Weighty issues (oh, and slow cooker thyme pork roast)

Pork

I think I set a record on Sunday.

The very first person — ever, in the history of kitchens — to call out, “Oh, don’t even TELL me we’re out of caraway seed.”

Because … who uses caraway seed? And who uses caraway seed so often that they actually fear running out of it?

(Well, my delightful grandmother, who made the Polish-inspired dishes from her own youth that I devoured in mine. But, you know.)

Never fear: our jar of caraway seed was more than halfway full, so I could stifle the panic building in my chest as I prepared this slow cooker meal for Monday. That’s right, friends: I officially got my act together and prepared a meal a day in advance, refrigerated it and pulled it out Monday morning to simmer for that evening’s dinner. (Just let the crock warm up to room temperature first, of course.)

And it was delicious.

Like, oh, much of the adult population, January finds me thinking about goals and priorities and all that adult-ish stuff. Now that I’m also a mother, a working mother and an often stressed working mother, I really want to get back to writing out a serious meal plan on weekends, sticking to it, grocery shopping on Sunday and placing an emphasis on healthy eats.

Despite my hesitancy in my last post, I went ahead and jumped back into Weight Watchers (affiliate link). It’s been three years since I nervously attended my first meeting and two since I hit my goal weight, dropping 35 pounds, but I’m now — post-Oliver — heavier than I was when I started in 2013.

I just wasn’t sure I was ready for that level of commitment. Last summer, when I was an exhausted new parent who had just returned to work, I got it into my head that I needed to get “me” back. Now. If I let myself slack off with my eating, I thought, I’ll never lose the weight again. I’ll roll right back into old habits. That will be the end of the person I used to know.

Well, I was right — and wrong.

I’m not my pre-baby self again, of course. Everything that happened in 2015 — the beautiful, the scary, the overwhelming, the miraculous — changed me forever. Becoming a parent changes you forever . . . and I’m extremely grateful for that! I mean, it should.

But I did go back to old habits. It’s tough to come out of a pregnancy — unexpectedly early, too — and go right back to tracking every single thing you put in your mouth: something I was not in the habit of doing. Like, at all. For the last few weeks of my pregnancy, I pretty much lived off Chick-Fil-A’s frozen lemonade milkshakes.

When Oliver remained in the hospital for a month, Spencer and I ate whatever was quick and convenient. This translated to many lackluster cafeteria meals a few floors down from his NICU, as well as Wendy’s and Chick-Fil-A runs at odd hours driving back from Baltimore.

When he finally came home, it was just about stuffing something in your face between feedings, and diapers, and screeching.

Prepping enough to prepare healthy, quick meals with a newborn in the house? It just didn’t happen. I had grand ambitions of getting freezer meals ready before the baby came, trying to make our lives a little easier, but . . . well. That obviously didn’t happen.

After I went back to work in mid-June, I thought: it’s time. I now have nine uninterrupted hours in which I can focus on my job and control what I’m eating at ye ol’ desk.

That didn’t happen, either.

I was tired. And sick. Our company was sold over the summer and everyone’s duties changed quickly. Many of my friends were laid off, and I was staring down an extreme amount of change in a short time. It was the final straw in a very stressful season.

Quite honestly, I was depressed.

Though I haven’t discussed it publicly, I’ve been struggling with PTSD and postpartum anxiety since last spring — and there are times it was all I could do to get through the day. I finally sought help in the fall and feel about 1,879,986 times better than I did in October. The pressing weight of worry has lifted.

Through all that? I wasn’t obsessing about eating pumpkin pie, I can assure you.

pie

But I’m out of excuses now.

Oliver has been sleeping through the night — with the occasional hiccup, of course — for months . . . which means Spencer and I have, too. That early haze of dead exhaustion, which clouded absolutely everything, is gone.

Work has settled down. I’m happy and excited with my new responsibilities, and enjoying the new challenges. I’m still writing my column, but also working on projects and articles about different, interesting things. It’s really . . . fun. I miss my friends, of course, but we’ve kept in touch through the holidays.

