Friday, March 7, 2014

The right way to slow cook

What is it about the slow cooker lately? Clearly, its convenience and ability to produce easy one-pot meals makes it a great, inexpensive item for every kitchen. I must admit that for the longest time, I thought of the slow cooker as a sort of relic - a throwback to a time when American cuisine was unadventurous and unexciting - and mine sat in the far reaches of a kitchen shelf for the longest time. But these days I am seeing every cooking website and magazine imaginable boasting their favorite slow cooker recipes! What's going on? It seems the slow cooker has come back.

And you know what, that's fine by me, because last year I actually got mine out again and started using it. There is a trick though, to ensuring that these one-pot meals turn out with a maximum of flavor.

Be forewarned: though you may think slow cooking is as easy as piling everything into the cooker and turning it on, that's not the best way to achieve the most flavor out of the foods that go into it. To do that, go one step further by browning the meat and vegetables in a saute pan before putting them in. The carmelization that comes from browning on the stovetop cannot be achieved in the slow cooker, and that is what adds so much flavor to the dish.

If you have a slow cooker and you are only cooking out of the recipe guide that came with it, you are missing out. I have yet to find a recipe in there that really stands out (although you usually can't go wrong with your basic chili). I found a lovely cookbook called "The Gourmet Slow Cooker" by Lynn Alley, from which I have many numerous recipes, and I've enjoyed nearly every one I've tried. If you need some inspiration for your slow cooker, I highly recommend it.

I have 3 favorites from the book that I wanted to share with you: Baked Eggplant, Greek Bean Soup, and Provencal Chicken Stew. It's the Baked Eggplant that I plan to make again this weekend that prompted this post. I serve it along with numerous "mezze" (Middle Eastern appetizers or nibbles). I will scoop up the eggplant with sliced veggies, and have feta cheese, kalamata olives, roasted peppers handy. If you eat bread, warmed pita is perfect, or crackers. It's all vegetarian, fantastically flavored, and makes for a light supper.

Baked Eggplant

1/2 cup olive oil
2 large or 3 medium eggplants, peeled and cut into cubes
3 cloves garlic, pressed
juice of 1 lemon
extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley for garnish
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves for garnish (optional)
4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled, for garnish (1 scant cup)

Pour 1/4 cup of the olive oil into the slow cooker and rotate to coat the bottom. Add the eggplant and the remaining oil and toss lightly. Cover and cook on high for about 2 hours or on low for about 5 hours, until the eggplant is quite mushy. Stir 2-3 times during cooking.

Add the garlic, lemon juice, and salt to taste, and stir well to break up any large chunks of eggplant (sometimes I puree it if I want a smoother texture, especially if I'm going to be using it as a dip). Transfer to a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with the herbs and feta. Serve warm or at room temperature. Scoop up with pita bread or pita chips.

Greek Bean Soup

2 cups dried white beans
6-8 cups water or chicken stock
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 ham bone (optional)
3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced, or 1 (14.5 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
Leaves from 2 sprigs oregano, coarsely chopped
1 cup packed spinach leaves, young dandelion greens, or arugula
1 Tbsp. salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Rinse and sort the beans. Place them in the slow cooker and add enough of the water/stock to cover. Cover and cook on high for about 2 hours, until the beans begin to soften. Or, better yet, soak the beans with water to cover overnight, the drain, rinse, and transfer to the slow cooker. Add the water/stock to cover.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic and saute, stirring frequently, for 10 min. or until lightly browned. Add the vegetables and ham bone to the beans in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours, until the beans are tender. (At this point, you can puree some of the beans for a thicker consistency if you like).

A few minutes before serving, stir in the tomatoes, oregano, spinach, and salt. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the parsley. Serve immediately.

Provencal Chicken Stew

3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 chicken, cut into serving pieces and skinned
1/4 olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine (sometimes I use red, if I already have that open)
1 (14.5 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
freshly ground black pepper

For garnish:
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
1 cup kalamata olives

Combine the 3/4 cup flour and salt in a resealable bag. Add chicken to the bag, several pieces at a time, and shake to coat completely.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add oil. Add chicken and cook, turning once, for 8-10 min. until browned on all sides. Using tongs, transfer to paper towels to drain, then arrange in the slow cooker.

Set the saute pan over the heat again and add the onions and 2 Tbsp flour. Saute, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Add garlic and stir 2-3 min. Add the wine and stir to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Increase to high heat and add the tomatoes and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes until some of the tomato liquid has evaporated.

Pour the onion mixture over the chicken in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 3-8 hours, until chicken is tender. At 3-4 hours, the chicken will still be firm and hold its shape. At 6-8 hours, the meat will be falling off the bone.

Divide the chicken among dinner plates and garnish with the parsley, basil and olives.

A word about slow cooking safety.
"When cooking large pieces of meat, remember that they will take some time to come to temperature.  Browning the meat in a saute pan before slow cooking can jump-start the heating process and kill any bacteria on the surface of the meat. Don't fill the insert of the slow cooker more than 2/3 full or the food near the top will take too long to cook. Place those ingredients that take longer to cook, such as larger pieces of meat, carrots or potatoes, near the bottom."
And these bits of information I found on wikipedia.
"Cheaper cuts of meat with connective tissue and lean muscle fibre are suitable for stewing, and tastier than stews using expensive cuts, as long slow cooking will soften the connective tissue without toughening the muscle."
"Raw kidney beans, and some other beans, contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin, which is destroyed by boiling for at least ten minutes, but not by the lower temperatures of a slow cooker, so dry beans must be boiled prior to slow cooking to avoid poisoning. Even a few beans can be toxic, and beans can be as much as five times more toxic if cooked at 175°F (80°C) than if eaten raw, so adequate pre-boiling is vital. Cases of poisoning by slow-cooked beans have been published in the UK, poisoning has occurred in the US but has not been formally reported."
Some websites highlighting their favorite slow cooker recipes:, and Food

If you have a favorite slow cooker recipe you'd like to share, please do!

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