5 Delicious Dishes That Cook Themselves While You're at Work | Working Mother

5 Delicious Dishes That Cook Themselves While You're at Work

Like a personal chef, but a lot cheaper.

chicken parmesan

Chicken parmesan.

Joe Keller

Imagine leaving the house for work in the morning and coming home to gourmet food ready for you and your family to enjoy for dinner. Nope, this isn't just a fantasy shared by most working moms. With The Complete Slow Cooker Cookbook ($20, amazon.com) from the editors at America's Test Kitchen, you can prep tasty recipes easily and leave them to cook while you're gone for the day. Plug in your slow cooker and roll up your sleeves, because these recipes are about to become your go-to's.

squash

Maple Glazed Acorn Squash

Daniel J. van Ackere

1. Maple-Orange Glazed Acorn Squash

Why it works:
A quintessential fall vegetable, acorn squash takes forever to roast and often emerges dry and a bit grainy. In the slow cooker, however, it turns tender easily without overcooking or drying out. And as an added bonus, you can perfume it with warm spices as it cooks. Here we created a cooking base made up of water, orange juice, cloves, and cinnamon and placed the squash cut side down in this flavorful mixture. And since we think a glaze greatly enhances acorn squash, we made a quick one in the microwave by combining maple syrup with coriander, cayenne pepper, and orange zest; toasted hazelnuts provided great crunch and flavor. You will need an oval slow cooker for this recipe.

Serves: 4 to 6
Cooking time: 3 to 4 hours on low or 2 to 3 hours on high
Slow cooker size: 5 to 7 quarts

Ingredients:
2 teaspoons grated orange zest plus ½ cup juice
5 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 small acorn squashes (1 pound each), quartered pole to pole and seeded
Salt and pepper
¼ cup maple syrup
⅛ teaspoon ground coriander
Pinch cayenne pepper
¼ cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Directions:
1. Combine 1 cup water, orange juice, cloves, and cinnamon stick in slow cooker. Season squashes with salt and pepper and shingle cut side down in slow cooker. Cover and cook until squashes are tender, 3 to 4 hours on low or 2 to 3 hours on high.
2. Using tongs, transfer squashes to serving dish, brushing away any cloves that stick to squashes. Microwave maple syrup, coriander, cayenne, and orange zest in bowl until heated through, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle glaze over squashes and sprinkle with hazelnuts and parsley. Serve.

chicken parmesan

Chicken parmesan.

Joe Keller

2. Chicken Parmesan

Why it works:
Traditional chicken Parmesan, with its crispy fried-crumb coating and blanket of melted cheese, was not well-suited to the slow cooker, we soon discovered, but we were determined to make a version that was. We started with boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and to account for the moisture they gave off in the cooker, we made a super-concentrated tomato sauce. Once the chicken was cooked, we found that a reverse method was best for the coating: First, we sprinkled basil and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over the breasts in the cooker. Once the cheeses melted, we added a flavorful topping of pre-toasted panko, along with more Parmesan, basil, and oregano. You will need an oval slow cooker for this recipe. Check the chicken's temperature after 3 hours of cooking and continue to monitor until it registers 160 degrees.

Serves: 6
Cooking time: 3 to 4 hours on low
Slow cooker size: 4 to 7 quarts

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
Salt and pepper
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
6 (6- to 8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
6 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (1½ cups)
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons shredded fresh basil
⅓ cup panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

Directions:
1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook until onion is softened and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, garlic, 1½ teaspoons oregano, and pepper flakes and cook until tomato paste is rust-colored, about 4 minutes; transfer to slow cooker.
2. Stir tomatoes into slow cooker. Dissolve cornstarch in water in bowl and stir into tomato mixture. Season chicken with salt and pepper and shingle in even layer in slow cooker. Cover and cook until chicken registers 160 degrees, 3 to 4 hours on low.
3. Combine mozzarella and 2 tablespoons Parmesan in bowl. Sprinkle chicken with 2 tablespoons basil, followed by mozzarella mixture. Cover and cook on high until cheese is melted, about 5 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, toss panko with remaining 1 tablespoon oil in shallow dish. Microwave crumbs, stirring often, until deep golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Let cool slightly, then combine with parsley, remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan, remaining 1 tablespoon basil, remaining 1½ teaspoons oregano, ⅛ teaspoon salt, and ⅛ teaspoon pepper. Serve, sprinkling individual portions of chicken and sauce with bread-crumb mixture.

potatoes

Scalloped potatoes.

Carl Tremblay

3. Scalloped Potatoes

Why it works:
Tender potatoes and a smooth, creamy sauce with lots of cheese flavor are the hallmarks of well-made scalloped potatoes. They are hard enough to make perfectly in an oven, so could we find a way to make a slow-cooker version that rivaled the best an oven could offer? To start, cream and broth—plus garlic and fresh thyme—guaranteed that the sauce was rich and flavorful. To thicken it, we tried adding flour, but this led to a pasty sauce that separated. Thickening the sauce with cornstarch worked much better, ensuring our sauce stayed stable over the long cooking time; melting shredded sharp cheddar and creamy Monterey Jack into the sauce ensured a smooth texture and robust flavor. To avoid the stovetop altogether, we heated the sauce base in the microwave for a few minutes before adding the cheese. We selected russet potatoes for their fluffy texture, but they cooked unevenly: The bottom layer was tender after the cooking time, while the top remained crunchy. Giving the potatoes a head start in the microwave solved this problem, and a little cream prevented them from sticking together. Lining the side of the slow cooker with foil helped protect our casserole from burning. Extra-sharp cheddar, which becomes grainy during slow cooking, should not be substituted for the sharp cheddar. You will need an oval slow cooker for this recipe. Don't soak the potatoes in water before using or the dish will be watery.