The holidays are over. They were beautiful, but there’s something refreshing about vacuuming up all that rogue tinsel. It was sad hauling out the Christmas tree, but let’s be honest: the holidays have their own pressures that can’t be denied. Choosing perfect gifts, paying for said gifts, trying to see family and friends in a short time, traveling. It’s . . . a lot.

But January is bare. January is clean. January is scrubbed fresh, a calendar waiting to be filled with whatever we choose, and I’m ready again.

So I’m choosing my health.

It’s been a whole four days since I got back on track with Weight Watchers, so the aroma of my enthusiasm is still quite strong, I know! But honestly, there’s comfort in getting back to a familiar program that helped me so much before. It taught me to control my eating — and gave me such confidence — for the first time in my adult life.

Weight Watchers has been revamped for 2016, and I love the changes. LOVE. (They are not paying me to say this, by the way; my subscription is paid for by yours truly, along with generous affiliate referrals.) With their new “Beyond the Scale” approach, there’s a much greater emphasis on physical activity — not just your pants size. Obviously we’re all joining Weight Watchers to learn healthier habits and drop pounds, but everything begins and ends with overall health.

They’ve revamped how points for foods and drinks are calculated, and the new method makes much more sense. Under the old system, fats were fats; it didn’t matter if they were saturated, “bad” fats or good, healthy fats, ones we need and should eat. For example, a tablespoon of olive oil and tablespoon of butter could have the same points value. So what’s the incentive to go with the healthier option?

Many things haven’t changed, thankfully: fresh fruits and vegetables are still zero points, so you can — and should! — eat as much as you want. That was my saving grace the first go ’round. If I’d overindulged earlier in the day and was out of points for that after-dinner snack, I could always reach for a clementine and not feel deprived. There was always something to eat — as long as I’d made the effort to stock up on healthy food for the house. (But that’s another post.)

The first time I joined WW, I wanted to feel better: physically, mentally, emotionally. And I absolutely did. But I’ve come back to WW because I want to get my blood pressure down, return to a much healthier relationship with food and start showing my son — right now — that how we treat our bodies matters. And I know WW works.

So: there it is. My current weighty issues. It feels good to just . . . get all that out.

And I swear, this started out as a recipe post!

So, um, did you want to talk about pork tenderloin? Sure. Okay. Let’s do this.

This recipe is a WW recipe, actually: from the Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook, which is ringbound and glossy and pretty. Some of the recipes I’ve made from it have been hits, others misses, but this one? Definite hit.

If you don’t like sauerkraut, you won’t like this. But if you do? You will. So much that you’ll want to make it again immediately. The apples lend a delicious sweetness to the dish, while the sauerkraut, caraway seed and onion — which mellows through slow cooking — give it punch.

It’s the perfect blend of sweet/sour. Dig in!

Pork

Slow cooker pork roast
with sauerkraut and apples

Ingredients:
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 (1 1/2-pound) boneless pork loin roast, trimmed of fat
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 (2-pound) package of sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
1 large red or white onion, sliced
1 McIntosh or Cortland apple, peeled, cored and diced
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1/2 cup dry white wine
Chopped fresh parsley

1. Sprinkle thyme, pepper and salt over pork. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes.

2. Combine sauerkraut, onion, apple and caraway seeds in 5- or 6-quart slow cooker. Place pork on top of vegetables; pour wine over. Cover and cook until pork and vegetables are fork-tender, about 4-5 hours on high or 8-10 hours on low.

3. Transfer pork to platter and cut into 6 slices. Spoon sauerkraut mixture around pork and sprinkle with parsley. Serves 6.


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Creamy chicken and wild rice soup in the slow cooker

Creamy chicken soup

There aren’t too many slow cooker recipes we eat every. drop. of.

Every Crock Pot meal produces leftovers — especially for just two people (and a toothless infant who has just started eyeing “real food”). But more often than not, we get tired of the food before the food tires of us.

