Plus, a new Thai noodle house opens on the South Side.
Slow cookers have been a home cook’s BFF ever since the Rival Company sold its first Crock-Pot in 1971. And little wonder: No longer tied by the apron strings to a hot oven or stovetop burner, those tasked with feeding the family could finally win their daily race against the dinner clock with the device’s “dump and go” dinners.
Tough, fatty cuts of meat were transformed into tender stews and roasts while the cook worked (or played), and the one-pot wonders also proved something of a godsend for killer soups, chili and all manner of beans.
What’s old is suddenly new again, and maybe even more popular than ever.
As a testament to the enduring appeal of the slow cooker — 83 percent of all U.S. households owned one in 2011 — this fall saw the release of at least five cookbooks singing its praises. They come from such heavy hitters as America’s Test Kitchen, Martha Stewart and James Beard Award-winner Hugh Acheson, who also was a competitor and judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
Many of us are busier than ever with work and family, and so we love the convenience and reliability a slow cooker offers. (It’s almost impossible to burn something if you follow directions.) The problem, says Mr. Acheson, is that “we’re just not using it beyond the typical pot roast.”
So he wrote a cookbook that would not only drive people back into the kitchen, but bring a chef’s modern sensibilities along for the ride. It’s called “The Chef and The Slow Cooker” (Clarkson Potter, October 2017, $30), and it’s a gem.
One of the biggest misconceptions about slow cookers, Mr. Acheson says, is people assume they can just throw stuff in, turn it on “and some kind of dinner will come out of it.” While that works with a humble roast or stew, many other recipes require a bit of pan work before ingredients go into the pot to achieve the best flavor.
To fight the stigma of bland slow-cooker food, quality ingredients also are essential, along with some basic technique — say, toasting spices before adding them to a slow cook, and finishing dishes off with something fresh and lively. For instance, Mr. Acheson’s recipe for Duck Confit is served with a frisee salad, while his Cider-Braised Quails are topped with a mixture of beets, charred lemon, scallions and dates. He’s also big on garnishes such as fresh cilantro, parsley or mint.
The extra steps take more time and effort, but cooking from scratch should be a joy instead of an onus, he says, adding with a chuckle, “My book is not called the ‘I can barely cook and the slow cooker.”
His cookbook also acknowledges the slow cooker’s versatility. Because it cooks things gently, a slow cooker is perfect for making flavorful stocks and broths; poaching fish and seafood; cooking eggs; melting chocolate or cheese for fondue; and slow-cooking jam, preserves, chutneys and fruit butters. And it doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the global flavors Americans are hungry for.
“It’s amazing how different we eat than we did just 20 years ago,” says Mr. Acheson, when a boring, continental menu sufficed. Today, “there’s an excitement. Our palates want things like umami and kimchi.”
Speaking of which, the Korean fermented cabbage condiment is the star of one of his cookbook’s best recipes, a succulent and spicy Kimchi-Braised Chicken. Even cabbage-haters will fall in love with this dish, as the kimchi loses much of its funk as it simmers in a bath of ginger-infused sake and chicken broth.
You also can “bake” everything from a cake to a flan to a key lime pie in a slow cooker using a water bath. “The Complete Slow Cooker” by America’s Test Kitchen has an entire chapter devoted to desserts. Martha Stewart’s “Slow Cooker” also features a few sweets among its 110 recipes, along with ethnic dishes such as Vietnamese baby back ribs, Ethiopian chicken stew and Tom Kha Gai, a spicy Thai coconut chicken soup,
And if you simply want to dump the ingredients into the cooker and come back hours later when the food’s ready? Chrissy Taylor’s “No-Prep Slow Cooker” will probably make you happy. Nearly all of its recipes are proudly “hands off” — that is to say, they come together without the headache of any browning, sauteing or pre-baking.
Slow cookers are the perfect appliance during the holidays, when one can be hard-pressed to prepare meals between all the shopping, wrapping and get-togethers. Now may be the time to pull it out of the pantry and get cooking.
Tom Kha Gai
This fragrant coconut and chicken soup is standard fare in Thai restaurants, and so good on a dreary winter day. You can find lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves at most Asian markets, such as Lotus Foods in the Strip District.
3 lemongrass stalks, tough outer layers removed
3 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
2-inch piece fresh galangal or ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
6 kaffir lime leaves, halved, or 6 strips lime zest
1 shallot, thinly sliced
3 Thai bird chiles
1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh, cut into ½-inch strips
4 ounces shitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
15-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
1 large carrot, finely chopped
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped Thai basil, plus more for garnish
1 scallion, thinly sliced
Chili oil sauce, for serving
Preheat a 4-quart slow cooker.
