Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
Nervous about preparing Thanksgiving dinner? You’re not alone. No matter what your level of culinary experience, cooking the Thanksgiving feast can cause more anxiety than a turkey feels as November rolls around. I’ve been to culinary school and am now food editor here at Parents, and even I’m not immune. (Starting two years ago, I finally put my gravy anxiety to rest by making it ahead of time.)
Recently we asked our Facebook fans about their biggest Thanksgiving dinner challenges, and I chose a few of the questions to answer, here. My goal is to help make the cooking part of your day go more smoothly so you can get down to the important part of enjoying the feast with your friends and family.
Ashley Jude is hosting her first Thanksgiving and asked for our best piece of advice.
My best piece of advice is one I follow myself every year: do as much in advance as possible. Turkey stock for the gravy and my piecrust are already in the freezer. This weekend I will make my cranberry sauce. Tuesday I will cut up my vegetables for the stuffing and trim the Brussels sprouts. Wednesday I’ll whisk up the gravy and put together a mashed potato casserole that can go straight in the oven on Thursday. The more you do ahead the less stress you’ll feel on the big day, guaranteed.
Check out our helpful make-ahead plan for more ideas, or consider preparing this make-ahead sweet potato dish.
Almost equally important is to have a cooking plan for the day and write it down. I start from when I want dinner on the table (4:30 PM), then work backwards to carving the turkey (4:15 PM), taking the turkey out of the oven (3:15 PM), and putting the turkey in the oven (12:15 PM). It’s amazing how having a schedule on paper can keep you cool and composed.
Heather Beckman wants an easy pie crust.
Ah, Heather, don’t we all. Okay, here is my official “food editor” answer: piecrust isn’t difficult once you practice a little. Just keep your ingredients cold and don’t work the dough too much. Watch our video here to see just how easy it is to roll one out.
And here is my “unofficial” answer: you know what kind of piecrust I love? Graham cracker. Yum. How delicious with pumpkin or pudding or cheesecake or virtually any other smooth, creamy filling. You can press a graham cracker crust into the pan in seconds or, gasp!, buy one that still tastes great.
How to Roll Out Pie Dough
Several people asked how to serve a gluten-free Thanksgiving.
Happily, aside from the stuffing, gravy, and pie most traditional Thanksgiving dishes are gluten-free (remember gluten is a protein found in wheat). So pile your plate high with mashed potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, green beans, squash, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts, salad, and, of course, turkey. To replace a traditional bread stuffing try a wild rice dressing. Instead of, or in addition to, pumpkin pie add baked apples to the menu, pumpkin pudding, or poached pears. No one will miss the gluten.
We had a lot of questions about dealing with picky eaters on Thanksgiving.
Here’s the good news. I think Thanksgiving is the last day you should wage a battle with picky eaters. (And, in fact, try to avoid making it a battle any day of the year with these strategies.) On Thanksgiving, just make sure there are one or two things on the table your kids will eat. That shouldn’t be too hard since, let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of food on the table. Maybe little ones will eat the rolls with butter, the mashed potatoes, a fruit salad, or plain turkey. Some kids might love the cranberry sauce or the sweet potatoes.
Another beauty of the Thanksgiving table is that you can always add a dish, so if you don’t think they’ll eat anything you serve, add macaroni and cheese (traditional in some parts of the country) or apple slices. Once the food is on the table, let your kids eat what they want and have dessert later, no strings attached. This is a meal for everyone to enjoy. You and your children. Save the one-bite rule and other maneuvers for outsmarting picky eating for another day. That’s something both you and your kids will be thankful for.
Any other Thanksgiving dinner questions, let us know!
Image: Turkey dinner via Shutterstock
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Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
Like many moms, my to-do list this time of year is a mile long. But Sharon Bowers’ inspiring book Sweet Christmas is an excellent reminder to slow down and get back to the heart of the holiday season – spending time with our families. From crafting colorful garlands to baking creative cookies, her projects are doable, delicious, and perfect for sharing with enthusiastic kids. Sharon recently chatted about her go-to party recipes, her least favorite part of the holidays, and her best advice for busy moms.
Q: What inspired Sweet Christmas?
A: My first two books, Ghoulish Goodies and Candy Construction, had sort of made it evident that sweet stuff is my thing! But working on those books had also helped me understand more clearly that what’s fun around the holidays, any holiday, is not shopping trips with tired, crabby kids. What’s fun is staying home with your kids and enjoying projects together, celebrating as a family.
