Low and slow
By Jackie Burrell
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Slow cookers — those retro workhorses of yore — are surging back to popularity. Gone are the days of cream of mushroom soup-coated roasts, simmered into bland oblivion. Now, foods as fresh and complex as creamy risottos and braised Basque chicken have ended up in the slow cooker and the results are downright yummy.
But talk to any professional chef, including three who have penned recent cookbooks on the art of slow cooker cuisine, and chances are, you'll hear sheepish confessions.
"I have to be honest. It wasn't my go-to for a long, long time," says Cordon Bleu-trained Diane Phillips, author of "The Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever" (Chronicle Books, 544 pages, $24.95).
"Some of the food in these (old) cookbooks is really disgusting," she says. "The dump-and-run theory is really what has turned a lot of people off."
It took a bout of physical therapy — and the upheaval that the schleps to rehab wrought on dinner prep — to motivate Phillips, a San Diego-based chef who teaches classes several times a year at Draeger's cooking schools in San Mateo, Menlo Park, Los Altos and Danville, Calif.
"When I finally figured out what it took — well, this thing is really pretty great, and no one knows it," Phillips says. "I preach the slow-cooker gospel now."
The trick is to put in extra effort on the front end. What you're doing isn't a dump-and-run, it's a low, slow braise, and that's a culinary technique with a long and beloved history. It's what inspired Michele Scicolone's Crock-Pot epiphany in Rome, too.
"Every day I would pass this restaurant where there was a window, and you could see beans simmering in a wood-burning fireplace," the cookbook author recalls. "I thought, 'If only I could cook that way.' But I live in a Manhattan apartment, so slow cooking ... slow cooking, hmm ... slow cooker!' "
Back stateside, the author of the "Sopranos Family Cookbook" and the new "The Italian Slow Cooker" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pages, $22) bought a Crock-Pot — her first slow cooker ever.
Scicolone was well aware of the disdain many people have for the homely appliance, and she knew how it earned that bad reputation.
"People weren't using fresh stuff," she says. "They were using canned soup or a package of this or that. It's only as good as what you put into it. The first thing I did was make beans. They came out so tender and creamy, just the way I remember having them, infused with the flavors of the herbs and the garlic. Every one was perfectly plump."
The key, say Phillips and Scicolone, lies in browning the meat before you drop it in, cooking with dried herbs, and adding fresh herbs for a last-minute punch of flavor. Suddenly, that slow cooker becomes not just a work horse but the provider of fragrant, braised Basque-style chicken and peppers, tomato-kissed Italian short ribs, kid-friendly tamale pie or pulled pork sliders for that Super Bowl party.
"Ethnic flavors really shine in this kind of cooking," says Phillips. "The French have been doing it low and slow for a long time. The Italians, the Indians, every cuisine has this kind of thing."
There's an economical element, too. Cheap, tough cuts of meat turn fork-tender. And a slow-cooked pork shoulder will yield carnitas, tacos, pork ragu and other dinners all week long.
"If you do that big brisket," says Phillips, "you've got lots of leftovers you can use for other things."
Of course, not everything should go in the pot.
Cooking filet mignon in a slow cooker is a waste of money. Bacon-wrapped scallops are ghastly, says blogger Stephanie O'Dea, whose "Make It Fast, Cook It Slow" (Hyperion Books, 454 pages, $19.99) cookbook has spent the last three weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. And broccoli that has been cooked for eight hours is about as horrible as you'd expect.
But the rest of the menu is fair game. It was creme brulee that turned O'Dea's slow cooker lark — her blog, CrockPot365, chronicled the year she spent using a slow cooker — into something serious.
The next thing O'Dea knew, she was on Rachael Ray's show doing a Crock-Pot creme brulee demo, and her blog was drawing 15,000 visitors a day. Now the blog has turned into a successful cookbook, and O'Dea is working on a second, budget-conscious volume.
"With the state of the economy, the one thing people can control is their food budget — and there's no easier way," she says.
And with a new baby and two young daughters at home, O'Dea keeps her slow cooker at a steady, burbling simmer. She couldn't, she says, live without it.
