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Chicken dishes that add luster to the crock pot

(ran NP edition)

I love the idea of dinner cooking while I'm away at work or sound asleep in bed. The promise of long, no-watch simmering has enormous appeal for busy cooks.

For years I had spotty results with slow cookers. Too often, crock pot cuisine resulted in watered-down blandness, jumbles of overcooked, squishy meat and vegetables adrift in a sea of insipid sauce. No wonder so many slow cookers end up as garage-sale stars.

With time, I've ferreted out the dishes this culinary workhorse does best. One of my favorites is Basic Crocked Chicken, the easiest and best way to cook the humble bird to use in anything that calls for cooked chicken: casseroles, tacos, pastas and salads.

A whole chicken cooks to fall-off-the-bone perfection in eight hours. At 200 degrees (the low setting on the slow cooker), a 2{- to 3{-pound chicken slowly simmers to tender juiciness. It tastes like my grandmother's delicious stewed chicken.

Whether I cook the bird all night or during work hours, the house fills with a delectable chicken soup smell. The dog goes crazy. The aroma makes it hard for her to rest, let alone sleep.

The secret is to slow cook it dry. Don't add water or broth and no canned tomatoes or white wine. Too much liquid results in lackluster flavors after long hours of gentle covered cooking. When you cook on top of the stove, liquids condense and flavors intensify but not in a no-peek crock pot.

Just pop that whole chicken into the slow cooker, breast side up. Stuff it with a wedge of lemon and a bay leaf. Sprinkle it with salt and pepper and drop in a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Cover it and plug it in. That's it. Really.

As it cooks, the chicken releases as much as two cups of luscious broth. After it's finished, carefully remove the chicken with a wide slotted spatula or a big slotted spoon. Strain the broth, remove the fat (either by using a fat separator or by chilling and removing congealed fat that floats to the top) and, to intensify flavors, boil lean juices to reduce the volume by a third.

The chicken can be served as is, cut into serving pieces and accompanied with herbed pasta, rice or couscous. If you decide to take it off the bone and cut (or tear) it into bite-size pieces, you have the centerpiece for an endless number of dishes, one-dish meals that take less than 20 minutes to put together.

Make quick dinners-in-a-bowl such as an updated version of chicken and noodles or pozole, the Mexican hominy-and-chicken stew served with optional garnishes such as shredded lettuce, chopped avocados, sliced radishes and wedges of lime. Serve pozole with warm tortillas and sliced papayas.

Salad Nicoise is traditionally made with tuna, but in this version warm chicken replaces the fish. Warm potatoes, tender-crisp green beans, strips of chicken, black olives, tomatoes and, if you like,hard-cooked eggs snuggle on a bed of lettuce. Drizzle with a basil vinaigrette.

When I make chicken salad, I cook the chicken overnight, remove the skin and bones and chill it all day, then I make a dressing with mayonnaise and prepared basil pesto sauce. Serve on sliced tomatoes and top with toasted pine nuts. If desired, garnish with blanched sugar snap peas and thin slices of green apple.

Before you allocate that slow cooker to the darkest corner of your guest closet or turn it into a funky planter, try the cook-it-dry method for chicken.

For more on-the-go crock pot recipes, have a look at The Slow Cooker Ready and Waiting Cookbook by Rick Rodgers (William Morrow, 1998, paperback $12). Rodgers gives recipes for everything from Artichoke Dip to Hot Fudge Spooncake.

Chicken and Noodles

1 basic crocked chicken, including broth (see recipe)

10 baby carrots cut into slender strips

1 10-ounce package frozen peas

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

12 ounces dry egg noodles

6 green onions, sliced; include some dark green stalks

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Generous amount of freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Optional garnish: grated Parmesan cheese

Optional garnish: sprigs of fresh Italian parsley

Remove chicken from crock pot with a large slotted spatula or slotted spoon. Strain liquid; if time permits, place strained broth in refrigerator; when fat congeals, remove the fat and discard and save the broth. If making Chicken and Noodles immediately, place strained broth in fat separator (this is a container that collects the fat and pours out the lean juices through a spout that's connected at the bottom); discard fat left in separator.

Place juices in saucepan and reduce by . Add carrots and cook on high heat until carrots are cooked tender-crisp, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and add peas and thyme; set aside.

Meanwhile, cook noodles according to package directions until cooked al dente. Drain. Combine noodles and chicken broth mixture. Remove chicken from bones and skin and tear into bite-size pieces; add to noodles. Add green onions and parsley. Season with freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste.

If desired, top individual servings with a small amount of grated Parmesan cheese and garnish with sprigs of fresh Italian parsley.

Cook's note: If you like, you can add other cooked vegetables to this dish. Blanched sugar snap peas, sauteed mushrooms or cubes of cooked butternut squash are delicious.

Makes 6 servings. Nutritional information per serving without skin: 434 calories, 9.2 gm fat, 1.6 gm saturated fat, 152 mg cholesterol, 223 mg sodium, 19 percent calories from fat.

