That's A Crock!
Slow Cooker Posole
By Carol Ritchie
The fall schedule is often the busiest time of the year. New modifications are made for advancing students. Shifting job opportunities require changes in work obligations. Extracurricular activities dictate different time frames from previous months and years. Entertainment options vary from previous seasons. It is an overall lifestyle adjustment that seems to be at the height of drastic transformation during the autumn winds of change.
While daily activities seem to constantly require an alteration to the family schedule, there is one constant (besides sleeping!) that remains: eating. No matter how busy or how divided everyone’s time seems to be, everyone still has to eat. Often, the limitations of time result in a “grab and go” food mentality. Eat on the run. Snatch something quick to eat out of hand, out the door. Pick up a bite to eat in the drive-thru lane. Fast food. Is this the description of weekly dining experiences in your household?
Finding common ground is the starting point to maximizing family time and togetherness. It is not always possible to gather every day at the same time, or for the same amount of time. Busy schedules pull everyone in different directions, however, at some point, you’ve got to look at the big picture. What is the most important thing for your family? Is it the after-school sporting event or a few hours of overtime at work? Is it preparing a homemade breakfast for the family or sleeping in a bit longer? The answers seem obvious, but in today’s busy world, not so much. With family - the people you live with and see every day - the “can’t now, but next time” frame of mind often prevails. That usually indicates a need to prioritize and compromise.
The best place to do just that is the dinner table. Everyone has to eat. You have a family. These two facts should coincide. It may seem like an impossible task. It is not impossible if you take control and determine that this is the most important daily activity for your family. Some days, dinner might come early to allow for evening activities. Other days, dinner might come late. But through commitment and persistence, a common meal is guaranteed providing important daily family time.
In order to accommodate varying hectic schedules, it may often require quick meals. A quick meal at home is not always easy to accomplish. Nevertheless, strive to make it a time-shared meal. Planning ahead is always a key to success, and dinnertime planning is paramount. While there are many quick and easy options for the home cook to explore, one of the easiest things to do is throw everything in one pot and let it cook. There is one kitchen utensil - rather, a small, fairly inexpensive kitchen appliance - that assists extraordinarily well for these dinner preparations and every household should have one: a slow cooker.
A slow cooker for a quick meal? How can that be? That’s an oxymoron. Granted, you aren’t going to throw ingredients in the pot and have dinner ready in five minutes, but you are going to throw ingredients in the pot before work and come home to an instant dinner. The choices are limitless, however, advance planning is required. Preparations the night before (or in large quantities on a weekly basis) can guarantee a simple flip of the switch in the morning and a hot, quick-to-serve, delicious, nutritious, homemade meal for the family to share between all of the afternoon and evening activities. For busy households, the slow cooker is a family meal lifesaver.
The slow cooker was invented in the ‘70s, however, the method of cooking foods slowly over low heat for long periods of time goes back centuries. This is extremely beneficial for meats, producing tender, full-flavored results. The thrill of this new kitchen appliance gradually waned during the ‘80s and ‘90s when leaner, quick-cooking meats became readily available and found to be easily prepared through other methods, such as grilling or broiling. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in slow cooking techniques in recent years, with many cooks realizing the vast potential for not only mouth-watering meals, but the ease of preparation and readiness of quick servings when dinner time is impending. Slow cooking is preferred for recipes that keep getting better the longer they cook: chili, Italian minestrone, meat and potato stew, spaghetti sauce, charro beans (Tex-Mex cowboy beans), black beans and meat stew (Brazilian feijoada), red beans and vegetables (Creole red beans and rice) or Boston baked beans.
While a large pot on the stove can serve the same purpose, the slow cooker is much more convenient, safe and energy efficient. They are available in many sizes and configurations to accommodate serving amounts, cooking flexibility and clean-up requirements. The actual slow cooker appliance usually consists of an exterior metal casing fitted with the necessary heating elements, an interior ceramic pot and a heat-proof lid. Varying sizes provide convenience of preparation for as small as a single serving, to entertaining large groups, and everything in-between. Basic slow cookers offer the simplest of settings: high, low and off. Deluxe varieties may include variable heat controls, thermostat-controlled auto settings, a timer or even multiple cooking vessels. The removable pot allows for easy storage of leftovers in the refrigerator (just pop it back in the cooking unit to re-heat the next day) and quick cleaning without any electrical parts to worry about or get in the way.