Or something like that.

But this? On the night we came home to that lovely aroma filling the house, it fed us both with seconds — plus a guest. We still had five (!) huge servings left over, so we packaged them up for a lunch (mine) and two more dinners (for both of us). In a given week, we ate this soup three separate times . . . and still weren’t sick of it.

That’s how delicious it was.

My husband is always appreciative of my slow cooker creations, but never have I heard him go so crazy over dinner. The only way it would have been better was if it were actually not 95 degrees outside . . . because, yeah.

This is warm, comforting, tasty soup that really sticks to your ribs and will be perfect for the chilly fall days to come. Serve with a little shaved Parmesan cheese and a hunk of bread to officially enter slow cooker heaven.


Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

1 cup uncooked wild rice
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup carrots, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
6 cups low sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
2 tablespoons salt-free poultry seasoning
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil (or substitute more butter)
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 cups milk
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse wild rice under running water. Place the uncooked rice, chicken breast, onions, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves, chicken broth, water and poultry seasoning in a slow cooker. Cover and cook on the high setting for 3-4 hours or on the low setting for 7-8.

In the last half hour of cooking, remove the chicken from the slow cooker. Allow to cool slightly before shredding using two forks, then add back into the slow cooker. Melt butter and oil in a saucepan. Add the flour and let the mixture cook for 1 minute. Whisk the mixture slowly while adding in the milk. Continue to whisk until all lumps have dissolved. Allow the mixture to thicken and become creamy.

Add this creamy mixture to the slow cooker and stir to combine. Add additional water or milk to your preference if the consistency is too thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6-8.

When reheating leftovers, add 1-2 tablespoons additional milk or water before heating. Enjoy!

Recipe from Little Spice Jar


Tomato basil chicken stew

Chicken stew

I try not to be too hard on Old Me.

You know, pre-baby me — the person who found rising at 6:30 a.m. painful, and considered anything less than seven hours of sleep to be a death sentence. The woman who could barely drag herself out of bed to smooch her husband goodbye at 7, and would chain-drink coffee in the mornings, “lighting” the next mug from the previous cup.

Now that we have a feisty newborn in our house, my previous experiences of “being tired” are sort of . . . funny. In that “Man, I was just so innocent” sort of way. Sleep deprivation will do funny things to you, and we’ve only been at this a month.

But this was my first week back at work, and I wanted to make life as easy for us as possible. Just sorting out our new schedules — two full-time work schedules, plus our day care planning — was a task, so I tried to make sure we’d be reasonably well-fed during the transition.

So I’m back to the slow cooker, my dear friend. I remember when getting a meal in the Crock Pot had me feeling like Superwoman, and I walked around all day anticipating the dinner I got ready before work. Yesterday I did all that, plus ten thousand other little tasks — and with a cranky, adorable baby on my hip.

At almost 10 weeks old, Ollie is already getting used to the aroma of garlic. Gotta teach that kid early.

This Tomato Basil Chicken Stew might not scream “summertime,” but it’s hearty in all the right ways — and generated leftovers for lunches, our saving grace. It’s not heavy or dense . . . in fact, for a stew, it’s remarkably light. The Parmesan cheese adds a nice saltiness and punch.

And honestly? As it was ready when we walked in the door with the aforementioned cranky infant after a very long day, it probably could have tasted like sun-baked seaweed and I would have still licked the bowl.

But it really is good. Trust the sleep-deprived.


Chicken stew

Tomato Basil Chicken Stew

Ingredients:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 stalks of celery, diced
2 tbsp minced garlic
2 (28 oz) cans whole tomatoes (with their juices)
1 (14 oz) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 lb chicken breasts or tenderloins
2 handfuls baby spinach
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
Parmesan cheese (to taste)

Directions:
In a medium skillet, saute onions, carrots and celery in olive oil, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and translucent, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and saute for additional minute, then put aside.

