From the Farmer’s Slow Cooker – Katie Malich

All I could think of as I inched my way forward on rain-drenched freeways last Friday night was warming myself with a steaming bowl of hot soup or stew, cradling the bowl in my ice-cold fingers and letting the rising steam heat my face. I finally pulled over to wait out the worst of the storm impeded rush hour with another, very Southern California comfort-food: an In-n-Out burger.

Since that dark and stormy Friday night, visions of crockpots have been dancing in my head. I have been composing love sonnets to the slow cooker, that miraculous appliance which rewards a few minutes of effort in the morning with wonderful warm comfort food in the evening.

Yes, there are a slew of crockpot recipes that call for a can of this and a package of that. But there are also very healthy recipes incorporating fresh, seasonal farmers market produce, even local grass-fed and free-range meats and poultry.
We’re due for another storm this week, according to today’s weather report.. This time, I’m going to be prepared with some no-fuss slow cooker crockpot recipes.

The Eno River Farmers Market website had a luscious looking recipe for crock pot braised hen, featuring poultry and produce available in North Carolina. I’ve adopted it to take advantage of the wonderful fresh fennel at the Tuesday downtown Culver City Farmers Market. If you’re not a fan of fennel, you can increase the amount of potatoes to 3 pounds, add 1 and 1/2 teaspoons paprika and still have a great meal waiting for you when you get home in the evening.

Crock Pot Braised Hen
(serves 6 hearty eaters or 8 as part of a multi-course meal)

2 medium onions, sliced
2 T. butter, melted
2 1/2 lbs. thin-skinned potatoes, well-scrubbed, skins on sliced lengthways in halves or thirds if fingerlings, or cut into 1/2 inch slices if larger
generous 1 lb. fennel bulbs, stalks removed
a bunch of carrots, greens topped, chopped into 1-inch pieces
a bunch of beets, greens topped and reserved for other use, cut in 1/2 inch slices
salt and pepper to taste
fresh savory, rosemary or thyme to taste
1/4 c, chicken broth
1/4 c. white wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 whole stewing hen, cut into pieces

You will be assembling this dish in layers, so keep the vegetables separate as you chop or slice them. First, brush the inside of a 6-quart crock pot with the melted butter. Next, place the onion slices in the bottom of the crock. Top them with the potato slices, carrots, beets and, finally, the fennel. Sprinkle the broth, wine, garlic, salt, pepper and any desired herbs and spices over the vegetables. Rub the chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and herbs before adding them to the crock. Arrange the chicken pieces evenly on top of the vegetables. Cover. Cook on LOW setting for about 7-8 hours, or until the chicken is tender.

Machaca (shredded beef slow cooked with vegetables and spices) is one of my guilty pleasures at Mexican restaurants. My busy lifestyle rarely has time for the several hour stove-top simmering of the traditional recipe. So I was very excited to find a slow cooker recipe which reader Gina had submitted to the SparkRecipe webpage.

Machaca (shredded beef)
(makes 10 3-ounce servings)

2 lbs. London Broil
1 c. white onions, diced
2 c. fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 c. bell pepper, chopped
1/2 c. serrano peppers, diced
1 ancho pepper, diced
3 pasilla peppers, diced
1 c. low sodium, reduced fat canned or homemade beef broth

It’s always a good idea to protect your fingers with a rubber glove when working with spicy chile peppers. Make sure that you carefully remove the seeds before you start dicing if you prefer your machaca on the medium hot side. Use fewer chile peppers if you prefer a mild dish.

After you prep the vegetables, you’ll have the beef cooking away in no time at all. Just place the vegetables, beef and broth in your slow cooker, Set the timer for 6-8 hours and let the crock pot do all the work. This is a very flexible and forgiving recipe. If you’ll be away for longer than 8 hours, just add an extra 1 – 2 cups water.

After the beef is done, remove it from the crock pot and shred it. It should be tender enough that it easy to shred using two forks. Mix the shredded beef and the vegetables with the remaining broth (if any) and serve.
This is great for tacos, tostadas, burritos, or as part of a machaca, rice and beans dinner plate. You could also add it to scrambled eggs for a hearty breakfast.

Another recipe I was happy to find on the web was a recipe for quinoa casserole with nuts, spinach and feta cheese. It would be very easy to convert this into a vegan-friendly dish by omitting the crumbled feta cheese. Many thanks to blogger Stephanie O’Dea for posting the original version of this on her “A Year of Slow Cooking” blog. I have so many vegetarian friends that I have modified her original recipe. It still tastes so great that carnivores and omnivores will enjoy it, too.

Quinoa Crock Pot Vegetarian Casserole
1 1/2 c. quinoa, rinsed
3 c. vegetable broth or water
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t .salt
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 c. sliced or chopped almonds (those blanched, slivered almonds are really a timesaver if you have some on hand)
1/3 c. dried unsweetened cranberries
handful of baby spinach
1 c. grape or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
optional: 1/2 block feta cheese, crumbled

After rinsing the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer, add it to a 6 quart slow cooker. Add 1 t. olive oil, and mix it into the quinoa. Add the vegetable broth or water, salt, and cinnamon. Next, stir in the almonds and cranberries. Cover. Cook on low for 4-6 hours or on high for 2-4 hours. Test the quinoa for doneness by fluffing it with a fork. If it is tender, and the liquid is pretty well absorbed, it is done. Next, add in the tomatoes. If you are making a vegetarian version of this dish, add in the crumbled feta cheese at this stage as well. Stir to mix. Finally, add a large handful of baby spinach to the top of the crockpot. Close the lid and cook on high for 20 minutes, or until the spinach wilts. Stir the spinach into the quinoa mixture, remove crock for the cooker and serve.

Katie Malich is grateful to one of her college roommates for introducing her to the time-saving benefits of crockpot cooking in college: a great way, often economical, and always healthy to survive off-campus without resorting to ramen soup.

Even though it’s too early in the season for locally grown tomatoes, you can find fresh heirloom and traditional tomatoes for this week’s recipes at the Lark Farms stand at the Tuesday Culver City Farmers Market. With their heated greenhouses, Lark is a great source of tomatoes and tender, thin-skinned Persian style cucumbers year-round. The Tuesday downtown Farmers Market is held from 2 to 7 pm on Main Street between Venice and Culver Blvds. The Culver South Farmers Market is held from 7:30 to 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays at the Northeast corner of Westfield Culver City’s parking lot by the intersection of Slauson and Hannum.

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