On cutting board, using the side of a chef’s knife, lightly smash lemongrass. Place in slow cooker with broth, fish sauce, sugar, galangal, lime leaves, shallot, chiles, chicken and mushrooms. Cover and cook on high until chicken is cooked through, about 2 1/2 hours (or on low for 5 hours).
Add coconut milk and carrot, and cook on high 30 minutes longer (or on low for 1 hour). Stir in lime juice, cilantro, basil and scallion. Spoon into bowls, top with chopped cilantro and basil and serve with chili oil sauce.
— “Martha Stewart’s Slow Cooker”
This may be one of the best dishes I made this year. The kimchi will stink up your kitchen, but it’s so good! I used canned stock instead of making it from scratch in the slow cooker.
1 chicken, cut into pieces
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 shallots, minced
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 cup sake
1½ cups chicken broth
2½ cups chopped cabbage kimchi, with juices, divided
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
Cooked rice tossed with fresh mint and cilantro
Seasonal pickles, for serving
Pat chicken pieces dry and season all over with salt. Place largest skillet you have on medium heat and add oil. When oil is shimmering, place chicken in pan, skin-side down, and cook for 10 minutes, until skin is crisp and much of the fat has rendered off. Flip pieces and cook 3 minutes more. Transfer chicken to plate and add shallots and ginger to skillet. Cook 3 minutes, until softened, then add sake. Raise heat to high and cook 2 minutes.
Transfer shallot mixture to slow cooker and add broth and crisped chicken. Season with salt. Add 1 1/2 cups kimchi and soy sauce, cover with lid and cook on low for 4 hours.
Add red pepper flakes and lime juice to slow cooker, and stir to combine. Serve chicken from the cooker family-style, or arrange on individual plates, along with rice, pickles and remaining kimchi.
— “The Chef and the Slow Cooker” by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, Oct. 2017, $29.99)
Incredibly versatile, this slow-cooked meat works just as well in tacos as it does in burritos, fajitas and just straight up over rice. It’s only mildly spicy
3- to 4-pound chuck roast
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
6 garlic cloves
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground oregano
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
4 chipotle chiles in adobo
1 tablespoon adobo sauce from the chipotle can
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 bay leaves
Favorite taco toppings: refried beans, chopped tomatoes, red onion, guacamole, sliced cooked peppers
10 to 12 soft or hard shell tacos
Cooked rice, optional
Fresh cilantro and lime wedges, for serving
Grease interior of slow cooker crock with butter or nonstick cooking spray.
Tram any fat from roast, then cut into 8 pieces of equal size. If you have time, sear meat in 2 tablespoons olive oil in skillet over high heat. If you don’t, place meat directly into the crock.
Stir 1 teaspon of salt into the beef chunks.
Make sauce: Process vinegar, garlic, spices, chipotles and sauce, broth and lime juice in blender or food processor until smooth. Pour sauce into crock. Add bay leaves and stir everything together.
Cover and cook on low 7 to 8 hours, or until beef is fork-tender but not dried out. One hour before end of cooking time, shred beef using 2 forks to pull it apart. Stir to completely coat shredded meat in sauce. Add additional salt to taste.
Cover, and cook on low 1 hour longer. Remove and discard bay leaves.
Use as taco, burrito or fajita filling with desired toppings, or serve over cooked rice.
Serves. 10 to 12.
— “Stock the Crock” by Phyllis Good (Oxmoor House, Sept. 2017, $21.99)
Mexican-Style Sipping Chocolate
Yep, you can use your slow cooker to make beverages. This spicy and sweet Mexican-style hot chocolate is perfect for warming up after an afternoon of sledding, ice skating or any winter sport that takes you outside.
2 quarts whole milk
3 dried guajillo chiles
3-inch piece cinnamon stick
2½ cups (18 ounces) dark semisweet chocolate chunks
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Combine milk, guajillos and cinnamon stick in slow cooker, cover with lid and cook on high setting for 2 hours.
Add chocolate and cayenne to mixture in cooker, whisking continuously until all the chocolate has melted. Cover again and cook on high setting for 1 hour to thicken. Whisk well before serving,
Best served in mugs.
Makes 2 quarts.
— “The Chef and the Slow Cooker” by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, Oct. 2017, $29.99)