Friday Food: National Slow Cooker Month

For this year's BLOGuary stretch (daily blogging through the month of January, except for Sundays), I've been having a blast partnering up with David Elliott, of the Single Dad's Guide to Life. We spent weeks talking about this before January came along, brainstorming post ideas and thinking about how we might be able to coordinate my "mental health and self-empowerment but I'm also a single mom" brand of lifestyle with his more laid-back and chilled out "single dad takes on the world with humor, humility, and fun" kind of vibe.

When I first stumbled upon David's blog, it was because we both happened to be in the same blogging promotional group, and since we ran into each other online so frequently, we ended up chatting a bit about our blogs and what drives us to write them. I personally tend to have a very serious writing style that can, admittedly, get a little heavy from time to time, and so reading David's perspectives on single parenting and his relationship with his daughter tended to be sort of a breath of fresh air. Now and then he surprises with vulnerability of his own too, which is always a delight for someone as chronically serious as me.

But how do we meet the two very different and yet so the same kinds of blogging topics?

Well, the answer is, as always, to find middle ground. We've covered lots of mental health this month and lots of parenting oriented content, but we've also covered travel, fitness, and even movies - all with a general writing prompt that David and I both ran with in our own unique ways. Our perspectives are sometimes vastly different, which offers us a chance to learn from each other, but other times we're spot on and seem in almost perfect agreement. He's been a blast to write with this month, and I'm excited to see what the rest of the month will hold.

But first, deliciousness.

When we realized this month was National Slow Cooking Month, I think David and I both knew we had to cover it on our blog - and what single parent hasn't used a crock pot to make cooking dinner a little more simple, amiright?

But food is one of David's fortes - he actually has a whole series on his blog where he'll celebrate food holidays several times a month, sharing a "fake food history" and usually either a list of his favorite places to find that particular food or his favorite recipe for making it.

For me, food is just a means to an end for the most part. And now, don't get me wrong, I will thoroughly enjoy a well-prepared dish, be it savory, sweet, or some strangely wonderful combination of the two. But it's about the company for me, since good food is so thoroughly enriched by the pleasure of good company. And my being a single mom with a complicated roommate situation ... let's just say some days good company is harder to find than others.

Still, the crock pot is one of my all-time favorite lifesavers, not only in my role as a single mom but also in my actual life as a person dealing with multiple chronic mental illnesses that often have a real and measurable impact on my daily functioning.

With PMDD, I have a week (or two) each month where I am nearly crippled by depression. Some days I feel nearly catatonic, and it's all I can do to veg out with YouTube just so look normal enough to the people around me. The girls don't need to know that I'm actually staring at the wall next to my phone and have pretty much no idea what I'm even "watching." These are often declare "Movie Days" for our family, and while my children watch something fun and entertaining, I hide from them the depth of whatever I'm suffering.

With PTSD, I deal with anxiety that makes it hard to shop (can't tell you how many times I've gotten overwhelmed enough to burst into tears in an overly crowded WalMart) or spend much time in certain places. I live in a pretty constant state of hypervigilance, which makes crowds and possibly-crowded places almost intolerable and turns full parking lots into traps of doom. Coincidentally, it also makes me nearly impossible to sneak up on, which is nice because one of my roommates delights in "getting me" whenever possible; and I find a certain perverse delight in it not being possible very often.

There are other issues too, with overwhelm and over-stimulation being the most common "small" things that can wreck an entire day. And now I've said all that to say this:

The crock pot helps me manage my life as a single mom with mental illness. It's an incredibly valuable tool, because there are days when my family might not eat much more than sandwiches or something frozen, if not for the miracle of the slow cooking method.

On days when I roll out of bed and already Can't. Even, then I drag myself through the morning promising me that it'll get better. I get the girls off to school if it's a school day, or otherwise occupied if it's not, and then I force myself over to either Wal-Mart or Food City, where I pick up something fitting for a crock pot dinner. Back at the house, I toss it all together, set it on low, and rest assured that the dinnertime hours are now guaranteed to be a little less stressful.

Even though the nightly chaos of pajama-changing, bed-making, stuffed-animal-choosing, teeth-brushing, bedtime-avoiding, homework-finishing, medicine-taking, arguing-bickering has begun at it's usual time, I can go through it with a little less overwhelm knowing that I don't also have to juggle the dinner-choosing, veggie-prepping, meat-touching, a-hundred-pans, mountain-of-dishes part of the evening.

So how do I do it? Well. It's really this simple - I make my version of the classic Mississippi Roast.

What To Shop For:
1 - 3 lbs. beef roast, or equivalent weight of diced stew meat.
1 - packet of ranch dressing mix, not mixed
1 - packet of au jus gravy mix, also not mixed
1 - stick of sweet salted cream butter
1 - package of wide egg noodles
cornstarch, optional

What To Do With It:
  1. Place meat into an empty, ungreased crock pot. You're gonna need at least a medium if not large crock pot though - this recipe feeds six.
  2. Sprinkle the ranch powder mix onto the meat. Sprinkle the au jus powder mix on top of that.
  3. Unwrap your stick of butter (I often use less than a full stick - usually closer to 3/4's of one) and set it right on top of everything else. If you feel like being fancy, you can slice it, but half the time I don't bother and it doesn't seem to make any difference.
  4. Set it on low for 6-8 hours or high for 4-6 hours. Time depends on how long you have before you need the food ready, but longer cooking time obviously means much more tender meat.
  5. Maybe a half hour before you're ready to eat, put some water on to boil for your pasta, and while you wait for that, use about 2 tablespoons of your cornstarch and a little cold water to make a thick, smooth paste. Add some of the juice from your crock pot to this, mixing thoroughly and continuing to add juice until you've got something smooth enough to add back to the crockpot without making lumps of gross. I'm sure there's a name for this, but I don't know it - this is just the process I follow.
  6. Add pasta to your now-boiling water and cook according to package directions.
  7. Serve the meat (with a little of the gravy, of course) over your noodles, and you've got dinner.

Add-On Options:
Most versions of Mississippi Roast also ask for a few pepperocini peppers as part of the recipe, but since I'm not a big fan of peppers, I never use them. No one complains about this omission, not even the pickiest of the eaters I cook for. So use your own discretion with this. 

If you're having a rough day and you really don't feel capable of pulling anything else together, this beefy pasta dish can be a hearty, delicious meal on it's own - but if you're living with mom-guilt because your kids don't eat enough veggies, then you can go with SteamFresh Broccoli from the frozen section at your grocery store (for an easy option) or actually steamed fresh broccoli if you feel like making the effort. I use real when I can, but I also enjoy the ease of something quick when and healthy when I'm having a hard day.

You could also serve this with a crusty bread to mop up the gravy, and you could even add a little side salad if you're making this because it's delicious and not because you needed something easy.

Because rest assured, while this recipe is quick to throw together and almost totally effortless to prepare, it still steps up and offers an unbelievably scrumptious payoff - which is good for your belly, your body, and your mental health.

Do you use a crock pot or slow cooker in your own home? If so, what's your favorite slow cooker recipe? Have you ever used yours for desserts, and if you have, what did you make? What about breakfasts? Brunch? Share your crock pot successes with me in the comments below!

And don't forget, this BLOGuary is a writing partnership! David Elliott from the Single Dad's Guide to Life has been partnering with me this month to balance my single mom perspective with the single dad side of everything from quotes that inspire us to lessons we've learned, to travelpoetry, and our goals for the future. Make sure you check out David's blog to see his thoughts on these topics and more - and click here to see his "fake food history" of the crock pot's magical aid for busy families.

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