Q: I bet Christmas at your house is great! Tell me about how your family spends the holiday.
A: We do a lot of baking and a lot of eating! It’s not all about sweet stuff, however. We make an Advent Calendar by hanging paper envelopes or little socks on a string and we put tiny toys or knickknacks in to surprise each other, or we make little wreaths to hang off the doorknobs by sticking gumdrops into a foam core.
Q: How much latitude do you give your kids in the kitchen?
A: I’m really into letting my children be hands-on about projects. When you’re making something like Stained Glass Cookies, for example, with crushed candy melted into the opening of sugar cookies, it’s so easy to let your inner grownup take over, to make all the cookies look pretty. But what’s fun for my kids, and ultimately for my husband and me, is to let our boys do it themselves, and we end up laughing together in the kitchen and spending time with one another.
Q: What is your favorite part about Christmas?
A: The excellent excuse to eat whatever we want for a few days! I spend the entire rest of the year keeping a running tab on precisely what amount of fruits and vegetables went into each child each day, and did they get enough iron and calcium and Vitamin C. And I just shut that part of my mind down over the holidays. For that week or so between Christmas and New Year’s, when we’re with family and friends or going to parties or entertaining at home, I just throw it all to the wind and enjoy whatever is in front of us.
Q: What is your least favorite part about Christmas?
A: No matter how much fun everyone had at a big holiday meal, the dishes still have to be done.
Q: What are two or three especially good recipes/projects to make with kids from the book?
A: Believe it or not, good old-fashioned popcorn garlands absolutely enthrall kids. It might seem like the oldest holiday trick in the book, but your children may never have seen it before. 3-D cookies are another one of my favorites. Use any cookie cutter you like, but ideally more solid ones, such as Christmas trees or stockings. Then, when the baked cookies are still warm, cut a narrow rectangular groove up from the bottom of one and down from the top of the other, then fit them together through these slots to make a cookie that can stand upright (p. 78), which you can then decorate on all sides. It’s so easy but kids think it’s magic!
Q: You seem very crafty. What are some recipe options for more craft-challenged moms like me?
A: What’s kind of funny is that I’m actually really lazy about crafting. My motto is, “If I can do it, really, ANYONE can.” I think that’s why so many of my projects start in the kitchen, because I don’t have to go to a craft store and buy a lot of stuff before I begin. I’ve already got butter, sugar and chocolate in the kitchen most of the time, so I try to find things to make with what’s at hand like Chocolate Santa Mice (p. 77). These are made with a sort of sticky chocolate dough made from ground-up cookies that kids can form into shapes–we make mice–and roll in powdered sugar. All you need to be able to do is work a food processor, and your kids will do the rest.
Q: What are your go-to holiday party recipes?
A: My Caramelized Onion Dip (p. 99) is ridiculously easy considering how many compliments it gets. You cook onions until they’re deeply golden and stir them with sour cream and mayo and a little Worcestershire, serve with chips or veggies, and people will think you just invented the wheel. My mother’s side of the family is Swedish so I also am always in charge of making mini Swedish Meatballs (p. 104) which take very little effort but get people all excited–there’s never one left over.
Q: Any tips for moms who want to make special treats for their families but find themselves pressed for time?
A: Ohmigosh, yes: give yourself a break! We all work fulltime, whether inside or outside the home, and we’re all tired and kids’ schedules are demanding. So if you make “bake something with children” just another thing to check off your list, it feels like a burden. But a tray of Blondies (p. 89) takes about 6 minutes to mix, even if you let the kids stir, and 35 minutes to bake, and you’ve got something gorgeous you made yourself. So just pick one thing and do it and enjoy it.
Q: What do you hope families will get out of your book?
A: To slow down a little more at Christmas. To take the time to stay home and do a little baking with their children. It’s so easy to get caught up in all the shopping and gift-buying. But simple homemade gifts, even really easy things such as a jar of Salted Caramel Sauce (p. 167), are much more welcome to the recipients, and they express so much more love that everyone feels happier.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Make delicious snowman pops for your next holiday party:
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How-to Make Snowman Pops
Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
You know Giada De Laurentiis: the Food Network star, author of 10 books, mom, and all-around busy lady who somehow stays thin, healthy, and gorgeous. It’s enough to make us mortals green with envy. But happily, in her new book Giada’s Feel Good Food she is sharing her get-healthy and stay-there secrets with the rest of us. In a recent conversation, Giada revealed some of her tips for eating well on a budget and why she doesn’t believe in diets.
