January 12, 2006
Food: Cooking up a pot of delayed gratification
Crock pots: the poor man’s personal chef
By Amy Diaz firstname.lastname@example.org
Crock pots are not cool.
Despite the reemergence of other once-popular kitchen appliances (the fondue pot, the waffle iron which is now called George Foreman Grill or sandwich maker), crock pots, also known by the equally unglamorous term “slow cookers,” have not found a way to be hiply reinvented for the food-geek crowd. Surprising, really, as it allows people to do what they say they want to do: eat home-cooked meals as soon as they get home from work. And yet the words “crock pot” still conjure up images of beef stew and Carol Brady haircuts.
The beef stew image is not unfairly earned. After all, open damn near any crock pot cookbook from the 1970s or 1980s and you get what looks very much like several dozen recipes for beef stew.
I fished Crockery Cookery, by Mable Hoffman (HP Books, 1983), off the shelf at a used-book store. It offers recipes for many variations of meat with gravy, meat with potatoes and gravy, meat with other vegetables and gravy, and chili. The book is helpful, however, in explaining the basics of crock pot cooking:
• There are usually two settings—low (about 200 degrees) and high (about 300 degrees).
• An hour on high equals about two hours on low.
• The longer you cook stuff the softer it gets.
• If your away time is going to be longer than the cooking time of your meal, get a timer to turn it on while you’re not there.
• Accept that, for the better recipes, some pre-mealtime prep will be required (usually, however, it is limited to cooking pasta or rice).
What follows in Crockery are a lot of meat-heavy, pre-discovery-of-ethnic-foods dishes that, essentially, are a variation on braising. In traditional braising methods, you put meat, a small bit of liquid, some herbs, spices and vegetables (yes, very stew-reminiscent) in a pan, cover it and cook it on low heat in an oven for maybe four or five hours. Crock pots essentially put the oven on the countertop and draw out the process a little longer.
It’s the little longer part that attracted me to my $20 Crock pot, purchased recently in an attempt to eat more soup without having to take time off work to do it. Instead of spending two hours in the evening preparing and cooking the soup, putting my mealtime at 9 p.m., my plan was to move the prep time to late evening and let the cooking happen without me all the next day.
If dinner is a love affair with food, cooking dinner is flirtation.
You become slowly enthralled with your dish, charmed by its components, bewitched by the fragrances as it cooks.
Preparing a crock pot dinner — one you make in the late evening or early morning for the dinner some 12 hours away — is like writing love letters to help a friend win over the boy of her dreams. Sure, there’s romance, but it doesn’t really involve you. In fact, making a mess of your kitchen at 10 p.m. or browning meat at 7 a.m. can have the exact opposite effect of getting you all jazzed about your coming meal. Hence, I suppose, all those low-prep stew recipes.
My first crock pot outing was with a butternut squash and pumpkin soup I make on a fairly regular basis. I did all my chopping and sautéing in the morning, dumped everything in the pot and that evening when I came home at 10 p.m., my soup was warm and wonderfully seasoned and required nothing more of me than that I spoon it into a bowl.
It was also, I have to say, rather soupy. One of the things to remember about a crock pot is that, unlike soup on the stove, where boiling and varying stages of lid on and lid off lead to a cooking down of ingredients, the amount of liquid you start with in a crock pot is more or less the amount of liquid you end up with. If you like your soups of a heartier consistency, adjust ingredients according.
From the tester soup I moved on to recipes specifically designed for the crock pot. My next outing was Thai chicken and coconut soup, which I got out of the Better Homes and Gardens Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes. This recipe required a moderate amount of prep and turned out edible but unspectacular (too much broth, too little everything else). It did, however, teach me two valuable lessons:
1) crock pot recipes frequently claim to make four to six servings. They are not kidding about this nor are they measuring out skimpy servings. The four-to-six-servings Thai chicken soup had a good three to four servings left after four healthy servings were scooped out.
