Monday, November 30, 2009

Slow Cookers - Design and Cooking

One way I like to make my days easier is by not having to worry about dinner when I'm exhausted. Slow cookers seem to have undergone a revival in recent years, but, unfortunately, the design of 20 years ago seems to be better than today's.

I have a 5-quart Rival Crockpot that I purchased in the mid-1990s. It has a solid glass lid that is fairly heavy. I never knew how important that lid was until I decided to buy a smaller slow cooker for our 3-person family (the cooker must be filled at least halfway, or food will burn; 2.5 quarts is a lot of food, and I don't always want to fill up the freezer).

Today's slow cookers generally have glass lids as well, but they are not all glass. Most have a plastic handle that is attached with a screw, and the thin glass lid is framed by metal. The weight of the lid is significantly less than the old style, and presumably the cost to manufacture and ship is reduced, because this design seems to have been universally adopted.

The problem is that this new lid design does not seal as tightly as the heavy glass lids. Slow cookers spit out water and the lids rattle around as the steam pressure builds. Spilling water all over my counter is not something that I consider desirable in an electrical appliance!

A review of some slow cookers can be found on . Cooks Illustrated has some commentary that is available without a subscription, and test results that require a subscription or a trip to the library.

After unsuccessfully scouring thrift stores for a model of the old design, and learning that my mother-in-law is planning to make use of the one that's been sitting in her basement for a few decades, I tested several different new models. I've finally located one that is acceptable, with only minor spitting of water, and only on the high temperature setting after several hours. The design to look for is a crock with small grooves in the rim where the glass lid rests, that allow the accumulating water to stream back into the crock. Also, the width of the slow cooker has an impact; I think it is likely that a round crock will spit less than an oval crock due to a heavier lid per unit area.

The one I found happens to be branded as a Rival, but not all Rivals have this crock design. I also located a smaller, house-brand cooker that has the same crock design and the same insignia on the bottom of the crock (and which does not spit at all, despite heating to the same temperature). I suspect that there is a huge factory in China that makes most of these appliances, no matter what the brand.

For the record, my favorite slow cooker cookbook is Beth Hensperger's Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook; she includes many reasonably healthy recipes, as well as many vegetarian and vegan recipes.

A few things that I like to cook in the slow cooker:
  • Beans. Soak overnight, start on low in the morning, done for dinner.
  • Soup. Get all the dinner prep done before noon and have some great soup for dinner. I like to do this when I have a busy afternoon scheduled.
  • Chicken stock/soup. After roasting a chicken, I put the carcass in the slow cooker and cover with water. I leave it on low overnight, and strain it in the morning. If we will eat chicken soup for dinner that night, I add vegetables and let it cook on low all day, adding brown rice about an hour before dinner. We buy free-range, natural poultry, and I find them to be very low in fat, so stock made with the bones and skin is not greasy at all.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reducing Meat & Dairy Products

You can read elsewhere all the reasons (take your pick: health, budget, environment, animal rights) why you might want to reduce meat and dairy products, but here are some things I've learned.

I was vegetarian and off dairy for about 10 years... now, I use small amounts of free range poultry in meals. I still prefer my vegetarian cookbooks, though: recipes that are designed to be vegetarian have a lot of flavor on their own, and it's easy enough to add tofu, poultry/meat, or nuts if a heavier meal is desired. Some of my favorite veg cookbooks:

*Jeanne Lemlin's Vegetarian Classics; her recipes are quick and tasty.

* Vegan Mediterranean Kitchen by Donna Klein (I like this better than any other vegan cookbook I've seen because it just includes recipes that are vegan without making substitutes for everything. Most vegan cookbooks rely too much on soy, in my opinion.)

* How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman (many vegan recipes)

* Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (many vegan recipes)

Here are some websites with vegetarian or vegan recipes:
http://vegkitchen. com/recipes- galore.htm (by cookbook author Nava Atlas; most of her books are predominantly vegan) archives. php (Mollie Katzen wrote the Moosewood Cookbook & others; her newer recipes use less dairy) recipes/ (searchable for vegan and other types) common/recipe. html (mostly vegan)

I prefer ethnic vegetarian foods rather than ones that are modified meat & potato meals - for instance, a meal such as Greek salad and falafel with hummus vs something like a vegetarian version of meatloaf (however, homemade veggie burgers can be quite tasty). You can get a lot of ideas for veg food from ethnic cookbooks that aren't labeled vegetarian; some of the recipes might call for meat, but many cultures have a lot of traditional vegetarian meals, and when they do use meat, it tends to be in vastly smaller quantities.

Vegan is not difficult to do if you're already used to cooking without meat. When I was learning to go without dairy, the most difficult aspect was baking without milk products. Most vegan cookbooks sub soy or rice milk and other soy products. I don't like that for multiple reasons: first, it's a hassle to make soy milk; if you purchase it, the containers it comes in are non-recyclable. Second, I don't want to OD on soy. Third, it gets expensive to have all those subs on hand. We do eat soy, but I prefer to have it in its less processed forms, such as tofu and miso.