Q: As parents, we focus a lot on good nutrition for kids (which is important of course). But we don’t talk as much about good nutrition for parents. Do you think that’s problematic?
A: I like to say that this is the perfect opportunity to lead by example! My daughter Jade loves asking me questions while I’m cooking, and if I don’t baby-talk her, but rather get on her level and explain what all the yummy things going into my smoothie are and how they are going to fuel my body, then she’s far more likely to try what normally would look to her like a nasty green shake! It’s a great motivator, being an example for anyone.
Q: Why do you think it’s so difficult for many moms to eat well?
A: Two words: busy and tired. The thing is, the best way to help offset those two words is a well-balanced meal plan and some fun exercise. I’m not suggesting a boring diet or some workout that you’re going to dread all day long. Life is short, and we are made to be happy! Take a brisk walk with the kids through the neighborhood. Play hide-and-seek. Or try some nice yoga moves together! Eating healthy can and should be delicious; I think sometimes people just need to have the opportunity to discover an appreciation for fresh foods and natural flavor.
Q: What are three simple things parents can do to improve their diets?
A: Skip sodas, replace refined sugars with natural sugars like those found in fruit, and eat more often in smaller portions. Portion control is truly the key.
Q: Do you have any tips for people on a budget who are trying to eat well?
A: Skip the restaurant and cook at home. It will be easier on your wallet than eating at restaurants night after night. If you don’t consider yourself a cook, start simple and be patient with yourself. Learning to cook for yourself is a great way to be budget-savvy, plus it will taste better because you will learn to make it just how you like it. And if you do have a night out, skip the booze and do dessert at home to skinny up that check!
Q: Why do you say you don’t believe in diets for you?
A: Because I don’t stick to them and I generally resist things that seem like deprivation. I choose to get excited about my health and my body and adjust my meal plan and activities accordingly. Being healthy is a lifestyle and a state of mind, and diets don’t contribute to that in a positive way for me. It’s not sustainable, and I like things I can build on, look forward to, and get excited about. Being healthy is exciting!
Q: Like many moms you are one busy lady! How do you manage to fit exercise and healthy eating into your schedule?
A: For me, the key is good planning. You have to set yourself up for success, you know? I like to cook a few meals in advance to help with the impossible days in the week… there are always a couple!
Q: You mention that when you were younger you were addicted to chocolate and sugar. How did you kick the habit?
A: I got pregnant. Jade changed everything for me. Once I started eating for two, I really started really paying attention to what I was eating and made it a habit. A good one!
Q: If we forced you to choose, what would you say are your favorite three recipes in the book?
A: That’s hard. This book is full of my favorite recipes and feels a little like sharing my diary because a lot of these are what I cook myself… but I would say the Avocado-Chocolate Mousse with Raspberries, the Swiss Chard Rolls with Wild and Brown rice and Indian Spices, and, of course, my go-to Spinach, Ginger, and Apple smoothie [recipe below]!
Q: A lot of moms deal with picky eaters. What do you think is the best way to encourage kids to eat a variety of foods?
A: The best way to encourage them is to involve them in the process! I think the root of picky eaters is that they want control. It’s a power struggle, and I think that’s totally okay. They want to have control of what goes in their bodies, and it’s the perfect opportunity to empower them. Flip through the cookbook with them, see what sounds fun to make, and then cook with them! It will change a picky little eater’s tune just like that.
Q: What are your daughter’s favorite foods?
A: My girl loves her waffles. I’d have to say that’s probably her favorite right now. I’m excited though because she’s adventurous with food and is willing to try new things. She has a strong opinion and knows what she likes, but she’ll give things a shot, which is great.
Q: You’ve also written children’s books. What inspired you?
A: Jade is my ultimate inspiration. I wanted to write something she could enjoy soon, rather than having to wait until she can use my cookbooks. I come from a big Italian family of storytellers and I wanted to have a way to tell about the adventures I had with my own brother when I was a kid. We were fortunate as kids to get to travel a lot but even when we were just playing in our room, it turned into a grand adventure. Our imaginations were limitless, and I really wanted to encourage that curiosity for exploration — exploring the world as well as the kitchen!
