Full Stop: Slow Cooker Red Sauce

By Lisa

One of my resolutions this year is to do only One Thing At A Time.  This is very, very hard for me.  Somedays, when I have 12 things on my to-do list, including writing, teaching, errands, chores–it’s physically painful not to do that one extra thing.  The commitment has meant, among other things, that I am trying hard not to Get Dinner Ready While Helping With Homework. Or not to Section The Cauliflower While Doing Laundry.  Or not to Peel Carrots In Ten Minutes Before School Pickup.  I’m trying hard to avoid Eating Dinner In The Car On My Way To Work.  It means other things, too, like not asking my kids to Get Ready For Soccer And Eat Your Snack. Or Clean Your Room and Get Ready for Bed.  You can extrapolate.

You can call it my Oxford comma moment.

However, I am still trying to cook with fresh food.

Leaving the fast food to Finn

Doing One Thing At A Time means I have to plan more than ever. It means I have to start early. It means I have been thinking hard about what I can do to minimize my cooking time between the hours of 3 and 6.

In my quest, my new appliance has been life changing. Technically, my slow cooker is not a traditional slow cooker. It also roasts, sautees, browns, and simmers.  I am still learning the best ways to use it: how the high/low settings work; how long to parboil pastas; best cooking times for different sizes of baked potatoes; how much extra liquid  to add to simmer-all-day soups.  But it has been on my countertop nearly every other day since I got I it, and it has helped me slow down and simplify in countless ways. To date, I’ve made delicious Swedish Meatballs and Beef Stew.  But also: macaroni and cheese, red sauce, baked ziti (with leftover red sauce), split pea soup, baked potatoes.  Not all the recipes are perfect. Yet. (Except the pea soup. And the hint to rub the potatoes lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt before baking.)  But it has made my life exponentially less stressful.  And that, as some of you know, makes everyone less stressed-out. Funny how that works. Funnier that it has taken me so long to learn the lesson.

So along comes last Sunday, when our local football team played my childhood football team for a spot in the Superbowl.  I have fond memories of dark winter afternoons, a house full of the smells of my mother’s red sauce, or spaghetti and meatballs, or lasagna, endless football games, tv trays, warm garlic bread. And so even though I didn’t need to use it, I pulled out my slow cooker, sauteed the meat, added the tomatoes, herbs, and wine, and set it to Simmer for the next, oh, 4 or 5 hours.

Right before game time I cooked the pasta. Ella made kidtinis. We watched the game.  We ate.  We put in all the stops.

Ella’s 49er Kidtini. It involved club soda, Meyer lemons, grenadine, and a whole lot of cherries. Also red sugar.

Slow Cooker Red Sauce

  • 1/2 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cans Italian tomatoes
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 1/4-1/2 cup red wine
  1. With slow cooker on Sautee/brown, sautee meats with a pinch of salt until cooked through.
  2. Add onion, garlic, and bay leaf, and cook, stirring constantly, until onion begins to soften.
  3. Add tomatoes, thyme, wine.
  4. Simmer for 4-5 hours.

This easily makes enough to dress 2 lbs of pasta. Save 1/2 for a batch of quick baked ziti during the week.

Simit, or Sesame Bread Rings

by Caroline

As part of our culinary preparation for a trip to Turkey this summer, Tony gave me Ghillie Basan’s Classic Turkish Cooking for Christmas. I’ve been paging through it, making lists of things I want to try (Hosmerim, which translates to “Something Nice for the Husband”) and things I don’t (I will skip Bulgar Juice, thank you very much).

But the first thing I tried was the recipe for Simit, or Sesame Bread Rings, which we will apparently find sold everywhere on the streets of Istanbul. They are easy (though kneading the dough is a tougher work out than any other dough I’ve ever encountered) and tasty — rather like bagels, but less chewy. Now all I need is to brew up some Turkish coffee and we’re almost there!

a package yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
150 ml lukewarm water
450 g all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 beaten egg
sesame seeds

Dissolve the yeast and half teaspoon of sugar in the lukewarm water and let it bubble up.
Mix the flour, salt, and tablespoon of sugar in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast-water mixture, then add the tablespoon of oil. Stir well, then turn the mixture out on to a lightly-floured counter to knead. Add more water as necessary and knead well until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Let the dough rest a moment while you wash out the mixing bowl, dry it off, and drizzle a bit of oil into it. Put the dough into the bowl and turn it to coat with oil. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and leave to rise until doubled, about two hours.

Sprinkle a shallow bowl with sesame seeds.

Punch the dough down and divide into 6-8 pieces. Knead each piece and shape into a ring. Brush the rings with the beaten egg and dip into the bowl of sesame seeds. Place the rings on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet and let them rest, covered with the damp towel, for 15-20 minutes.

While the rings are resting, preheat the oven to 400.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until they’re golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Slow Cooker for a Fast Life

By Lisa

8:15 AM. Put 2 lbs beef, marinated overnight in onion, garlic, red wine vinegar, fresh thyme sprigs, 2 bay leaves, salt in slow cooker. Add carrots, one can plum tomatoes, 1 cup reconstituted dried mushrooms & their soaking water; enough good red wine to cover. Set cooker to “HIGH” for one hour. Shower.

9:15 AM. Reset cooker to “LOW”.  Pray the new gadget does what it’s supposed to.  Read novel I will be tutoring from later. Stew looks, well, sort of raw. Worry that i will have a pile of tough, uncooked meat at 7 PM tonight, two starving kids, and no dinner options besides cold cereal…I can hear the screaming already.

