|Now that zucchinis are giving way to butternut squashes at the farmers' markets, we find ourselves cooking more soups, stews, and hearty dishes. And what better way to make them than the trusty old slow cooker? Using a slow cooker can mean having a healthy, delicious Mediterranean Diet meal on the table within minutes of arriving home at the end of the day. Whether you're making a lentil stew or chicken and potatoes, the slow cooker can be an effective tool for getting vegetables, legumes, whole grains and other Med Pyramid ingredients into a meal in creative, easy, and satisfying ways. Here are some tips for making the most of your slow cooker meals:
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- Sautéing vegetables and browning meats before putting them into the slow cooker will create deeper, richer flavors than slow cooking alone.
- Removing skin from chicken and trimming excess fat from any meats before placing in the slow cooker will improve the texture and mouth feel of your finished dish. It will also lower the amount of saturated fat in your food.
- Follow directions for layering ingredients in the slow cooker. Different ingredients cook at different rates and layering according to your recipe will yield the best results for even cooking without overcooking vegetables or drying out meats.
- If your recipe calls for canned beans and you prefer to use dried beans, boil them for 10 minutes in unsalted water, then cover and simmer for an hour and a half, then add the drained beans to the slow cooker.
- Many ingredients perform best if added to the slow cooker in the last 15-30 minutes of cooking:
- Dairy: milk, yogurt, and cheeses tend to break down if added to the slow cooker too early in the cooking process.
- Fish and shellfish: seafood is delicate and overcooks easily. Add fish and shellfish to the slow cooker during the last 15-30 minutes of cook time. Turn the heat to high and cook just until the seafood is cooked through.
- Fresh herbs: add fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill or oregano at the very end of the cooking time to prevent their flavors from dissipating.
- Pasta: stir fully cooked pasta into the slow cooker during the last 15 minutes to let it warm through but not overcook.
- Be aware of food safety concerns:
- If you prepare your slow cooker meal the night before, refrigerate the various ingredients or parts separately and assemble them in the slow cooker in the morning. Avoid the temptation to assemble the entire dish and store it in the insert in the refrigerator. A chilled insert takes longer to warm up than one at room temperature and may encourage bacteria growth as it warms.
- Defrost any frozen foods before adding them to the slow cooker. Adding frozen foods directly to the slow cooker reduces the temperature of everything in the pot and may make the temperature fall into the danger zone for bacteria growth.