The Wonderbag! (And Some Vegetarian Chili)

If you’ve been reading here for a bit, you’ll know that I love South Africa. It will then come as no surprise that I will buy and try anything that will aid the people of that beautiful country. And so it came to be that I bought the Wonderbag as an alternative to using my electricity-zapping crockpot.

I first learned about the Wonderbag after watching this video. Sold through Amazon.com, for each $50 Wonderbag purchased, one would be provided to a family in need in South Africa. I was game to try and to, of course, share my results with you.

When it first arrived, the Wonderbag was vacu-sealed and flattened. Per the directions, the first step was to fluff it up and separate the foam pieces in order to equally distribute them. That took about 15 minutes.

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Excited to try the Wonderbag, I decided to cook a recipe that I’ve made 1,000 times so that I could compare the Wonderbag results to what it would taste like on the stovetop or made in a slow cooker. I went with this vegetarian chili recipe:

3 cans (1lb size) tomatoes, undrained
2 cans (1lb size) kidney beans, undrained
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 large chopped onions
2 large chopped green peppers
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
3 tsp salt
2 bay leaves
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp basil
1 pinch cayenne
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp pepper
1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco to your tastes

Okay, now, when cooking this on the stovetop, I would add olive oil to the pan…

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and when hot, sauté the onions, green peppers and garlic. After a couple of minutes, I would add in all of the herbs…

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and sauté for an additional 10 minutes, or until the green peppers and onions were translucent.

The next step would be to add in the diced tomatoes, Worcestershire, and Tabasco, and simmer for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, I would add in the beans and cook for an additional 30 minutes. The entire process (from prep to completion) usually took 90 minutes or so.

The instructions for the Wonderbag suggest that you use the smallest pot possible (so that there isn’t a lot of empty room at the top of the pot) that has a tight-fitting lid. Towards this end, I decided to use my lovely Le Creuset dutch oven.

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It fit the bill perfectly.

The Wonderbag instructions also state that the food needs to come to a full, sustained boil for 5 minutes prior to being transferred into the Wonderbag. With that in mind, I follow the steps in my original recipe right up until the ‘add tomatoes’ part. Here are the veggies and spices sautéed for 10 minutes or so.

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After the onions and green peppers were sautéed, I added in the tomatoes and beans together…

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and brought it up to a boil for 5 minutes.

I got my Wonderbag ready for the food my adding a towel (as recommended) to the bottom of the Wonderbag to catch any surprise spills or drips.

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After the 5 minutes of boiling were up, I slapped on the lid…

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put the entire pot into the Wonderbag, put the top piece on…

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tightened it sufficiently….

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and stared at it (for way too long). At which point, it dawned on me that this was going to hang out for 5-8 hours so my staring at it was rather, um, pointless.

I decided to wait a full 8 hours before peeking at the chili because I wanted to mimic a regular workday (which is when I typically use the crockpot the most). After the time had passed, I opened the lid and hurriedly poured myself a bowl to try.

>>Pretend that there’s a picture of cooked chili here. I was so excited to try it that I forgot to snap a photo!<<

Alas, after much ado, here are my thoughts:

  1. The food was warm, but not hot. I would probably leave time to put it back on the stove for just a couple of minutes prior to serving so that it’s nice and piping hot.
  2. The food was definitely cooked through (yay!), but the main difference was one of texture. Food cooked on the stovetop breaks the different components down a bit more than the Wonderbag and it goes without saying that food cooked in the cookpot often turns to mush. For example, the diced tomato in my chili was still in whole pieces whereas they’re normally a bit more broken down–if that makes sense–when I cook it on the stovetop.
  3. The chili was still almost the same volume as it was when I added it to the Wonderbag. In other words, there was no reduction of the liquid in the pot that would normally occur on the stovetop or crockpot.
  4. It was still delicious. Just a bit different.

Conclusion – the Wonderbag was a success, but some adjustments need to be made to be completely satisfied with using it as a primary cooking process. If I were to make this recipe again, I would use my immersion blender to break up the tomatoes a bit prior to adding the beans to the pot. This would mimic the texture that I’m more used to. Additionally, I’d add a bit less liquid, so perhaps draining all of the beans prior to adding them to the pot. With some tinkering, I think that the Wonderbag will be a great addition to my cooking arsenal.

The Wonderbag came with numerous recipes to try and I’m determined to go through and methodically try them all. The truth is that I haven’t done much thoughtful cooking at all over the last month or so. It’s sad, but true. We’ve been doing lots of really simple meals (spaghetti, steaks and broccoli, taco night) that don’t require much planning, but I vow to get back on track and start menu planning again. I love the art of cooking and I need to make sure that I stay on top of my schedule to make the time to do it.

Stay tuned for more Wonderbag recipes! I finally took the plunge and created a separate calendar entirely for my blog, so things should move along swimmingly from here on out.

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Shepherd’s Pie

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought that I would post/re-post some delicious Irish recipes. St. Patty’s Day is special in our house because it also happens to be my husband’s birthday (hence the nickname I gave him) so while I personally don’t have so much as an Irish hair on my head, I have made a valiant effort to research and learn some traditional Irish fare. First up is Shepherd’s Pie!

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First off, I need to thank my buddy Kari for putting this back on my radar. Even though I’m married to an Irishman, I completely forgot that shepherd’s pie is delicious, affordable and makes plenty of leftovers.

Before I embarked on my shepherd pie making journey, I asked my husband what he recalled the most about the best shepherd’s pie he ever ate. His response was flavorful meat. Six shepherd’s pies later, this is the recipe that both boys ate with gusto. Here’s what you need:

1 lb. ground beef (you could do any ground meat here)
1 carrot, sliced into rounds
1 large onion
1 packet brown gravy mix
a scant 1/4 cup Worchestershire sauce
2 Tbs. pasta sauce
2 Tbs. flour
1/2 cup cheddar cheese
1 package instant mashed potatoes (feel free to make your own).
a handful of peas (optional)

Preheat your oven at 325 degrees. I usually go ahead and get the mashed potatoes and carrots going. For the carrots, simply slice them thin and put them in a sauce pan of simmering water. Cook them until soft (about 5-10 minutes). Follow the directions on your instant mashed potatoes (I usually get ones that have butter and herbs already incorporated), but it usually consists of boiling water, adding potatoes and stirring. That’s it.

For the meat, you’re going to need a large, deep saute pan. Add a little bit of olive oil and throw your onions in there. Give them about a 5 minute headstart and then add in your ground beef.

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While your ground beef is browning, add your gravy packet to 1 cup of water and dissolve.

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Once the meat is browned, add in the flour…

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and your gravy…

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and the pasta sauce (whatever you have in the fridge is fine)…

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and the Worchestershire sauce. I usually add about a tablespoon or two less than a 1/4 cup.

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Ok folks, just mix it all together, turn the heat to low and let it simmer for about 5 minutes. You will notice it thicken noticeably.

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Time to assemble – first add your meat in the bottom of your casserole dish.

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Then, drain your carrots and add both them and the peas on top of the meat mixture. The Irishman doesn’t care for peas particularly, but he likes the color they add and claims that, “It just isn’t shepherd’s pie without peas.” Who am I to argue with that? So, I just add a handful of frozen peas on top of the carrots.

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Next, I spread the mashed potatoes over the top using a spoon and my fingers to get it evenly on there. I’m usually a mashed potato purist, but I have to say that instant potatoes have come quite far in the last 10 years or so (which is when I last had them).

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Finally, sprinkle on your 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese.

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Now, pop it in the oven at 325 and bake for 20 minutes. And that’s it! Take it out of the oven and serve.

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