The cooking possibilities are really limitless. Slow cookers are convenient solutions for ultimate one-dish meals. While moist cooking methods, such as braising, stewing or simmering, are usually the intended use, the slow cooker can also serve as a warming vessel for dips or fondue, a chafing dish on a buffet, a warm punch bowl for holiday beverages or a baking oven for breads and desserts, such as cakes, English pudding or cheesecake.
From basic stocks, soups and sauces, to pot roasts, poaching and stews, the moist cooking methods require one key element: liquid. Most recipes will be specific about liquid requirements and slow cooker settings, however, adding extra hot liquid (water or broth, depending on the recipe) is sometimes necessary so that the food does not cook dry and begin to burn. This is seldom the case when cooking on low heat; liquids simmer slowly without bubbling. But with high heat, slow cookers can produce a rolling boil. The slow cooker lid is always in use for these methods, containing steam and retaining heat. It should only be removed to add liquid or additional ingredients, if necessary. While the basic premise of slow cooker cooking is to set it and go, the low setting is best for unattended all day simmering. It is preferable to be able to occasionally monitor the progress (looking through the glass lid, not by removing the lid) when using higher settings.
Here are a few tips for cooking in a slow cooker:
-- Prepare all food in advance so that it’s ready to combine in the pot, start and be on your way. Many times, the ingredients can all be added to the pot and put in the refrigerator until ready to start cooking. When ready (the morning, for instance), simply place the pot in the cooker and set to cook on low. Dinner is hot and ready when everyone returns from work and school.
-- For soups and stews, chop each ingredient (such as meats or vegetables) to uniform sizes. If all the pieces of any particular food are the same size, they will all cook similarly in the same amount of time.
-- When cooking higher fat, marbled or ground meats, it is best to brown these in a pan on the stove in advance to reduce the amount of fat in the slow cooker. Lean or tough cuts of meat benefit the most from moist slow cooking.
-- Many times recipes can be started on high for a short time and reduced to low to finish cook. Or it may be just the reverse with an added boost of heat near the end of cooking. Soups, stews and sauces can often continue to simmer on low for a few hours after they are ready to serve without consequence to flavor or texture.
-- Most recipes for the slow cooker require specific heat settings (low or high), however, as a general rule, the low setting will take about twice as long as a high setting. Again, this is where advance planning is key to a successful “quick” meal when the family convenes for dinner.
-- Utilize online resources to select the best options in slow cookers and recipes to suit your needs. Books, such as the recent American Heart Association Healthy Slow Cooker Cookbook, offer lots of great recipes that are not only convenient and delicious, but healthful as well.
The road to slow cooker success relies on good strategies in the kitchen. It can be one of the most effective cooking methods for a busy schedule, but will require advance preparation. For the quick cook, nothing is more enticing than throwing everything in a pot and letting it cook until it’s done. To test your prep and combine-in-a-pot abilities, try my Slow Cooker Posole (see recipe below), a hearty Mexican stew-like soup that incorporates the slightly spicy aromas of ancho chiles and cumin with chunks of tender pork loin chops, fire-roasted tomatoes and the mellow, yet rich corn essence of golden hominy. Top that with the fresh flavors of avocado, cilantro, radish and Mexican cheese (among other optional fresh topping ingredients) and you have a terrific, tasty meal to serve a hungry crowd.
When it’s dinnertime, whether for a passing moment or a relaxed evening, gather everyone together to share a good meal and great conversation. During these busy times, a common ground - the dinner table - is important for families to participate and cherish. To achieve this daily goal, use whatever tools are available to make things easier in the kitchen. The slow cooker is an easy tool to use for quick-served, delicious family dinners. The enticing aromas that waft through the house during a day of slow cooking indicate good eats to come and the sweet smell of success.
2 dried ancho chiles
1 1/2 pounds boneless pork loin chops, cubed
4 cups chicken broth
1 (29-ounce) can hominy, drained
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 whole bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup shredded red cabbage
1 small avocado, sliced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/3 cup sour cream (or more, to taste)
1/3 cup crumbled Cotija cheese
3 radishes, thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges
Place dried ancho chiles in a medium bowl. Pour boiling water over chiles to cover by 1 inch. Let chiles soak for 20 minutes, or until softened. Place chiles and about 1/4 cup of the soaking liquid in a blender and purée. Pour this mixture into the slow cooker. Place remaining ingredients (except toppings) in slow cooker. Cook on high for 3 to 4 hours, or on low for 8 to 10 hours, or until pork is cooked through and flavors have blended. Remove bay leaves. Ladle posole into serving bowls. Top each serving with red cabbage, avocado, cilantro, sour cream, cheese and radishes, as desired. Serve lime wedges on the side to squeeze over top, as desired.