Slow-Cooking: How I Got Back in the Kitchen

I used to have a risotto ritual—a romance, if you will. At least once a month, I’d get in the mood. I’d put on some good, mellow music, pour myself a glass of wine, and pull my stool up to the stove for the two-hour labor of love that is making risotto. Often I had a novel or a book of poetry at hand, other times I would just enjoy singing along with the music as I stirred.

Then we got pregnant. For two months, I could hardly eat, let alone cook. Poor Damon—he would make beautifully grilled vegetables, or a wonderful pasta sauce, or stuffed peppers, only to have me go pale(r) and shake my head. Once we got past those early days, I had no problem eating, but mustering the energy to actually cook—well, that was another story altogether. I’m not proud of how many nights I served up chili-mac for dinner (a box of GF mac&cheese mixed with a can of GF chili—thanks Jay for the tip!). Lucky for Damon, chili-mac is one of his guilty pleasures.

And of course, once Oscar joined us, concocting anything that took two hours of my attention was out of the question. Once I had recuperated from surgery and had a pretty decent amount of energy, getting dinner on the table was still an exercise in frustration. Damon works long and erratic hours in beer sales, so the cooking during the week largely falls to me. However, once I get off work, pick Oscar up from child care, and get home, the dogs and cat need to be let out and fed, Oscar needs food (and my undivided attention after being away from me all day), I have to sterilize bottles from pumping at work, and somehow Damon and I have to get fed as well.

For a while, we relied pretty heavily upon pre-made frozen meals that I would make on the weekends, as well as takeout from the handful of local GF-friendly restaurants. However, both of these got old pretty fast. I pulled out the slow cooker and hunted up some recipes here and there, and although we had some good luck with chili and a couple other dishes here and there, most of the meals just seemed bland—all the flavor sort of greyed-out and blurred from the long cooking time—and overly heavy and greasy. Meh.

Then two things happened. First, my hubs got me a Ninja cooking system for my birthday—the BEST birthday present ever. I’m not exaggerating when I say we use it almost every day, sometimes twice a day. Yes it’s a glorified slow cooker, but it can be used as a stovetop for sautéing, so you don’t have to dirty extra dishes, and it can be used as an oven, and it’s got a fully programmable timer that cuts over to “Warm” when the timer runs out, keeping your dinner warm until it’s dinner time. *Pause for a breath* To read a great review of the Ninja which will make you want to get one, too, click here.***

The second bit of serendipity was in the discovery of a fantastic cookbook by Michele Scicolone, The Italian Slow Cooker. All those bland, muddy-tasting, greasy meals? Bah! Out the window! Scicolone uses the slow cooker to produce delicious Italian dishes using only whole-food ingredients, from braised meats to pastas, from savory soups to desserts to… risotto? Wait. What?

Yes, risotto. In a crockpot. And you know what? It’s as good as the risotto I used to take two hours to make. We made the “Three-Mushroom Risotto” from Scicolone’s book a couple nights ago—perfection! Rich, earthy, full-flavored, toothsome and comforting, neither of us would have been able to guess it was made in a crockpot. Oh, this is a game changer. (As an aside: We make our risotto with brown rice instead of the traditional arborio—if you try this, you’ll probably need to extend your cooking time by a half hour or an hour.)

Oscar loves slow-cookin'

Oscar loves slow-cookin’

So I’m officially back in the kitchen, with a vengeance. My timeline is a little funny now, of course. I reserve the meals with shorter cook-times for the weekend (risotto, polenta, etc.). On weekdays, I do most of my cooking and food prep in the evening after Oscar has gone to bed, chopping and pre-sautéing ingredients for the next day’s meal. In the morning before work, I pull all the prepped ingredients into the slow cooker, set the timer, and by the time I get home, dinner is ready. A GOOD, fresh, well-seasoned dinner is ready. Oscar is happy. Mama is happy. Dad is happy. Life is good.

Other favorite recipes, if you decide to check out her cookbook—the escarole and turkey meatball soup, the frittata with potatoes and peppers, braised beef with anchovies (smells so bad going in, tastes so good coming out!), mushroom and potato soup, pasta with gardener’s sauce, polenta in chains, and panettone. It’s a fair bet that once I finish working my way through this cookbook, I’ll be getting her other two as well—The French Slow Cooker and The Mediterranean Slow Cooker. Yes, please. ***

***Note: I was in no way compensated or commissioned to sing the praises of Ms. Scicolone’s cookbooks, nor of the Ninja cooking system. I’m just enthusiastic, n’est-ce pas?

Do you have favorite tips or resources for eating well on a crazy schedule? Any favorite slow cooker cookbooks or recipes?

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