In a slow cooker, pour in and crush tomatoes. Layer chicken over tomatoes and add remaining ingredients, except cheese. Stir gently to combine and cover chicken. Cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 hours. Before serving, remove chicken and shred with two forks, then add chicken back to stew. Serve with Parmesan cheese and enjoy!

Recipe lightly adapted for the slow cooker from Gimme Some Oven


Chicken stew


White bean chile chicken verde soup in the slow cooker

Soup

Though I hear rumblings about spring being “just around the corner,” it’s still mighty cold in our corner of the universe . . . making soup pretty much a staple around here.

I’ve extolled the virtues of my slow cooker often (too often?) lately, but it really is one of my favorite things. I love knowing dinner is already taken care of when I leave for work at 8 a.m. Makes me feel like a rock star wife/cook/human. And I have a hunch my love affair with the slow cooker will only intensify after Baby J’s arrival.

While browsing for good slow cooker recipes, I’ve been struck by how many require cooking for just 4-6 hours. Given my husband and I get home about nine hours after leaving, I need a meal that will stand the test of time . . . literally.

This slow cooker white bean chile chicken verde soup cooks for eight hours and features meat so tender, it practically crumbles when you take it out of the slow cooker. The cumin gives it a nice punch, and the heat from the jalapeños and chiles is warm without burning you up. I like spicy, but not too spicy. And this isn’t too spicy.

It has everything I look for in a good weeknight meal, basically: tasty, filling, relatively healthy, makes a lot. Because what’s a soup recipe without leftovers? Disappointing, that’s what.

A great dish simply must be enjoyed again the next day. Pretty sure it’s in the Constitution.


Soup


Slow cooker white bean chile chicken verde soup

Ingredients:
2 pounds chicken breast, fat removed
1 small onion, chopped
2 fresh jalapeños, seeded and diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp onion powder
2 cans green chiles
1 cup salsa verde
2 cans white beans, drained and rinsed
1 32 oz. container of chicken stock
2 tbsp lime juice
1 1/2 tsp seasoned salt, garlic salt or salt-based Cajun seasoning
Red pepper flakes, to taste


Place chopped onion, diced and seeded jalapeno peppers and minced garlic in the bottom of your slow cooker. Top with chicken breast and spices.

Add undrained cans of green chiles and salsa verde, followed by the cans of drained and rinsed white beans and chicken stock.

Let mixture simmer on low for 8 hours, or on high for 4 hours. Before serving, remove the chicken breast and shred, then add the shredded chicken back to the slow cooker.

Squeeze lime juice into soup and sprinkle with seasoned salt. Add red pepper flakes, if desired. Stir and let simmer an additional 20-30 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

Recipe adapted very slightly from Maebells


Warm, comforting chicken chili

Chicken chili

I’m already reaching the lazy part of my pregnancy.

Everyone says the second trimester is the best! thing! ever! because, for most women, the nausea has abated (true) and you find yourself with a burst of energy (somewhat true). After the exhausted slog that was the first few months, I came into the new year determined to stop putting off necessary chores and focus on helping get the house in order.

But cleaning is just part of it, of course. Though we still have months before the baby comes, I’m already focused on making meal prep easier and less time-consuming. I’m crazy about our slow cooker and have taken advantage of the winter months to try lots of soups, stews and hearty meals . . . some I hope to make again and freeze before Baby J’s arrival.

Based on this recipe, this slow cooker chicken chili has a hint of heat . . . but is mostly a giant bowl o’ comfort. I’m a cheese fanatic, so the addition of shredded cheddar at the end really clinches it. I used chicken breast tenderloins instead of the breast themselves, and they worked beautifully! Even after cooking for eight hours, the meat was tender and the flavors thick and varied.

It has a bit of the feel of a Mexican enchilada — but it’s not spicy (unless you want it to be — add more red pepper flakes), and it’s definitely filling. Like all my favorite slow cooker recipes, we now have a ton for lunches!

Having lunch ready to go is awesome, too. Less effort. More convenient. Grab and go.

