Thursday, August 26, 2010

No-Fuss Macaroni & Cheese

(Apologies for missing last week--it was the week of orientation and I was frantically trying to finish up some work that should have been done over the summer. ::sigh::)

For two weeks in July I made the "No-Fuss Macaroni & Cheese," from the Crock Pot Incredibly Easy Recipes.  This was definitely one of those recipes where my roommate and I questioned why one might want to make this in the crock pot in the first place because it doesn't cook all day (only takes about 2-3 hours) and it might just be faster if you made it on the stove.

That being said, the recipe was pretty easy to put together.  It calls for elbow macaroni (uncooked), "light pasteurized processed cheese" (read: Velveeta, Cheddar cheese, salt and pepper (of course I did not add salt), and skim milk.  As I'm looking at the recipe and the image that I used here, I'm noticing that I clearly have a problem with reading comprehension.  The recipe says that the processed cheese should be cubed.  Does that look cubed to you?  Doesn't to me either.

Anyway, one of the easy things about this recipe is that it is one where you just combine everything in the crock pot in the beginning--there are no extra steps where you add something at the end and the only thing really is that it says that you should stir it after cooking for 20-30 minutes (on low).  The problem with this, however, is that makes it not as convenient for a graduate student as some of the other crock pot recipes.  First, the short cooking time makes it that you cannot just turn it on in the morning, go to classes or the library, and then come back at night to a nice dinner.  Second, the fact that you have to stir it part-way through makes it that you cannot even really leave for several hours, or turn it on and then lock yourself in your bedroom or study to do work until it's done.

Additionally, I found that I had to stir it more than one time in order to get all the pasta to cook evenly.  The first time that I made this, I stirred it only once after I let it cook for 30 minutes, and some of the pasta was still a little crunchy by the time it was finished cooking.  The second time I made it (the following week) I stirred every 30 minutes and that time it came out perfectly.  So, again, if you're going to have to hang around for three hours stirring the mac and cheese every 30 minutes, it's not one that I would recommend for the graduate student lifestyle.

Here is the crock pot once I stirred it the first time.

And here is the mac and cheese once it was done cooking.

Sorry for the blurriness of this picture, but you can see that this one almost actually looks like the picture provided in the cookbook--something that almost never happens!  The mac and cheese itself tasted pretty good, but the problem is with the servings.  The recipe says that it makes 6-8 servings, but that must be only if you're having it as a side dish because we only got 4-5 out of it when we ate it.  If I were to make this again, I'd make a double recipe.

Of course, I did make it again, mostly because I still had enough ingredients to make a second recipe.  The recipe calls for 1 cup (4 oz) of shredded mild Cheddar cheese, which I bought only for this recipe because it's not something that I use on a regular basis.  When you buy a bag of shredded cheese, they generally come in the 2-cup size, so it's perfect for making a double recipe.  Of course, this time I decided to make the mac and cheese more interesting, adding a can of Italian-style diced tomatoes and some fresh garlic.

This modified version of the mac and cheese was much more tasty, in my opinion.  The cool thing about the mac and cheese recipe is that you can be creative, adding ground beef or turkey, beans, or tomatoes to make it more interesting.  However, the mac and cheese recipe definitely counts as comfort food: I think I calculated it to be around 600-630 calories per serving.  For a boy, that might be okay.  For someone as petite as me, I can't take in that many calories in only one part of one meal!

However, it definitely fits into the "cheap food" category.  The pasta was on sale when I got it--10 for $10 of Barilla pasta--so it comes out to be less than $0.95 per serving (assuming one already has skim milk).  Even when I added the canned tomatoes ($0.73 for store brand), the final four servings were still less than $1.15 per serving.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Spanish Chicken with Rice

On July 2, I made the "Spanish Chicken with Rice" from the Crock Pot Incredibly Easy Recipes cookbook.  What I really liked about this recipe is that it is a meal in a pot--chicken, rice, and vegetables all in one.  Thus, you don't have to really add anything for this to be a meal (though I add a salad to every dinner).  Also, this recipe is one that, although it has some preparation steps, once you've put almost the whole thing together (almost... see below), there's not really anything else that you have to do to make a meal; no further separating, cutting, or assembling required.

You begin this recipe by browning the sausage and the chicken in a frying pan.  Thus, while the meats are browning, I was cutting up all the vegetables that I didn't cut up in advance.  However, one of the things that I might try next time, if I make this recipe again, is to not cook the sausage the way they recommend.  The recipe calls for pre-cooked linguica or kielbasa, so the sausage doesn't need to cook the entire time in the crock pot to be safe to eat.  Thus, even though I browned it on both sides before adding it to the crock pot, it ended up a bit mushy in the end.

What I might do next time is to skip adding the sausage to the recipe at the beginning entirely.  Instead, I'd wait until the crock pot was almost finished cooking, then I'd heat the sausage in a frying pan (so it's more crispy and sausage-like) and add it to the recipe.

After adding both the pre-browned sausage and chicken, the recipe also asks you to cook the onion and garlic (until soft) before adding it to the crock pot.  With all this pre-cooking, one might wonder why he or she is going to be using the crock pot in the first place!  However, I could also at least just use the same pan for all of this as I assembled the dish in the crock pot.

