Saving Energy – Yours and the Planet’s

Over the next few months, I’d like to help you learn to cook more efficiently.  By that I mean both saving your own time and energy, as well as saving the gas and electric energy that we are all beginning to pay more and more for.  This month we’ll focus on cooking in a slow cooker (aka “Crock-Pot” or crockery cooker).  Slow cookers save power in two ways.  Heating up an oven takes a lot of energy.  During warm months, that energy also makes your kitchen hotter, and makes your air conditioner work harder.  Slow cookers use very little power, and they don’t heat up the kitchen.

A lot of us grew up in the hey-day of the “Crock-Pot” and have not-so-fond memories of bland stews that all tasted the same.  Today’s slow cookers are more versatile than the originals and the recipes for them are getting better all the time.  My favorite slow cooker cookbook is Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Roberson.  She recommends browning a few things first (usually onions and some other aromatics), which can greatly improve the flavor of slow cooked dishes.  This pre-prep only takes a few extra minutes and is well worth it.

Another bonus is that the amount of fat needed to make dishes luscious can often be greatly reduced when slow cooking.  Use a tiny amount of oil to brown the aromatics, and then deglaze the pan with some of the recipe liquid if the onions or garlic stick to the pan.  Scrape all of this liquid into the crock to add flavor with very little fat.

I’m going to give you a few of my favorite recipes to try, but in case you want to adapt your favorite recipes to the slow cooker, here are some tips to get you started:
First of all, crockery cookers, like most cookware, is measured in “quarts”, but I am here to tell you that my “four-quart” cooker holds just a tad over two quarts of liquid (they should have called it a “four-pint” cooker).  My “six-quart” and my “one-and-a-half quart” ones have been similarly mis-represented.  Before you make up a recipe that adds up to something close to the nominal size of your cooker, measure it by filling it with water.  Then, don’t fill it all the way up – leave at least one-half inch of headroom.

Almost any recipe that calls for baking or simmering can be adapted to the slow cooker. Here are some hints on adapting your favorite recipes:

Dense vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables should be cut no larger than 1-inch thick, and placed in the bottom of the pot, since they take longer to cook than other foods.

Usually liquids may be decreased in slow cooking – to about half the recommended amount. Unless the dish contains rice or pasta, one cup of liquid is usually enough.

Pasta and Rice
If a recipe calls for cooked pasta to be added, cook it until just slightly tender before adding to the pot. Add 1/4 extra liquid per 1/4 cup uncooked rice, and use long grain converted rice for the best results. For long-cooking recipes, add cooked rice shortly before serving.  (Brown rice is best cooked separately and added at the last minute.)

You can cook beans in several different ways, all depending on your schedule and how far in advance you can plan.  For plain beans, I find it best to soak beans overnight, then drain and rinse them before cooking them in the crockery cooker the next day.  To add them to a recipe that calls for fully-cooked beans, you can soak them one day, drain, add fresh water and cook them that night, then add to your recipe the next morning.  The Rival brochure recommends that you pre-soak the beans overnight, then boil them for at least 10 minutes in unsalted water, drain them,  then add them to your recipe. Before adding sugar, salt, or acidic ingredients, the beans should be softened first, either in the slow cooker or on the stovetop. If your recipe includes tomatoes, salt, or other acidic ingredients, the beans should be tender before beginning.  Another idea is to skip the pre-soak, but add beans and water to the slow cooker and cook them on low for about 8 hours (overnight). In the morning, drain the beans, add your other ingredients with fresh liquid, then cook per recipe directions. Cooking times might be shorter using this method or when using canned or fully cooked beans.

Herbs and Spices
Whole, dried herbs release flavors over time, so are a good choice for crockery cooking.  Ground  dried herbs and spices tend to dissipate over long cooking times, so it’s best to add them near the end of cooking (last 1/2 hour or so).  Fresh herbs should be added just a few minutes before serving to preserve their delicate, bright flavors.  Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary, before serving.

Milk, Sour Cream, and Cheeses (Soy or Dairy)

Most of these items don’t hold up well when cooked for long periods of time, so add them toward the end of cooking.

Add water only to cover ingredients in soup, and add more after cooking if necessary for a thinner soup.

Timing:  The chart below will give you a general idea of how long dishes can be expected to take.  Usually the cooking is so gentle that an extra hour or two on low won’t matter, but check after the minimum amount of time until you get used to the rhythm of slow cooking.

Conventional Recipe:          Low (200°):          High (300°):
15 – 30 min               4 – 6 hrs              1 1/2 – 2 hrs
35 – 45 min               6 – 10 hrs          3 – 4 hrs
50 min – 3 hrs           8 – 18 hrs              4 – 6 hrs

Now, on to some of my favorite slow-cooking recipes.  I’ve even included a quick fall-flavored apple dessert that you can make when you get home from work.  Did you know that you can “bake” cakes in a slow cooker?  Or make and serve hot drinks or fondue in one?  Or bake granola or cereal snack mix without an oven?  I haven’t included any of those recipes, but there are several in Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson.  Definitely check out her book, and google “vegetarian slow cooker recipes” and see what a treasure trove you find!

Cauliflower and Kidney Beans with Coconut Milk

The contrast in flavors and textures is wonderful.  Every time I make this I like it even more.
Recipe adapted from Robin Robertson, Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker
Serves 4-6
Preparation Time: 15 minutes prep plus 6 hours cooking time

1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon ginger root, grated
1 medium jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
1/2 head cauliflower, cut bite-sized
1 1/2 cups cooked kidney beans
1 14 1/2 ounce can diced tomatoes
2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup unsweetened canned coconut milk

Grind onion, garlic, ginger root, and jalapeno pepper in a food processor until smooth.

