When it comes to cooking, I'm a purist. Sure, I have a drawer full of gadgets most people have never seen -- a manger pitter, a larding needing, a liqueur injector, a lichee nut knife -- but I use a charcoal grill, don't own a bread machine or a hot dog steamer and, until a few weeks ago, had never used a slow cooker.
I've been noticing the number of recipes on cooking programs and in various culinary magazines that use a slow cooker and wondered if I was missing something. I'd eaten some truly bad crock pot dinners during my college years and never felt the need to sample them again. Then Amazon offered me the top rated (per America's Test Kitchen) slow cooker for almost 50% off. I couldn't resist the bargain. And can always sell it on eBay if need be.
I chose Asian Short Ribs for my first foray into slow cooking. With lavish amounts of ginger, garlic, and brown sugar, as well as soy sauce, sesame oil and bok choy, who could resist? Never one to blindly follow orders, I tweaked the recipe by browning the ribs first and deglazing with a little sake which I threw into the pot. Deelish!
With one success under my belt, I wondered if I could adjust old-time family favourites to a slow cooker. After consulting a couple of recipes to judge how much liquid to add -- I'm always amazed at how little you use -- I experimented with the secret family recipe for spaghetti sauce and meatballs. Again, I browned the meatballs first, deglazed (red wine this time) and tossed everything in the pot. Another success.
As I sit typing, the aromas of onion, ginger and curry are wafting into my office from the Chicken Tagine in my slow cooker. Fingers crossed.
There seem to be two distinct groups of slow cooker users - those who work all day and need something ready when they get home and those whose interest in slow cooking is the quality that slow cooking adds to many foods. I understand that the beauty of a slow cooker is the ability to just throw everything in and walk away for 8 to 10 hours, but I think you lose a lot of flavour. And while I appreciate the luxury of uninterrupted hours in which to write, I also value the taste of every meal I cook.
So what have I learned so far:
- brown your meat first - not always, but usually -- and deglaze
- add soy sauce, tomato paste and dried porcini mushrooms for hearty flavours
- don't skimp on onion, garlic, and herbs as long, moist cooking mutes their flavours
- use your slow cooker judiciously: it's not for everything!