Serves: 6 to 8
Cooking time: 4 to 5 hours on low or 3 to 4 hours on high
Slow cooker size: 5 to 7 quarts

Ingredients:
3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick
1¼ cups heavy cream
1¼ cups vegetable or chicken broth
4½ tablespoons cornstarch
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
3 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (¾ cup)
3 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (¾ cup)
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Directions:
1. Line slow cooker with aluminum foil collar and lightly coat with vegetable oil spray. Microwave potatoes with 2 tablespoons cream in large covered bowl, stirring occasionally, until nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes; let cool slightly.
2. Whisk remaining cream, broth, cornstarch, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper together in medium bowl. Microwave, whisking occasionally, until mixture is thickened, about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in ½ cup cheddar and ½ cup Monterey Jack until melted.
3. Gently fold cheese mixture into potatoes. Transfer potato-cheese mixture to prepared slow cooker and press gently to compress layers. Grease 16 by 12-inch sheet of parchment paper and press firmly onto potatoes, folding down edges as needed. Cover and cook until potatoes are tender, 4 to 5 hours on low or 3 to 4 hours on high.
4. Discard parchment and foil collar. Sprinkle potatoes with remaining ¼ cup cheddar and remaining ¼ cup Monterey Jack. Cover and let sit until cheese is melted, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with chives and serve. (Potatoes can be held on warm or low setting for up to 2 hours).

chili

Beef chili.

Daniel J. van Ackere

4. Beef Chili

Why it works:
Gently simmered ground beef chili is certainly well suited for the slow cooker, but achieving the characteristic rich flavors and tender meat can be a challenge. To develop the all-American chili we were looking for, we started with the base, choosing a combination of diced and pureed tomatoes to create the proper consistency. Next, we incorporated a generous combination of chili powder, cumin, oregano, and red pepper flakes, bumping up the flavors even further with smoky chipotles. Browning the beef to develop flavor is standard in most traditional chilis, but this produced overcooked, gritty meat in the slow cooker. To fix this, we found mixing the raw beef with a panade—a mixture of bread and milk often used in meatballs—before browning it worked wonders. We also stirred in a little soy sauce to help boost the meaty flavor—maybe a tad unconventional for chili, but it worked. Serve with your favorite chili garnishes.

Serves: 8 to 10
Cooking time: 6 to 7 hours on low or 4 to 5 hours on high
Slow cooker size: 5 to 7 quarts

Ingredients:
2 slices hearty white sandwich bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup whole milk
Salt and pepper
2 pounds 85 percent lean ground beef
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 onions, chopped fine
¼ cup chili powder
¼ cup tomato paste
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
¾ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 (28-ounce) can tomato puree
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 (15-ounce) cans red kidney beans, rinsed
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons minced canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce

Directions:
1. Mash bread, milk, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper into paste in large bowl using fork. Add ground beef and knead with hands until well combined.
2. Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions and cook until softened and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in chili powder, tomato paste, garlic, cumin, oregano, and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
3. Add half of beef mixture and cook, breaking up beef with wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Repeat with remaining beef mixture. Stir in 1 cup tomato puree, scraping up any browned bits; transfer to slow cooker.
4. Stir remaining tomato puree, diced tomatoes and their juice, beans, soy sauce, sugar, and chipotle into slow cooker. Cover and cook until beef is tender, 6 to 7 hours on low or 4 to 5 hours on high.
5. Using large spoon, skim fat from surface of chili. Break up any remaining large pieces of beef with spoon. Adjust consistency with hot water as needed. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

bolognese

Mushroom bolognese.

Daniel J. van Ackere

5. Mushroom Bolognese

Why it works:
For a vegetarian take on classic Bolognese with long-cooked flavor, we turned to mushrooms, deciding on cremini for their firm texture and porcini for savory flavor. To keep things simple, we used the food processor to chop the cremini and the vegetables. Since mushrooms take on more flavor when browned, and because there is no opportunity for evaporation in a slow cooker, we sautéed them and the other vegetables in a skillet to drive off excess moisture and build flavor. We first tried tomato puree as the tomato base for our sauce, but we found it was a little too thick; the mushrooms required more liquid in which to cook. We discovered that processing whole peeled tomatoes gave us the extra liquid we needed while keeping the fresh tomato flavor. Finishing this hearty sauce with a little heavy cream helped smooth out any sharpness and gave it a nice creaminess, and parsley and lemon juice brightened it up.

Makes about 6 cups; enough for 2 pounds pasta
Cooking time: 7 to 8 hours on low or 4 to 5 hours on high
Slow cooker size: 4 to 7 quarts

Ingredients:
2 pounds cremini mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed and minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
½ cup dry red wine
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 bay leaf
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Chopped fresh parsley

Directions:
1. Working in batches, pulse cremini mushrooms in food processor until pieces are no larger than ½ inch, 5 to 7 pulses; transfer to large bowl. Pulse onion and carrot in now-empty processor until finely chopped, 5 to 7 pulses; transfer to bowl with mushrooms. Pulse tomatoes and their juice in again-empty processor until almost smooth, 6 to 8 pulses; set aside in separate bowl.
2. Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add processed vegetables and porcini mushrooms, cover, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook until vegetables are dry and browned, 12 to 14 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, garlic, and oregano and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in wine, scraping up any browned bits, and simmer until nearly evaporated, about 3 minutes; transfer to slow cooker.
3. Stir tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt, sugar, ½ teaspoon pepper, and bay leaf into slow cooker. Cover and cook until sauce is deeply flavored, 7 to 8 hours on low or 4 to 5 hours on high.
4. Discard bay leaf. Stir in cream and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Before serving, stir in 2 tablespoons parsley for every 3 cups sauce.

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