Article and photo by Lisa Crockett
Crock-Pots, generally a pretty ho-hum kitchen tool, have been making headlines lately due to their involvement in the (fictional) tragedy that took the life of a (fictional) popular family man on NBC’s hit drama series “This is Us.” For their part, the Crock-Pot company seems to have taken the controversy in stride, tweeting reassuring messages about the rigorous safety procedures the company employs and creating the hash tag #CrockPotIsInnocent to both address concerns raised by the show and also highlight the myriad functions a slow cooker can fill.
Fictional house fires notwithstanding, I love my Crock-Pot and use it almost every week. I have a few favorite soup, stew, and chili recipes in my repertoire that I can prepare early in the morning and then have on the table in a flash at the end of a busy day. At least one of these dishes shows up in the rotation every week, and during busy seasons, the Crock-Pot rarely gets put away since I’m ready to fire it back up the moment it’s washed and dried.
Still, it’s safe to say that I’ve been in something of a slow cooker rut, and there’s more to life than the five soups, stews and chilis I have in my arsenal. (Occasionally I get fancy and whip up a batch of pulled pork, slow cooked with a can of Coke and doused in a bottle of barbecue sauce, but even that is getting old.) My curiosity about reactions to the “This is Us” controversy led me to the Crock-Pot website, where I found not only a good-natured and masterful reaction to what might have otherwise been a public relations nightmare, I also found inspiration for what I might do to break out of my slow-cooker rut. Bread pudding, enchiladas and even chocolate cake are all featured prominently as culinary delights that can be produced in the slow cooker with impressive results.
Pasta, another frequent flyer at my dinner table, was a player in many of the recipes on the site. In the past, I’ve had bad luck with pasta in the Crock-Pot simply because while cooking meat and veggies all day makes them tender and tasty, it turns pasta into a mushy, paste-like mess. Still, the chicken cacciatore recipe looked delicious and too good to pass up, so I resigned myself to making the bulk of the meal in the slow cooker and then boiling the noodles separately (as directed in the recipe). The house filled with a savory, chicken-y aroma, and I quickly began to envision the refined Italian feast to come. Instead of a utilitarian get-the-job-done kind of eating, this meal would be an occasion for dining.
At dinner time, though, I was predictably frazzled and found myself with a to-do list that included warming a loaf of bread and making a salad, along with making two important phone calls and facing down a house full of trash cans in desperate need of emptying. The thought of taking the time to heat the pasta water – say nothing of creating another pot to wash – filled me with dread. In desperation, I simply grabbed a handful of dry spaghetti, tossed it into the hot broth in the Crock-Pot, and hoped for the best.
Half an hour later, dinner included both bread and salad, my phone calls were made, and the trash was ready for pickup. And the pasta? Absolutely perfect. It took a few minutes longer to cook than if I had boiled it, but the taste and texture were great.
When it comes to starting house fires and single-handedly robbing America of one of its beloved television characters, Crock-Pot will tell you it’s innocent. When it comes to getting dinner on the table, though, it’s guilty as charged.
3 cups chicken broth and one tablespoon flour, stirred to combine
¼ cup drained capers
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 28-ounce can Italian-style diced tomatoes (with basil, garlic and oregano)
8 ounces sliced mushrooms (cremini or white button)
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (thighs may also be used)
12 ounces dry spaghetti noodles, broken in half
5 ounces baby spinach
Shredded Parmesan, for serving
Combine all ingredients except noodles and spinach in the slow cooker and cook on low for seven hours. Remove chicken from the slow cooker, shred it, and add it back to the broth mixture. Stir in broken spaghetti noodles and cook for 30 minutes. Just prior to serving, stir in spinach until it is wilted and well incorporated. Serve immediately with Parmesan.