~ "Winner Winner Crock-Pot Dinner": A Scrumptious, Slow-Cooked, Sweet Potato & Ground Beef Chili ~
I am as surprised as you are. I make no bones about the fact that I am not a crock-pot kind-a girl. I've searched my soul trying to find something exemplary to say about these one-pot cooking wonders. My experiences are limited, as after a few tries with several brands over thirty-five years, always finding the results to be lack-luster (the protein always chewy or stringy, the vegetables often mushy, and an unusually large amount of liquid in the final product), I shelved mine... all eight of them! EIGHT??? You know me, there is always a story...
Meet my very first "crock-pot", made by West Bend. I got it as a wedding shower gift in 1974. I have two others identical to it... my mother gave me hers and my girlfriend Sally gave me hers (when they each decided that crockery cookery was not their gig either). All three still work "perfectly". What fun to welcome this old friend on my countertop again today!
The slow-cooker was originally invented by Chicago's Irving Naxon (Naxon Utilities Corporation). It was introduced, in August 1970, as the Naxon All-Purpose Cooker, or Beanery. As the story goes, Irving was a great inventor but lacked marketing skills and his bean machine flopped. Later that same year, the Rival company bought Naxon and reintroduced the product in 1971 under the Crock-Pot name.
Shortly after I got married in 1974, the crock-pot craze occurred. Just in time for Christmas, Rival introduced removable stoneware inserts to the product. Guess what was on my wish list that year? Yep.
Fast forward to the late '80's and early '90's, which was when I made peace with crock-pots, meaning: I found a use for them. There was a 6-year period of time when I was the President of The Penn State Tennis Club and The PSU Varsity Tennis Booster Club. While entertaining is not a requirement of being president of either, the ability to do so is definitely an asset. We hosted tailgates for all home matches and tournaments. While I didn't cook in the crock-pots, I found them a useful tool for keeping all sorts of things warm at "the club" (which had no kitchen facilities at all). I bought four more. Four + four = eight, and when your hosting an indoor tennis activity for 125+ people, plus, two teams of hungry athletes, eight crock-pots come in handy!
Enter #9!?! My ability to acquire kitchen appliances never ceases to amaze my husband. When I started Kitchen Encounters a little over a year ago, I knew my personal repertoire of over 800 signature recipes would see me through at least 3-4 years of blogging. What I wasn't prepared for were requests for crock-pot recipes. So, what does a woman with no blog-worthy crock-pot recipes and eight crock-pots do? She buys another crock-pot. Hear me out: Crock-pot technology has changed a lot, and, as a recipe developer, I always want an up-to-date understanding of what is on the market. And, if someone had perfected the crock-pot, I figured it had to be All-Clad... and this my friends is the mother of all crock-pots!
Now all I needed was a recipe. I had watched my son Jess make delicious chili in his Cuisinart crock-pot (which I bought for him) over the Summer. I was well-aware of this recipe's likability factor... as long as one could overcome the typical crock-pot, end-result shortcomings (mentioned above), and, Jess gave me some great tips. I had Jess's perfected recipe, in hand and ready to blog, when I decided this was not where I wanted to head with this post:
Is it the crock-pot per se or the cryptic way crock-pot recipes are written ("place ingredients in pot, turn on and cook 8 hours") that makes eating slow-cooked food compromising to me? By compromising I mean: You turn the thing on in the morning, leave the house, return 8 hours later and are so happy to have hot food you are willing to overlook and forgive texture and appearance? Tasting good is a given or no one would buy these appliances. My two cents: Crock-pots are not all they are crocked up to be. There are just some things they can't do as well as your oven or stovetop. They were invented to cook stone-hard, dry beans... so doesn't cooking an entire dinner in one, using a variety of various-textured meats and vegetables seem like taking a leap of faith to you? It seems to me that a marvelously marketed machine, rather than a well-thought-out method of cooking, with well-written recipes to accompany it, has left a lot of us staring at a lot of crock-pots that we are not feeling the love for.
So, two days ago I randomly internet-searched a bunch of slow-cooker chili recipes. I made myself forget my knowledge of food. My goal was to choose a recipe like "normal" people do. I hit upon one that appealed to me and appeared, as per its picture, to be perfectly-cooked. Since I am about to announce that it turned out a greasy, with mushy vegetables and too much liquid, I don't think crediting the site would be appropriate or appreciated. That being said, it was edible. On a positive note, I did like the recipe writer's basic spice blend (although I added 3 more spices to it to please my palate). I then set out to break the crock-pot code, using this same recipe, and develop a well-written version that would work in any crock-pot it was cooked in. Whatever I came up with would have to be something I would make again, serve to a perfect stranger without regret, and, more importantly, publish:
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 40-ounce can red-skinned kidney beans, undrained
1 14-ounce can black beans, well-drained and rinsed (optional) (Note: I liked this chili without the black beans better, so I made them an optional ingredient, but the original recipe included them, which I thought was noteworthy. The choice is yours.)
8 ounces yellow or sweet onion, large-diced
3 7-8-ounce sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 3/4"-1" chunks
4 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons Santa Fe Seasons chile blend, or 2 tablespoons Mexican-style chili powder
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1-1 1/2 pounds ground sirloin (95/5), 1 pound if adding black beans to recipe, 1 1/2 pounds if not adding black beans to recipe
Note: Error on the side of the onion and sweet potatoes being chopped too large. The original recipe didn't indicate this, and after the cooking process they were almost non-existent.
~ Step 2. Using a large spoon, stir all of the ingredients together. Wipe any drips from the rim of the crock-pot and place the lid on. Cook on high for 1 hour. In the meantime:
Adjust heat to saute, stirring constantly while breaking the meat up into large chunks with the side of a spoon or spatula until just cooked through, about 6-8 minutes. Do not brown. Remove from heat. Drain thoroughly and stir meat into chili.
~ Step 4. After the first hour of cooking on high, give the mixture a thorough stir, change the temperature to low, cover, and continue to cook for about 5 hours, stirring occasionally, or until sweet potatoes are cooked through/done to your liking, or as long as 5 1/2 hours. Why does this timing vary? It depends on how large you diced your sweet potatoes!
Special Equipment List: crock-pot; large spoon; cutting board; chef's knife; 10" skillet
Cook's Note: For me, the consistency of this chili was perfect. If, however, due to circumstances beyond your control, your chili is not as thick as you would like it, here is a trick I learned from my son Jesse: Crush a few tortilla chips and stir them into the chile, a few tablespoons at a time (2-4), giving them about 5-6 minutes to thicken the chili before adding any more to thicken it even more! Yummo!!!
1 pound sweet or hot sausage
to the ground beef in the skillet, plus:
1 cup each: coarsely chopped (3/4") green & red bell pepper
to the initial mixture in the crock-pot!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011)