2) crock pots are super for slow-cooked suppers on weeknights when the constraints of a normal 9 a.m.-to-6 p.m. job require you to begin cooking before you leave for the day. On weekends, slow cookery can leave you eating dinner at 9 p.m. if you don’t get cracking on the meal by 1 p.m.
Hooked on pot
Get over the fantasy that the crock pot is some sort of magical robot that will prepare and plate your dinners for you (though, really, who wouldn’t buy that crock pot?) and the appliance becomes one heck of a nifty kitchen addition.
My next pot meals came from The Gourmet Slow Cooker, a cookbook that requires a little more in the way of effort and exotic ingredients but pays off with more interesting flavors and textures. A chicken with chile and peanut sauce was a bright delicious meal that worked well with instant rice (I know, it’s wrong but it takes you from grains to fluffy meal complement in five minutes).
A pork and tomatillo stew turned out even better, with rich spiciness and a wonderful aroma. Good thing, too, because that recipe required vegetable roasting, meat browning and some fun with the food processor the evening before. Anything less than a better meal than I could get at my local sub shop and I would have chucked Gourmet Slow Cooker into the once-in-a-while cookbook pile.
But girl cannot live on subs alone nor can girl reasonably expect herself to cook a full-blown roasted tomatillo meal after 12 hours of work. If my stylin’ red crock pot can get me eating better with no more work than a standard dinner, it’s worth a little delayed gratification. After all, if you wait long enough between prep and dinner, you can almost pretend a robot chef did all your cooking. Ah, robot chef, best $20 I ever spent..
Pumpkin and Butternut squash soup
1 red bell pepper, chopped fine
3 shallots, chopped fine
8 sage leaves
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. allspice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 can pumpkin
1 quart butternut squash soup
1/2 cup chicken stock
extra virgin olive oil
pumpkin seeds or crushed walnuts
Cover bottom of frying pan with extra virgin olive oil and heat on medium. Briefly sautée garlic. Remove from heat. Add shallots and sage leaves and swirl pan to coat with oil and garlic.
Into crock pot, put butternut squash soup, spices, garlic-shallot sauté, bell pepper and salt and pepper to taste. In a separate bowl, mix pumpkin puree and broth. Mix the pumpkin mixture into the butternut mixture and stir. Set on low, at least four hours but for as long as 12 hours.
Serve and garnish with seeds or crushed walnuts and crumbles of gorgonzola cheese.
Cooking with the crock pot is fairly easy.
Finding interesting recipes is a little more difficult.
As the hip modern-cuisine cookbooks for slow cookers are few and far between, some improvisation is needed to get the types of food you’re used to. Start by looking at existing recipes for things that, after initial prep, spend an hour or more in the oven (lasagnas and other casseroles). Anything that requires braising can also be made in a slow cooker, though remember that some browning of meat will be required either before or after its time in the pot.
Of the field of slow cooker cookbooks on the market, here are the two most helpful ones I found:
Better Homes and Gardens Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes, edited by Chuck Smothermon and Carrie Holcomb Mills (Meredith Books, 2002, 416 pages). This was, in fact, the biggest book of slow cooker recipes available at the bookstore. It offers a variety of recipes (lots of stews, soups, meat dishes, yes, but also a good deal of vegetable dishes). Easy-to-follow instructions and common ingredients with listings for cook-times on both low and high offer a good jumping-off point for new-to-slow-cooker cooks who want low-effort, high-flavor dishes.
The Gourmet Slow Cooker: Simple and Sophisticated Meals from Around the World, by Lynn Alley (Ten Speed Press, 2003, 108 pages). When the simple soup no longer challenges you enough, check out this book. Like any more exotic meal, these dishes require a little bit more work ahead of time. But, if you’re willing to broil a few peppers or brown a few lamb shanks, you get some terrific dishes from Mexico, France, Greece and India. Best of all, Alley pairs each dish with a wine — now that’s my kind of crock pot chef.
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