage soup” since it’s primarily made up from bits and pieces of leftovers that never would have seen the light of day between fridge and stowaway container having jumped straight on through to science experiment.  Having been a little wary about telling people that I was feeding my family garbage for supper I started referring to it as supper surprise, but most often just dinner.

Don’t be afraid to experiment!  I have been known to challenge myself by adding new finds every so often.  I tend to run on the theory that I can try it and see what happens.  If the flavors don’t work well, or consistency isn’t quite right then I know I need to do something differently.  I remember one soup where I’d come upon some dehydrated green onions, and some mushrooms that had definitely gone past their prime.  They weren’t bad, but they looked as though we’d run them through a dehydrator.  I really wasn’t sure what to do with them, but since I’d promised myself that wherever possible I was going to reduce our waste, and make use of everything we could.  Waste not, want not and all that jazz.  Much to my surprise they reconstituted beautifully, and nobody could tell that there was anything different about them.

Thankfully my family has been very patient while I perform experiments.  Whether your soup is made completely from fresh ingredients, from leftovers in the fridge or a combination of the two, one thing is for certain having a crockpot on hand makes light work of making a heartwarming meal for all to enjoy, particularly on these cold winter days. That fact that it also alleviates all of the mealtime stressing from standing in front of the fridge with that perplexed look trying to decide what you’re going to make, right through to the actual standing over the stove is a real bonus.  I often set up a roast and potatoes in the crockpot while I’m making one night’s meals and put it in the fridge over night (without the liquid) so that the next morning anyone can take it out, add a couple of cups of water or broth and away we go!  It doesn’t get much easier than that. Your crockpot puts convenience back into a homemade meal, returns time to your busy day, and depending on how you utilize this culinary marvel, it can put money back in your pocket.

Here is this week’s edition of Budget Boo$ters - I hope that you find a little something in there to give your budget that little bit of wiggle room.  Please don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t get into the hang of it on the first, or even second and third try.  One day at a time! Some of the ideas I’ve seen around and about came across as way too committed to the cause for me in the beginning. Take from it what you will, and leave the rest.  This is your journey… make the most of it!

  • A pepper a day? Often recipes don’t call for a whole onion or green pepper, unless this is something you use often, the leftover piece can spoil before you come back for more.  To prevent waste, chop the whole vegetable up and put the unused portion in the freezer. This quick trick saves time, and it’s one less donation to the composter. Don’t feel like chopping it now, but want to save it before it spoils? Cut the pepper in half, take out the seeds and wash as normal. Lay it flat (inner side down) on the counter, flatten it by smacking it with your palm. Then drop into freezer bag, or freezer container and freeze.
  • Hard-boiled eggs will have a bright and sunny yellow centre every time if you try this simple method. Fill a pan with cold water to cover eggs. Bring the water to a boil.  Remove pan from heat and over. Let stand for 20 minutes. Eggs can then be cooled in cold water. This method saves electricity!
  • Accidentally over salt a dish while it’s cooking?  Drop in a peeled potato and it will absorb the excess salt for an instant fix.
  • Before peeling potatoes, soak them in a bowl of ice water for a couple of minutes to loosen the skin.  If you want to keep peeled potatoes white while cooking, drop a teaspoon of white vinegar into the boiling water.
  • Use powdered milk when baking, it's cheaper and no one will taste the difference.
  • When cleaning dust or pet hair from free standing fans, window unit air conditioning filters or venetian blinds, use a dryer sheet.  Not only will this remove the dust and hair faster, but after prolonged use it creates a protective coating on the wires of the fan for even easier dust removal!
  • Make a box of baking soda work for you twice by first using it to deodorize the refrigerator, under sink or in freezer – then use it to clean and polish with.
  • Pouring vinegar down the sink to freshen the smell is an idea that’s been around forever – pull double dity by using the vinegar first through the coffee pot to clean it, then run the USED vinegar down the sink. It will work just as well, and your sink won’t know the difference. It just makes cents!
I hope you have found this edition of Budget Boo$ters help useful. If you have a Budget Boo$ter item to share please leave me a comment or send me an e-mail.