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Passive Activism: Crock Pot Fresh

May 24, 2012

After pulling out everything from my shopping trip which qualified as “breakfast” food, what I was left with fell into three basic categories.  These three basic categories can actually be quite useful in terms of creative crock pot use.

Meat:
Ground Beef
Chicken

Starch:
Potatoes
Beans

Vegetable:
Corn
Peas

Most crock pot recipes will follow the basic pattern of one meat, one starch, and one vegetable.  So long as you understand how to work with those three categories, you can turn out some palatable, if terribly bland, food.  The other thing that is of major importance in working with a crock pot is knowing exactly when to add various ingredients.  It is entirely possible to simply throw everything into the pot in the morning and come home to a finished dinner.  However, some of these ingredients need a little more cook time, and others need a little less.  There are three additional categories to consider in your planning:  Dried, fresh, pre-cooked (frozen, canned, etc).

Dried foods (such as beans) need a little longer to cook.  Put your dried food and some water into the crock pot before bedtime to get some extra cook time in.  You don’t have to drain the beans and add fresh water in the morning, but it is recommended, especially if your family lives in tight quarters and you have a strong opinion about high levels of methane emissions.  Regardless of whether you change the water in the middle, beans should always be rinsed before using.  Most foods could use a quick rinse before cooking anyways, so it’s just a good habit to get into.

Shaving the cob

Fresh foods can go into the pot in the morning.  For me, this was the potatoes, chicken, beef, and corn.  The potatoes get rinsed and diced, the chicken gets diced, the beef gets dropped in spoonfuls into the pot, and the corn gets cut away from the cob.  The key here is small, bite size pieces that will have lots of time to cook. Earlier, I talked about how weird it is that this list includes ears of corn, when frozen corn is so much easier to work with, especially for an inexperienced chef.  Shaving a cob is fairly easy to do, if a bit messy.  All you need to do is take a sharp knife and run it at a sharp angle down the cob, just outside of where the corn gets tough.  You’ll want to do this over a bowl, otherwise you’ll have bits of corn flying everywhere.  If you’re not sure where to cut, just imagine where your teeth would close if you were eating corn on the cob.  I find that angling the knife to shave the cob five times gets most of the kernels off in the best balance of time saving and waste.  Of course, if I were actually planning a crock pot meal for myself, I’d be using frozen corn, but I think I’ve made my point on that subject.

An important skill in crock pot cooking is the use of layers to blend the flavors.  You’ll want at least two layers of each item.  Opinions differ as to which order they should go in, and while I think it works better to go Starch/Veg/Meat, other places recommend Meat/Veg/Starch.  You’re going to give the whole thing a stir after 6-8 hours anyways, so it’s not like it matters a whole lot.  Add water to the pot, cover, set to low, and go.

Pre-cooked foods go into the pot about an hour before you’re ready to eat.  In my case, this was the frozen peas.  This is also a good time to add a little milk to the pot if you want a creamier sauce.

Now that you’ve slogged through all that, here’s the basic Every Crock Pot Recipe Ever (serves 4):

1 pound of meat
3 cups of starch
3 cups of vegetables

Pre-sleep: Add dried foods and some water.  Cook 6-8 hours
Morning prep: Add diced/chopped fresh foods and some water.  Cook 6-8 hours
1 hour prior to serving: Stir, add frozen/canned foods and any dairy products.

And that’s every crock pot recipe ever.  Except for one, teeny, tiny, vitally important element.  Flavor.  You know what would have been a cheap thing to add to this shopping list that would have done this whole project a world of good?  Bouillon cubes.  Sure, they’re full of salt and preservatives, but they’re also packed with herbs and spices.  Just a couple of cubes per recipe would have gone a long way towards making this whole week considerably more palatable.

Well, at least it *looks* tasty.

The original image declared “Image the possibilities!”  Yeah.  There’s exactly 8 possibilities to be made with those foods, all of them pretty damned bland. Sure you can add a little oatmeal to thicken things up, but oatmeal in and of itself is pretty bland.  It needs things like spices and sugar (and yogurt!) to liven things up.  For a whole five days, I ate nothing but meat, veg, and starch.  With a splash of goat milk thrown in every now and then because it was pretty much the only thing in the whole lot that had any flavor.

Most people don’t realize that the real flavor of their most favorite foods are due to little things like oil, herbs, and spices.  Just meat, starch, and veg isn’t a very tasty meal, no matter how fresh your food is.  People don’t add butter to their food because they want to throw in a little extra fat.  They do it because butter is tasty.  They don’t add salt because they want to increase their sodium levels.  They do it because salt makes things tastier.  So in addition to all of the crap involved in just getting fresh food into your home and feeding it to your family (or just yourself, whatevs), you have to deal with the fact that all the freshness in the world won’t change how much better fast food tastes.  Your all beef patties are going to fall flat if you don’t know that McDonald’s shakes a liberal dose of salt, pepper, and onion powder all over their 80% lean (that’s 20% fat, y’all) burgers.

