All I can think this morning is: God bless you, Slow Cooker.

Seriously.  This weekend would have been food mayhem if it were not for the magical gift to humankind that is the slow cooker.  I’ve had mine for not quite a year now, and it’s so battle-scarred that it looks like a relic from the ruins of some seriously technologically advanced foodie civilization of old.  After the abuse I put it through this weekend, I’m starting to understand why it looks so ratty.

On Friday night, J. returned from a three-day business trip, and I finally had a chance to catch my breath a bit.  While we chatted in the kitchen after putting the boys to bed, I poured 12 cups of homemade plain applesauce into the slow cooker and added sugar and spices, then set it to low.  The next morning, I was rewarded with the mesmerizing scent of apple butter — Slow Cooker Gift #1.  A quick puree rendered it ready for breakfast, and P. devoured it by the spoonful (forget spreading it on biscuits or anything else — he just kept licking it off and crying “More?  More?”).  L. wasn’t sure he wanted to try any, but it turned out that he was working on a 24-hour tummy bug, so I’m writing that off and plan to try again with him later this week.

The second the apple butter was ready, I poured a cup of it back into the bottom of the slow cooker and topped it off with a bottle of organic barbecue sauce (No, I didn’t make my own this time — even the RRG Mommy gets to take shortcuts now and again!).  Into the oven went a rack of baby back ribs, seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika, and allspice; once they were seared on both sides, the ribs hit the sauce, and once again I turned the dial to “low.”  With dinner already on its way at 9:00 in the morning, I could head off to the Farmer’s Market, take the kids on a hayride, and spend the afternoon picking up all the miscellaneous odds and ends we needed at Target (where else do you go when you need pjs for the kids, shower cleaner, ginger ale for an upset tummy, and a new hamper?) without worrying about setting aside time in the kitchen.  I even had plenty of opportunity to bake up a quick pan of cornbread and roast some half-moons of acorn and dumpling squash with maple syrup before leaving the house at 5:00 for my choral dress rehearsal.  And miracle of miracles — Mommy actually got to eat, too!

When I got back to the house at 10:30 p.m., J. had cleaned out the slow cooker insert for me and, per my instructions, left it on the counter, ready to go again.  As soon as I’d kicked off my rehearsal shoes and slid into my trusty fuzzy slippers, I buried myself in the fridge and emerged with an armful of stock ingredients: a chicken carcass, carrots, celery, onions, and garlic.  Everything went into Old Reliable, along with 12 cups of water, before I dragged myself to bed.  On Sunday morning, through the haze of sleepiness, an oncoming fierce cold and/or sinus infection (still can’t quite tell), and worry over the approaching afternoon performance, I was gratified to have dinner already underway before I even groaned my way out of bed.  Straining chicken stock at 8:30 a.m. is more rewarding than I imagined it would be.

With the stock strained, cooled, and skimmed, I got working on the minimal chopping and stirring that was necessary to prep the Butternut Squash soup for dinner.  (The bright side of making dinner so early in the day for the second morning in a row was that I could use the steam from the soup pot as a therapeutic treatment for my aching sinuses.)  By the time I dashed out the door just after noon, clad in the requisite head-to-toe black for the concert, a survival kit of tea with honey, plenty of water, lozenges, tissues, and a Beethoven score under my arm, there was a pot of heavenly homemade soup calling my name.  When I dragged myself back home at 5:30, exhausted, triumphant, and aching from head to toe, I was overwhelmed with relief — I only had to heat up the soup and make some grilled cheese sandwiches to have dinner on the table for our ragged little clan.

It was the first real meal L. had eaten all weekend, but he sucked down a full bowl of soup (using a straw — he loses patience for spooning soup after a while, but he’ll drink gallons of it if you arm him with a bendy straw) and ate half a sandwich cheerfully.  I could almost see the color returning to his face with every sip.  My own weary bones melted under the spell of a warm, homemade meal at the end of a very long and busy weekend.  I have to admit that if it hadn’t been for the relentless service of the slow cooker, I’d have caved in and resorted to take-out at least once, but thankfully, that wasn’t necessary.  A little advance planning, and 32 hours of nearly continuous use, made Old Reliable the hero of the weekend.  Proving, yet again, that there’s more than one way to get everybody fed.