10:00 AM-12:30 PM Work: catch up on month old emails; write 2 letters of recommendations, schedule interview, prep novel for meeting later. The cooker makes slow, whooshing noises. It must be doing something, right?

1:00 PM Minimum day school pickup. Stew is actually simmering. Meat appears to be changing color.

1:15 PM Home. Change school uniforms for sports uniforms. Macaroni and cheese, milk, kiwis for lunch.  Ella does some homework. “What’s that?” “A slow-cooker.” “What does it do?” “Cook dinner when I’m not home.” They shrug. They are mostly unimpressed. “What are we having?” “Dinner.”

1:50 PM Drive Ella to basketball practice. Finn comes along for the ride.

2:00 PM Back home. House is filled with actual good-cooking smells.   Garlic, onions, stewed tomatoes. Homework for Finn. Boil potatoes to mash later. Help Finn with homework. Set counter for dinner.

2:50 PM Stew is looking cooked. Dinner is appearing in the range of possibility. Basketball pickup.

3:10 PM Back home. Ella changes basketball uniform for soccer gear. Finishes homework.   The kitchen is full of sun. The cooker is full of something looking surprisingly like dinner.

3:45PM Drive Finn to soccer practice.Ella comes along for the ride. Decides to hang at field with her friends before practice. We stay at field.

4:30 PM Ella is hungry. We buy her a quesadilla from Elisabeth’s Taco truck. It’s delicious.

5:00 PM Ella’s practice begins.

5:00 PM Finn’s practice ends.  He eats the other half of the quesadilla.   I assume the cooker is still working.

5:15 PM Bring Finn to friend’s house where I am coaching his older brother for Academic Decathalon in literature. I hear sirens.  I hope the house has not burned down?

6:15 PMFinish tutoring.

6:30 PM Pick up Ella from field.

6:40 PM Home. Stew is done. Add milk and butter to the potatoes, mash over medium heat. I serve the kids. I am too happily surprised to do anything but pour myself a glass of wine and belly up to the kitchen counter bar. In fact, there is no mess, nothing, to clean up . Just one big pot of warm, aromatic stew sitting on my counter like a nice butler, just waiting to help me.  We chat while the kids eat.

7:15 PM Bath.

7:45 PM Bed.

8:15 PM Kory and I eat in peace. Wine, warm stew.

Igloo Meatloaf

By Lisa

Last week, when I made this chive meatloaf, I made double.  I rolled and froze the second batch, and took it out last night for a quick dinner. I baked it in our convection oven on the self-timer early in the day, around 3 pm.

But I also had mashed potatoes left over, and so when the meatloaf had cooked and cooled, I molded the potatoe into a little igloo over the loaf. I used my hands. Then, I suddenly remembered something from my childhood. Cheese in mashed potatoes ? Cheese on twice-baked potatoes?  I quickly dumped some grated cheddar and monterey jack all over the potatoes, then baked everything at 350 degrees for 2-25 minutes.

The cheese crust turned golden and slightly crispy, and the kids were a little baffled, but then they tasted it and thought it was one of the best things ever.  Finn ate two helpings and Ella just kept saying, “These potatoes are so good.” And she’s not much of a potato eater. Really, it’s the definition of comfort food, and it made for a very happy, easy dinner.  In fact, the only thing more fun for the kids than this, which they thought was a totally new meal, was playing Finn’s new game, “Who Am I?” while they ate.

In this case, he is most definitely not what he is eating.

Rice +

By Lisa

Not so long ago our microwave died a not-so-quiet death. It zapped and fritzed and we quickly decided it was time to retire it. We’d had it a long time, and we used it a lot: for reheating many things; for morning porridge; for defrosting; for popcorn.  But getting rid of it freed up a large space, onto which I placed my new rice cooker.

Caroline loves her rice cooker. I was lukewarm about the model I had, which was old, American, and did a so-so job with the rice.  I knew I needed a new one, but never got motivated.  Then, last summer, Ella and I had her Japanese friend and her mother over for dinner before they moved back to Japan, and I made rice to go with dinner. Well, my friend took one look at my appliance, and felt very sorry for me. “I think we had one like that when I was very little.  She offered to give me hers when they left, since they couldn’t take it with them.  I gratefully accepted, and now I have this really lovely Tiger Model, which has sort of changed many things in our life:

It has a timer, which can permanently remember two different times, settings for white, brown, mixed rice & porridge, reheat, and keep warm settings. It has a nice little slot for the paddle, and interior markings on the inset bowl so that you can pretty much tell where the water level should be (you can totally tell if you read Japanese).

Now, I use the rice cooker all the time. I have one timer set to 5 pm, and I can dump in the white rice, mixed rice (part brown/part white, which is our favorite), brown rice, farro. (Caroline cooks quinoa, too) at noon or 1 or 2 pm and it’s done perfectly by dinner time.  But  here’s the added beauty:  The second timer is set for 7 AM, and after dinner, I can dump in a cup of steel cut oats, 3 cups of water, and in the morning–hot porridge. No mess, no stirring for an hour.  It’s genius.  The kids love it. I love it.  It’s made our lives–and especially our mornings–easier and some of our meals healthier. So, if you’re in the market for an appliance, or a new toy for your holiday list, get a rice cooker w/some of these features. You won’t be disappointed, even if it can’t cook popcorn.

And: Thank you, Wakana, for your friendship. And the rice cooker! We think of you every time we use this!