Slow-cookers can be lifesavers

April 12, 2019

By the time this column reaches the newsstands, many of us will be finishing our tax returns scrambling for Monday’s deadline. And, if you’ve waited until the last minute to work on your taxes, you probably don’t have much time to think about what to make for dinner. To help you in the kitchen during these busy days, I’ll share some speedy meal ideas.

One of the more helpful appliances when you’re pressed for time is the slow-cooker. Designed to hold all the ingredients and cook them at low heat for several hours, the device is a practical alternative to the stovetop or oven, as for the sweet and sour meatballs in the photo.

Here’s a place where you can choose cheaper cuts of meat that benefit from the long, slow cooking process. Save the expensive steaks and chops for the grill. Because of the way the cooker operates, you’ll have better results when all the ingredients are at least partly submerged in liquid. 

Perhaps you’ve seen recipes that direct you to place a slab of meat on a pile of chopped vegetables and add no liquid at all, relying instead on the vegetables to release moisture. In my experience, this causes the meat to steam, instead of braise, and the exposed surface layer becomes tough and dry. Instead, cover the meat with crushed tomatoes or a dollop of broth to add both flavor and moisture.

Try to avoid slow-cooker recipes that call for packaged or canned ingredients like onion soup mix or cream-of-something soup. You can add the same flavors with fresh vegetables or dried herbs and spices. If you’d like to thicken the liquid at the end of the cooking time, whisk together a roux or slurry and stir it into your stew or sauce.

Another quick-assembly and easy-cleanup meal can be prepared using a foil-lined sheet pan. Chop a collection of fresh vegetables into pieces roughly the same size (for even cooking), toss them with olive oil, seasonings and slices of smoked sausage. Spread everything on the foil and pop it into the oven for about 30 minutes. 

The recipe here combines potato, broccoli and peppers, but you can swap in or out your favorite items. The same is true of the seasoning profile; just be sure to use enough to add sufficient flavor interest. To cut back on calories, reach for chicken or turkey sausage; you can find them in all sorts of configurations, from Italian to sage.

The final quick-cooking option is a one-pot dish. The one I’ve included here is a chicken stroganoff that starts with a store-bought rotisserie chicken. This lets you skip the chicken-cooking step and incorporates the signature flavor of slow-roasted chicken. While traditionally a Russian dish made with beef and mushrooms, this version features chicken in the signature creamy sauce.

Typically, when you make pasta, there’s a pot of boiling water and a colander involved. For this dish, the noodles are simmered in the same pot as the rest of the ingredients, which makes short work of cleanup. When you choose mushrooms, select those labeled baby bellas or cremini, which will be deeper and more complex in flavor than white buttons.

Hope these ideas help out your tax-season meals, and best of luck getting your forms in the mail by midnight on Monday.

Slow Cooker Meatballs

1 slice bread
1 egg
1 T dried onion bits
1 t parsley
1 t chives
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef
1 can whole cranberry sauce
2/3 C catsup

Tear the bread into small pieces and combine with egg in a mixing bowl. Stir in onion and whisk until bread has dissolved. Add parsley, chives, salt, pepper and meat; stir to thoroughly combine. Form into walnut-sized balls and place in a single layer in the bottom of the slow cooker. In a small bowl, whisk together cranberry sauce and catsup. Pour evenly over meatballs. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours. Yield: 4 servings.

Sheet Pan Sausage Bake

1 1/2 C chopped new potatoes
1 1/2 C broccoli florets
1 C chopped red bell pepper
1 chopped onion
14-oz package smoked sausage
1/4 C olive oil
1/4 t red pepper flakes
1/2 t garlic
1 t oregano
1 T parsley
1 t paprika
1/4 t salt
1/4 t pepper
fresh parsley for garnish
grated Parmesan for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a large rimmed baking pan with aluminum foil. Arrange vegetables in a single layer in the pan. Slice the sausage into 1/2-inch-thick pieces and scatter over pan. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together olive oil and seasonings. Drizzle evenly over vegetables and sausage. Bake 15 minutes, remove pan from oven and toss vegetables. Return pan to the oven; bake until vegetables are crisp-tender and sausage is browned, about another 15 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan cheese to serve. Yield: 4 servings.

One-pot Stroganoff

2 1/2 C chicken stock
1 T flour
2 T olive oil
meat from 1 rotisserie chicken
12 oz sliced cremini mushrooms
1 diced onion
1 t paprika
1/4 t thyme
1/4 t oregano
1/4 t pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
4 minced garlic cloves
1/2 C dry white wine
6 oz wide egg noodles
1/2 t salt
1/4 C sour cream
1 t Dijon mustard
salt & pepper
parsley for garnish

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together flour and 1 T chicken stock; set aside. Heat 1 T olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium. Add chicken and cook until heated through, about 3 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate. Add 1 T olive oil to the same pot along with mushrooms and onion. Sprinkle with paprika, thyme, oregano, pepper and red pepper. Cook until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Pour in wine to deglaze pan, scraping up any browned bits; simmer for 2 minutes. Add remaining chicken stock and bring to a rolling boil. Stir in noodles and salt; cook until al dente, about 8 minutes, stirring often. Add flour slurry, stir to dissolve and simmer for another minute. Turn off heat and add cooked chicken, sour cream and mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with parsley. Yield: 4 servings.

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