I started cooking tuna casserole for myself when I was ten, have two parents who enjoy cooking and grew up helping out in kitchens of multiple family members. Needless to say, I know my way around a kitchen. I now have a family of five, cook for large gatherings and do all the spreads—Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, dinner parties, birthdays, BBQ’s, you name it. Some go better than others, but I’ve done them and I’ve come to rely on some tried and true staples over the years. Don’t expect anything too fancy pants. I’m a very basic cook. I use basic items, basic tools and basic recipes. I can use fancy, complicated tools and cook fancy, complicated meals, but at this particular moment in my life, the simpler the better.
You probably have every single one of these items already, but I wanted to shine some light on them, give you a few new tricks and share some recipes you can use with them. Maybe you don’t have them—no problem—I’ve linked my favorites in case you feel moved to snag one or two. I actually have a list of about twenty items to share with you, but I write like I talk (which is a lot), so out of respect for you and to keep this blog shorter than Middlemarch, let’s start with five.
Hi my name is Lauren and I have a Crock-Pot addiction. Check my butler’s pantry and there you will find one in all different sizes—extra small, small, medium, medium large, large, extra large. I even have a triple buffet server. Clearly, I’m Crock-Pot crazy and should be hired as a spokesperson. Yes, I know all the rage right now is the Instant Pot and it does all these fancy schmancy things, “pressure cooks meat, steams rice, sautés vegetables, makes yogurt, cleans your house and folds the laundry all from the push of a button!” Truth is, I love my Crock-Pot and I won’t be jumping ship anytime soon. Why? It’s so stinking easy. Have you seen that Instant Pot? I mean, it’s terrifying. I’ve looked at them and there are all these buttons and steps and programming and a manual I’d have to read in my spare time (HA, spare time). It’s a tad too intimidating for this old gal. With a Crock-Pot, you dump it in, turn a dial (the only dial) and off you go.
I’m all about delegating in life. I delegate meals to my Crock-Pot. She’s like my in-home chef. I get the groceries, give her the ingredients and she cooks them for me, perfectly. I’ve used a Crock-Pot from my post-college days to feeding a family of five. It’s not the Instant Pot that turns water into wine, but you can cook roasts, stews, sauces, soups, casseroles, breakfasts, desserts, and even create scents for your home in them. For a curveball you weren’t expecting, I even use it to keep the towels warm for my foot spas and facials. There are digital ones now too, if that’s your thing, although I prefer the old-school dial. The dishwasher-safe cleanup is life. Plus—and this is a big plus for me—at around $30.00 for a 6-quart, they are much cheaper than the $100.00 6-quart Instant Pot.
Here’s the key to really maxing-out the Crock-Pot. Prep your meal early. I like prepping it early in the morning when I’m still only a cup of coffee in and half asleep. I turn it on low and next thing I know, it’s 4PM and my home smells like a delicious home-cooked meal and I almost completely forget I made it earlier that morning. When I used to work outside the home, there was nothing better than coming home and smelling a delicious meal cooking away and knowing I didn’t have to prepare dinner. Don’t be afraid to use it in the summer, too. I don’t know why everyone tucks it in for the summer like it’s a hibernating bear. It doesn’t heat up your home like an oven does and aren’t we even busier in the summer? All the more reason to utilize it.
If you don’t have a Crock-Pot, start with a 6-quart. You should be safe with that size. You can find the one I have here: https://amzn.to/2jYJpkg
So dust off your crockpot or break-in your new one and try this recipe from Better Homes & Gardens. It’s Kurtis’s favorite spaghetti sauce, family-friendly, incredibly simple and tasty: https://www.bhg.com/recipe/sauces/spaghetti-sauce-italiano/
2.) Multi-Tier Food Steamer
I’ll never forget the time I saw my mother-in-law steaming corn cobs in her two-tier steamer. I was horrified. I’m an Iowa girl. I was raised on Fincel’s corn. You boiled it or grilled it. But then I saw how seamless and easy it was and the corn was perfectly cooked and delicious. I went out the next day and bought my own and the love affair started.
Steamers weren’t big in my family’s kitchen growing up, and I don’t remember eating a whole lot of steamed food. This new double-decker steaming process was a fun new adventure. Asparagus? Steam it. Green Beans? Steam them. Rice? Steam it with that little insert thinger. Asparagus AND Green beans? Heck yes, just utilize a basket for each. So easy, so quick. I, too, turned into a corn steamer and with the two-tier option I can steam multiple ears at a time to feed our corn loving family.
