Crock Pot Cooking – Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

First, an apology: It’s been far too long since I’ve written a new blog. No excuses, but my only explanation is that my freelance writing career has demanded all of my time and I’ve been swimming in work since approximately mid-April. Hurray!

One project I was working on was a book on crock pot cooking. The project eventually collapsed due to, ahem, creative differences with the client but I suddenly find myself with more than 100 crock pot recipes, some of which I’ve already photographyed.

Hence, a new feature at Budget Cooking Blog: Crock Pot Cooking.

I’ve written many times about the convenience of using a crock pot, such as this blog, this blog and, oh yes, this blog. The best thing about the crock pot is that you just set it and forget it, and at the end of the day you not only have a delicious meal that will feed your family for days, but your entire home is filled with a lush, mouth-watering aroma.

This particular recipe is one of my favorites: Italian Sauasage in Tomato Sauce. The combination of slow-cooking the sauce and the addition of roasted garlic-flavored tomato paste really brings out the acidity in this sauce, but it is nicely balanced with the sweetness of the sugar and is given complexity by the oregano and fennel.

While enjoying this classic appetier, it’s easy to imagine yourself dining al fresco along Mulberry Street in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood, watching as the parade of people pass by.

While this would be wonderful as an entree served over pasta, I like to serve it as an appetizer over hard polenta. The primary difference between hard polenta and soft polenta is that the former is made with water and the latter with dairy, such as milk, cream or whatever you happen to have on hand.

Hard polenta — which is not actually hard but is poured out onto a sheet pan and allowed to set up — can be cut into any shape you like, which gives you a lot of versatility for plating. It also can be pan fried or even grilled if you would like some additional color and flavor.

Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

1 lb Spicy Italian Sausage, either bulk or casings removed

1 small Red Onion, small dice

1 Carrot, peeled, small dice

1 Red Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes with Italian Seasonings

6 oz can Tomato Paste with Roasted Garlic

1 tsp Dried Oregano, or 1/2 tsp fresh

1 tsp Fennel Seeds

1 tsp Granulated Sugar

1/4 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

6 oz Hard Polenta (recipe follows), cut into any shape you like

1. Put cast iron skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add sausage, onion, carrot and bell pepper. Cook until sausage is browned, about 7 to 8 minutes, breaking up the sausage as it cooks.

2. Transfer sausage mixture into crock pot. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, fennel seeds, sugar and black pepper. Cook and cover until mixture simmers and thickens, about 4 to 6 hours on low or 2 to 3 hours on high.

To plate, arrange polenta on an appetizer plate then use a kitchen spoon to ladle a generous portion of the sausage mixture over half the polenta, leaving the other half exposed. Garnish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a sprig of parsley.

Hard Polenta

4 cups Water

1 cup Polenta (coarsely ground corn meal)

1 TBS Whole Unsalted Butter

3 TBS Grated Parmesan Cheese

1/2 tsp Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

1. Bring water to a boil then slowly whisk in polenta, stirring constantly so that it doesnt clump. Reduce heat and cook until polenta thickens to the point where it pulls away from the walls of the pot, about 12 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.

2. When thick, turn off heat and fold in butter and parmesan. Season with pepper. You don’t need to add any salt because the parmesan already is quite salty.

Let the polenta cool for a few minutes, then pour it out onto a greased baking sheet smoothing it with a spatula to create an even level. Let it cool completetly at least an hour. You can then use a knife to cut the polenta into triangles, stars, circles or whatever shape you want. These polenta peices can be grilled or sauteed, or stored in your refrigerator or freezer for another time.

For creamy polenta, substitute dairy such as milk, half and half or heavy cream for the water and kick up the butter to 1-1/2 TBS or more, depending on how rich you like it.

My apologies once again for my absence. I have missed writing this blog and am looking forward to sharing more easy, delicious and inexpensive recipes in the coming weeks and months.

Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

As the weather begins to get warmer, I begin a desperate effort to make just a few more crock pot recipes before it’s time to put it away for the season.

There’s really nothing preventing me from using the crock pot during the summer months, but it just doesn’t feel right. It would be like buying a snow shovel in July.

My crock pot is great for the winter, but it’s even better during these in between times, when the temperature is warming, yet still crisp enough to send a chill down your neck.

It’s precisely these kinds of days when a warm soup slowly stewing in the crock pot brings the most comfort. Mix up a batch of jalapeno cornbread just before dinner is served and you have the perfect dinner for a cool mid-Spring evening.

