I like my slow cooker. I was a little late to the slow cooking game, having never encountered one until I moved in with The Boy, but once I got the gist of it, I embraced the slow cooker for all its wonderful qualities. After all, slow cookers allow you to eat a hot meal without unduly heating up the kitchen during the summer, they make amazingly tender, flavourful work of roasts and ribs, allow you to cook stuff overnight for a warm breakfast, and — most obviously — they do the grunt work of making dinner for you while you’re out of the house during the day. It is truly wonderful to come home, exhausted from work, to a kitchen that smells like tasty food, and know that dinner is pretty much ready to go.
We actually have two cookers: The Boy’s, gifted to him by his mom when he left home, a large 6-quart oval beast that mostly we pull out for ribs or massive stews, and a much smaller round one (1.5 quarts) that I bought for $10 at a back-to-school sale on a whim. Despite the fact that I’m only cooking for two people, that small one sometimes really is too small. Thus, I regularly dither at garage sales over medium-sized ones (maybe 3.5 or 4 quarts) before deciding that I would feel too guilty owning not one, not two, but three slow cookers that I barely ever use.
That’s right. After singing the praises of the slow cooker, I come to my shameful confession: despite knowing that they are convenient and energy-efficient, and produce healthy, toothsome meals… I have to admit that aside from soups or stews (well, or ribs) I never know what to do with them. So I broke out my slow cookers maybe once a month (…maybe) to make soup on a day that I knew we’d be pressed for time in the evening. Or maybe, inspired anew to pull it out of hibernation, I’d make a beef stew. Once I tried a rosemary white bean dish that was quite good, if not really our usual style, and another time I tried a macaroni and cheese recipe that, while not bad, isn’t something I’d eagerly embrace on a regular basis. In an effort to give the small one some regular action, I tried — several times — to make overnight oatmeal. With fruit and without, with milk and without. Spices, sugar, dried fruit; it didn’t matter. All my attempts ended up in the green bin*. In the end, the slow cookers wound up back on their shelves because, really? How often can one eat stews or soups — especially when I quite like making soup on the stovetop?
* If you’re wondering, my oatmeal quest ended when I discovered baked oatmeal which, although it can not be made overnight, has the redeeming quality of keeping well in the fridge for a few days, thus making it a pretty good Sunday-brunch-and-next-week-breakfast option.
And yet, I kept reading about how versatile slow cookers are, how some people use them at least twice a week. Several bloggers have year-long slow cooker projects where they use them daily! Clearly, it was time for me to get some guidance. So I got Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook out and gave it a shot.
In all, I tried seven recipes out of the 350 in the book. Some (like the oatmeal ones!) I just wasn’t about to try (although I am considering using the slow cooker the next time I make congee). Mostly what I was interested in was recipes that weren’t primarily liquids (i.e. soups or stews). The book is helpfully broken down into chapters by food type (breakfast gruels, sauces, lentils and rice dishes, chilis, a whole host of meat chapters, etc.) and although I found there to be a fair amount of repetition (how many bean recipes does one really need?), I thought the variety of the chapter headings was quite encouraging.
In spite of that, however, I naturally started off my testing with not one, but two soup recipes. First up: Vegetarian Split Pea Soup, specifically, the split and fresh pea variation. It’s cold up here, and I quite like this staple normally, although I do usually throw a ham bone in for flavouring. Still, I stuck to the recipe and… adding in those peas at the end was not a good decision. Pea soup is great because the dried peas have a quieter flavour, letting the taste of the broth and other veggies (and ham, if you’re using it) through. Throw frozen peas into the mix and all you taste is fresh peas. Good in the summer, maybe, but really disappointing as a hearty winter soup. Fail.
Next, albeit feeling kind of grim, I could not resist trying The Easiest French Onion Soup. For this, basically you’re using the slow cooker to caramelize the onions (on high, for 8 or 9 hours) then at the end you throw some broth and maybe wine in and, while waiting for the cooker to heat those up, you toast some bread, grate some cheese, and ready your ramekins. A quick hit under the broiler, and you have cheesey, melty, unctuous onion soup. This one delivered fabulously. (The Boy’s feedback to me was: The soup is good, but next time? Way more cheese.)
Thus encouraged, I turned my experimentation to a rice dish. I was quite excited to see some recipes for brown rice, because as much as I’d like to, I do find it difficult — mostly due to the longer cook time, but also partially due to The Boy disapproving of it if he can see that it’s brown rice — to incorporate it into our meals on a regular basis. The slow cooker is actually a great way to cook brown rice though, because it’s such a slow, moist mode of cooking. So, I made Spanish Brown Rice with Spicy Sausage and… it ended up far soupier than I’d expected. In fact, I stirred in half a cup of cooked white rice before serving it just to try to sop up some of the liquid. Not sure if I would increase the rice or decrease the tomatoes in another attempt, but I would definitely change something. Flavour-wise, it was a little like a very tomato-ey gumbo. Not bad, but nothing special. The Boy stated that he quite liked the flavour, but that the texture was way too mushy. Personally, I had been hoping for a much drier, almost pilaf-like consistency. Not a fail, but definitely something that needs fine-tuning; I’m not even sure it can be done.
