Finding Christmas sanity in your Crock-Pot

adunn@newsobserver.comDecember 17, 2013 

  • 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.

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 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.

Holiday Pears

From “More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow,” by Stephanie O’Dea, (Hyperion, 2010)

8 firm ripe pears, such as red d’Anjou

1/2 cup dried unsweetened cranberries

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

PEEL pears but leave them whole. Stand pears upright in a 6-quart slow cooker. Sprinkle with cranberries. Combine sugar, ginger, cinnamon and cloves in a small bowl. Spoon over the pears. Pour lemon juice and vinegar evenly over pears.

COVER and cook on low for 4 hours, or on high for about 2 hours.

Yield: 8 servings.

Green Bean Casserole

From “Make It Fast, Cook It Slow,” by Stephanie O’Dea (Hyperion, 2009).

1 pound fresh green beans

1 (10.75-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1/2 cup skim milk

1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1 cup French-fried onions

WASH and trim green beans into even lengths. Place in a 4-quart slow cooker. Add soup, soy sauce and milk. Toss beans gently to coat. Sprinkle with cheese and top with onions.

COVER and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours, or high for 2 to 3 hours, or until green beans reach desired tenderness.

Yield: 6 servings.

Roasted and Spiced Nuts

From “Make It Fast, Cook It Slow,” by Stephanie O’Dea (Hyperion, 2009).

Cooking spray

1 cup raw, unsalted pecans

1 cup raw, unsalted almonds

1 cup raw, unsalted pistachios, no shells

1/2 cup raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup

SPRAY inside of a 6-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Place pecans, almonds, pistachios and pumpkin seeds in the slow cooker. Sprinkle with curry powder, rosemary, cayenne pepper and salt. Drizzle with maple syrup. Toss well to coat.

COVER and cook on high for 2 hours, stirring every 20 minutes. (The nuts will burn if you do not stir them. Don’t worry if a few get burned; they still taste good and have a rustic appeal.) Spread nuts out on a layer of foil or wax paper to cool completely, and store in an airtight container.

Yield: 12 servings.

Turkey and Stuffing Dinner

Note: The original recipe called for four turkey drumsticks. We substituted a breast. While the breast browned nicely and was flavorful, the extra moisture created turned the stuffing to mush. Adapted from “365 Slow Cooker Suppers,” by Stephanie O’Dea (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

Cooking spray

2 cups toasted bread cubes or plain croutons

1/2 cup diced onion

1/4 cup chopped celery

1 teaspoon ground sage

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1 turkey breast, about 5 to 6 pounds

1/2 cup chicken broth

SPRAY inside of slow cooker well with cooking spray. Add bread cubes or croutons, onion, celery, sage, salt, pepper and thyme. Toss well. Pour in butter and toss again. Lay turkey breast on top. Pour broth evenly over the top.

COVER and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours, or on high for 5 hours.

Yield: 6 servings.

Beer-Braised Beef Roast

Note from recipe tester: Add enough liquid, such as beef or chicken broth, to cover the meat. Adapted from “365 Slow Cooker Suppers,” by Stephanie O’Dea (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

1 (3- to 4-pound) beef chuck or pot roast

5 garlic cloves, chopped, or 2 tablespoons minced garlic

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon paprika

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon instant coffee granules

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 thinly sliced onion

1 (12-ounce) bottle beer

1/2 to 1 cup beef broth, or more as needed

PUT roast into a 4-quart slow cooker. Combine garlic, sugar, paprika, cumin, coffee and salt in a small bowl. Rub paste all over sides of meat. Separate onion rings and place on top of meat. Pour in beer. Add broth to cover the beef, if necessary.

COVER and cook on low 8 to 10 hours, or until the meat is fork tender.

Yield: 6 servings.

Macaroni and Cheese

From “365 Slow Cooker Suppers,” by Stephanie O’Dea (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

Cooking spray

4 cups milk

2 cups elbow macaroni

8 ounces American cheese, cubed or shredded

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

SPRAY inside of a 4-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Add milk and pasta, American cheese and pepper. Top with cheddar cheese.

COVER and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours, or on high for about 2 1/2 hours. The pasta will break down if overcooked but the taste will be amazing.

Yield: 8-10 servings.

Sweet Potato Casserole

From Betty Blackburn of Newton

3 cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes

1/2 cup white sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1/3 cup evaporated milk

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup light or dark brown sugar

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 stick butter or margarine, melted

1 cup chopped pecans

PLACE mashed sweet potatoes, sugar, eggs, evaporated milk, cinnamon, vanilla, salt and nutmeg in a slow cooker. Stir to combine.

COMBINE brown sugar, flour, butter and pecans in a small bowl. Sprinkle sugar mixture over sweet potatoes. Cover and cook on high for 3 hours.

Yield: 8-10 servings.

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

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