Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Very Crock Pot Christmas

This post I had wanted to do before Christmas, so that those who might have been looking for crock-pot-related gifts might have some ideas, but since I was giving my sister a crock pot cookbook for Christmas, I couldn't spoil the surprise, so it had to wait.  So here are my suggestions for crock-pot-related gifts...

I have been spreading the crock pot love around my family since I first fell in love with the crock pot.  It was originally my grandmother that got me into slow cooking. She kept telling me to get a crock pot, so I finally did, but it really wasn't until my brother gave me my first crock pot cookbook, that I really started to get into it. Now, as you may recall from the chicken tagine post, many normal recipes can be easily adapted to the crock pot, and many people prefer trying to adapt their own recipes to the crock pot, but I personally love trying out recipes that have already been put together and deciding if I like them or not -- hence, this blog.

Once I started slow cooking all the time, I gave both my brother and my sister the basic 4-quart oval Crock Pot.  This is the very basic slow cooker, with no bells and whistles.  It is inexpensive and easy to use.  It comes with an instruction book with a few basic recipes (some soups, chili, ribs -- which are amazing when slow cooked, by the way).  It is easy to clean; even really caked on food, like chili, I tend to just let soak in hot soapy water for a while and then it comes right off.  It's also apparently dishwasher safe, something that I did not know until I was looking at the box of the one I gave my sister since I haven't yet lived at a place with a dishwasher since I've been using the slow cooker.

Now, if you really want to spoil that grad student in your life, I highly recommend getting, instead of just the basic slow cooker, one with a timer.  A little more high tech is the Hamilton Beach "Set 'n Forget" programmable slow cookers, in various sizes (I've included an image from of the 6-quart size, below and to the left.)  I have not used this one, but like the two- and three-pot slow cookers, it's one that I covet.  It has the normal manual setting, but then two automatic settings that allow the slow cooker to automatically change from the cooking feature to "warm," either by time or with the meat probe that automatically switches the slow cooker to warm when the meat is at the correct temperature.  I mean, how cool is that?

There are many options for slow cooker cookbooks out there, so I'll just mention some.  The cookbook that my brother gave me, that started my whole crock pot love, is the Crock-Pot Incredibly Easy Recipes cookbook.  There are several chapters in this book that are really useful for the graduate student, including the "one-step" dishes (where you just throw everything into the crock pot and turn it on) and the "4-ingredients or less" dishes.  My brother first gave me this cookbook for Christmas when I was doing my Master's, and when I got back to school from visiting my family, the first thing I made was orange chicken from this book, a recipe that my fiance affectionately calls "soda chicken" because the only ingredients are orange soda, soy sauce, and chicken.  That's really good for those of us on a budget.  What I especially love about this book is that it includes images.  Now, granted, the images often look nothing like the food that comes out of the crock pot (and seriously, often look like there's no way that someone made them in a crock pot), but it's fun to compare what you've made to what it looks like.  There is a wide variety of recipes in this book, but it's short enough that I've now gotten to the point that I've almost made all of them!

Now, another, larger, option, with some of the same recipes, is the Crock-Pot Slow Cooker Bible, which is what I just got for my sister for Christmas (after having given her the crock pot for her birthday).  This book has even more recipe selections than the one I have, and is great if you want a lot of options.

The other cookbook that I regularly use is the Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook, which I "borrowed" from my fiance several years ago and now lives with me at school.  These recipes are often a little more difficult than the ones in my original cookbook, because they often take a few extra steps when you're making them.  However, the options are great and I love how they have a bunch of alternatives for the same dish, like, for example, the lentil chili and Senator Barry Goldwater's chili (which, by the way, are only two of the options from the whole chapter devoted to chili!).  Alas, this book does not include pictures, but I think overall I find the recipes in it to be more creative than some of the ones in my original cookbook.  Of course, now I also covet the Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Recipes for Two.

Finally, for my birthday this year, I received from my future mother-in-law the Gourmet Slow Cooker: Simple and Sophisticated Meals from Around the World.  It is divided into chapters by countries, including dishes from America, Ireland, France, Italy and India.  The pros about this book are the amazing images and the variety of recipes, which all seem absolutely amazing.  The con, however, is that many of the recipes are not made to be cooked, nonstop all day which makes them difficult for a graduate student (except in the sense that, if I wanted to, I could work from home, but I focus better at the office most of the time).  An additional con is that the recipes call for "gourmet" ingredients, including fresh herbs and spices that you grind yourself.  Now, obviously, you can substitute store-bought for the spices, so it's not really a "con" in that sense, but to really make the recipes the way they write them, you'd have to have a lot more time to cook.

Anyway, those are just some of my suggestions for good crock pot cookbooks.  I'd love to know if anyone else has some good ones that they use because I'm always up for more cookbooks from which to try and rate recipes.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Slow-Cooked Beef Brisket Dinner

There are quite a few recipes in the Crock-Pot Incredibly Easy Recipes cookbook that call for beef brisket.  Now, some of these recipes that I've made in the past I've just substituted some other cut of beef, because brisket is just so expensive.  However, the place to get beef brisket, I discovered, is Costco, where I found a piece for only $11.45, half of what I've ever seen in a grocery store.  I purchased this before I decided what to make with it and ultimately decided to go with the "Slow-Cooked Beef Brisket Dinner" because, even though the picture didn't look all that interesting, I thought that it would be a good "complete meal in one pot" deal.

Apologies in advance, however.  I made this on October 20 and I completely forgot to take pictures as I was doing prep.  I was smart, however, and chopped all of the vegetables in advance: potatoes, carrots, onion, and celery.  This recipe is super easy.  You just throw everything in the crock pot, that is, the brisket cut in half, the vegetables mentioned above, sliced mushrooms, crushed garlic, and seasonings.  In terms of seasonings, this recipe calls for beef bouillon, black peppercorns, and bay leaves.  We didn't have any whole peppercorns, so instead I substituted an equal amount of ground pepper.  Finally, you cover the entire thing in water and cook it on low for 6-8 hours.

This is what it looks like when done cooking.

The issue I had in this case was that the brisket, which was about 4 lbs (which is what the recipe calls for!), plus all the vegetables, did not fit in the crock pot.  Honestly, I have no idea what size crock pot they were using when they made this recipe, because it would need to be at least twice the size of mine!  I ended up making it in two batches.

The last step is to season the brisket with salt and pepper, and cut it.  The image on the left is of what the food actually looked like when I served it.

The image on the right is what it's supposed to look like according to the cookbook.  As you can see, the vegetables end up looking more bland than they are in the image.

So, unfortunately, I cannot evaluate this meal in terms of calories or cost.  It was an okay meal, but really it was just that: okay.  The meat was kind of bland.  The vegetables absorbed much more of the seasoning so I liked them more, but when it came down to leftovers, I wasn't as thrilled by them.  Ultimately, I had it a few more times, but then kept making something else for dinner because I didn't want to eat the leftovers... until the food ultimately went bad and I threw it out.

I wrote in my cookbook that it was "bland and boring when first served, but horrible as leftovers" and noted "don't make again."