After that, I tried the Parmesan Risotto. I love risotto, but rarely have the time to do it properly. I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to try a method that might allow me to eat it more often. In this case, the mushiness was okay, as risotto is generally served a little sloppily. Definitely a success (despite The Boy’s protestations of “too much Parmesan!” as if that could happen) but… this was a two-hour cook time. Definitely less work than stovetop risotto, but aside from a weekend, I’m not sure this is really all that much more convenient than making it in a pan.
After that: meatloaf. This one I was pretty excited about because I’d never had meatloaf until The Boy’s mom made us some and I’m still cursing myself for not taking down the recipe. Again, this isn’t really a weeknight recipe since you need to cook it on high for an hour before turning it down to low for the following six or seven. Still, both The Boy and I were surprised at how well it turned out. (His comments? “Next time, less ketchup. And more rice. Also, mustard.”) I admit that from a spice perspective, the meatloaf was a little bland. Personally, my first order of business would be to double the Worcestershire, and throw in some chili flakes. In any case, a success. I was hoping to try a different meatloaf recipe that has you put potatoes in the bottom of the cooker and pile your meatloaf in on top, but sadly the book reached its due date back to the library. Ah well.
I could not resist trying out some lamb chunks in the Irish Stew, and although it had way less liquid than I’m used to in a stew*, it was nonetheless delicious. As a bonus, I even overshot the timing on this one, leaving it for around 10 hours when the book called for 7 or 8. Nice to have a little wiggle room.
* In Queenstown, The Boy and I had dinner one night in an Irish pub and I’d ordered the lamb stew (it was New Zealand!) only to be disappointed by (as I saw it) a dish of chunks with just a tiny bit of broth at the bottom. Given that that pretty much describes this stew, maybe that’s just the way Irish stews are? Don’t know, but I’m upping the liquid (if only at the end, so i don’t intfere with the braise) next time I make it!
Lastly, I figured I should give something from their dessert section a shot. I’ve made a chocolate peanut butter “cake” in a slow cooker before and wasn’t impressed, but gave the Hot Fudge Spoon Cake a try. The method is something like a chocolate pouding au chomeur — a thick batter baked up in a syrup to produce a moist, spongey cake — and it worked beautifully, filling the house with a wonderful, chocolatey smell. That said, the recipe itself was not nearly rich enough for me. What I’d change? The chocolate called for and the way the syrup is made, but there is definitely potential here. As with the risotto, though, this is a two-hour (well, two and a half, if you count the “rest time” after it’s done) recipe, so… why wouldn’t I just use the oven?
One thing I did like was the authors’ comment that (for the most part), slow cooker crocks, while not good with drastic temperature changes (i.e. don’t keep it in the fridge all night, then put it in your cooker and turn it on), they are heat-proof ceramic containers — perfect for oven use. It had never occured to me to roast something in my slow cooker insert, or use the smaller one for bread proofing, and possibly even baking. I admittedly haven’t tried either, but I can see definite benefits of, for example, roasting meat and veggies for an hour or so, then putting the whole thing in the crock and adding broth to make a really flavourful soup. You get the idea.
In the end, I would say that although the book got me out of my rut, and did get me thinking about more options for my slow cooker, overall I wasn’t super impressed by the recipes. They are, like many slow cooker recipes I’ve encountered over the years, not bad, but to me taste like a compromise. (Also: like too much sugar and salt.) Yes, I get the convenience of a dinner made for me while I’m out, but the trade-off is knowing that if I could have spent the time to do it on the stove, it would have tasted better. On top of that, for many of the dishes that I did enjoy, they weren’t something I could just throw together in the morning and walk away from anyway. I may change my mind one day, but for right now, unless I’m under extreme time duress, I will always choose the tastier stovetop option.
Maybe I should have been focussing more on meat roasts. Huh.
So where does this leave me with my poor, underworked slow cookers? I’ve not given up; after all, this was only one book. I’m actually quite excited to try some of Stephanie’s recipes. After all, who wouldn’t want to come home to a Thai curry or tasty meatballs? (Although that last one confuses me — the book was quite insistent that any meats to be cooked on “low” should be cooked beforehand (e.g. sausage). I’m no food safety champion, but I don’t want to risk meaty poisoning either. I guess it’s okay if your meat is frozen when it goes in?)
Anyway, I will still be trying to cook one slow cooker meal per week (and if it happens to also be the week’s soup, as with the Irish Stew, then that’s okay), although this will mean a little more time on my part devoted to hunting down promising recipes to try, as I’m definitely not comfortable enough to wing it yet. (Except maybe with that potato-bottomed meatloaf if I’m feeling sassy.) As a bonus, if I manage to keep this up until the spring, I will give myself permission to buy a medium-sized slow cooker, should I find one at a garage sale.
Hurray for ongoing projects!