Slow cooker helps prep pieces of a meal
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All cooking has an element of the magical. Heat transforms food, whether you're making chocolate cake, lasagna or beef bourguignon. In a slow cooker, where everything happens under wraps, the transubstantiation of ingredients to dinner is shrouded in mystery. Seemingly effortless, it's the culinary version of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
When my slow-cooker arrived last winter, I dove in, ready to be converted. A half-dozen dishes later, my initial infatuation quickly cooled. Though I winced as I added handfuls of salt, everything came out bland. Textures and flavors melded together. The slow-cooker was supposed to be the height of convenience, but I still found myself washing a sink full of pots and pans and spending too much time starting and finishing the cooking process. What exactly was the benefit of this gadget again?
For a while, the slow cooker gathered dust deep in a cabinet, almost forgotten behind a bucket of potatoes and onions. Ironically, it was the rising temperatures of the summer months that got me to pull it out again. We might associate slow cookers with cold-weather dishes, but with a little more creativity, it's ideal for summer cooking. It doesn't heat up the kitchen, and you can leave it to do its thing while you get outside and enjoy the (too brief) nice weather. Slow cookers are also very energy efficient, lightening carbon footprints and gas bills all at once.
I decided to recalibrate my expectations and give it another go. If I wanted to make my slow cooker a useful part of my repertoire, I realized that I needed to get a better understanding of how it works.
One of the best ways to get to know any new technique or gadget is to find some really good recipes to get you started. I only had to read the first page of Andrew Schloss's "Art of the Slow Cooker: 80 Exciting New Recipes" (Chronicle, 2008) to know that I had found my guide. "When making cooking easy becomes more important than making good food, we're all in trouble," reads the introduction. A little later: "Slow cooking is easy, but it's not effortless, and the more you take heed of both its strengths and its limitations, the more artful your efforts will be."
The book begins with a short but information-packed introduction which offers the best description I've found of what actually happens inside a slow cooker. The most important factor to consider is that almost no liquid evaporates during the cooking process, so nothing reduces. That means you need to intensify all of your flavors in advance. Even in August, the book had a lot of tempting recipes and each one taught me a bit more about successful slow-cooker technique.
Braised turkey thighs with posole and lime was a perfect one-pot meal. Mr. Schloss counteracts the slow cooker's tendency to dampen and homogenize flavors by adding herbs and acid to finish -- in this case lime juice, zest and cilantro.
I might disagree with Mr. Schloss' definition of a bouillabaisse, but I'm impressed by the base he creates by slow-cooking fish stock and tomatoes with white wine, saffron, orange juice and zest, onion, fennel and garlic. Slow cookers, it turns out, are also easy, reliable vehicles for poaching seafood.
It's worth the $24.95 cover price for the "slow cooking by ingredient" chart alone. It held my hand when I started experimenting, adapting recipes for braises and stews, then working without a recipe.
Becoming a better cook always involves making mistakes, all the more true with a slow cooker, because there isn't as much room to adjust mid-course. I found that I often had to do something wrong before I was able to successfully generalize from recipes and basic principles. For example, Mr. Schloss warned that spicy ingredients intensify in the slow cooker, but I blithely threw a couple of dried chiles into a pot of chickpeas that were cooked for five hours--the only time I've ever cooked something that was almost inedibly spicy.
Ironically, all of this time spent with my slow cooker has taught me that I don't really enjoy using it to produce whole meals. I love to cook, and even with a little work at the beginning and the end, stews and braises that come out of a slow cooker just don't give me the same satisfaction as meals that come out of the oven or off the stovetop. What I love about my slow cooker is how easily it helps me make components of more complex dishes. There's no better tool for cooking dried beans. Black beans are fortified with a ham hock or some sausage. Served with sliced avocado, a salad and some tortillas, they're a delicious weekday supper. Cumin-flavored chickpeas were a surprisingly delicious stuffing for acorn squash. Roasted beets went into an orzo and cucumber salad so good I made it for lunch three days in a row.
• Recipes that already involve low-temperature cooking over a long period of time are the easiest to adapt, such as stews, soups and slow-roasted meats.
• Incorporate salt from the beginning to ensure that all components of a dish are well seasoned (except for dried beans).
• Pre-cook aromatic vegetables such as onion, garlic, carrot and celery.
• Choose cuts of meat that are on the bone.
• Choose more fibrous cuts of vegetables that require longer cooking times, like butternut squash rather than green beans.
• Replace water in recipes with wine, stock, apple cider or low-sodium tomato juice.
• Just before serving, finish dishes with chopped fresh herbs and freshly squeezed citrus juice or a small splash of good-quality vinegar.
So my slow cooker can't perform magic tricks, but it's an incredibly useful device all the same, a kitchen assistant of sorts that stands by and makes sure the chili doesn't scorch and the stock doesn't boil over while I go about my day, dinner starting without me.
Braised Turkey Thighs with Posole and Lime
Make sure to use a salsa that you like the taste of and ideally one with all natural ingredients. White posole is often called hominy, and can be found at most Giant Eagle supermarkets and at Reyna's in the Strip District.