Place oil in a 4-6 quart slow cooker and turn it on HIGH. Add onion puree and stir in the spices. Cover and let cook for 5 minutes.

Stir the potatoes, cauliflower, kidney beans, tomatoes, and broth into the cooker. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover, and cook on LOW for 6 hours.

When the vegetables are tender, add the coconut milk. Cook, uncovered, to incorporate the flavors, 10-15 minutes.

Notes: If you’re not concerned with fat and calories, you may use up to 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

If you are seriously watching fat and calories, you may substitute 1 cup plain soymilk and 1 teaspoon of coconut extract for the coconut milk.

No Hurry Vegetable Curry
This makes your house smell so good…
Recipe adapted from Robin Robertson, Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker
Serves 4-6
Preparation Time: 10 minutes prep plus 6 – 8 hours cooking time

1 tablespoon peanut oil or olive oil
2 large carrot,s sliced diagonally
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
8 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut 1″
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas, or 1 15 oz can
1 14.5 ounces can diced tomatoes
2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup frozen green peas, thawed
1/2 cup unsweetened canned coconut milk
sea salt

1.  Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the carrots and onion, cover, and cook until softened (about 5 minutes).  Add the garlic, curry powder, coriander, and cayenne, stirring to coat.
2.  Transfer the vegetable mixture to a 3 1/2 to 4-quart slow cooker.  Add the potatoes, green beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, and stock; cover, and cook on LOW for 6 – 8 hours.
3. Just before serving, stir in the peas and coconut milk and season with salt.  Taste to adjust the seasonings.
Notes: You can reduce the fat by using a non-stick skillet and reducing the oil to 1 1/2 teaspoons.

Tempeh Etouffee

A delicious way to introduce folks to tempeh, one of my favorite soy foods.
Recipe adapted from Robin Robertson, Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker
Serve 4-6
Preparation Time:  15 minutes prep plus 6-8 hours cooking time

2 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces tempeh, cut into 1″ cubes
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme (or 3/4 tsp dried)
1/2 teaspoon fresh marjoram (/4 tsp dried)
1 tablespoon fresh parsley chopped

1. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the tempeh and brown on all sides, 7 – 10 minutes.  Transfer to a plate, cover, and refrigerate while sauce cooks.
2.  Reheat the same skillet with the reserved tablespoon of oil.  Add the onion, celery, bell pepper, and garlic.  Cover, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
3.  Transfer the vegetable mixture to a 4-quart slow cooker.  Stir in the tomatoes, Tabasco, salt, and water.  Add the dried thyme and marjoram, if using.  Cover and cook on LOW for 6 – 8 hours.
4.  During the final half-hour of cooking, add the browned tempeh and the fresh thyme and marjoram, if using.  Stir gently to combine.  Serve hot over hot rice, and sprinkle with fresh parsley.

Notes: To reduce fat, brown tempeh in a non-stick skillet sprayed with a natural non-stick spray.   Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of oil to brown vegetables.

Mushroom and Wild Rice Slow Cooker Stew

Fall in a bowl
Recipe Adapted from the Weight Watchers website
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 15 minutes prep plus 5-7 hours cooking time

1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
2 cups leeks white part, diced
2 cups shiitake mushrooms sliced
1 cup carrots diced
3 cups vegetable broth
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup wild rice uncooked

1. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet.  Add leeks and mushrooms and sauté until tender (about 5 minutes).  Note:  if you’re in a big hurry, you can skip this step and simply add all the ingredients into the slow cooker.)
2.  Spoon leeks and mushrooms into a 4-5 quart slow cooker.  Add the carrots, broth, salt, and wild rice.  Cover and cook on LOW for 6 – 7 hours.
Notes: When I made this, it was done in 5 hours.  Check for doneness early.

Pieless Apples (a la Mode)
I’ve made some changes in the original recipe to make this a quick dessert you can prepare when you get home.  If you want to start it early in the day, however, it can cook for much longer without any ill effects.  It’s even better cool.

Recipe adapted from Robin Robertson, Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker
Serves 6
Preparation Time: 10 minutes, plus 2-4 hour for cooking

4  Granny Smith apples, sliced thin
2 tablespoons unbleached flour
1/2 cup brown sugar (Sucanat), divided
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon fresh ginger or ginger juice (optional)
1/4 cup raisins or dried cranberries (optional)
1/2 cup rolled oats
2 tablespoons Earth Balance softened

1.  In a large mixing bowl, mix apples, flour, 1/4 cup Sucanat, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, ginger (if using) and raisins or cranberries (if using).  Stir to coat with flour, then transfer mixture to a lightly-oiled 3 1/2 – 4 quart slow cooker.
2.  In the same bowl, mix the oats, remaining Sucanat, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and softened Earth Balance margarine.  Sprinkle the oat mixture over the apples.  Cover and cook on Low for 3 1/2 – 4 hours (or 2 hours on High).
3.  Serve warm with non-dairy ice cream, or chill and serve cold or at room temperature.  (The flavor is sweeter and more intense when it’s cooler.)
Notes: Use Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Stamen, or any tart-sweet variety.

This is extra quick to make if you use your food processor to slice your apples very thinly.

The ginger and cranberry combination is especially delicious and warming on a cool night.