Friday, January 11, 2013

How my slow cooker got her groove back

On our first Christmas together as Mr. & Mrs., my husband and I received a slow cooker from his parents. While some daughters-in-law might take this as a not-so-subtle 'hint,' being a bit of a geek in the kitchen I couldn't wait to take her for a test drive. I dreamed of tasty, tender beef falling off the bone, hearty stews that begged to curl up with crusty bread and soups and sauces to warm our hearts and bellies all winter long.

What I got on my first few tries were bland, watery excuses for dinner that bordered on inedible. Oh, and I cracked the crock insert within a few weeks of receiving it. Not exactly a winning start to my relationship with my slow cooker.

She went back into the box in the spring and collected dust while we turned our attention to cool, colorful salads and let our grill take center stage during the hot summer months. The following winter, armed with tips on how to make slow cooker dishes that are actually appetizing, I dug my no-longer-shiny-and-new appliance out from the garage and gave her another whirl. And wouldn't you know it? My slow cooker had gotten her groove back.

Especially now that we are mindful to make the most of every dollar, my slow cooker plays a prominent role in our weekly meal planning. Using this kitchen workhorse on a regular basis has not only allowed us to take advantage of inexpensive cuts of meat like roasts and ham hocks, but reduced our electricity bill as we use the oven less. (Our oven is electric, though we dream of gas. Each time we turn it on it costs us at least $1-2 in electricity.)

Should you have a slow cooker that smells more like moth balls than beef bourguignon, here are some bits of advice on how you too can rekindle your love for this trusty kitchen appliance.

  • Brown your meats: Yes, it takes time, but you'll have better results if you do this step prior to placing meats in the slow cooker. Browning on the stove helps the cuts retain their juices and gives the dish more flavor. An exception is the recipe below, in which you basically throw a whole chicken into the slow cooker and let it work it's magic.
  • Don't start with frozen foods: This is how we cracked our first crock. Learn from our mistake.
  • Resist opening the slow cooker while it is cooking: Don't let the heat escape! Let your slow cooker do it's job and enjoy the mouthwatering aromas in the meantime.
  • The liquid ratio is key: Because there is nowhere for steam to escape, your slow cooker retains all of the liquid from a recipe's ingredients. While this can be fantastic for meals like the chicken below, it can be disastrous if a recipe calls for too much broth/water/etc. I err on adding less at the start - you can always add more later if the dish needs it.
Below is what has become my favorite, go-to slow cooker recipe. It is easy, inexpensive and absolutely delicious. Enjoy!

Braised chicken with salsa verde
From The Italian Slow Cooker, by Michele Scicolone
Serves 4

4 large potatoes, thickly sliced
2 carrots, thickly sliced
2 cups 1-inch cubed butternut squash (I should mention that we use whatever veggies we have around - squash, carrots, onions, celery, parsnips, etc. The key is slicing/cubing them thickly.)
1 large onion, sliced
Salt and pepper
1 4-lb chicken
1/2 lemon
4 garlic cloves
1 sprig rosemary

Scatter the vegetables at the bottom of the slow cooker. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the neck and giblets from the chicken along with any excess fat. Reserve giblets for stock.
Sprinkle the chicken inside and out with salt and pepper to taste. Place the chicken in the slow cooker and squeeze half a lemon over the top. Place the lemon half, garlic and rosemary inside the chicken. Salt and pepper the top of the chicken.

Cover and cook on low for 5 hours, or until the chicken is cooked through and the vegetables are tender. Remove the chicken skin before serving.

Salsa Verde

2 1/2 inch thick slices of Italian or French Bread, crusts removed
2 cups packed fresh parsley
1 garlic clove
4 anchovy filets (we have never used these and I don't miss them in the slightest)
3/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
salt & pepper

Soak the bread in warm water for 5 minutes. Drain and squeeze out most of the liquid. In a food processor, combine the parsley, garlic and anchovies (if using) and process until finely chopped. Add the soaked bread. With the machine running, drizzle in the oil and lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the chicken and serve on top of the vegetables. Top with the salsa verde. Leftover salsa verde can be used throughout the week with fish, as a spread for bread, etc.

1 comment:

  1. I have have had the same slow cooker struggles in the past and have a limited number of go-to recipes. I'm so excited to try this and add another to the list. Thanks!