My Mother was a fabulous cook – the kind of cook who experimented in the kitchen, shopped organic way before it was fashionable and was an early subscriber to Bon Appetit.
She read two papers each day and clipped interesting recipes from the Chicago Tribune each morning. If she couldn’t find anything interesting in the Trib to prepare she would thumb through her favorite cookbooks to find something unique.
Her afternoon cooking adventures started at 3:30 pm and ended when my Dad came home at 6:30 pm. The dining room table was set with sterling silver, antique glasses, lighted candles – classical music filled the house. For most homes this would have indicated a special occasion but in my house it was an every day affair.
She was 40 years old when I was born and my brother and sister were in college by the time I was in second grade so needless to say my afternoons were pretty peaceful. I always assumed that if I was fortunate to be at home with my children during the day that I would recreate that memory.
So it was a complete surprise and a huge disappointment when I found my own dinner hour so chaotic.
My Conversation with Kate
Six years ago as my life seemed to be imploding I went out with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Kate.
At that time, my husband was running an internet travel site, often traveling, and my three children were going in three different directions.
You would think I would spend my days quietly preparing for the afternoon frenzy but I found myself spending each hour my children were out of the house volunteering on school events, advocating for children with special needs… truly anything where I could feel like I had some level of control and some measure of success in my life. But, as those things go all of my doing was the undoing of me, which led to that evening with my friend.
Kate has been by my side since we met in fourth grade and as a first grade teacher I consider her an expert in all things relating to children so I was willing to do whatever she suggested. As I poured out my story over a glass of wine she said, “I want you to do three things.” “Ok – whatever you say” and I took out a piece of paper.
“Think of yourself as June Cleaver. “ I laughed as I was so far from June Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver aka “perfect Mom” for any of you who don’t know.) But she said, “No, seriously, June knew where she stood in the world. You’re a great Mom and you have to start believing in yourself again.” “Ok” I said “June Cleaver.” “Next, don’t answer the phone after 3 pm.” “3 pm” I said and finally she said “Buy yourself a crock pot.” With that last command I looked up and said a “crock pot?” “Yes, a crock pot.” “OK”
The Start of my Slow Cooking Journey
With my instructions in hand I went to bed peacefully – I had a plan. The next morning I went through my cabinets and found a Crock Pot (also referred to as a slow cooker) that I received at my wedding shower 19 years ago. Still in it’s box I looked inside and realized it was too small to prepare enough food for a family of 5.
So I headed to Williams Sonoma and I spent an hour studying crock pots and picked an All Clad Slow Cooker with an insert that I could use to saute food if needed (I loved that I only had one pot to clean) and two cookbooks.
I started to leaf through the cookbooks at home. I found the recipe prep time was too long and I was already in a serious time-poor mode. So off I went to Barnes and Noble and scanned the slow cooker section which was very under stocked in those days and bought a book titled “5 Ingredients or Less” I didn’t even look at the recipes until I got home.
And so my slow cooking journey began…
I flirted with the idea of a slow cooker and put it on the back burner as “one for the future”, until I met Meg with her compelling story.
Slow cooking with the “sacred intention of slowing down” creates a sense of peace and calm after a full day of work and school. Meg realized that meal planning coupled with slow cooking allowed her to be more attentive to her family’s needs while dinner slowly cooked. With the addition of meditation and yoga into her daily life she found increased clarity and focus throughout her day.
Enticing aromas of dinner cooking in the slow cooker welcomed her family as they returned home. Sharing a relaxed, tasty and nutritious meal became enjoyable and beneficial to the whole family.
As a recent immigre to Chicago with a young family, I was laying the foundations for us to feel “at home”. As we navigated the choppy waters of finding a school for my Kindergarten aged daughter, I began to envision how our daily lives were soon to change. I consider the impact of making this time together over dinner as a defining moment in our family life.
United at dinnertime
As a stay at home mom and home cook, I like to indulge myself in kitchen experiments, but that becomes a luxury, which i don’t have time for if I’m aiming for dinner at 6. I’ll admit, some muddled mealtime values had evolved from living and traveling in different parts of the world. I cooked every meal from scratch and we always ate at the dinner table, however our girls would eat before us due to work constraints and our preference for later European dining times. Consequently we ate around 8pm. I realised that once schooling began, dinner time may be the only occasion during the day when the four of us could be united with no distractions. It became my mission to make 6pm dinner a new norm for us all before Kindergarten started.
Meg’s story struck me at a time when I was trying to make weeknight family dinners work and within a week of our paths crossing, I had purchased my first Slow Cooker (follow my initiation below). It was time to infuse my repertoire with some weeknight realism by cooking relatively quick, easy to prepare and nourishing dinners.
As i studied library cookbooks, adapting recipes for my slow cooker and incorporating fresh produce from my urban garden, it dawned on me that I could look at all my prized cookbooks in a new light. My favourite adaptations include a Jamie Oliver – influenced Ribollita, a close friend – inspired coffee and cocoa dry rubbed Beef Rib and a David Thompson – motivated Thai eggplant & coconut curry. I had banished the myth from my head that all slow cooker food was one-dimensional – grey, stewy and gruel-like.
Off i go…..
I had no idea what make of slow cooker to buy. I was unfamiliar with the brands and didn’t know the difference between a Crock Pot and a slow cooker. Now I know, the first is the original brand, the first slow cooker. As i familiarised myself – All Clad, Crock Pot and Hamilton Beach to name a few – and read a myriad of conflicting online reviews, I decided to set some criteria. My purchase would be under $100 and stoveproof: for multipurpose use, to brown meat, and to reduce cleaning up effort. A 6 quart would be optimum, any leftovers can be frozen and I can cater for bigger family gatherings.
I got it!…..
I found my slow cooker online, then sourced locally in the sale at a retailer so I could see exactly what i was getting. This purchase had become serious. I proudly unpacked my Oval 6 quart Hamilton Beach programmable stovetop slow cooker! The stovetop element narrowed my choices considerably for under $100 but I have no complaints.
I was excited, but didn’t know where to start. It was tempting to cook on the stovetop (after all i was now the owner of a lovely new casserole) and my culinary knowledge was being seriously challenged by this alien piece of kitchen equipment. “Won’t it burn?” Of course not: the temperature and moisture retention ensure you won’t cremate your dinner (providing you don’t remove the lid during cooking). I made mistakes with liquids (adding too much because surely that will dry out). I was adapting to a new method of cooking and realised there was no need to invent new recipes, but instead adapt and craft my own from existing favorites and allow for some experimentation along the way.
All good meals come from a few simple building blocks: good ingredients assembled in the right order and cooked for the optimum length of time and voila!
Like most things we learn, eventually they become second nature.
My first 3 slow cooker dishes:
chicken broth, chicken pot pie, clear chick pea & fennel soup with coriander