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Master Minimal Cooking: Using your CrockPot or Instant Pot

by Michelle Porter, MPH, RD

Let’s face it, the most challenging part of cooking is orchestrating the main and side dishes so everything is finished at the same time. For me, at least, this was by far the biggest hurdle to accomplish. I started cooking in middle school and to get around this issue I was big into making homemade soups. One-pot meals are a great way to cook if you’re just learning, or a great way to cook if you just had a baby. Slow cookers and pressure cookers sort of remove this challenge. While slow cookers and pressure cookers perform opposite functions (slow cookers cook, well, slowly, whereas pressure cookers have your meal ready in no time at all), they produce similar types of dishes. There are benefits and drawbacks to both. I love my pressure cooker, but when my second son was born in June 2016, I quickly realized that I was way too tired to use the Instant Pot safely. It is easily the most dangerous piece of equipment in a household and although it is simple to use, it requires you to be focused on what you are doing. So, for that reason, I caution against using pressure cookers during the fourth trimester.

A CrockPot, on the other hand, is more of a “set it and forget it” appliance. An added perk of the CrockPot, besides being about one third of the price of a pressure cooker (if you are choosing to purchase one type of appliance over the other) is that you can get everything together earlier in the day. Since many little babies are more organized and happier in the morning, this gives mom time to tend to dinner right after breakfast. If baby is taking a nap in morning or is happy in the swing, it could be a convenient time to get dinner together and avoid the chaotic rush in the evening when the little one is likely much fussier or wanting to cluster feed.

Here is the concept I wish to impart today: I call this type of meal preparation “minimal cooking.” Basically, you will be dumping already prepped ingredients into the CrockPot together—no measuring, no fuss, minimal clean up. I used some of my favorite brands for flavoring ideas, but feel free to use other ones you like best. I know it’s possible to make an amazing barbeque sauce from scratch, but the fourth trimester is probably not the best time to devote to such involved meal preparation. Instead, consider these shortcuts to make tasty food at home that is convenient. Put all ingredients in the slow cooker at the same time and cook for six to eight hours (ideally the first two hours of cooking should be on high, then switch to low if possible). Depending on the dish, add a little extra water to cover the solid ingredients or white wine, marsala wine, red wine, or beer can accomplish the same. Many of these dishes would work in a pressure cooker with 20-minute cook time or less once pressured, but remember to lock it and depressurize it before opening! The first few times I used my pressure cooker I was so nervous I had my husband take the boys to the back yard while I depressurized it! I laugh now; it really is quite easy and you get proficient at it, but if you are super tired, it’s probably best to keep the device on the shelf for another couple of months.

I’ve included a chart below describing many foods that could be used to make a one-dish meal in a slow cooker. Depending on your tastes, you may prefer to add the beans or quicker cooking vegetables in towards the end of the cook time (like sting beans or green peas), but that is up to you. Think of using this chart like filling out a bingo card. Choose one (or a few) from each category and see what kind of yummy combinations you come up with! I’ve included a few below so you can see what I mean. The best part is that, using a chart like this, you could easily farm out this task to your partner, even if he has limited cooking experience. The most complicated part is opening up the bottle of barbeque sauce!

Some possible combinations:

1. Sweet and sour pork: Pork chops or pork tenderloin with teriyaki sauce, broccoli, shredded carrots, chickpeas, and crushed pineapple; serve over brown rice or add it to the dish and “pull” the pork once it is cooked.
2. Gumbo: Trader Joe’s jalapeño chicken sausage, your favorite tomato sauce, peppers, onions, baby carrots, kidney beans, farro, and chicken broth.
3. Barbeque tofu: Pressed tofu, broccoli slaw, shredded carrots, quartered onions, bottle of beer, large bottle of barbeque sauce, maple syrup.
4. Tempeh tacos: Tempeh, taco seasoning packet, jarred salsa, black beans, shredded cabbage, onions, and vegetable broth; serve in hard or soft taco shells with avocado and lime.
5. Chicken marsala: Chicken breast, onion, mushrooms, marsala cooking wine (grocery store aisle, not liquor store), Better than Bouillon chicken base; serve over pasta or mashed potatoes or, with additional water, add the pasta or baby red potatoes to the crock pot. (Add pasta during last hour so it doesn’t over cook!)

I’m sure you get the idea. Now enjoy and have fun with the combinations!

featured image by Angie Gray