Basic Crocked Chicken

1 2{- to 3{-pound whole chicken

Lemon wedge, about \ of medium lemon (optional

1 bay leaf (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste; see cook's note

2-4 sprigs of fresh thyme (optional)

Remove giblets from interior of chicken. Remove fat pads on either side of the opening to the interior cavity. Wash chicken with cold water and shake off excess water. Place in a 3{-quart or 4-quart slow cooker, breast side up.

Place lemon wedge and bay leaf inside cavity, if using. Season top of chicken with salt and pepper to taste. Scatter sprigs of thyme around chicken. Cook on low power 7-8{ hours.

Cook's note: If you plan to serve the chicken cut into serving pieces rather than cutting it up and using it in other dishes, sprinkle the top of the chicken with seasoned salt, such as Lawry's, to give it more color.

Makes 4-6 servings. Nutritional information per serving: 205 calories, 7.2 gm fat, 1.9 gm saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 116 mg sodium, 32 percent calories from fat.

Warm Chicken Salad Nicoise

1 pound red potatoes

} pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

1 basic crocked chicken (see recipe)

1 large clove garlic, peeled

1 cup fresh basil leaves

1 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

Salt and pepper taste

4-5 cups assorted bite-size lettuces

1 cup kalamata olives, drained

4 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and quartered (optional)

3 ripe tomatoes, quartered

Garnish: sprigs of fresh basil

If potatoes are large, cut them into 6 wedges. If medium, cut them in half. If small, leave whole. Place in large saucepan with water to cover. Bring to boil; boil until potatoes are fork-tender. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, bring 3-4 cups of water to boil in large saucepan. Add green beans and cook until tender-crisp. Drain and refresh wih cold water. Drain again and set aside.

Remove chicken from crock pot with a large slotted spatula or large slotted spoon. Remove bones and skin. Tear or cut into large strips. Set aside.

Prepare dressing: With the motor running, drop garlic in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add basil and process until minced. Add oil, vinegar and mustard and process until well-blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper; process until combined.

Toss beans with enough dressing to lightly coat. Toss potatoes with enough dressing to lightly coat.

Place lettuce on 6 plates. Arrange chicken, olives, potatoes, green beans, hard-cooked eggs (if using) and tomatoes in separate areas on top of lettuce. Stir dressing and drizzle dressing to taste over chicken, tomatoes and eggs. Optional: Pass remaining dressing.

Makes 6 servings. Nutritional information per serving: 613 calories, 38.9 gm fat, 5.9 gm saturated fat, 229 mg cholesterol, 234 mg sodium, 57 percent calories from fat.

Pozole

1 basic crocked chicken, including broth (see recipe)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

Pinch dried red chili flakes (optional)

1 14{-ounce can Mexican-style stewed tomatoes with mild chilies and seasonings

1 29-ounce can white hominy, rinsed and drained

2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or { teaspoon dried

2 teaspoons chopped cilantro

Garnish: shredded lettuce, sliced radishes, chopped red onion, chopped avocado, limes, minced jalapeno chilies and salsa

Remove chicken from crock pot with a large slotted spatula or slotted spoon. Strain liquid. If time permits, place strained broth in refrigerator; when fat congeals, remove fat and discard and save the broth. If making immediately, place strained liquid in fat separator (this is a container that collects the fat and pours out the lean juices through a spout that's connected at the bottom); discard fat left behind in the separator. Place lean broth in large saucepan and reduce by .

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat olive oil. Add onion and cook on medium heat until softened. Add garlic and chili flakes (if using); cook 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, hominy, reduced chicken broth and oregano; cook on medium-high heat for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove skin and bones from chicken. Cut or tear into bite-size pieces. Add chicken to hominy mixture. Stir in cilantro. Taste. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Place garnishes on table. Ladle pozole into bowls. Diners can add garnishes as desired.

Makes 4-6 servings. Nutritional information per serving without garnishes: 392 calories, 14 gm fat, 2.9 gm saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 910 mg sodium, 32 percent calories from fat.

Pesto Chicken Salad

1 basic crocked chicken (see recipe)

\ cup mayonnaise or fat-reduced mayonnaise

\ cup drained prepared basil pesto sauce (see cook's note)

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Shredded romaine lettuce

4 medium ripe tomatoes, trimmed and sliced

Garnish: about 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (see cook's notes)

Optional garnish: blanched sugar snap peas and/or thinly sliced green apples

To toast pine nuts, place in a single layer on a jelly-roll pan. Place in a 350-degree oven for 2 minutes. Shake pan to turn nuts. Bake about 1 minute longer. Watch carefully because nuts can burn easily.

Remove chicken from crock pot with a large slotted spatula or large slotted spoon. When chicken is cool, remove bones and skin. Tear into bite-size pieces; refrigerate.

Place mayonnaise, pesto sauce and vinegar in large bowl. Stir and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add cold chicken and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Arrange lettuce on top of a large platter. Top with sliced tomatoes. Place salad on top of tomatoes. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts. Serve.

Cook's notes: For easiest straining, bring pesto sauce to room temperature. Place in small sieve and shake handle to remove excess oil.

Makes 6 servings. Nutritional information per serving: 331 calories, 21 gm fat, 4.3 gm saturated fat, 96 mg cholesterol, 272 mg sodium, 57 percent calories from fat.

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