Get recipes that will help your baby go start eating solid foods here. Plus, get everything you need for holiday baking from Shop Parents.
Spinach, Ginger, and Apple Smoothie
From Giada’s Feel Good Food
Makes 2 cups; Serves 2
1½ cups ice
½ cup water
1 medium apple, such as Fuji or Honey Crisp, peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
1 (1-inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup packed baby spinach leaves
1/3 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
Combine all of the ingredients in the blender and blend on high speed until smooth. Pour into glasses and serve.
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Friday, November 1st, 2013
We’ve all been there, walking through the grocery store while our kids ask us for colorful sodas, chips with cartoon characters on the bag, or cookies advertised on their favorite TV shows. Couldn’t they just once harangue us for a pear, or heaven forbid, some broccoli?
Now parents are getting some back-up – furry, funny back-up to be exact.
Last Wednesday at the White House, with Elmo and Rosita at her side, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have joined the Partnership for a Healthier America in an effort to make fruits and vegetables more appealing to kids. To help in that effort, Sesame Workshop has agreed to license its characters to the PMA for free for two years.
“Just imagine what will happen when we take our kids to the grocery store, and they see Elmo and Rosita and the other Sesame Street Muppets they love up and down the produce aisle,” said Mrs. Obama. “Imagine what it will be like to have our kids begging us to buy them fruits and vegetables instead of cookies, candy and chips. That’s what this new collaboration between Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association is all about.”
Through her Let’s Move campaign, the First Lady has been a longtime advocate for making nutritious foods more appealing, affordable, and accessible.
The fact that Sesame Workshop is licensing Grover, Elmo, Rosita and friends for free is important because unlike a lot of processed food manufacturers, apple, broccoli, and spinach producers don’t have scads of marketing dollars to appeal to our kids in fun commercials or by placing their products in family movies. But the PMA and Mrs. Obama are hoping that when children see a sticker of their favorite Sesame Street character on an apple or next to salad greens they will get more excited about eating a variety of healthy fruits and veggies.
There is research to back this up. Mrs. Obama cited a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. When researchers gave kids a choice between a cookie and an apple, unsurprisingly the vast majority chose the cookie. But when researchers placed an Elmo sticker on the apple, nearly twice the number of children opted for the fruit.
After the announcement Mrs. Obama, Elmo, and Rosita headed out to the White House vegetable garden where they welcomed students from four area schools to help with the fall harvest. The students dug up giant sweet potatoes, cut pumpkins from their vines, and pulled up dirt-covered carrots. Under the guidance of White House chefs the kids assembled turkey, hummus, and salad wraps. While Elmo and Rosita didn’t share the snack, they extolled their love of fresh produce, already doing their part to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Once you have your produce in the kitchen, get cooking with these easy recipes for family-friendly vegetables and delicious fruit dishes.
What do you think? Will Sesame Street characters on packaging encourage your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?
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Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013
Most of us have the best of intentions when it comes to putting a healthy, appealing dinner on the table day in and day out. But, finding no-fail recipes can be a challenge. Moms and food editors Kathleen Brennan and Caroline Campion have come to our rescue with their new cookbook Keepers. A collection of quick and easy (but interesting) recipes, the book is also a friendly guide for the beginning cook that promises to reveal the secrets to happiness in the kitchen.
Q: What is a “keeper”?
A: A keeper is a recipe that you turn to time and again because it’s foolproof, the best of its kind, and a crowd-pleaser. Most people have at least a couple keepers in their repertoire—their mom’s macaroni and cheese, a roast chicken they’ve perfected, a favorite brownie—but we wanted to give families a book filled with weeknight keepers to help them get from Monday to Friday, week after week. And we paired them with lots of tips and advice to help them become better cooks in general, too.
Q: What are some tips for moms who are just starting to cook for families?
A: Start simple. Master the basics first: a balanced vinaigrette that you can use to dress a simple green salad, warm grains, or leftover roasted vegetables; a basic tomato sauce that you can make almost as quickly as opening a jar of tomato sauce (which generally has added sugar, unpronounceable preservatives, and excessive salt); a turkey chili that you can make ahead and keep warm on the stove on those nights when everybody is eating at different times. Mastering these basics will give you an amazing head start to feeding your family!
Q: How can cooking at home help families who are on a budget?
