Monday, December 6, 2010

What a crock!

I thought of something else that should go on the list of Stuff Ecofrugal People Like: slow cookers. We used ours a few nights back to prepare a mushroom-barley soup that we've made many times before, a delicious and hearty soup with only one real drawback: it takes about an hour and a half to cook. As a result, it's always been a weekends-only recipe. But last Friday we decided to just throw all the ingredients in the Crock-Pot and see how it came out, and behold, it was good. Brian actually thought the long slow cooking made it better, because the flavors had more time to blend.

Okay, that's all very nice, but what's so ecofrugal about it? Simple: by making it easier for us to cook at home on nights when we're busy, our slow cooker helps us avoid falling prey to the temptation of restaurant meals or convenience foods. And that's only one way that a slow cooker can contribute to the ecofrugal lifestyle. It can also:
  • make it easier to use dry beans instead of the pricier, more packaging-intensive canned beans. The biggest barrier to cooking with dry beans is the prep time involved: they have to be soaked overnight, then drained, rinsed and cooked for at least two hours before you can use them in your recipe. A slow cooker doesn't eliminate the need for advance preparation, but it does eliminate most of the active work involved. You can just throw the beans in the crock the night before, cover them with water, drain and add fresh water in the morning, and set the pot on low. By the time you get home in the evening, the beans will be ready to use in whatever you're cooking. And if you cook up extra beans, which takes no extra work, you can freeze the rest and have beans in your freezer, ready to use (after just a few minutes in the microwave) on those occasions when you can't soak and cook them ahead of time.
  • help you make your own veggie stock. This is a trick we learned from The Clueless Vegetarian (my favorite vegetarian cookbook and one I highly recommend for newcomers to vegetarian cooking). Basically, you keep a bag in your freezer in which you store all the vegetable scraps that you would normally discard: potato and carrot peelings, cut-off ends of onions, the innards of green peppers, mushroom stems (very flavorful), celery leaves, etc. When the bag gets full, you just dump it all into a pot of boiling water and cook it down. Normally, this would keep you tied to the house for two hours while the pot boils away on the stove, but with a slow cooker, you can just throw the veggies and water in first thing in the morning, set it on low, and strain it in the evening. (Or, if you prefer, you can throw everything in before bedtime, let it cook overnight, and strain it in the morning.) This is an ecofrugal three-fer: you get something for free that you'd ordinarily have to pay for, you avoid the packaging waste involved with canned stock, and you get additional use out of scraps that would normally be discarded. And the boiled-down mush that's left after you've strained off the stock can still go into the compost bin—you've just given it a head start on decomposition.
  • make a small amount of meat go farther. We're not exclusively vegetarians, but we eat only meats that are humanely farmed, and those tend to be expensive. Roasting a whole chicken would run into money, but a single package of chicken legs makes several meals when cooked up with chick peas, onions, almonds and cinnamon in a Moroccan chicken stew. (Note: no tomatoes. Most recipes seem to call for tomatoes, but mine doesn't, and I like it without.) Stretching the meat out with other ingredients makes the meal much cheaper, and (since meat is more resource-intensive than veggies) greener as well. And, another bonus for meat-eaters: slow cooking is an ideal way to tenderize tougher, and thus cheaper, cuts of meat.
And those are just the ways I've tried personally. I've heard of other, less conventional uses as well, like setting up a batch of steel-cut oats overnight so you can have a hot breakfast in the morning. Cold cereal is one of the priciest items in our grocery cart, so eating oatmeal more often would certainly be a money-saver—and because it's less processed, it's greener too, not to mention chock-full of healthful whole grains. And the slow cooker could replace other convenience-type foods, too, like dessert. I've even heard of people baking cakes in it, though I've never quite understood how that works. Clearly, this ecofrugal tool has benefits far beyond my current knowledge—a rich field for further exploration.
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