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A pot full of pleasure

Although it seems strange to think about having a relationship with an appliance, I get it. I rely on my coffee pot, have a love-hate relationship with my washing machine and adore my convection oven.

It is my slow cooker that has my back. It is the low tech, plug and play, time-saving device that makes life a little easier when supper is ready to go after a long day of work.

Not only is it a time and stress saver, it is also an energy and money saver. The longer cooking times break down tougher cuts of meat, which are usually cheaper to buy.

Most recipes don’t require much preparation beyond adding the ingredients and plugging in the slow cooker. However, there are a few tips to enhance flavour and ensure success.

Brown the meat before adding it to the slow cooker. This does add a step to the process but browning protein and reducing sugars in carbohydrates causes the Maillard reaction, which creates those tasty brown bits in the saute pan. It also seals in extra flavour.

If browning meat, add it to the slow cooker immediately and start the cooking process. It is not food safe to store browned meat that is only partial cooked overnight, even in the refrigerator.

Some herbs and spices lose their flavours during the long cooking time so check seasoning during the last hour of cooking and adjust accordingly.

Don’t peek. Lifting the lid can add up to 15 or 20 minutes to the cooking time. Only look when checking for doneness.

Always defrost meat and poultry before adding to slow cooker. Defrosting meat in the slow cooker is not considered safe because it has the potential to be too long at a temperature where bacteria can grow.

Watch the amount of liquids. In some recipes, the liquid may not cover the ingredients when assembling but they will increase as cooking progresses causes food to release their juices.

Ensure that there is at least two inches (5 cm) of space between the top of the food and the rim of the slow cooker.

Check cooking times. One complaint about slow cookers is that they overcook food. One issue that contributes to this is that slow cookers vary from manufacturer to manufacturer so some might cook faster than others.

This is why you see a large range in the cooking times of six to eight hours for most recipes. Once you get to know your slow cooker, you will be able to judge this better.

For the best flavour, keep the skin on chicken and turkey parts. It can be removed after cooking if desired but keeping it on will add a lot more flavour.

Dried beans and chickpeas must be softened before cooking or they will not cook. Simmer beans for at least 10 minutes on the stovetop before draining and adding to the slow cooker.

Cook pasta to tender but firm on the stovetop before adding to the slow cooker.

Uncooked rice can be added straight to the slow cooker but you will want to add 1/4 cup (60 mL) of extra liquid per 1/4 cup (60 mL) of rice unless this is accounted for in the recipe already.

Check that meat and poultry dishes have reached a safe internal temperature with a food thermometer. Never leave cooked food in the slow cooker to be cooled, and leftovers should never be reheated in the slow cooker.

Watch when you add certain ingredients. Add milk, cream and sour cream near the end of cooking to avoid separation.

Bell peppers, especially green ones, and paprika and chili powder can become bitter during long cooking times. Add them near the end of cooking.

Other ingredients like peas, zucchini and edamame can discolour during long cooking times so also add them at the end.

Here are a few recipe ideas from my favourite slow cooker cookbooks.

Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic

  • 1 tbsp. vegetable oil 15 mL
  • 8 chicken thighs
  • 40 cloves garlic, whole (about 4 heads)
  • 1/2 tsp. crumble dried thyme 2 mL
  • 1/2 tsp. crumbled dried rosemary 2 mL
  • 1/4 tsp. crumbled dried sage 1 mL
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper 1 mL
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 c. chicken broth 250 mL
  • 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour 45 mL
  • 2 tbsp. minced fresh parsley 30 mL

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat, brown chicken. Transfer to slow cooker.
Drain fat from skillet. Fry garlic, thyme, rosemary, sage, pepper and salt over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until garlic is pale golden, about five minutes. When the meal is cooked, garlic will be soft.
Add broth, bring to boil, scraping up brown bits from bottom of skillet. Scrape into slow cooker and stir to combine.
Cover and cook on low until juices run clear when chicken is pierced, about four hours. Skim off fat. Move chicken and garlic to one side of slow cooker. In a small bowl, whisk flour with 1/4 cup (60 ml) water, whisk into liquid in slow cooker. Stir to redistribute ingredients.
Cover and cook on high until thickened, about 15 minutes. (Make ahead: Let cool for 30 minutes. Refrigerate, uncovered, in airtight containers until cold. Cover and refrigerate for up to one day or freeze up to one month.) Sprinkle with parsley. Makes four servings Source:Canadian Living Slow Cooker Collection by Elizabeth Baird and the Canadian Living Test Kitchen.

Cranberry Borscht

  • 6 medium beets, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch (1 cm) cubes
  • leaves from beets, washed, coarsely chopped and set aside in refrigerator
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 can condensed beef broth (undiluted) 284 mL
  • 4 c. water 1 L
  • 1 tsp. salt 5 mL
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper 2 mL
  • 1 c. cranberries 250 mL
  • 2 tbsp. granulated sugar 30 mL
  • zest and juice of one orange
  • sour cream
  • chopped dill (optional)

In a slow cooker stoneware, combine beets, garlic, beef stock, water, salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low for eight to 10 hours, until vegetables are tender.
Add cranberries, sugar, orange zest and juice and beet leaves. Cover and cook on high for 30 minutes or until cranberries are popping from their skins.
In a blender or food processor, puree soup in batches. If serving cold, transfer to a large bowl and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.
When ready to serve, spoon into individual bowls, top with sour cream and garnish with dill if using.
This soup can be served hot or cold.Serves six to eight. Source:The 150 Best Slow Cooker Recipes by Judith Finlayson.