A: This is a no-brainer: if you were to spend a week feeding your family a menu of take-out and frozen dinners and then compared the receipts with those from a supermarket shopping list for home-cooked meals (beef stir-fry, turkey tacos, chicken pot pie, pizza with store-bought dough), you would see how much you save by making dinner. Plus, you know EXACTLY what went into the food and chances are it will be healthier and more delicious. But we’re not saying that you shouldn’t ever order in pizza. In fact, we recommend giving yourself one night off from cooking Monday to Friday, whether that means serving pizza, leftovers, sandwiches, whatever.
Q: I love some of your tips, especially “season like you mean it” and “taste your food first”. Why are these so important?
A: There’s nothing worse than spending a ton of time and effort on a meal and then having it taste like sawdust because you forgot to add the salt—yet a very common mistake! And it’s easily avoidable if you taste the dish before you serve it.
Q: What is your philosophy regarding buying organic?
A: For many families, buying organic is just not in their budget, so we say buy organic when possible, but also when it counts (so organic fruit and vegetables—yes; organic ketchup and Oreos—no). We also think that eating locally can be equally important as eating organically: supporting local farmers and shopping at farmers’ markets.
Q: Is it realistic to think that kids can help cook on a busy weeknight?
A: It depends on a few things: your mood, the kids’ interest, how much time you have. Base it on what works on that particular night. At the very least, maybe they can help set the table, toss the salad, or grate the cheese, so they are involved in the process of getting dinner done but no one is making anyone crazy. But there’s nothing wrong with saving the more involved cooking-together experience for lazy Sundays.
Q: What do you do find is the most challenging part of putting nourishing and appealing meals on the table day in and day out?
A: Probably time and scheduling. We think the best strategy is to try and sketch out a plan of what you’ll be making for the week ahead of time. So if Monday is going to be particularly hectic, plan on making one of our “lay-up” recipes like angel hair pasta with spicy tomato cream sauce, and if on Wednesday you know everyone will be eating at different times—what we call a “staggered” dinnertime—prepare something that holds well on the back of the stove, like our smoky turkey chili or Japanese “meat and potatoes”. If on Thursday night you have a bit more time, then make our roasted chicken breasts with sweet potatoes and kale salad. Another strategy that helps us deal with the week ahead is to try and make a few things on Sunday that you can serve during the week: roasting a few sheet pans of vegetables or making one our “lifesavers”, sauces and dressings such as magic miso-mayo and chimichurri, that keep for several days and make anything taste better, including store-bought rotisserie chicken or leftover grains and veggies.
Q: Picture this: you’ve just made a healthy, from-scratch meal in 30 minutes. SUCCESS! And then your kids won’t touch a bite. What next?
A: Do not stress—children are unpredictable creatures! One day they will devour an entire plate of your homemade fish fingers and the next time you make the exact same dish they will tell you it “looks different” and refuse to take a bite. You can cajole them all you want—cry, beg, bribe—but once they’ve decided they don’t want something, that’s probably it. Rather than going into short-order cook mode (a habit worth avoiding) and not enjoying the meal ourselves, we say, “This is dinner. Mommy is not making anything else, and I would love for you to try it because I think you will like it.” And if this fails, we do what one experienced mom of grown kids taught us and put bread and sandwich fixings on the table and invite them to make their own sandwich.
Q: What is your goal with this cookbook?
A: There are so many resources these days for people looking for help in the kitchen. You can type the word “chicken breast recipe” into the computer and it will come up with a zillion choices. But how to find one that will actually work, not call for an ingredient you probably don’t have, tastes terrific, and can be ready before the kids start to revolt? It’s often a crapshoot. That’s where Keepers comes in: every recipe is tried-and-true, most can be made in about 35 minutes or less and none call for pricey or exotic ingredients. We share lots of advice about how to stock your pantry, how to shop, season your food, and improve leftovers. It’s meant to be your go-to resource for Monday to Friday dinners, and even better, it’s like having a knowledgeable, but fun friend alongside you in the kitchen. Now if the book could also do the dishes, you’d be all set.
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Wednesday, September 4th, 2013
Back-to-school means back to packing lunch boxes, and any parent that packs a school lunch knows that putting together a healthy, appealing meal, day in and day out, can be a daunting task. Happily, Parents contributing editor and Weelicious blogger extraordinaire Catherine McCord is here to inspire us with her new book Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box with More Than 160 Happier Meals.