It is all well and good to tell people “Eat Fresh!” But if you don’t know *how* to eat fresh, then you’re probably going to go right back to picking up fast food, because fast food simply tastes better.  Fast food also doesn’t require washing the dishes, keeping things like utensils on hand, or even just having the time to prepare a decent meal.  All of that chopping and dicing still took time, regardless of whether I did it in the morning or before I went to bed.  Using the crock pot itself is actually quite efficient and can be a huge energy and time saver over the long run.  But I got quite tired of washing the crock pot every day and getting it going again in the morning.  By the end of the week, I was ready for my real goal:  Easy meal replacement, or How To Make Fried Chicken Without Making Fried Chicken.  Tune in tomorrow!  Same Sqrl time, same Sqrl channel!

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. brice permalink
    May 24, 2012 10:59 am

    TL;DR Squirrel, you’re setting up a straw man. No one ever said that the shopping would have to be used in an empty kitchen free of condiments, nor that the example is a complete shopping list. It was making the point that cost isn’t an excuse to eat poorly. (spoilers: I agree)

    While fast food is certainly more convenient, I disagree that cheap/healthy food is necessarily bland and tastes worse than fast food. I can cook a delicious three lentil curry that would cost significantly less than $1 per person, will leave you feeling well fed and will be a treat to you palate. Have a look at http://thirty-quid.blogspot.co.uk/ for some examples of awesome cheap meals.

    As a general rule, plant sources of protein will be much cheaper. In many cultures, you’ll find traditional foods that combine plant proteins to provide you with a complete protein: lentils and rice in india, beans and corn in South America, Rice and soy bean in Asia, etc…

    Buying whole chickens instead of breast will also be cheaper. An average sized chicken can be purchased for about £3.33 (that’s $5.22), according to my latest trip to my local supermarket, and will stretch to 7 portions and a tasty soup if you know what you’re doing. (leg x2, 3/4 breast x2, 1/4 breast+wing x2, carcass meat, carcass)

    Secondly, cooking 12-16 hours is completely absurd for the ingredients you mentioned. It will leach all the flavours out of them. you would get much better results by cooking for much shorter times ( chilli
    beef + potatoes -> shepherd’s pie

    chicken + corn + peas -> chicken soup
    chicken + potatoes + peas -> grilled chicken with mash and peas.

    beef + stale bread soaked in milk + oatmeal -> meatloaf

    If you’d shopped smarter, you could have even saved enough on the chicken to end up with a tin of chopped tomatoes and some onions, which would have extended the number of meals you could cook even more.

    Secondly, I’m not convinced that the time it takes to cook is greater than it would be to drive to a fast food restaurant, wait in line, and get back home, or to wait for the delivery. You also assume that the cooking needs to be done before your meal, which is not the case. I will often cook twelve portions or more of a given meal and freeze them to be consumed over the course of a month or so. When tired from work, I come home and simply place the portion in the microwave. It’s actually faster than it is for my housemates to walk around a corner to a local fast food shop. A “fast” lasagna can even be put together in under 5 minutes.

    Also, your advice on beans is downright dangerous. Beans should be *boiled* for a minimum of 20 minutes, then slow cooked. Slow cooking beans without boiling them first may lead to serious food poisoning. (Having been at the receiving end of undercooked beans, I can confirm you never want to find this out for yourself.). If you soak them overnight (with some baking soda), rinse, boil for 40 minutes, rinse and then cook, they’ll not even make you flatulent or bloated.

    I’d also recommend getting hold of a home economics guide from the 40s or 50s. Especially good are the guides written during rationing. You’d be amazed what can be done with a handful of ingredients. While the section on running a home can be read for a laugh at the anachronism, or to get your feminist rage boiling, they will often have a section on how to stock a home cupboard (no fridge), how to draw up a shopping list and how to create a balanced meal plan.

    The point is, cost should never be an excuse to feed yourself or your family poorly. I do agree with you that not everyone knows how to cook a decent meal from fresh ingredients. But frankly, ignorance is a just as bad an excuse for this, or indeed, for anything else.

    • May 25, 2012 9:30 pm

      I’m on vacation, so I don’t really have time to respond to this whole thing. So I’m going to give you a TL;DR answer. It seems clear to me that you have completely misunderstood this whole series. Please feel free to read it again. You might start with your accusation that I am going to poison people. Because I simply cannot fathom how you could think that cooking beans for 16 hours could POSSIBLY cause them to be undercooked.

    • May 25, 2012 10:54 pm

      This is part 3 of a 4 part series. You may wish to revise your comment after reading the other 3 parts. And the TL;DR business is just silly when you answer with a wall of misguided text.

  2. May 24, 2012 11:45 am

    And this is why I love garlic so much. HEB usually sells garlic heads 2 for $1 and i can make 2 heads last me a long time. It doesn’t take much, but it vastly helps the flavoring of recipes. Plus, it’s good for your heart and way better than adding copious amounts of salt. If I do add salt to a recipe, it’s usually just the tiniest bit.

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  1. Passive Activism: Chicken Good « Crossed Wires

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