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Simmer Down

The slow cooker is a blast from the past, and a boon for the modern kitchen

 

 

By Laura Leon

Somewhere recently I saw an article touting the top food trends of 2007. First among them was slow cooking, which at first I thought was a reference to the “slow food” movement, which was begun a few years back as a resistance to fast food and a rescue of local and regional traditions. Then I saw the illustration, that of a squat ceramic cookpiece with a glass top, and I realized in an ah so moment that this is the return of the Crock-Pot.

Look back in your past, at least if you’re in your 40s, and you’ll probably remember your mother extolling the virtues of the Crock-Pot (which is a registered trademark; in cookbooks and on Web sites, the device also is commonly referred to, generically, as a crockpot). The energy crunch and recession of the early ’70s gave my parents carte blanche to re-option the ways of their Depression-era youth. Soon, our formica counter in our kitchen was home to an unwieldy monstrosity that we were warned to stay away from, and under no circumstances, ever, were we to open the lid. Fear of imminent explosion was enough to keep her ever-hungry brood away—no easy feat, as we were usually furtively sneaking spaghetti sauce or chili while either simmered away—but it also gave rise to our inherent suspicion over both the device and whatever came out of it, even if it did taste good.

When I struck out on my own, my mother gave me those three devices every girl needs with which to conquer the world: a coffee maker, a mixer, and a Crock-Pot. While the first two wore out before long, the Crock-Pot sat in a closet, over time joined by the many cookbooks Mom sent along to help me use it. The books themselves were simply ghastly, unappealing in their proud-to-be-low-budget way, and the recipes therein were similarly awful-sounding. Lots of Velveeta, canned soups, and powdered packets, as I remember, made up the bulk of the ingredients list. At some point, I just threw the Crock-Pot in the trash can.

Then, years later, here I am with four kids, two travel soccer teams, a full-time job, a rule about home-cooked meals, and very little time. My Martha Stewart Everyday Food magazine gave me the first idea, that perhaps ridding myself of the Crock-Pot had been unwise. During the holiday season a few years back, an issue included four recipes to be cooked in what is now more commonly known as the slow cooker. (Besides the trademark issue, this marketing shift may also reflect that fact that the word crockpot sounds, well, silly. Or maybe it’s the similarity to Betty Crocker.) Still, the device is a large ceramic cooking pot, which is inserted into a sort of canister, often decorated with Amish or ’70s-looking flowers, though more and more is made of stainless steel. Today’s slow cooker comes in different sizes, but generally speaking, it’s a big, cumbersome piece of equipment.

So, I bought one. And while it made me somewhat nervous to leave the device on, unattended, for up to eight hours, it more than proved its mettle when our tired and famished family returned late one night from a soccer game. There, in front of us, was the handy slow cooker, its glass lid nice and steamy, and all around us was the aroma of a very good dinner. Suddenly, busy weeks with evening soccer games became cause for hauling out the slow cooker; but while everybody liked the results, I soon got bored with my four Everyday Food recipes.

Only very recently has it become somewhat easier to find recipes for the slow cooker that I would even consider. By that I mean recipes for the types of food I would normally make, or, in my mother’s words, “fancy schmantzy.” In other words, hold the canned cream-of-mushroom soup, etc. Slow cookers are very good for turning lower-priced cuts of meat like beef brisket or pork shoulder into amazingly tender, even elegant dishes, but people of my generation aren’t necessarily adept at translating a “regular” recipe to something that works in the slow cooker. After asking several “old timers” (sorry, sis) and other foodies for advice, I’ve determined that, in translating a recipe for use in the slow cooker, the amount of liquid needs to be reduced by almost a quarter, and fresh herbs by half. Still, there’s the tricky timing factor.

While I continue to work that one out, I have been lucky enough to begin finding better recipes in a variety of sources. Everyday Food typically has at least one if not two issues per year that contain a few, and the Food Network’s Web site lists hundreds of possibilities. In sorting out what works and what doesn’t, I find I’m getting closer to the source of what cooking is about, about understanding the very nature of ingredients and how they break down. Interestingly, my explorations with the slow cooker have inspired me to reread whole sections of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, especially those that relate to how meats and vegetables break down with heat.

I’m constantly amazed at the utter simplicity of throwing into the crock wedges of onion and potato, stewed tomatoes, whole garlic cloves, rosemary, salt and pepper, and beef chuck, turning the darn thing on, and coming home hours later to a sumptuous stew. OK, full disclosure: With meats like beef and pork, I prefer to brown first in olive oil atop the stove, just because I like the looks and taste of the nice brown crust that envelops. I sometimes do that with vegetables, particularly if I’m doing a vegetarian main course. And with regard to just pushing a button, depending on when my family is going to eat, I might get everything ready to go, then have my husband stop home from his nearby office to flip the switch at the appropriate moment.

Regarding those vegetarian main courses, I lucked into a handy cookbook for such recently, and began trying some of the recipes out on my family. The black-bean chili and vegetarian lasagna were remarkably moist and velvety, but some recipes were too dry. Once again, my slow cooker is goading me into research—in this case, figuring out how to add or replace the moisture and flavors that, in other recipes, might come from the juices of meat proteins. One part family cook, one part mad scientist.

A recent Gourmet magazine features an article by Jane Smiley in which she writes about how her Crock-Pot inspired her to use up odd tidbits of cheese and potatoes in her larder. She, too, has made a few culinary missteps along the way, but more often, has been happily rewarded by a meal fit for a queen, with very little effort. Interestingly, I also recently came across an article called “Fast Slow Cooking,” and had to laugh—why would one wish to instill a misguided sense of urgency in the art of slow cooking? While it was some sort of urgency that brought me to the point at which I considered, and then purchased, my slow cooker, its underlying purpose has been to provide us with a richly deserved reward, combining nurture and virtue with a big helping of yum, at the end of a long day of doing other things. This is not your mother’s Crock-Pot, but then again, in a certain very real sense, it is.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Parisi’s Steakhouse (11 N. Broadway, Schenectady) features selections from the Finger Lakes-based Hosmer Winery during its Wine Tasting Dinner at 7 PM on Monday (March 5). The five-course dinner features five wines, beginning with a crisp pinot noir to accompany Cajun shrimp bruschetta. Ravioli Bolognese with a cabernet franc and bacon-wrapped filet mignon paired with a hearty Estate Red are among the courses. The cost is $55 plus tax and tip. For more info and reservations, call the restaurant at 374-0100, or e-mail enjoyparisi at nycap.rr.com. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food at banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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