Awesome for tired pregnant ladies and hungry adults alike.


Chicken chili


Slow Cooker Chicken Chili

Ingredients:
1 can of black beans (drained & rinsed)
1 can of corn (drained)
2 cans of Rotel tomatoes with chiles (not drained)
1 package of Hidden Valley Ranch Seasoning mix (dry)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 8oz package of cream cheese
2 chicken breasts
1 cup of chicken stock
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Directions:
In a slow cooker, combine black beans, corn, Rotel tomatoes, ranch mix, cumin, chili powder, paprika, onion powder, red pepper flakes, minced garlic, ground black pepper, garlic powder, chopped onion and chicken stock.

Cut chicken breasts in half and add to the mixture. Spoon cream cheese over the chicken and cover with a lid. Cook on low heat 5-7 hours, or until your chicken breasts shred easily with a fork.

When chicken is done, remove from the slow cooker and shred with 2 forks. Return to the chili mixture and stir well until all cream cheese lumps have dissolved. Top with cheddar cheese, serve and enjoy!

Recipe slightly adapted from The Best Blog Recipes


Tuscan chicken stew in the slow cooker

IMG_3453

It all started with fennel.

Now that we’re well into a sparkly new year and I’m no longer stricken with delightful nausea for most of my waking hours, Spence and I have been trying to get back into regular meal preparation. We both love to cook and enjoy coming up with creative dinners, but we don’t always have the energy to devote to that awesomeness during the week. It’s been a lot of pizza and skillet meals, friends — and I don’t feel great about it, but sometimes we have to do what we have to do.

Enter the slow cooker, which takes away that angst. If you’re not in love with your Crock Pot, especially in winter, I highly suggest giving it a try! We try to make at least one dinner in the slow cooker each week, usually on Monday or Tuesday, so we have homemade lunches for the rest of the week. It works out well . . . and hey, it’s always nice to have a husband who beats you home because he can’t wait for dinner.

Crock Pot nights are the best nights. Twenty minutes of prep in the morning and WHAM! — dinner is ready and fragrant as soon as you get home.

Turning to Pinterest for slow cooker meal ideas, I found this recipe for a stew that looked simple, delicious and healthy. And fennel! It has fennel! Seeing that, I was immediately in. We stocked up on the herb at an Amish grocery store months ago and love its distinctive flavor.

I made a few modifications from the original, outlined below. Because I’m always trying to clear out the pantry and use what we already have, I used canned tomatoes in place of fresh and chicken breasts instead of thighs for the meat, which we then shredded.

But you? You’re awesome. You can get creative and add whatever the heck you want. The thing I really love about soups is their versatility: if you don’t have fresh potatoes, add canned. If you have some kale or parsley to use up, throw it in! You can’t really hurt them. And who can’t use a few extra vegetables in their diet?

If you’re looking for a stew with excellent flavor that sticks to the ol’ ribs, look no further.

Can’t wait for lunch!


IMG_3450


Slow cooker Tuscan chicken stew

Ingredients:
4 chicken breasts, or 6-8 chicken tenderloins
2 carrots, peeled and sliced (or shredded carrots)
2 stalks of celery, sliced
1 red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can diced tomatoes, with liquid
1 can whole tomatoes, drained
12 baby potatoes, cut in half
4 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp dried rosemary
1 tbsp black pepper

Just before serving:
¼ cup water
2 ½ tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp salt (to taste)

Directions:
• Toss chicken, carrots, celery, onion, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes, chicken stock, tomato paste, fennel seeds, rosemary and black pepper into the slow cooker.
• Cook on the lowest setting for 6-8 hours.
• Remove chicken and shred with two forks, then return meat to stew.
• Just before serving, combine corn starch with water and mix until no lumps remain. Add the water/cornstarch, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire and salt. Taste and add additional salt if necessary. Serves 6-8.

Recipe adapted from Sweet Peas & Saffron


Chicken stew