August 26, 2013

One of the best gifts I've ever received is a programmable crock pot. My mother is the most thoughtful person I know. She knows that I plan all of my dinners at the beginning of the week and I shop once for all of the ingredients that I'll need at one time. She also knows that my teaching day is long and I usually arrive home 10 hours after I leave for school. Anyone knows that for most crock pot recipes, 10 hours is two to four hours too long. Having a digital programmable crock pot allows me to set it for the amount of time I need on low or high setting and after the programmed time is up, it will hold the food on the warm setting until I get home. This has been a dinner-saver for me. No more overcooked or dried-out meals.

Now when I open my door, my house greets me with the warm flavors of dinner that are ready and waiting.

Chicken Cacciatore

This recipe reminds me of one of my childhood favorites, Chicken Cacciatore. My mom would make it in the Dutch oven and serve it over egg noodles. The slow cooker version comes from "The Big Book of Slow Cooker Casseroles & More" by Better Crocker. I use about four to five chicken breast halves instead of thighs.

2½ lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 12)

1 jar (4.5 ounces) sliced mushrooms, drained

2 cans (6 ounces each) Italian-style tomato paste

1¼ cups chicken broth (from 32 ounce carton)

½ cup white wine, if desired

½ teaspoon salt

1 dried bay leaf

12 oz uncooked linguine

¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 tablespoon cornstarch

shredded Parmesan cheese, if desired

Spray 3-to 4-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. In cooker place chicken. Add mushrooms, tomato paste, broth, wine, basil, salt and bay leave; gently stir to mix. Cover; cook on Low heat setting 8 to 10 hours.

About 15 minutes before serving, cook and drain linguine as directed on package. Remove chicken from cooker; place on serving platter. Cover to keep warm. Stir thyme into sauce in cooker. Increase heat setting to High. In small bowl, mix ¼ cup sauce from cooker and the cornstarch until smooth; stir into remaining sauce in cooker.

Cover; cook on High heat setting 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently. Remove bay leaf. Serve chicken and sauce over linguine. Sprinkle with cheese.

Easy variation: One 26-ounce jar of tomato pasta sauce can be substituted for the tomato paste, chicken broth and white wine.

Slow Cooker Chicken and Dumplings

My friend, Nicki Westcott, shared this recipe with me. Like me, she is an ELL teacher and has two hungry, little boys.

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

2 tablespoons butter

2 (10.75 ounce) cans condensed cream of chicken soup

1 onion, finely diced (optional)

2 (10 ounce) packages refrigerated biscuit dough, torn into pieces

Place the chicken, butter, soup, and onion in a slow cooker, and fill with enough water to cover (or use one can of chicken broth). Cover, and cook for 6 to 8 hours on low. About 30-45 minutes before serving, place the torn biscuit dough in the slow cooker. Cook until the dough is no longer raw in the center.

Chipotle Chili

Instead of traditional chili using ground beef, kick it up two notches with a recipe from Campbell's Slow Cooker Recipes that includes tender chunks of beef and chipotle chile powder.

1 jar picante sauce

1 cup water

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile powder

1 large onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

2 lbs beef for stew, cut into ½-inch pieces

1 can (about 19 ounces) red kidney beans, rinsed and drained

shredded Cheddar cheese (optional)

sour cream (optional)

Stir the picante sauce, water, chili powder, chipotle pepper, onion, beef, and beans in a 3½-quart slow cooker.

Cover and cook on Low for 8 to 9 hours or until the beef is fork-tender. Serve with the cheese and sour cream, if desired.

Chicken Deli Casserole

If you have a hankering for a Reuben sandwich (one of my personal favorites), try a lighter version that uses chicken instead of corned beef from The Best Slow Cooker Cookbook Ever by Natalie Haughton.

1 (32-ounce) jar sauerkraut, rinsed and well drained

1 cup Russian dressing

6 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, trimmed of fat

1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard

1 cup shredded Swiss cheese

fresh parsley, for garnish

Place half of the sauerkraut in a 3 ½-quart electric slow cooker. Drizzle on about 1/3 cup of the dressing. Top with 3 chicken breast halves and spread the mustard over the chicken. Top with the remaining sauerkraut and chicken breasts. Drizzle another 1/3 cup dressing over the casserole. Refrigerate the remaining dressing until serving time.

Cover and cook on the low heat setting about 3 ½ to 4 hours, or until the chicken is white throughout and tender.

To serve, spoon the casserole onto 4 or 5 plates. Sprinkle 3 to 4 tablespoons of cheese over and drizzle about 1 tablespoon of the Russian dressing on top. Serve immediately, garnished with parsley. If you like, serve chewy Rye bread on the side.

Island Beef

Natalie Haughton's Island Beef is tangy and sweet and similar to sweet and sour chicken. This flavorful main dish can be served atop rice or alongside a salad.

2 to 2 ½ lbs beef top round steak, trimmed of fat

2 large onions, cut into 12 thin wedges each

1 (20 ounce) can unsweetened pineapple chunks, juice reserved

½ cup homemade or canned beef broth

5 tablespoons red wine vinegar

¾ teaspoon garlic powder

¾ teaspoon seasoned salt

¾ teaspoon sweet paprika

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 green bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 large tomatoes, cut into wedges

Cut the beef into thin strips diagonally across the grain. Add to a 3 ½-to 4-quart electric slow cooker. Add the onions, pineapple juice, broth, 3 tablespoons of the vinegar, the garlic powder, seasoned salt, paprika, and black pepper. Mix well.

Cover and cook on the Low heat setting 6 to 6 ½ hours, or until the beef is just tender. Increase the heat setting to High. Stir in the green and red pepper squares and the brown sugar. Mix together the cornstarch, soy sauce, and remaining 3 tablespoons vinegar. Stir into the cooker, blending well. Cook, covered, on High 45 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, just before serving, stir in the tomato wedges and pineapple chunks.