Greek stew with feta

  • 3 lb. stewing beef cubes 1.5 kg
  • 7 small onions 750 g
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can tomatoes 796 mL
  • 1/2 c. beef broth 125 mL
  • 1 can tomato paste 156 mL
  • 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar 30 mL
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano 10 mL
  • 1/2 tsp. salt 2 mL
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper 2 mL
  • 1/2 c. all-purpose flour 125 mL
  • 1 sweet green pepper, diced<
  • 1/2 c. crumbled feta cheese 125 mL
  • 2 tbsp. minced fresh parsley 30 mL

Trim beef and cut into one inch (2.5 cm) cubes, place in a slow cooker. (I browned the meat in canola oil before adding to the slow cooker.)
Cut onions lengthwise into wedges, leaving root end intact, add to slow cooker along with garlic and tomatoes.
Combine beef broth, tomato paste, vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper and pour into slow cooker. Stir to combine.
Cover and cook on low until beef is tender, about eight to nine hours. Skim off any fat. Move beef and vegetables to one side of the slow cooker.
In a small bowl, whisk flour with 1/2 cup (125 mL) cold water, whisk in 1/2 cup (125 mL) of hot liquid. Whisk back into liquid in slow cooker. Stir to redistribute ingredients.
Stir in green pepper, cover and cook on high until thickened, about 10 minutes. (Make ahead: omit green pepper until time to reheat. Let cool for 30 minutes. Refrigerate, uncovered, in airtight container until cold. Cover and refrigerate for up to three days or freeze for up to one month.) Sprinkle with feta and parsley.
Makes six to eight servings. Source: Canadian Living Slow Cooker Collection by Elizabeth Baird and the Canadian Living Test Kitchen.

Pulled pork with smoked paprika lime oil

Pulled Pork

  • 1 lb. pork tenderloin 500 g
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin 7 mL
  • 1/4 tsp. salt 1 mL
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper 1 mL
  • 2 tsp. canola oil 10 mL
  • 1 medium red onion, cut into 12 wedges
  • 1 medium jalapeno, seeded and minced
  • 1/2 c. water 125 mL

Smoked Paprika Lime Sauce

  • 1 tbsp. canola oil 15 mL
  • 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice 30 mL
  • 1 medium garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika 5 mL
  • 1/4 tsp. salt 1 mL

Assembly

  • 8 soft corn tortillas
  • 4 c. shredded lettuce 1 L
  • 1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro 60 mL
  • 1 medium lime, cut into 8 wedges

Sprinkle pork with cumin, salt and pepper. In skillet, heat two teaspoons (10 mL) canola oil over medium-high heat. Brown pork for two minutes, turn and cook other side for two minutes.
In slow cooker, add onion, jalapeno and water. Add pork and cook 3 1/2 hours on high setting or seven hours on low setting or until pork is fork tender.
In small bowl, whisk together all ingredients for smoked paprika lime sauce. Set aside.
Transfer pork to cutting board, leaving onion mixture in slow cooker. Let pork stand three minutes. Shred meat using two forks and stir back into onion mixture.
Warm tortillas according to package directions. Top with equal amounts of shredded lettuce and pulled pork. Stir paprika mixture and spoon evenly over tortillas and top with cilantro. Serve with lime wedges. Makes four servings. Source: www.canolainfo.org.

Bacon, artichoke and spinach dip

  • 9 slices bacon, chopped
  • 1 tbsp. vegetable oil 15 mL
  • 1/2 c. finely chopped onion 125 mL
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. sweet smoked paprika 2 mL
  • 2 c. packed baby spinach, chopped 500 mL
  • 1 can artichokes, drained and finely chopped 398 mL
  • 3/4 c. grated parmesan cheese 175 mL
  • 1/2 c. sour cream 125 mL
  • 1/2 c. mayonnaise 125 mL
  • 1 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice 15 mL

Use a two-to four-quart slow cooker. In a skillet, cook bacon over medium-high heat until crispy. Using a slotted soup spoon, transfer bacon to a bowl. Cover and refrigerate.
Drain fat from skillet and wipe clean with a paper towel. Add oil to skillet and heat over medium heat, add onion, garlic and paprika, then cook, stirring, for three minutes.
Scrape into slow cooker. Add artichoke, spinach, parmesan, sour cream, mayonnaise and lemon juice, stir well.
Cover and cook on high for 1 1/2 to two hours, until hot and bubbly. Stir well. Add reserved bacon and stir until heated through.
Makes about three cups (750 mL). Source: Best of Bridge Slow Cooker Cookbook.

Dorothy Long is a home economist in the agrifood trade and former greenhouse grower from Lloydminster, Sask. She writes a blog at prairiekitchencompanion.blogspot.ca. Contact: food@producer.com.

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