Why a lunch box cookbook?
I’ve been obsessed with school lunch since my son first started preschool 4 years ago. I became fascinated with everything from the perfect lunch box to what goes inside.
How can parents encourage kids to expand their culinary horizons, especially when it comes to lunch?
The more you can get your kids involved, the better. Try taking your child to the farmers market or grocery store and let them pick out their fruit or vegetable of choice. Keep a running list of favorites. Remember that variety is the spice of life!
What should every lunch include?
I make sure that every lunch I pack has a fruit, vegetable, carbohydrate and protein with a little sweet treat too. If you send a balance of foods you’ve done your job.
Why is it important to pack a colorful lunch?
Kids eat not only with their mouths, but also with their eyes. If lunch looks interesting to the eye, it can be more exciting to eat.
How often do you include treats in the lunchbox?
I like to add a little sweet treat almost everyday. That could be homemade fruit leather or a cookie or even a few yogurt-covered pretzels.
Do you make your kids’ lunches in the morning or the night before? Is it okay to pack lunches the night before?
It always depends. Most times I get the fruit, vegetable and sweet treat ready in the lunch box the night before. Then I prepare the main event or sandwich in the morning.
What are some strategies time-strapped parents can use when it comes to making creative lunches?
Keep a list of your child’s top 10 favorite foods and make sure to have them on hand at all times. You would be surprised how many interesting, simple recipes you can come up with off that list.
How can the freezer help when it comes to lunchtime prep?
Your freezer is a total lifesaver. I freeze everything from pancakes to cookies, waffles, muffins and more. Whenever you bake pop a few items in labeled zipper bags so you can add a special treat or make pancake sandwiches when you run out of bread.
What are your kids’ hands-down favorite lunches?
That’s tough! The most requested are usually Veggie Tortilla Roll Ups, Sushi Sandwiches, Banana Dog Bites and veggies with Veg-Wee Dip. Having said that I’ve never given my kids the same lunch in 4 years, so they’re used to variety.
What doesn’t belong in a lunchbox?
White food. I really hope that lunch can be an opportunity for kids to fuel their bodies with nutritious foods.
What did you eat for lunches when you were a kid?
I ate cafeteria food every day from kindergarten through high school. I dreamed about being able to bring my own lunch. I used to skip recess to hang out with the lunch ladies. When I look back I realize I have been interested in the subject of school lunch for years and years.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
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Wednesday, August 21st, 2013
Cookbook writer Kendra Bailey Morris has a knack for creating fresh, crowd-pleasing dishes from her native South. Now, with The Southern Slow Cooker: Big Flavor, No-Fuss Recipes for Comfort Food Classics, she’s applied her culinary know-how to our favorite time-saving appliance. I had the pleasure of testing a couple of Kendra’s recipes before the book went to print, and I’m looking forward to trying many more. Recently, Kendra shared some of her best tips for slow cooker success.
Tell me what makes Southern food so special.
Southern cooking is all about nourishing the soul with homemade comfort foods that are built on tradition and family heritage. We are proud of our food and love to share it.
Why did you want to write a slow cooker cookbook?
There are three things that make the slow cooker such an amazing appliance. First, the convenience factor, as in set it, forget it, and then come home to the decadent aroma of dinner that’s ready for the table. Second, I love the versatility of the slow cooker. It goes without saying that soups, stews and chilis cook wonderfully in the slow cooker, but you can make so many other things in it, from cakes and homemade jams to cheese dips and breakfast casseroles. Finally, there is no better appliance to take to a potluck, game-day party or tailgate to keep your meatballs warm all day!
Where did you grow up and who did the cooking in your household?
I was born in West Virginia, but mainly grew up in Virginia. However, since my grannies, aunts and cousins were still in West Virginia, I spent almost as much time in the mountains as I did in central Virginia, so I proudly claim both states. Both of my grandmothers are amazing cooks, and I mean real pros, so when we sat down to dinner, there’d be 12 or 15 different made-from-scratch dishes on the table and all of them qualified for best food on earth. My mother is great cook as well, and she can make a mean batch of apple butter for canning, and don’t even try to out-bake her when it comes to pies. In fact, she helped me create and test quite a few of the recipes in the book. She should have been a co-author!
