Finding Christmas sanity in your Crock-Pot

Published Wed, Dec 18, 2013 11:26 PM
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Submitted by Amy Dunn — adunn@newsobserver.com

We all want a festive meal for Christmas, but let’s be honest, who wants to cook it?

I’m betting my Kitchen Aid mixer I wouldn’t get many volunteers.

But a plate of sugar cookies will hold off your holiday crowd for only so long.

Too frugal to take the family out to dinner and too proud to resort to frozen pizza, I wondered if an old kitchen workhorse could solve my holiday meal dilemma.

I started dreaming of a Crock-Pot Christmas.

I dreamt of a Christmas sitting in the living room instead of standing in the kitchen. Sipping hot cocoa instead of stirring green beans.

Earlier this month – just as holiday festivities began cranking up – we put an army of slow cookers to the test to see if we could create a feast worthy of Christmas.

In all, we tested seven recipes for such holiday favorites as turkey and stuffing, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes with a brown sugar and pecan glaze. We made kid-pleasing macaroni and cheese and a roasted nut appetizer. For dessert, we made sugared d’Anjou pears.

Sick of turkey? We not only made a turkey breast, but slow-cooked a beef roast, too.

We used seven different crocks, many on loan from family, friends and co-workers. While most were modern versions in shiny stainless steel, one older model in burnt orange looked like it could have come straight off the set of “The Brady Bunch.” All of them got the job done just fine.

The key is preparation. For our faux Christmas, I did my chopping, cutting, peeling and measuring a day in advance. I stashed it all in the fridge.

(For the real deal, I would recommend doing the prep work Dec. 23. With the bulk of the work done, you’ll be free to enjoy both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)

When our trial-run Christmas morning dawned, in a matter of minutes I had dumped my pre-measured ingredients into the crocks and taken note of the start and end times. It was that easy.

My inspiration for a slow-cooked Christmas feast came from Stephanie O’Dea, a San Francisco mom who turned her obsession with slow cookers – she owns 14 of them – into a career.

Back in 2008, O’Dea used her slow cooker every day for 365 days straight. She chronicled the successes and failures on her blog, A Year of Slow Cooking, also known as crockpot365.blogspot.com. A cookbook followed, and then two more. Her latest, “365 Slow Cooker Suppers,” was released in September.

Just last month, O’Dea, 37, hosted a slow-cooker Thanksgiving – just 10 days after her family moved into a home with a 1940s-era kitchen that includes a persnickety oven. With the exception of a large turkey roasted in her mother’s oven, the entire meal was prepared in slow cookers. “There were boxes everywhere and we had 17 people.”

And multiple slow cookers. “The oven doesn’t work well, but there were plenty of (electrical) outlets,” she said. “It was a great meal.”

Cooking a holiday meal – or any meal – slow-cooker style doesn’t appeal to everyone, O’Dea said. Her recipes call for a lot of fresh ingredients, but she uses canned foods, too. She encourages readers to experiment, adding and omitting ingredients. She’s no foodie, she said, just a mom trying to get dinner on the table, helping other home cooks do the same.

“I encourage people to play and have fun with (the slow cooker). It’s kind of the Easy Bake Oven for adults,” she said.

The verdict on our slow-cooker Christmas dinner ?

I lifted the lids on my collection of slow cookers to a small group of family and friends around my kitchen table.

Both the beef and the turkey were tender. The turkey was so moist, in fact, that it rendered the stuffing at the bottom of the crock a blob of inedible mush. That’s what I get for substituting a breast when four legs were called for in the original recipe. Next time, I’ll cook the stuffing separately.

The green bean and mac and cheese dishes were judged just as good, if not better, than their oven-baked counterparts. Judging by the sweet potato seconds heaped on my guests’ plates, that dish also was a hit.

The roasted nuts, a mixture of pecans, pistachios, almonds and pumpkin seeds, had just the hint of a bite – the maple syrup tempering the curry and cayenne. Packaged in Mason jars, these would make nice gifts for neighbors or co-workers.

And the d’Anjou pears for dessert? They were worthy of a photo on Pinterest – and light enough to still have room for a few Christmas cookies.

Dunn: 919-829-4522; Twitter: @amygdunn
Facts

How to make a feast in slow cookers

Amy Dunn offers a few tips on how to tackle a slow-cooked feast:

• A day or two before your dinner, set aside some time to do all the prep work – any chopping, peeling or even measuring.

• Store each set of ingredients in the refrigerator until you’re ready to load your pots. Glass or plastic storage containers work well.

• Note the cooking time for each recipe, then count back the number of hours from your desired meal time. For example, if you’re planning to sit down to Christmas dinner at 3 p.m. and the turkey recipe calls for five hours in the slow cooker, have your crock loaded and flip the switch at 10 a.m.

• Start with the recipe that will take the longest and make a list of when each dish needs to be started, aiming to have all of them finish at meal time.

That’s it. Enjoy your time with family and friends instead of standing alone in your kitchen.

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