Heart Healthy One-Pot Meals: The Joy of Slow Cooking Hearty Winter Cuisines

Winter is the perfect time to get out the crock pot (or “slow cooker,” if you will) and cook up some healthy, hearty porridges, rich soups, stews and mouthwatering one-pot dinner creations guaranteed to take the chill out of cold weather dining.

When I purchased my first crock pot many years ago, it was a relatively new item on the market. Not only were these appliances hard to track down, but expensive, too.

The good news is, today the ever-growing demand for these convenient cooking appliances means they are easy to come by at any store where housewares are sold (and prices have dropped drastically, making them an affordable must-have for any kitchen).

The health benefits of slow-cooking are many. Since crock pots are designed to trap moisture in, not one drop of nutrients can escape in the steam. Slow-cooking retains natural juices in the pot, producing foods more wholesome and flavourful than those cooked by conventional methods. Slow-cooking also calls for less seasoning, including salt, which is a big bonus for those on a low or no-salt diet.

If you want to bean-up, grain-up or rice-up your family’s diet, using a crock pot is the ideal cooking method for these healthy staples that call for long, slow cooking. If you’ve been shunning legumes and grains because they demand too much time to prepare, then you will find cooking these protein-rich foods crock pot fashion is a snap.

In recent years, beans, grains and rice have earned praise as being useful foods in helping to reduce various types of cancers, ward off heart problems, and control diabetes. Upping the amount in one’s diet is good for the health – and as a bonus deal, easy on the budget.

Crock pot cookery is also a great way to get more heart-smart vegetables onto the plates of those who normally frown at them. I find that many of the best-suited recipes for crock pots call for a base of vegetables, especially root-vegetables such as turnips, carrots, parsnips and potatoes that kids sometimes frown at when served solo. However, when done up in colourful soups, stews or curries, vegetables take on a new character that kids seem to love!

When meat is on the menu, you’ll be happy to note that cheaper cuts such as chuck roasts trimmed of fat or skinned chicken thighs become every bit as tender and delicious as more expensive prime cuts when cooked long and slow in a crock pot.

Since many crock pot creations that call for meat or poultry also call for beans, rice or vegetables to accompany them, it’s easy to cut down on the amount of meat normally served at one sitting. Thus, it’s a tasty way to maintain a protein-rich diet and reduce meat intake at the same time.

One of the joys of using a crock pot is that it allows you to put foods into the pot in the morning and take off to work or play and forget about the pot until supper time rolls around. Or load up the pot at night before going to bed and wake up to a breakfast that is hot and ready whenever you are. They are safe to leave unattended all day or night without fear of the pot boiling dry, overheating or overcooking.

My Grandma did her “slow cooking” in an old-fashioned clay baker, which she’d pop into the oven of her woodstove. Clay bakers can be used for slow cooking but they are not as practical or carefree as a crock pot since they can boil dry if not tended to. Grandma’s Old World clay baker came from Italy and was specially made for cooking foods in.

If you do prefer to use a clay baker instead of a crock pot for your slow-cooked creations, be sure to choose one that is made by a reputable company that guarantees the baker is non-toxic and safe to use. Some clay bakers may contain lead or heavy metals in their glazes, making them decorative objects not intended for cooking purposes. Price-wise, a crock pot is cheaper, easier to hunt down and much more practical and convenient to use since it’ll completely free you from watching the pot.

Control settings on older model pots are usually Low and High, and on newer models the settings are Warm, Low, Medium and High – although settings on some models may vary, so always refer to your manual when in doubt.

The Warm setting should only be used when keeping already cooked foods warm until serving time. It should not be used for cooking foods as the temperature (usually 200F) may be too low to kill bacteria present in the food. Low, Medium and High settings can be used to help you time the dish to fit your schedule.

When using your slow cooker, rest assured you do not need to worry about stirring the food during the cooking process. Foods will not stick or burn on the bottom of the pot. And if you are running late, have no fear that the dish will be ruined – an extra hour or two will not turn the supper into a lost cause!

As a rule of thumb, slow-cooking means simmering food at just below the boiling point. The Low setting enables food to cook for longer periods of time at lower temperatures. If you are going to be away all day or wish for the pot to run all night, the Low setting will serve you well.

