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Everyday Chef: How To Cook Vegetable-Centered Dinners using a Slow Cooker

I didn’t fully understand the power of a slow cooker until my first job after graduate school. Long hours and a hefty commute meant arriving home well after 8PM with just enough energy to heat up something from the freezer or indulge in leftovers- again. To help, my mom sent me her used slow cooker and a spiral bound notebook filled with healthy, crock-pot friendly recipes. That gift ended up being my meal saver. I’d prep ingredients at night, throw everything in before I left, and arrive home to an aromatic dinner that I couldn’t wait to dig into.

Even now, almost a decade later, I still use my slow cooker on almost a weekly basis. Its effortless ability to create satisfying, delicious meals keeps me coming back time and time again. Here are my tips for creating flavorful, vegetable-centered recipes using a slow cooker … and three must-try dishes.

Tips for Using a Slow Cooker

  1. Forget Frozen Food. A slow cooker is a great way to enjoy combined vegetable and meat dishes, but make sure the meat is thawed first. Since slow cookers don’t heat quickly enough, frozen food will stay in the danger zone of bacteria for too long. (40-140° F).
  2. Make Room. For best results, fill a slow cooker between one-half and two-thirds full. You want enough room for steam to rise and for contents to marry.
  3. Layer Ingredients. For even cooking, cut food into uniform-size pieces. If you are cooking vegetables and meat together, place root vegetables in a layer at the bottom of the pot and place meat on top. For more delicate vegetables, add them last.
  4. End Fresh. A sprinkle of fresh herbs or bright acid can go a long way in adding flavor, especially with long-cooked recipes
  5. Precooking Can Boost Flavor. While the slow cooker is designed to make meals as easy as possible, you can add another depth of flavor by sautéing vegetables first, before adding them to the crock. This is especially true with aromatics like onion and garlic.

Slow-Cooker Vegetable Curry

Slow-Cooker Vegetable Curry

Ingredients
2 tbsp. red curry paste (I like Thai Kitchen brand)
1 cup canned coconut milk
½ tbsp. creamy peanut butter
2 cups vegetable broth
1 tbsp. maple syrup
4 scallions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips
1 green bell pepper, sliced into strips
2 cups chickpeas
1 cup sliced carrots
1 tbsp. freshly minced ginger
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 thai chili, thinly sliced (or more if you want more heat)
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
⅓ cup thai basil

Directions
Whisk together the red curry paste with coconut milk and peanut butter until smooth. Place into the base of a slow cooker and add the rest of the ingredients.

Cook on low for 6 hours.

Serve over cooked brown rice, quinoa, or noodles.

Sweet and Spicy Peppers and Meatballs

Sweet and Spicy Peppers and Meatballs
Ingredients
1 tbsp. olive oil
½ white onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, seeds removed, sliced thin
1½ cups plain tomato sauce
1/2 cup 100% pure maple syrup
2 tbsp. corn starch
2 tsp. ground all spice
⅛ tsp. liquid smoke (optional)
1 can diced pineapple, drained, ? cup liquid reserved
1 bag frozen meatballs (regular or vegetarian, use ones that are already pre-cooked)
Cooked rice for serving

Directions
In a small saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and let cook until translucent and tender, about 5 minutes. Add in the peppers and let cook another 5 minutes.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the cornstarch, maple syrup, pineapple juice, tomato sauce, allspice and liquid smoke, if using.

Add the cooked pepper mixture into the crockpot along with the prepared sauce.

Stir in the meatballs and diced pineapple.

Cover and let cook on high for 2-3 hours or on low for 5-6 hours.

Sauce should be reduced and thick, meatballs heated all the way through.
Serve over cooked rice.

Slow Cooker Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili

Slow Cooker Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili
Ingredients
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped red onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 green pepper, chopped
2 jalapenos, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
4 cups chopped butternut squash
1 tablespoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed
3 cups vegetable broth (regular or low-sodium)
1 28oz. can diced tomatoes, with juice
Chili toppings, if desired

Directions
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until tender. Stir in the minced garlic cloves and chopped bell pepper and cook for another 2-3 minutes, until pepper is soft.

Stir in the balsamic vinegar to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bites on the bottom of the pan.

Add the cooked pepper and onion mixture to the slow cooker along with the butternut squash, chili powder, cayenne, cumin, cinnamon, black beans, broth and tomatoes with juice.

Turn to high and cook for 5-6 hours until butternut squash is very soft and chili is thick.

Photo Credit: Alex Caspero

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