From jam to chicken stock to caramel sauce, you include some very creative slow cooker recipes in the book. Were you pleasantly surprised by any of the recipes you developed?
I was pleasantly surprised by many of the recipes in The Southern Slow Cooker, especially the chicken stock, which is now my go-to method for making it homemade. It’s so much easier and less laborious than doing it stovetop with all that skimming and stirring that takes place and tastes so much better than canned broth. In the slow cooker, you can just plop in the chicken bones, onions, carrot, celery, cook it on low 10 hours, skim off the fat and, voila!, you’ve got homemade stock. Plus, I can think of no better way to use up leftover chicken bones from a store-bought rotisserie chicken.
Did you find working with the slow cooker challenging?
The biggest challenge I found when writing The Southern Slow Cooker was balancing the amount of prep work involved so the recipes would contain mostly all-natural ingredients versus adding items such as canned soups and prepared mixes for flavor and convenience. While adding convenience foods definitely make things a lot easier in terms of prep, I wanted the recipes in this book to reflect the style of Southern food that I grew up eating, which is fresh, natural and from scratch. As a result, some of the recipes in the book require some up-front chopping, dicing, mixing or pre-browning, but I’ve discovered in terms of flavor that the end results are well worth the extra effort.
What are some tips for cooks who want to get the most out of their slow cooker?
One of the biggest problems home cooks face when slow cooking is ending up with a soup, stew or other dish that is too watery. Since slow cookers use a form of slow, damp heat, oftentimes there tends to be a lot of condensation left over. A great tip for reducing this is to layer several thick layers of paper towels over the slow cooker insert before replacing the lid. The paper towels (a dish towel works well, too) will help to absorb some of the extra liquid during the cooking process. Another great method for thickening food naturally in the slow cooker is to make a paste of one part flour and one part butter. Swirl this in the last hour of cooking to help thicken soups, stews and sauces without having to resort to cornstarch, which can get gummy. Also, season, season and season some more. Slow cooking has a tendency to dilute flavors, so seasoning with a heavy hand is often necessary.
What are your two or three favorite recipes in the book?
Oh, tough choices! If I had to pick just a few, I would have to go with the Beer-Braised Beef Po’ Boy sandwiches, the Black-Eyed Peas and Stewed Tomatoes (a classic!), and the Chocolate Banana Cheesecakes that are slow cooked in mini Mason jars.
Any recipes that are good to just plop in the slow cooker and walk away?
I’ve got a tasty recipe for Smoked Ham, Potato and Rice soup where you just dump everything in except the rice and then cook it for 8 hours. Then, during the last 15 minutes or so add the rice and serve. It’s a hearty meal that’s super easy. I’ve also got Easter ham recipes, cabbage with smoked sausage, dry mustard-rubbed chicken, turkey with cornbread dressing, green beans, pinto beans, butter beans with ham hocks, breakfast apples and cheesy grits, and they all involve little to no prep work at all.
Did you have a lot of slow cooker experience before writing this book?
I grew up slow cooking in my mom’s round vintage 70’s green and brown Rival crockpot. In fact, I still cook in it. In the past, chili, stews and soups were my usual mainstays. I’d also occasionally make grape jelly meatballs to take to a party or use the slow cooker for serving hot cider. It was only after writing this book that I discovered all the other amazing foods you can make in the slow cooker.
How important was it to you to develop recipes that are affordable?
As someone who is living on a budget, affordability is very important to me personally. Like many families, we have a set budget for food, and while I would love to nosh on lobster tail every night, we just can’t afford to do that. With The Southern Slow Cooker, I was very mindful of cost when creating recipes for the book. As a result, most of the recipes boast inexpensive cuts of meat, poultry, vegetables and pantry ingredients. Also, most of the serving sizes in the book are geared for families (serving 6-8 or more). If your family is smaller, nearly all of the recipes can be frozen and reheated later for a second meal.
How did you get into writing about food?
I got into writing about food in a roundabout way. I found the love of cooking at an early age. I recreated a Twinkie recipe when I was around 12 years old, which I guess piqued my interest in food and recipe writing. Over the years, I worked in restaurants, taught cooking classes, and did gobs of catering. During all of this, I also completed my MFA in Creative Writing and later attended culinary school for a time, which I suppose helped to morph me into a food writer. Two cookbooks later I am proud to call myself an author and look forward to writing my third book!
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Photos: Erin Kunkel © 2013
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