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Michelle Fern Michelle Fern
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Crockpot Heaven

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Meal planning has never been my strongest suit. In fact, I'm more of a 'What's for dinner?' type of person who only thinks of it while driving home from work after 5 p.m. with a house full of hungry kids. Even when I've defrosted something - a none-too-often occurrence - I have no idea what I'm going to do with it. You'd think boneless chicken breast and ground beef would be the easiest to cook with, but I still have a hard time with it.

Why? Well, my time is tight and I like others don't really like to spend a lot of time cooking after a long day. Therefore I've decided that I must use the Crock-Pot more often. It's one of those kitchen appliances that are highly underutilized, and you can cook beef, pork, chicken, pasta, soup, stews and even desert in a Crock-Pot. And, the upside is you come home from a long day at work or school and whoa la, dinner is ready.

I fondly remember my mother serving up a myriad of concoctions in the 1970s. It wasn't easy feeding six people, and the Crock-Pot stretched a dollar back then as much as it does now. Slow cooking is the key to transforming inexpensive - and sometimes tough - cuts of meat into tender, fall-off-the-fork meals. But one thing I have had a hard time cooking in it is a whole chicken. Admittedly, it's not hard to roast one in the oven, but it does take time (usually a couple of hours) and there's a justifiable fear of leaving an oven on low while you're gone for the day that kills the slow-cook option. Plus, slow cooking tends to break down chicken bones so much that you're often left with an unpleasant experience in trying not to eat them.

My friend Martha gave me a recipe that I recently tried over the weekend. We love chicken and I am convinced that buying a whole chicken is one of the best values for your grocery budget. You can usually find them on sale at various grocery stores for under a dollar a pound. I used to never buy whole because I didn't want to touch them, or mess with them once they are cooked. However I realized how much money I could save by buying whole chickens and I quickly overcame my raw chicken fears and got cooking.

Cooking a whole chicken in the Crock-Pot is very easy. You first unwrap the chicken, remove the bag of gizzards from the cavity and give it a quick rinse. Some people like to use the gizzards, but I draw the line there as they are too gross to deal with. After rinsing the chicken, you place it in a Crock-Pot that has been sprayed with a non-stick greaser.

Here's the kicker: You don't need any liquid in the pot, just the chicken. I think this is where I went wrong previously, since I usually put broth or water in with the chicken for a rather mushy result. Instead, the chicken will take care of itself.

Then sprinkle your favorite spices on the skin - we like Adobo, a Latino seasoned salt mix found in most ethnic food or spice aisles of your store. Place the lid on the cooker, set it on low and walk away for about seven hours. After that time, you'll have a beautiful chicken ready to serve for dinner. The smaller the bird, the less time you'll need and I usually buy the ones with the popup timer so I don't overcook it.

Remove the chicken from the Crock-Pot, carve and serve. Leftover meat can be used as any cooked chicken - in casseroles or for chicken salad, chicken pot pie, pastas and more.

Now here's the catch: Don't throw away the leftover liquid. While you can use some of it along with a thickener to make gravy, put the leftover bones back in the cooker after you have removed the meat and add about five cups of water. For those who don't prefer the skin, you can also put that back in for some wonderful flavoring. I usually eave in some bits of chicken as well, and a great tip is if you add a splash of vinegar, it will extract more minerals from the bones, making your broth richer and healthier.

Set the cooker on low, cover and let it simmer for several hours, even overnight if you wish. In the morning you will have a Crock-Pot full of bones and chicken broth, and your house will smell fantastic for the day or two. Next, strain the liquid and you now have homemade chicken broth for free. And not only is it free, it's also devoid of all the preservatives and other junk you might find in some of the store-bought chicken broths.

I store my broth in large containers. After you put the broth in a container, place it in the fridge to cool. When the broth has totally cooled, a layer of fat will be on the top. Remove the fat with a spoon and the broth is ready to be used or can be stored for up to six months in the freezer. You can even use the fat for other recipes, like sauting vegetables, baking and more.

Just remember that slow cooking is faster than fast food. Most recipes involve only a few minutes of prep time - maybe chopping up a few veggies, stirring together some basic ingredients, and then turning it on and forgetting about it. Forgetting about it, that is, until you return home after a hard day's work and you're greeted by that heavenly aroma of a home cooked meal ready for the table.

Last modified on Friday, 21 October 2011 15:48

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