-- China Millman
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 3 pounds turkey thighs, skin removed
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup mild salsa
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 16-ounce can white posole (Mexican hominy), drained and rinsed
- Juice and finely grated zest of 1 large lime
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a medium mixing bowl. Add the turkey thighs and turn to coat with seasoned flour; pat off the excess flour and reserve the seasoned flour mixture.
Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the turkey on both sides, about 4 minutes per side, and place in a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker.
Add the reserved seasoned flour to the oil left in the skillet and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the salsa and broth to the skillet and bring to a boil, stirring until slightly thickened. Stir in the posole and lime zest (but not the juice). Pour over the turkey.
Cover the cooker and cook for 3 to 4 hours on high or 5 to 8 hours on low, until the turkey is cooked through and tender, almost but not quite falling off the bone. Stir in the lime juice and serve, with the cilantro sprinkled on top of each bowl.
-- Adapted by China Millman from "Art of the Slow Cooker"
Master Recipe: Beans
I've cooked chickpeas, navy beans, black beans and cranberry beans in my slow cooker, all using this basic technique. For some types of bean, the cooking time may vary, so if you're cooking a new variety, check once or twice during cooking. For seasonings, onion, carrot and a bay leaf or two are almost always a good idea. Experiment with spices and herbs, or leave a batch relatively plain so that you can use it in different ways.
-- China Millman
- 1 pound beans (cranberry, navy, black, chickpeas, etc.)
Cover beans with cool water and soak overnight, or place beans in a medium saucepan and cover with water, then bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes. Strain beans into the slow cooker and add just enough water to cover.
Add seasonings of your choice.
Cover and cook on high for 4 hours or on low for 7 to 8 hours.
When beans are just tender, assertively salt the mixture until the cooking liquid tastes just a little too salty. Turn off and uncover the cooker, and let the beans cool and absorb the salt.
Cooked beans in their liquid freeze very well for about 2 weeks.
-- China Millman
Slow-cooker Chicken Broth
- 3 pounds chicken wings
- 3 quarts water
- 1 medium onion, chopped medium
- 3 medium garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 1 teaspoon salt
Combine all the ingredients in the slow cooker. Cover and cook, either on low or high, until the broth is deeply flavored and rich, 4 to 5 hours on high or 8 to 9 hours on low.
Let the broth settle for 5 minutes, then gently tilt the slow cooker and remove as much fat as possible from the surface using a large spoon. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer into a large container, discarding the solids.
If you have the time, it's worth refrigerating the broth so that any remaining fat solidifies on top, for easy removal.
Makes about 3 quarts.
-- Adapted by China Millman from "The Best Slow & Easy Recipes" by the Editors of Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen, 2008, $35)
Beef Stew with Tomato, Lemongrass and Star Anise
Though this dish will take about 30 to 45 minutes to prep, there is almost no work at the finish. The original recipe doesn't include the addition of lime juice at the end, but it helps compensate for the slow cooker's tendency to mute flavors.
-- China Millman
- 2 1/3 pounds boneless beef chuck, well trimmed (about 2 pounds after trimming) and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
- 1 hefty stalk lemongrass, loose leaves discarded, cut into 3-inch lengths and bruised with the broad side of a cleaver or chef's knife
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
- 2 1/2 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
- 1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
- 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomato or 14-ounce crushed tomato
- generous 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 star anise
- 3 cups water
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or Thai basil leaves
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
In a bowl, combine the beef, lemongrass, fish sauce, five-spice powder, ginger, brown sugar and bay leaf. Mix well to coat the beef evenly. Marinate for 30 minutes; meanwhile, prep remaining ingredients.
Remove beef from marinade, wiping each piece dry. Reserve the lemongrass and bay leaf from the marinade and discard the rest of the marinade. Gently toss the beef in 1/4 cup of flour, discarding any that doesn't stick.
In a heavy-bottomed 5-quart dutch oven, heat the oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, add the beef and sear on all sides, then transfer to a plate. Each batch should take about 3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low, add the onion, and cook gently, stirring, for 4-5 minutes, or until fragrant and soft. Add the tomato and salt and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 12 to 14 minutes or until the mixture is fragrant and has reduced to a rough paste. Check occasionally to make sure the tomato mixture is not sticking. If it is, stir well and splash in some water.
When the paste has formed, add the beef, lemongrass, bay leaf and star anise, give the contents of the pot a bit of a stir, and cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes to allow the flavors to meld and penetrate the beef. Add the water, bring to a boil. Stir in the carrots.
Transfer the mixture to your slow cooker set on low for 8 hours. The stew is done when the carrots are soft and the beef is tender, and it can be cooled and refrigerated for up to 2 days before serving.
Before serving, do a final taste test. Add up to a quarter cup of fresh lime juice tablespoon by tablespoon, tasting each time. Add salt or a shot of fish sauce to intensify the overall flavor. Or splash in a bit of water to lighten the sauce. Transfer the stew to a serving dish, removing and discarding the lemongrass, bay leaf and star anise.
Garnish with chopped cilantro or Thai basil and serve.
-- Adapted from "Into The Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors" by Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed, 2006,)
First Published February 18, 2010 12:00 am