FOR HIS LATEST COOKBOOK, HUGH ACHESON DIGS OUT HIS CROCKPOT—AND HE THINKS YOU SHOULD TOO
You have a slow cooker. Somewhere. Your mother gave it to you when you went away to school. Or you got one for a wedding present from that strange aunt who wears a bright green muumuu every day of her life. Or you got one from your bank for opening a savings account. Maybe it’s in the back of the closet with that cold-press juicer that you used twice, or in the garage under the boxes of old tax returns that you probably could shred by now. You should find it, or if you really can’t find it because it wisped away in the last move or at that potluck you went to down the street four years ago, then go buy one. Because I want you to speak in its particular language of cooking. I want to show you how to use that slow cooker. Slow cookers are an old-school technology that will guide you to better meals in this contemporary world.
Slow cooking goes way beyond the ubiquitous pot roast (though there certainly is nothing wrong with a great pot roast). What a slow cooker actually does is really important in our modern world: it gives you time. Time to walk away from the kitchen—sometimes for an hour, and sometimes for eight. What you do with that time is up to you, but I suggest doing those things that mean a lot to you. Do things that you yearn to do more of—read a book that you keep putting down, walk with no destination in mind, write that limerick about your boss that you have been itching to get done, change that lightbulb that has been out for a year, organize the spice drawer, learn how to crochet… the possibilities are endless. I want you to have time to be a better you.
So why is slow cooking on our minds these days? ’Cause we need to be cooking from scratch again, applying ourselves in the kitchen. But given the lives we live, it can be hard to find the time to devote ourselves to the thing that should be paramount in our lives: nourishment, the act of feeding yourself and the ones you love. We need nourishment in our lives now more than ever. We do not create cherished memories of family and food over pizza pockets. And getting well acquainted with your slow cooker is a great way of nourishing yourself and your family while saving you the time that those pizza pockets promise.
The beauty of the cookers is that it’s a shortcut that doesn’t sacrifice quality or taste. You may be wondering, why not just use a regular large braising pot? Ahh, where to start…that beautiful pot weighs more than a V8 engine and is next to impossible to clean in a regular-sized sink. Finding that simmering point on your stove, ensuring a consistent temperature, is like figuring out Fermat’s Last Theorem, and, well, that probably ain’t gonna happen. The slow cooker has a thermostat, making that simmer the same every time. The slow cooker doesn’t have to be over the open flame, and thus it doesn’t have to be monitored like something that wants to burn your house down. The slow cooker is a device that makes life more productive and enjoyable by freeing you up to do other things.
Let us chat about the technology of the cooker itself. Most are very simple: there is a low setting for low heat and a high setting for a high heat—those being different ends of the spectrum of what we call “simmering” in the language of cooking. Newer versions have a dial to control temperature, timers, automatic shut-offs, steam settings, searing ability, and rice-cooking functions, but really those bells and whistles are ancillary to the core idea of what my book is about. I am about the old school: the low simmer and the high simmer.
The real key is to find a model with a heavy porcelain or weighty enameled insert, like choosing a heavy pot versus a crappy aluminum one, because heat dispersion is important when we think about slow cooking. You want the heat to be evenly distributed, with few “hot spots.” Some slow cookers are big, up to seven or eight quarts, and some are wee tiny, like two quarts. I recommend a reasonably big one, four quarts or larger, because most all of the recipes like a little bit of space to cook properly, not crammed in like dinner in a sardine can. Some of the recipes in here feed a crowd—one of the great benefits of a slow cooker—and buying a tiny slow cooker is just lonely sounding. Invest in one that will last and that you like the look of, because this is a tool that should not live in the garage. It belongs on your counter.
When it comes to using it, I want to show the real flexibility of the slow cooker and remind people that the key is ease and a capture of time so you can do your own thing. Maybe the cook time is only an hour, but there you go, it is a gift of an hour just for you. A slow cooker is not for simple braises alone, but also for poaching, steaming, cooking beans, building stocks, and making jams and jellies. It is your versatile friend. Go find that cooker.
So what works best for the long cook? Well, if we are talking tradition, then it would be the meaty “working muscles,” cuts that have collagen and connective tissue that take a while to break down into a meal of respite. But that is only the traditional answer, and we want to expand the slow-cooking world into things that you wouldn’t normally associate with that device: faster braises for fish, quick poaches for lean meats, and a go-to device for legumes and vegetables. I want to show you that it is a versatile tool.
Southern minestrone at its finest is a brothy celebration of all things vegetable, with a bright basil pistou stirred in to finish. You can tweak this recipe to use whatever you have in the crisper drawer. Remember that minestrone, like many soups, tastes better the next day, heated up and served with good crusty bread and some cheese on the side.
Here’s some good old-fashioned cultural appropriation for you—I have never been to Korea. I have driven a rental Hyundai, though, and eaten a fair bit of Korean food. This is my take on bo ssam, slow cooker style. Bo ssam is the epitome of family-style eating. The succulent pork is torn and placed in a lettuce leaf and garnished to your liking with spicy, funky sauces and crisp pickles, and everyone (of age) imbibes a cold lager. The world knows what we are talking about when we talk bo ssam because of the wunderkind that is the NYC-based chef David Chang. Respect.
This is a classic dish that gains deep flavor with slow cooking. Chicken and dumplings is the coq au vin of the American South. It’s a dish that just makes people feel hugged, warming you up with some smart, timeless Southern goodness. It’s a simple, chickeny-chicken braise, with tender, pillowy buttermilk dumplings to soak up the flavor.
Reprinted from The Chef and the Slow Cooker. Copyright ©2017 by Fried Pie, LLC. Photographs copyright © 2017 by Andrew Thomas Lee. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.