In addition to the above ingredients, you also add rice, carrots, red bell pepper and spices.  The recipe calls for salt, pepper, and saffron threads (which are optional).  I only added the pepper.  As those who have read my previous posts know, I try not to add salt to the recipes when I'm cooking, thinking that if the recipe needs it (and it usually doesn't), I can add it to taste at the table.  As for the saffron threads, I tried to get them in the grocery store and it was something like $15 for only 4-5 threads.  My immediate thought: "This is an optional ingredient, so FORGET IT!"

The recipe also requires you to add hot chicken broth.  As you can see from the image, I just poured it into a mug and heated it in the microwave.  I mean, who really has time at this point to wait for it to boil any other way?

This image (to the left) is what the dish looked completely assembled, before I turned it on.
Now, the final ingredient to be added to this recipe is frozen peas, thawed, but they are only added for the last 15 minutes of cooking.  So, I measured out the peas, turned the crock pot on high, and let them hang out next to the crock pot while it cooked for four hours.  (If I were to cook the sausage differently, as mentioned above, I would probably cook the sausage and then add it when I add the peas.)

I'd also like to note again that this meal only cooks for four hours.  It is not a good one to make on a day that you're going to be at school or in the library all day.

This is what the crock pot looked like after the entire thing finished cooking.

As you can see, this is a complete meal from the crock pot.  I shared it with my roommate and with both agreed that it tasted good.  However, the only complaint I have is with the name.  What, exactly, makes this "Spanish" chicken with rice?  There was nothing about this that made it taste Spanish, especially since it mostly tasted like chicken since everything was cooked in chicken broth.  (On a random tangent: I wonder if it would have tasted less "chicken-y" if I had used vegetable broth instead.  Hmmm....)  My roommate noted that the rice ended up a bit mushy.  I didn't mind it so much.  The recipe calls specifically for "converted long-grain white rice."  Now, I'm not about to buy a different kind of white rice just for a recipe, so I used jasmine rice.  If I had followed the recipe and used the specific rice it calls for, it would have come out less mushy.

I honestly don't remember how many meals I got out of this recipe, but it was definitely one of the crock pot recipes where it lasted so long that I just didn't want to even eat it anymore.  It also was cheap, especially since I had already purchased many of the ingredients.  I already had the olive oil, onion, garlic, rice, carrots, chicken broth, and spices (except for the saffron threads).  Thus, the sausage, chicken, red pepper, and frozen peas only cost me $13.09.  I know that this lasted at least a week, so that's under $2.00 per meal!  Not bad for stretching a graduate-student stipend!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Summer Crock Pot Cooking

My brother recently sent me an article that showed up on his Yahoo homepage, "10 Summer Slow-Cooker Recipes" by Robin Shreeves.  Shreeves explains how a slow cooker can be useful for cooking during the summer, because you don't have to be in the kitchen over a hot stove when it's just as hot outside.  The recipes she selects are divided into four categories: sandwiches, garden vegetable dishes, side dishes, and main dishes.  I haven't yet tried versions of all the recipes that she includes, but I will make a hearty recommendation for BBQ ribs in the crock pot.  The meat comes out absolutely delicious.

Now, I've been curious for a while about what homemade baked beans done in the crock pot might turn out like, and this article has inspired me to finally try it.  So this week I'll be cooking Boston Baked Beans (I'm going to use the recipe from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook instead of the one linked from that article though).  Look for my review/comments in a future post.

This got me thinking about what my top 10 summer dishes, of what I've made so far in the crock pot, might be.  The list (taken from the Crock Pot Incredibly Easy Recipes cookbook) would probably include:

  • Campfired-Up Sloppy Joes -- very yummy, crock pot version of the standard sloppy joe.
  • Meatless Sloppy Joes -- a vegetarian substitute (beans, green pepper, and onion) as opposed to the chicken substitute mentioned in the article above.
  • BBQ Roast Beef Sandwiches -- part of the 4 ingredients or less chapter, so super easy.
  • Open-Face Provencal Vegetable Sandwich -- mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, onion, olives, and capers, cooked and served as an open-face sandwich.
  • Chicken and Spicy Black Bean Tacos -- you do have to use the oven to warm the taco shells (unless you use soft tortillas, which can be zapped in the microwave), but you can use the crock pot to cook the chicken and bean filling.
BBQ substitutes:
  • Polska Kielbasa with Beer 'n Onions -- not a real substitute for a backyard BBQ, but a yummy dish of kielbasa and onions cooked in a mix of honey mustard, brown sugar, and beer.
  • Honey Ribs -- ribs cooked in a mixture of beef consomme, soy sauce, honey, maple syrup and BBQ sauce. I cannot emphasize enough how delicious this meal is.
Lighter dinners:
  • Chicken and Wild Rice Casserole -- cooked with bacon, onion, celery, and mushrooms.
  • Shrimp Louisiana-Style -- probably not the most healthy, because it's basically shrimp cooked in lemon butter, but really good.
  • Panama Pork Stew -- good soup that makes a nice light supper when you add a salad.
If anyone is interested in a more thorough evaluation of any of these recipes, let me know in the comments, and I'll make it.