(photo: Tim Patterson)
When you’re up to your eyeballs in work projects, after-school activities and a mile-long daily to-do list, it’s comforting to know that a meal is taken care of without need for takeout menus or a trip to the drive through.
The magic kitchen solution: a slow cooker. The versatile gadget is as useful for whipping up hot punches and oatmeal as it is for soups, stews and simmered roasts. Using it is as simple as tossing in a few ingredients and then swinging back to check on things in eight hours or so. That time factor can also lead to smaller grocery bills: even cheap, tough cuts of meat get tender, and inexpensive dried beans come into their full flavor.
As with our earlier $10 challenges (our first “hearty meals for four under $10” challenge, our “vegetarian” one, the $10 holiday recipes and, finally, our romantic dishes under $10 Valentine’s Day edition), we asked food and finance bloggers, as well as chefs and home cooks, to send in their best suggestions; this time, for a favorite meal that can be prepared in a slow cooker. A few of those earlier challenge recipes fit the bill, too.
(All cost estimates are based on non-sale New York City supermarket prices. If it’s a cheap meal in NYC, we figure cooks in most other places in the country will spend even less. Prices are also adjusted for quantity: if a recipe calls for half an onion, you’ll probably find something to do with the other half. Finally, estimates don’t take into account basic ingredients you likely already have, like flour, olive oil or dried spices.)
Caramel rice pudding
Cost: $1.50, or $0.19 per serving
Somebody’s Mother’s Chocolate Sauces has been testing this recipe for the brand. Rinse three-quarters of a cup of long-grain rice and place in a lightly greased slow cooker. Add three cups milk, three-quarters of a cup of granulated sugar, a teaspoon ground cinnamon and a half cup of caramel sauce. Cover and cook on high for two and a half hours, or until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid. Top dessert portions with more caramel sauce.
Cost: $2.15, or $0.36 per serving
Frugal Foodie makes some version of this oatmeal every Sunday, to have almost a full workweek’s worth of breakfasts ready to go. Just mix a cup of steel cut oats in a slow cooker with four cups water, two cups milk, a dash of cinnamon and one cup raisins. Cook on low heat overnight. Stir in a quarter cup brown sugar before serving. To keep things interesting, Frugal Foodie experiments with different add-ins. Favorite attempts so far: dried cherries, and a combination of dried cranberries and shredded coconut.
Cost: $5.10, or $1.28 per serving
Taste of Home’s version uses evaporated milk and condensed cheddar cheese soup to add extra oomph.
Apple curry chicken
Cost: $5.78, or $1.45 per serving
Ashley DiVeronica of GlutenFreeAppetite.com combines four boneless chicken breasts, one diced apple, one chopped onion and three red potatoes cut into chunks along with two tablespoons curry powder and a tablespoon olive oil. Cook on low for six hours.
Simple slow-cooker chicken
Cost: $7, or $1.75 per serving
Rinse clean a whole chicken large enough to fit in your slow cooker and place it inside. Sprinkle with paprika, curry powder, turmeric, salt and pepper, and then drizzle honey on top. Cook on low heat for eight hours. If she’s cooking this on a weekend, Frugal Foodie flips the chicken after four hours, and spices the other side.
Slow-cooker sausage and beans
Cost: $7.98, or $2 per serving
Maureen Smithe of Homemade Mothering adds sage to her slow-cooker recipe to add a peppery flavor.
Chicken noodle soup
Cost: $8.39, or $2.10 per serving
Season three boneless chicken breasts well with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder, and place in the slow cooker, says Dawn Billesbach of MenufortheWeek.com. Top with an onion, two stalks of celery, three carrots and two cloves of garlic, all chopped. In a medium saucepan, melt half a stick of butter. Stir in a half a cup of flour, two 14-ounce cans of chicken broth, and two cups of milk. Pour into slow cooker. Cook on low for eight hours. Before serving, shred chicken and return to pot. Prepare a bag of egg noodles according to package directions. Serve soup over noodles.
Babycakes beef with mashed potatoes
Cost: $8.50, or $2.13 per serving
“This is my Mom’s recipe and it is by far the best comfort food you can get in the Midwest,” says Christianne Weaver. Cut two and a half pounds of boneless round steaks into serving-size pieces and place in slow cooker. Combine two envelopes dry onion soup mix, one can condensed cream of mushroom soup and a half cup of water. Pour over beef. Cover and cook on low for six hours, and then add four potatoes (your choice – mashed, microwaved or simply chopped and dropped in the pot). Cook for another hour and a half, until meat is tender.
Fresh veggie lasagna
Cost: $9.65, or $2.41 per serving
Luann Alemao, who hosts the show “Get Fit” in Cedar Falls, Iowa, cites this as one of her viewers’ favorite — and healthy — recipes. Spray slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray, set aside. In a small bowl, mix together a half-cup shredded mozarella, a half-cup ricotta, a third of a cup of Parmesan, one beaten egg, a half teaspoon oregano and garlic powder to taste. Dive one zucchini and set aside. Chop one cup mushrooms and set aside. Shred enough carrots to yield a half cup, and set aside. To layer the lasagna, place two tablespoons of pasta sauce in the bottom of the slow cooker. Sprinkle half of the zucchini over the sauce and top with a third of a cup of the cheese mixture. Break two lasagna noodles into pieces to cover cheese. Repeat, subbing in the carrots, mushrooms and some bagged spinach for the zucchini in alternate layers. Ending with the cheese, and any remaining sauce. Cover and cook over low heat for five hours. Allow lasagna to rest 20 minutes before cutting into wedges to serve.
Cost: $9.88, or $1.65 per serving
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.