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Crock pot cookery can save your time and sanity

Teenagers and sports practices have forced us to rearrange our kitchens. Since we now spend a good portion of the evening between 5 and 7:30 dropping off and picking up, we need meals that more or less cook themselves.

Enter the slow cooker. Lots of cookbooks concentrating on this handy appliance would have you spend a good half-hour in morning preparations. That just doesn't work for us. So we've developed dishes that require 10 minutes max of morning prep.

Today's recipe for Slow-Cooking Boeuf Bourguignon draws on the flavors of that famous food region in France, but we've streamlined the process to make it fit the desperate life. We've included the signature combination of beef chunks, red wine, bacon, mushrooms and onions. However, we leave the baby-sitting to the Crock-Pot. If you don't have a slow cooker, we've included instructions for preparing the recipe.

One tip: Many new models of "smart" slow cookers have a warming feature. After the cooking time has elapsed, the appliance automatically switches to the warming mode for several hours. This means your stew stays hot (but not burned) so family members arriving late can eat at their convenience. If you're treating yourself to a new cooker, buy a big one — we love the oval-shaped 5-quart models. These new pots cost about $50 online or at discount stores.

With our new hectic schedules, we're especially grateful for recipes that let us stay connected to the kitchen without actually being in it. You'll find more of our easy slow-cooker recipes in our "Desperation Entertaining" cookbook. For Beverly's favorite slow-cooked Spaghetti and Meatballs recipe, check our Web site at www.desperationdinners.com.


Menu:

Slow-Cooking Boeuf Bourguignon

Spinach leaves with bottled Italian dressing

Sliced apples


SLOW-COOKING BOEUF BOURGUIGNON

Start to finish: 10 minutes preparation, plus 8 hours unattended cooking time

Cook's notes: You could also use regular bacon cooked to the not-quite-crisp stage before adding it to the crock.

You can also use a drained jar of small whole onions, which are usually found near jars of mushrooms on the supermarket vegetable aisle and are sometimes labeled "Holland-style." (Do not use pickled or otherwise flavored onions.)

1 can (14 ounces) reduced-sodium, fat-free beef stock

1 cup Burgundy wine or other full-bodied red wine

1/4 cup water

1 envelope (1.2 ounces) plain brown gravy mix, such as Knorr

2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic

2 bay leaves

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

5 slices already-cooked bacon, (see Cook's notes)

1 large onion (for about 1 cup chopped)

20 baby carrots

8 ounces already-sliced fresh mushrooms

2 pounds beef cubes for stew, well marbled

1 bag (16 ounces) frozen small whole onions, (see Cook's notes)

Salt to taste, if desired

3 tablespoons cornstarch

Pour the beef broth, wine and water into the crock of a 4 1/2 quart or larger slow cooker. Pour the powdered gravy from the envelope into the broth mixture, and whisk until any lumps disappear. Sprinkle the garlic, bay leaves and thyme over the broth.

Use a chef's knife to cut the bacon into roughly 1/4-inch pieces. (Do not crisp the bacon first.) Scatter the bacon in the crock.

Peel and coarsely chop the onion. Scatter the onion pieces, whole baby carrots and sliced mushrooms evenly in the crock. Place the beef cubes evenly over the vegetables, and press down and stir as necessary to make sure most of the beef is submerged in the broth mixture. Add the whole onions to the crock. (If using onions from a jar, drain them first.)

Cover the crock, and cook on the low setting for 8 hours. (The stew can cook on low as long as 9 hours.)

Before serving the stew, remove the lid and stir it well. Remove the bay leaves, and taste the broth and season with salt, if desired. Mix the cornstarch and 3 tablespoons of water in a jar that has a lid. Shake well until the mixture is smooth and no lumps remain. Pour the mixture evenly over the stew. (The stew needs to be hot when you do this step.) Stir well. Continue stirring from time to time until the stew reaches the desired thickness, about 5 minutes. Serve the stew in bowls.

Serves 6

Alternative cooking method: If you don't have a slow cooker, preheat the oven to 275 F. Place the ingredients in a 4 1/2-quart Dutch oven or covered casserole dish. Cover the stew, and place it in the middle of the oven. Bake 4 1/2 to 5 hours or until the beef is tender and cooked throughout. To thicken the stew, place the pot on top of the stove over medium-high heat. Bring it to a slow boil and proceed with the directions in Step 5. Stir gently from time to time until the stew is thick, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Approximate Values Per Serving: 310 calories (21 percent from fat), 7 g fat (3 g saturated), 74 mg cholesterol, 34 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 3 g dietary fiber, 554 mg sodium.


Beverly Mills is a former food editor of the Miami Herald food section and a mother of two; Alicia Ross, a former food columnist for The Raleigh News and Observer, also has two children. Send desperate tales of woe or everyday success stories and your favorite quick recipes to Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Or visit the Desperation Dinners Web site at www.desperationdinners.com. You can e-mail Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross at bev-alicia@desperationdinners.com. © United Feature Syndicate Inc.