The greatest discovery came, yet again, from my savvy mother-in-law. That steamer could be used for crab legs. Yes. I just went there. It’s one of my favorite treats to prepare and I’ve perfected it over the years. Here’s how: Grab crab legs from the store. I usually get them frozen from Costco or Sam’s because they are priced well, but you can get them however and wherever you prefer. Where you typically fill your water in the steamer, pour in white wine. Oh yes, that’s right. You are steaming them in white wine. I usually have a Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay on hand, but you can use any white wine you want. Fill it to the top of the steamer fill line and pour yourself a glass of wine with the rest. Place your crab legs in the steaming basket(s). If you need to use both baskets and stack them, go for it. I cut up a couple of lemons and squirt some lemon juice overtop of them and then put slices of lemons in with the legs for flavor while they steam. Set the timer for at least 15-20 minutes but check them sooner. You will know they are done when you can start smelling crab and you can always test them and put them back in if needed. It’s usually ten minutes or so depending on quantity and if they are fresh or frozen. They cook beautifully, are flavorful and absolutely elegant.
I couldn’t find my exact steamer (which is slightly terrifying) but this one is similar and priced well with good reviews: https://bit.ly/2jYnSrZ
3.) Glass Kettle
I never purchased a bottle warmer when I had Tia. The wipe warmer we purchased was the biggest waste of money ever, and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake with another warming gadget. I figured I could easily warm my glass bottles the old-fashioned(ish) way—by heating up water in a measuring cup and then putting the bottle in it to warm. Was it as fast? Maybe not as fast as a warmer, but still efficient. Did it work? You bet it did. It worked well through two babies at least, until that ill-fated morning in November with Carolyn.
It was 5AM and Carolyn was ready for her bottle. I was still recovering from my third c-section, groggy, overtired and dreaming back to the good old days when I got seven hours of sleep a night. I gimped into the kitchen while Carolyn was in her swing, poured some tap water into a glass measuring cup, punched in a few minutes on the microwave keypad and stuck the cup in to heat. Catching the microwave before it beeped so as not to wake anyone else in the house, I grabbed the glass cup out of it and quickly stuck the glass bottle into the cup. It exploded…all over my face. I was positive I had permanently burned my face and that pieces of my skin were likely dripping off. I screamed, ran to the bathroom and immediately drenched my face with cold water. I was too afraid to look in the mirror for fear I had blistered and burned off my eyebrows and lashes. So many tears. I was drowning from splashing so much water on my face, choking as it shot up my nose and sobbing into the sink. It was one of those finer mama moments. I like to think we all have them, at least I tell myself that to feel better.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. I didn’t burn my face off but had learned a valuable lesson— there are even articles out there about this happening to other people. Word of my incident spread through the family and my auntie sent me a glass kettle to use instead of the microwave. Since then, it has become a staple in our kitchen. It was perfect for heating my bottles. So if you are debating a bottle warmer, consider this. It transitioned into many other uses as well. We use it on the daily to boil water for tea, hot cocoa and it’s awesome for instant oatmeal in our crazy busy mornings before school. You may not even know you will use it. I was hesitant when I received it because I didn’t think I really needed it. Wrong. I figured after bottles I would pack it away. Wrong. It came with us from Midland to Dubuque and now sits prominently over on our coffee bar in it’s own little spot.
This is the one I have and I like it because it has an auto shut-off is easy to clean and, at under $20.00, is a steal of a deal: https://bit.ly/2jZYnXg
4.) Sheet Pan Trifecta
The Sheet Pan Trifecta will forever be my go-to shower gift for brides or new homeowners. Technically, this is a three-piece essential, but I can’t justify one without the other because I use them all equally and together. The sheet pan trifecta consists of, you guessed it, half sheet pans. Also included are pre-cut pieces of parchment paper and sheet pan baking/cooling racks. This trifecta was introduced to me years ago by my mom, with the last piece being so impactful on Kurtis in our time spent at Tressa B&B that she gave some to him for Father’s Day this year.
