Nutritionist Carrie Dennett shares three extra-healthful recipes for the slow cooker: Moroccan Beef Stew with Dried Plums; Mediterranean Chicken Stew with Lemon, Garlic and Olives; Coffee-Lovers Black Bean Chili.
Don’t let our mild winter and recent episodes of springlike weather fool you: It’s not time to stow away your slow cooker yet. We tend to haul these trusty small appliances out of storage when the weather turns crisp in the fall, but if you want to save time while boosting the nutrition and healthfulness of your dinners, your slow cooker has a place on your countertop year-round.
Generally speaking, home-cooked meals are more healthful than meals we get from restaurants and takeout. Unfortunately, throwing together a meal at the end of a hectic workday can feel like one to-do too many, especially when everyone in your household is ravenous. This is where your slow cooker can save the day. You still have to get ingredients together, but you have the option of doing the prep work when it’s more convenient, whether that be in the morning or the night before.
Another reason to embrace the slow cooker is that slow, low-heat, moist cooking methods are the most healthful way to cook. When we cook meat and other protein-rich foods using dry, high-heat, faster cooking methods (think grilling, broiling, roasting, frying, searing and sautéing), sugars and proteins in the food can bond to form advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). AGE’s have been linked to many serious health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as with premature aging of the skin.
This gives an interesting twist to a common slow-cooker question: Do I need to brown my meat? The truth is that beef really benefits from browning before being added to the slow cooker from the perspectives of taste and visual appearance, even if it may not be optimal from an AGE perspective. Browning does take additional time, but you can opt to brown the meat in the evening, refrigerate it overnight, then tip it into the crockpot with the rest of the ingredients in the morning. If you don’t want to take the time, or are concerned about AGEs, opt for chicken, which does fine in a slow cooker without browning, or vegetarian recipes.
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If you want to adapt a stovetop recipe for to the slow cooker, there are few minor changes you should make. Decrease the amount of liquid, because your slow cooker prevents moisture from escaping. Remove skin from poultry (it can get rubbery), and add any fresh herbs at the end.
A note about timing. Generally, slow-cooker meals can be cooked on low or high. If a recipe says to cook for 8 hours on low, you can opt to cook for 4 hours on high, and vice versa. It also helps to know your slow cooker — some tend to run hotter than others.
Moroccan Beef Stew with Dried Plums
This stew is flavorful and aromatic and reheats well the next day, or even two. Wonderful served with couscous (whole wheat if you can find it).
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4-6 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
2 pounds lean, boneless beef, preferably chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken or beef broth
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 cup pitted dried plums (prunes)
1. Heat half the olive oil in a large frying pan and cook the onions until golden brown. Add the minced garlic for the last minute of cooking. Tip into the slow cooker
2. Add the rest of the oil to the pan. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Brown well on all sides, in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding the pan. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the browned meat to the slow cooker.
3. Add tomatoes, broth, honey, spices and dried plums to the slow cooker. Stir well.
4. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. Serve, watching out for the cinnamon stick and bay leaf.
Mediterranean Chicken Stew with Lemon, Garlic and Olives
If you want a meaty slow-cooker recipe, but don’t want to fuss with browning, then chicken is your best bet. This flavorful recipe is great when served over couscous.
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
12 garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup Kalamata olives
1 lemon, ends trimmed off, thinly sliced and seeds discarded
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper.
2. Place the sliced onions, garlic cloves, olives, sliced lemon and lemon juice in the slow cooker. Arrange the chicken thighs on top.
3. Cook on low for 7 to 8 hours. Scatter the fresh oregano leaves over the top and serve.
Coffee-Lovers Black Bean Chili
If you need a dump-and-go slow-cooker recipe, this is it. Serve it in bowls over brown rice, if you like, with any or all of the optional toppings. This recipe is fairly liquidy, so if you like a thicker chili, cut back a bit on some of the liquid ingredients.
2 cups freshly brewed coffee
2 cups vegetable broth
2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes, with their juice
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
4 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained (or 6-8 cups cooked black beans)
1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Sea salt, to taste
For serving (optional):
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
Grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
Sour cream or Greek yogurt
1. Combine all ingredients in the slow cooker (except the salt and ingredients for serving). Cover and cook on low for 8 to 12 hours. If you’re home, stir mixture occasionally. Add salt during the last hour and stir.