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January 26, 2011

Locavore Lore: Crock pots are like crack when it’s cold outside

During these cold, blustery months in the Ohio Valley, most of us think less about eating local and more about foods that’ll warm and comfort our souls. The truth is, little is “in season” right now. Greens, maybe, and some root vegetables and processed items that have been put away. Oh, and of course meat, eggs and dairy.

Luckily, that still leaves plenty to dine on this time of year. The difficultly can be finding the time to create meals that are warming and satisfying, especially meals that typically take a long time to prepare.

That’s why my love for the crock pot deepens this time of year. On a piercing cold day, there is nothing better than coming home — or waking up — to a nice hot meal that is already prepared. The best part about slow cooking is the fact that both cleanup and monitoring are minimal. All you have to do is throw your ingredients in the cooker and check back hours later.

I’m pretty strict about only cooking with what I like to call “happy animals.” Happy animals to me are animals that have been raised humanely, in good conditions, and without the use of hormones and antibiotics. Yes, it all ends the same — but I take comfort in the quality of life the animal had.

I always try to choose grass-fed options for beef, because feeding corn to a cow is unnatural. Happy animals are actually healthier, too — because of their healthier diet, they have leaner meat with less saturated fat, and the fat from grass-fed meat is higher in essential fatty acids omega-3s and CLA.

Grain-fed animals are fed corn, which requires lots of fertilizer and machinery that is dependent on fossil fuels. When we get away from feeding animals food that grows itself, it becomes an unsustainable and energy-intensive diet.

Local meats from small farms are prime examples of humanely and sustainably raised meats. And since they are our neighbors, you can find out more about the integrity of their operations and meet the faces behind your food.

The downside about local meats is that they are usually frozen, requiring a little planning ahead. Although, in my opinion, that can mean a fresher product because the meat is frozen as soon as it’s processed and isn’t thawed until you choose to do so. Another awesome thing about slow cooking — you can put frozen meat right in the crock pot.

I love cooking, but with a busy schedule, it is often difficult to come straight home and get to work in the kitchen. Cue the crock pot. It feels so great to walk in the door and be met by the aroma of a ready-to-eat dinner.

Pot roasts and stews are what usually come to mind when people think about slow cooking — and they are delish — but that’s just the tip of the sirloin. There are endless dishes prepared this way — curries, soups, short ribs and everything in between.

Since slow cookers cook, well, slowly, they are ideal for tough cuts of meat. I actually grew up eating mostly vegetarian, so crock pots turned out to be a fool-proof way for me to learn how to cook a piece of meat perfectly in my adult life.

Speaking of vegetarians, slow cookers are not only for meat eaters; as a child, I recall my mom cooking beans and vegetarian soups in them. The Shelby County farm Santalina Acres, which is better known for its eggs, also produces dried black beans that cook wonderfully in a slow cooker.

Another great use for a crock pot: breakfast. On a cold and busy (or lazy) morning, it is tough to beat waking up to a hot, already made breakfast. I make steel cut oats or Wiesenberger grits in the crock pot and put the finishing touches on it while I enjoy my morning cup of coffee. Rumor has it you can make omelets and breakfast casseroles in a crock pot as well, but I’ve never been that ambitious.

There are a few things to keep in mind if you decide to give slow cooking a try. You can throw in a frozen piece of meat, but if your schedule allows it and your meat is thawed, you can always sear it first to give it more flavor. The same goes with onions; you can throw them in raw or brown them before putting them in the crock.

Also, you may need a couple different sizes of crock pots. Smaller crocks work well for dips, side dishes, breakfast and cooking for fewer people. Larger crocks are better for roasts, soups and cooking for a crowd; a small recipe could dry out or overcook in a large crock pot.

Steel Cut Oatmeal

Steel cut oats are not rolled, so they take longer to cook than the traditional varieties. They are higher in protein and fiber than rolled oats but are not as popular because of the longer cooking time. Starting these the night before takes care of the timing issue and provides a nutritious breakfast.

1 cup steel cut oats

4½ cups water

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon butter

Place all of the ingredients in a small (2-4 quart) crock pot (this won’t work in a large, oval-shaped crock pot). Turn the pot on low and let it cook overnight or for six to 10 hours. Tasty additions include brown sugar, honey, fresh or dried fruit, or milk.

Wiesenberger Grits

This dish is great for breakfast or dinner. Either way, it’s super simple.

1 cup grits

5 cups water

Half a stick of butter

½ teaspoon salt

Put all of the ingredients in the crock pot and cook on low for six to eight hours. Season to taste, and add some Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheddar or anything else you want to dress it up.

Shredded Beef for Tacos

2-3 pound chuck roast

Taco seasoning

1 cup of water

Trim the roast of fat and place in the crock pot. Combine the taco seasoning and water and pour over the roast. Cook on low for eight to 10 hours and shred with two forks. Serve on corn tortillas with all the fixins.

Coffee Roast

3 pound chuck roast, trimmed of fat

3/4 cup brewed coffee

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

8 ounces sliced mushrooms

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Half of a block of cream cheese

In a larger crock pot, add all of the ingredients except the cream cheese. Cover and cook on low for about eight hours. Add the cream cheese and stir carefully. Let the roast heat long enough for the cream cheese to dissolve into the sauce. Serve as is or with rice or couscous.