The High setting is usually suggested when preparing foods that take many hours to cook, namely dried bean dishes and grains. I find that starting the pot on High speeds up the cooking process. Then before turning my attention away from the pot, I turn it down to the Medium or Low setting depending on how long I expect to be away or at what time I wish to serve dinner.

When making gravy or thickening a sauce in the pot, set the switch to High, remove the lid and add the thickener (cornstarch and water, flour and water, or arrowroot and water) and cook until thickened. This is the only time you may need to give the mixture a stir to help it thicken up nice and smoothly.

Since liquids do not evaporate in the crock pot, sometimes (unless making soups) you may find that you have more liquid than desired in a recipe, especially when using juicy foods such as tomatoes. If this is the case, you can turn the pot to High, remove the lid and reduce the liquid, but you will lose some goodness in steam. I find ladling off the excess cooking liquid and setting it aside for another day’s soup or gravy base works best.


RECIPES

Here are a few versatile recipes guaranteed to take the chill out of winter dining. Before you start, keep in mind that measurements are given loosely. There is no need at all to fret over being precise. And remember, you can have fun varying amounts and using different types of vegetables, beans, rice and spice in any recipe to create dishes that are totally unique. The recipes below serve 4 to 6, with second helpings.

Crock Pot Wheat Berries

This is a delicious breakfast to rise to on a cold winter morning and you’ll be lured out of bed by the sweet, fruity aroma that fills the air. Kids love it and you will, too. You can load up the pot before going to bed and all you have to do in the morning is pour the milk. Be sure to try other grains also, such as rye kernels, barley, oats, millet or a mixture of grains. And you can use whatever dried fruits you have on hand or whatever tickles your fancy for endless variety all winter long – raisin, currants, cranberries, dates, pineapple…and nuts, too, for those who love them. Using apple juice as the cooking liquid instead of traditional water produces a naturally sweet, slightly tart porridge that’s spoon-licking good…

Ingredients:

  • Dab of vegetable or olive oil
  • 1 cup of wheat berries, rinsed in cold water and drained
  • 3 cups apple juice
  • ½ cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1 fresh unpeeled diced apple
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp grated orange rind
  • Small handful of whole almonds or other nuts if desired

1) Oil the inside of the crock pot with oil. This prevents the porridge from sticking. Put all ingredients into the pot. Put on cover, turn setting to Low and cook 8 to 10 hours, or all night as I do. This is a perfect breakfast for families that have different morning schedules and can’t make it to the table at the same time. Just set the pot to Warm, or Low if you don’t have a Warm button, and let everyone dig in before they rush off into the cold. And if the house is full of company, you can double the recipe to feed a herd…


Vegetable and Black Bean Soup

This is a warm, filling soup that is versatile to make. Sometimes I use navy, kidney, lima, chickpeas, soybeans or a mixture of beans and simply change the name of the soup. Or if I am in the mood for rice, barley or other grain, the soup will reflect my craving. And as far as the vegetables go, I use whatever I have to my avail in whatever amounts I fancy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dried black beans (washed in cold water)
  • 2 cups cubed turnip
  • 2 cups chopped cabbage
  • 1 stalk diced celery
  • 2 chopped carrots
  • 1 chopped parsnip
  • 1 minced sweet red pepper
  • 1 diced chili pepper (optional)
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 chopped zucchini
  • 2 cups cubed potatoes
  • 1 cup fresh green beans cut into 1-inch pieces (or frozen beans)
  • 3 cloves peeled minced garlic
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander (and a scattering of whole seeds if you love the exciting burst of flavour when biting into a whole seed as I do. If not, omit.)
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 quart chopped canned tomatoes (homemade as I use, or store-bought) plus juice and enough water to cover
  • Fresh or dried parsley to taste

1) Put all ingredients into the crock pot. Add tomatoes, juice and enough water to cover. Put on lid, cook on Low for 8 to 10 hours or on High for 5 to 6 hours, whichever timing suits you best.