BRAISED BASQUE CHICKEN
• 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 10 chicken thighs, skin removed
• 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
• 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
• 2 medium onions, sliced into half-rounds
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 2 red and 1 yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
• 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
• 1 cup chicken broth
• 4 ounces Spanish chorizo or sopressata, cut into 1/4-inch dice
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the chicken evenly with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the skillet, in batches, if necessary, and brown on all sides. Transfer the meat to the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker.
Add the onions, garlic, bell peppers, paprika and thyme to the skillet and saute until soft, 7-8 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with the vinegar and broth, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. Add to the slow cooker, along with the chorizo, and stir to combine. Cover and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours (or on high for 3 to 4 hours), until the chicken is tender and cooked through.
— Diane Phillips, "Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever" (Chronicle Books)
For sliders, pile the meat into soft rolls; serve with slaw and baked beans.
• 1/4 cup vegetable oil
• 3/4 cup red wine vinegar
• 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
• 1/4 cup soy sauce
• 2 cups ketchup
• 1 teaspoon garlic powder or garlic salt
• 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
• 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
• 5-pound boneless pork shoulder roast, fat trimmed
• Barbecue sauce for serving
Whisk the oil, vinegar, brown sugar, soy sauce, ketchup, garlic powder, onion and Worcestershire sauce together in a mixing bowl. Pour into a large zipper-top plastic bag. Place the pork in the bag with the marinade, seal the bag and turn the pork to coat. Refrigerate overnight, turning the bag once or twice.
Pour the entire contents of the bag into the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 10 hours, until the pork is fork tender. Remove from slow cooker, cover with foil and let rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, skim off any fat from the sauce.
Using two forks, shred the meat, then return it to the sauce. At this point, the pork may be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 2 months. Serve warm, with additional barbecue sauce.
— "Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever"
For a gluten-free version, substitute a gluten-free baking mix for the flour and baking powder.
• Cooking spray
• 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
• 15-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
• 15 ounce can corn, drained
• 1 tablespoon chili powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1/4 teaspoon paprika
• 3/4 cup diced onion
• 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
• 1/2 cup cornmeal
• 1 3/4 cups flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 cup milk
• 3/4 cup sugar
• 1 large egg
Spray the inside of a 4-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Pour in the filling ingredients — the beans, tomatoes, corn, spices, onion and cheese — and stir well, taking care to evenly distribute the spices.
In a separate bowl, mix the cornbread topping. Pour the batter evenly over the filling, spreading it with a spatula. Cover and cook on low for 4-7 hours, or on high for 2-4 hours.
— Stephanie O'Dea, "Make It Fast, Cook It Slow" (Hyperion)
Per serving: 380 calories, 6 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 68 g carbohydrates, 8 g fiber, 15 g sugars, 15 g protein
COUNTRY-STYLE PORK RIBS WITH TOMATOES AND PEPPERS
• 4 pounds country-style pork ribs
• Salt and freshly ground pepper
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 medium onions, chopped
• 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
• 1/4 cup dry white wine
• 2 tablespoons tomato paste
• 1 cup tomato puree
• 1 teaspoon dried oregano
• 4 medium red bell peppers, seeded, in 1/4-inch slices
Pat ribs dry and sprinkle them with salt and pepper to taste. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add as many ribs as will fit without crowding. Cook the meat, turning occasionally, until nicely browned on all sides. Place the browned ribs in the slow cooker. Repeat until done.
Add the onions and garlic to the skillet and cook 5 minutes, or until softened. Stir in wine and tomato paste and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan, until the liquid begins to simmer. Stir in tomato puree, oregano and salt and pepper to taste.
Scatter the peppers over the pork in the slow cooker. Pour the sauce over the meat. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours or until the meat is tender and coming away from the bones. Discard any loose bones and skim off the fat.
— Michele Scicolone, "The Italian Slow Cooker" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
• 1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
• 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
• 5 cups water (or half water and half broth)
• Additional water, milk, broth or cream, optional
In a large slow cooker, stir together the cornmeal, salt and water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Stir the polenta. If it seems too thick, add a little extra liquid. Cook for 30-60 minutes more, until thick and creamy. Serve hot.
— "The Italian Slow Cooker"