Every home needs these three pieces. Whether you are single, married, with or without kids. Whether you cook a lot or a little or are new to cooking or a wily veteran. Entire cookbooks have been written on sheet pan cooking and in today’s time-crunched society they are essential to a kitchen. You cut stuff up, throw it together on a pan, douse it with some spices, mix it with olive oil, throw it in the oven and boom. Dinner is served. One of our family favorites, sheet pan fajitas, was perfected by our super-nanny Caity. We basically rotate them every other Taco Tuesday. You can find that recipe below with my links.
The pre-cut parchment paper is perfect for cooking or baking. I love these sheets because when I make my homemade buns–which is like once a year–they never burn on the bottom and easily lift off the sheets every time. They catch bacon drippings when you do your bacon in the oven (did anyone ever make that mistake with me? Bacon greased pans are a nightmare). I love them because I was so incompetent that I could never get parchment paper to properly fit my pan. First of all, I’d rip it so badly I would end up wasting a ton of paper or it wouldn’t rip off at all. I wised up and used scissors, but even then I somehow always had too much or too little.
The racks are a whole other story. I didn’t initially buy into them quite like the pans and paper but since raising kids, being short on time and cooking a multitude of oven-ready food, they are quite handy. Whether making homemade or store-bought, they help cook the food more evenly than just throwing it on the pan. Plus, they double as awesome cooling racks for cookies or cakes or cooling your canned pickles.
Ms. Caity’s Sheet Pan Fajitas:
Peppers (orange, red, yellow) sliced Chicken (2 boneless/skinless breasts) sliced Onion powder
all tossed in olive oil
Place on a parchment lined sheet pan and bake at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Serve with tortillas, avocado, sour cream, guacamole, shredded cheese, salsa-whatever fixings you prefer.
Link to pan & sheet set: https://bit.ly/2jUyKa7
Link to racks: https://amzn.to/2kf65gn
5.) Cast-Iron Dutch Oven
Rounding out my list is perhaps my favorite of them all, a big ‘ol cast-iron Dutch oven. There aren’t any epic stories behind this recommendation other than simply saying, trust me. You need one. I’m also going to get a little snooty—I highly, highly recommend you invest in the Le Creuset option. Not Rachael Ray, not random Walmart brand, not the random one that pops up on your Facebook feed because you were reading this and thinking Dutch oven. In this case, not all shoes fit the same. There really is a difference. One that I use was my grandmas and is still in prime condition and she’s long gong. My parents are still using the one they were gifted for their wedding thirty-eight years ago. They are costly upfront, but they last and last and last and you can use them for so many things. I make my homemade chicken soup in there—broth and all. They are great for reheating food, stews, chili, sauces, veggies, sides, main dishes, you name it. Use it on the stove or use it in the oven. Heck, use it on the stove and then stick it in the oven.
If you are on a budget, try finding a used one. Maybe a family member has one kicking around they aren’t currently using. You may even luck out and find one in an antique store—I’ve seen them there. Start with a 5.5 or 6-quart. I’ve linked one below. If you are a newlywed or recently graduated college and were gifted some cash, use it to purchase one. It’s like the black blazer of your kitchen—a must. Le Creuset also has outlets and I go out of my way to hit those when I can to grab a piece or two. Over the years I’ve grown my collection and I honestly treasure each piece. Other than throwing my back out from lifting them, I’ve never been disappointed with my purchases.
One of my favorite things to cook in my Dutch oven are my grandma (Grandy’s) Dagwoods. Isn’t it fitting that it’s her oven I typically use? I don’t actually know why they are called Dagwoods–maybe Blondie’s husband like them? Did I just really age myself there? Anyway, they are her version of sloppy joes. I remember when I was in Canada I cooked a humongous batch of them for some of the oilfield workers and although they loved them, I was disappointed that they just weren’t tasting the same—why? They were cooked in a stainless steel pot. Here’s her recipe for you to try in your own Dutch oven…
Grandy’s Dagwoods 2 lbs Ground Beef 1/4c Celery
1/4c onions cut small Salt
1 Beef Bullion Cube
1 can Tomato Soup
A few shakes of Worcestershire sauce
Brown Beef in Dutch oven. Add remaining ingredients. Cook slowly for 1 hour. Stir occasionally. The longer they cook/sit, the better they get.
Try this 5.5 qt Dutch Oven: https://bit.ly/2lzLkfi
And there you have it. My five favorites. Did you see some of your favorites in here as well? Are you still reeling from my Instant Pot rebellion? Are there some missing we need to know about? Sound-off in the comments below and be sure to let me know if you want to more posts on this subject. Happy cooking!