2) At dinnertime, simply set the crock pot on the table instead of transferring the soup to a tureen (this cuts down on the chore of doing extra dishes) and ladle it up. Serve with whole grain dinner rolls or bread. My family likes grated parmesan or cheddar cheese sprinkled on top.


Stuffed Cabbage Leaves

No matter what I wrap up inside a cabbage leaf, my family loves it! Here is a tasty mixture that leans heavily on chewy brown rice for wonderful texture and rich, earthy flavour. You can add pine or other nuts and/or raisins to the filling as I often do. Or, when meat is on the menu, replace half the rice with about ½ pound ground chicken, or turkey or lean ground beef and omit the carrots, zucchinis, bread crumbs and tahini.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cabbage
  • 2 cups washed brown rice
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 minced onions
  • 2 grated carrots
  • 2 grated zucchinis
  • 1 minced sweet red pepper
  • 1 minced chili pepper (optional)
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 cups whole wheat bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp tahini (ground sesame paste)
  • 4 cups of tomato sauce
  • Tomato juice as needed
  • 1 whole bay leaf

1) Cut core from cabbage by circling around the root end with a knife to loosen the leaves. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and plunge in the cabbage. Simmer for 8 minutes. Remove cabbage from water and drain on a tea towel. Carefully remove 10 to 12 of the outer leaves from the head, using a knife if needed to free them. Dry remaining cabbage and store in fridge for another day’s use.

2) Heat olive oil in skillet and quickly sauté vegetables for about 3 minutes. Add vegetables to the rice, mix in bread crumbs, seasonings and tahini.

3) When cool enough to handle, divvy the rice mixture up into 10 to 12 portions, form into balls and place one ball on each cabbage leaf. Roll up and fold ends under, making a secure parcel (as shown in photo). Place in crock pot and add tomato sauce and enough juice to cover. Drop in the bay leaf. Put on cover, turn setting to Low for 8 hours or High for 5 to 6 hours. Remove and discard bay leaf before serving. Serve with crusty loaf of whole wheat bread and green tossed salad, if you wish.

4) Note – if using meat, sauté for a few minutes with the onions, garlic and pepper and then add to the rice and proceed.


Curried Lentil and Vegetable Stew

You’ll catch a whiff of this delicious spicy dish as soon as you enter the kitchen! Serve with whole wheat bread or rolls and cucumber salad dressed with yogurt dressing, and supper’s on…

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups dried red lentils (or yellow split peas) rinsed in cold water
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 minced onion
  • 2 tsp ground coriander (and a few whole seeds if desired)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground mustard seeds
  • 1 cup chopped carrots
  • 2 stalks diced celery
  • 2 cups of broken cauliflower
  • 2 cups chopped turnip
  • 1 diced parsnip
  • 1 half minced sweet green pepper
  • 1 minced chili pepper (optional)
  • Small knob peeled grated ginger (or pinch dried spice)
  • Water

1) Put washed lentils in crock pot. Heat oil in small cast-iron skillet and sauté garlic, onions and spices until flavours are released. Mix into the lentils. Add remaining ingredients and just barely enough water to cover. Put on cover and cook on Low for 8 hours, or High for 4 to 6 hours.

2) If you want a thicker stew, mix 2 tablespoons flour into ¼ cup water, turn pot to High, add enough thickener to reach desired consistency, stirring until smooth.


Crock Pot Rice Pudding

This tastes just like the old-fashioned rice pudding Grandma used to bake. It is as good hot as it is cold. Grandma served hers with nutmeg milk (simply stir ground nutmeg into milk and pour over top of the warm pudding).

Ingredients:

  • Drop of vegetable oil
  • 1 ¼ cups washed rice, short grain white or brown rice
  • 3 ¼ cups milk (soy, skim or your choice of milk)
  • 1/3 cup sugar (or honey to sweeten)
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 chopped unpeeled apple
  • 1 Tbsp grated orange rind
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp grated nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon

1) Oil the crock pot to prevent sticking. Put rice and milk into the pot. If using sugar, add in. If sweetening with honey do not add until cooking time is finished. Add remaining ingredients and stir well. Put on cover and cook on Low for 4 to 5 hours, or High for 2 to 3 hours.

Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.

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