Like most crock pot recipes, this soup is extremely economical. Of course, beans and the produce cost next to nothing, but in this soup I used ham scraps leftover from a long ago meal that have been waiting patiently in the freezer for precisely this moment.

You also could use a leftover ham bone or a smoked ham hock. Or simply leave the ham out altogether for a delightful vegetarian dinner soup.

I used Cannellini beans because they are a little larger than Great Northerns and I think they give the soup a little more substance.

If you haven’t used it before, escarole is a type of rough lettuce, kind of like a mix between green leaf lettuce and kale. I don’t generally make a salad out of it on its own because it has a little too much texture, but it is perfect for fortifying other salad greens or throwing into a soup like this one.

Escarole adds an iron-rich flavor that is similar to spinach but not as strong.

Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

1 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 Medium white onion, diced

2 Carrots, peeled and diced

2 Celery stalks, leaves included, diced

8 oz Ham, small dice

2  cans Cannellini beans, drained

1/2 head Escarole lettuce, rough chop

16 oz Low-fat, low-sodium chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

1 tsp Dried thyme

1 tsp Dried basil

1 clove Garlic, crushed

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Place cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrot and celery. This combination of vegetables is called a mirepoix (MEER-eh-pwah) and is the basis for many soup recipes. Saute until onions are translucent, about five minutes, then add ham and saute another two minutes. Add garlic, saute another minute, then add to crock pot.

2. Add to crock pot the beans, thyme, basil and stock. Set dial to low and cook for about seven hours. During the final hour of cooking, stir in the escarole. Continue cooking on low for another hour. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

This very basic soup recipe can be transformed into any number of variations by adding or substituting different types of beans, proteins, seasonings and even greens.

You can even add pastas, such as elbow macaroni or orzo, and a little crushed tomato if you want to make a  more traditional Italian soup.

 

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Chicken

In my house, winter time means crock pot time.

We probably use the crock pot at least once per week from mid-October until the beginning of March. Crock pot cooking is super cost effective because you can use cheaper, tougher cuts of meat. The long, slow cooking time does the work of breaking down all the connective tissues.

Crock pot cooking also is time efficient because once you load the crock pot with whatever you are making, you don’t have to worry about it again until it’s ready. I like to prepare my crock pot meal the night before and refrigerate it. That way, in the morning, I just pop the crock into the pot, turn it on and forget about it.

Basically, a crock pot is just a big, thick ceramic pot that fits into a heating element. The way it works is that a low heat is distributed evenly throughout the sides and bottom of the pot, slowly cooking whatever is inside. It is almost impossible to burn something in a crock pot.

If you don’t already have one, buying a crock pot should not be a big investment. I’ve seen them available in the $20-$30 range. Ours has a lot of bells and whistles, and it only set us back about $45. For the use it gives us, that’s a bargain!

This crock pot BBQ pulled chicken recipe is a variation on a pork recipe I also make in the crock pot. The chicken version uses a store-bought BBQ sauce and beer. For the pulled pork loin recipe you kind of make your own BBQ sauce right there in the pan. I’ll post that one soon, I promise.

This is great served on whole wheat buns and tastes even better the next day, once the flavors have time to get to know each other. I always serve BBQ with lots of pickles on the side because the vinegar helps cut the fatty, sugary taste of the BBQ sauce.

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Chicken

2-3 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts (frozen is fine)

2 TBS EVOO

1 white onion, sliced

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper

12 oz beer (any kind)

18 oz jar smoky barbeque sauce (thinner is better than thicker)

1. Put cast iron pan on the fire. Meanwhile, season chicken on both sides with onion powder, granulated garlic, paprika and S&P. When pan is hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add chicken breasts one a time, being careful not to splash yourself with the hot oil. Sear both sides, about 2 minutes each side, and place into crock pot.

2. Let pan get hot again, then add the other TBS of EVOO. When smoking, add onions and sautee until slightly carmelized, stirring frequently, about 5 minutees. Pour onions over chicken, then add BBQ sauce and beer and stir together.

3. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, stirring if you happen to walk by. After about 6 hours, you should be able to pull chicken apart into strings using two forks. Serve on whole wheat burger buns. Don’t forget the pickles.

What are some of your favorite crock pot recipes? Let everyone in on the action by sharing them in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!