Here are the substitutes that I prefer:
EGG: 1 tbsp flax meal in 3 tbsp water. Mix and let sit for a few minutes. It will become somewhat gel-like and works great in baking.
MILK: Cooked rice or oatmeal, pureed with water to a smooth consistency. These work well in baking, in smoothies, in soups.
YOGURT, SOUR CREAM, ETC: Pureed silken tofu. Pureed white beans (yes, even in sweets).
BUTTER: Use oil in about half the amount. You can experiment with mixing the oil with some flour and freezing it for recipes that require solid fat. (Non-hydrogenated, vegan shortening is available, and most vegan cookbooks call for this, but I prefer my method.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Traveling with Kids

The holiday season approaches and many people will be traveling. Since we have family and friends spread out all around the country, we have done a lot of traveling since our daughter was born, including a cross-country road trip when we moved.

Here are a few things that make travel more pleasant for us:

* About a month before taking a trip, either by car or air, I stash away small, lightweight, portable things so that they will be "new" for the trip. For airplane trips, I pack thin paperback books, crayons, paper, random things that I find that are interesting, small plastic animals and toys, a favorite small stuffed animal, etc.

* Storytelling and singing are good past-times in the car. There are audio books that are appropriate for young children that can be fun for adults, as well. Games such as "I spy" are very popular with my daughter.

* Find fun things to do on stops. In the airport, look for an empty gate area to let a toddler run. Some airports have play areas or long hallways with little foot traffic. On roadtrips, some rest areas have short trails and playgrounds.

* For a couple years after potty training, we took the small kid potty in the trunk for long trips, just in case. Some highways have many miles between facilities - and some states have closed their rest stops.

* Establish a travel routine when possible on a trip. On our move, each of the 4 days was exactly the same, and while none of us wanted to get back into the car after lunch, by day 2 our 18-month old knew what was coming and made only minor objections. When we traveled overseas and hit a major heatwave with our 4-year old, we quickly set a routine of morning activity, lunch, then afternoon rest time until it was cooler outside.

* Don't forget to pack some healthy snacks and water. (Healthy snacks because no one needs a sugar crash when everyone is trapped in a small space.)

* Manage expectations. Know that the actual travel is likely to fall somewhere between passable and grueling! Hopefully, the time spent at the destination will make the travel worthwhile.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

No time for what?

Recently, Nielson released numbers indicating that kids under age 6 watch an average of 32 hours of screen time weekly; school-age kids still managed to bank about 28 hours weekly (LA Times).

Let's take a look at a week: 168 hours. (168)
According to Dr. Sears, kids need, on average, close to 10 hours/night until age 10: 70 hours. (98)
School-aged kids are gone at least 7 hours/day: 35 hours. (63)
Eating must take about 2 hours/day: 14 hours. (49)
Getting ready for the day and for bedtime: 7 hours. (42)
Playing outside or inside: let's assume two hours daily of free play or activity during the school year: 14 hours. (28)
Homework: 3 hours. (25)
Personal hygiene: 3 hours. (22)

This is telling me two things:
1. Some kids must watch screens nearly every waking moment, because some kids watch none.
2. Our days are as busy as I felt that they were. After subtracting the additional time spent for school transit and sleeping in our household, we are in negative time. And we don't watch TV.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Granola: easy, frugal, delicious!

Instead of buying cereal in a big bag and box, make your own in less time than it takes to wait in the grocery checkout. Cost comparison: you can make 2 large batches of granola from 1 42-ounce oatmeal container, which runs about $2.50, which is the least that you'll pay for a one 15-ounce box of cereal. Taste comparison: no contest!

6-8 c old fashioned rolled oats
1 tbsp cinnamon
1/4 c honey (can increase if desired, but this is enough)
1/4 c canola oil (ditto)

Preheat oven to 300F and oil two baking sheets. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix the wet ingredients and warm slightly in a pot or the microwave. Pour over the dry ingredients and mix well. Spread on the baking sheets. Stir after 20 minutes, and remove from the oven after 40 minutes. Let cool and store in a container in the fridge.

Optional additions:
1/2 c wheat germ: add at beginning to oats.
coconut: add toward the end of baking time (look for unsweetened, preservative-free coconut in bulk at natural foods stores).
nuts and dried fruit: add after removing from the oven.

Great combinations:
hazelnuts and dried blueberries
pecans and dried cranberries
dried cherries and almonds
dried apricots (chopped) and walnuts
any of the above with chocolate chips, preferably Ghirardelli's bittersweet

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sweet potatoes...

are jewels of the garden. We mostly roast them in their jackets, around 400 degrees, until they are soft to the touch and oozing a little. They require no adornment, although they are tasty with pineapple pieces or minced ginger root mixed in. We rarely have leftovers, but when we do, my daughter likes these even more than pumpkin muffins, and that's saying something:

Sweet potato muffins (makes 12)

1.5 to 2 c leftover mashed roasted sweet potatoes
1 egg, or use the flaxseed egg sub for vegan muffins
2 tbsp canola oil
1 c whole wheat flour
3/4 c pecan meal + 1/4 c unbleached flour OR 1 c unbleached flour
3/4 c UNPACKED brown sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
pinch salt

To make the pecan meal, whirl about 1c loosely packed pecan halves in some sort of chopper until it is very fine. Mix the wet ingredients well, and then add the dry ingredients and mix until most of the lumps are out. If it seems to dry, add a little water (~ 1/4 c). Bake for about 20-23 minutes at 400F.

For a fabulous vegetarian main dish featuring sweet potatoes, try this:
Sweet potato, White bean, and Pepper Tian
I like to double the amount of beans ( I cook 1/2 pound of dry white beans for the recipe).