Monday, 20 April 2009

First attempt using a slow cooker: Close, But No Cigar!

I've been thinking about getting a slow cooker for quite a while. They seem to be going through a resurgence, perhaps in response to the recession and the growing interest in cooking cheaper cuts of meat slow and long, perhaps just because it's time for this fashion to come around again. Certainly, I've been reading various posts about them on foodie chat boards for quite a while.

But I couldn't decide whether I'd really use a slow cooker very much or whether it would end up being a white elephant along the lines of the electric donut maker my sister bought for my husband (yes, really - he asked for it, since he's a bit of a J.Homeresque donut-fan, but it really wasn't good) and the ice-cream machine that I bought myself last year (which has seen a little more use, at least). Being undecisive, as I am, my mum kindly suggested I borrow hers for a few weeks to help me make up my mind.

She delivered it on Thursday evening and I planned my first trial for Saturday. My sister-in-law was visiting and she and Pete had an agenda of lots of hard manual labour in our garden. A hearty casserole seemed just the thing to feed to them that evening.

Having read lots and lots and lots of approximate recipes, ideas and advice I bought myself some decent quality cubed steak, carrots, onions, garlic and some ready-made beef stock. (Although I do like making stock at home, it's nearly always chicken since we rarely buy/ cook beef on the bone. I'd intended to pick up a pot of fresh stock but as there wasn't any available, I opted to try the relatively new Knorr beef stockpots instead).

So on Saturday morning I peeled and chopped the onions, cut them into eights and put them at the bottom of the slow cooker crock. The carrots were peeled, chopped and added in. And in went 3 bulbs of garlic cloves, mostly whole though somewhat crushed (as that's how I peel them, pushing down on them via the knife blade with the palm of my hand). I had planned to add potato too but realised there wouldn't enough room so, on top of the vegetables, I spread out the meat. I dissolved one of the stockpot jellies into 400 (instead of the recommended 500) ml of boiling water and poured this over the meat. And then added 100 ml of port. And a sprinkle of rosemary.

And then popped on the lid, turned the slow cooker to high and left it going for an hour and a half. After that I turned it down to medium and left it another 5 hours. At this point, whilst I expected it to still need more time I was surprised that the meat, whilst cooked, was not yet tender at all. More worryingly, whilst the kitchen smelled absolutely wonderful, the taste of the dish was extremely bland.

I decided to throw in another stockpot jelly, a very generous squirt of double concentrated tomato puree and some more rosemary and turned the heat back up to the high setting for the next 2.5 hours. And crossed my fingers.

Luckily, the extra time, at high heat, did render the meat lovely and tender and the extra stockpot and tomato puree provided much more flavour.

Much to my surprise, I didn't need to thicken the liquid before serving either. I'd fully expected to, given what I'd read about slow cookers in preparation. Not only was the sauce reasonably thick, as I served the stew over plain boiled potatoes, it was easy to mash some of the potato into the sauce too.

All in all, I was relieved that the final result turned out OK and was even relatively pleasant. But I was disappointed that it wasn't more special. For example, whilst the long, slow cooking did make the garlic mild rather than strident, as it is when raw, it didn't render it into a sweet, unctuous mush, as I would have expected had I cooked it in an oven.

If anyone has some tried and tested slow cooker recipes that are guaranteed to impress and to get me hooked on the slow cooker phenomenon, please do share! My plan for the coming weekend is to cook a whole chicken, with just a little stock at the bottom for moisture.


tashar said...

Hmm, I've not attempted too many chicken recipes (nor found many). I hear it's the most difficult meat to cook in a crock pot. My fav is a Kashmiri rogan josh recipe from my mom, for which she actually uses Boston butt roast. Another favorite is lechon (Cuban pork), for which I use a pork loin. I'll try and find the recipes if you're interested.

kelly4777 said...

I would suggest putting some carrots, celery or onions underneath the chicken to help keep it out of the liquid a bit.
I actually love using the slow cooker. (before mine died). It's handy for soups or stews, I even made a decent approximation of chicken tikka masala in it once. Chili or a pasta sauce with ground beef (mince?) or slices of italian sausage were two commonly made dishes of my mothers.
My fave dish is new potatoes (or equivalent sized chunks of a larger waxy potato). on the bottom and bone-in chicken thighs on the top with some of the fat trimmed off. If you leave a fair amount of it on, the fat will render off and become the liquid you want/need for cooking.
I usually season the chicken with a fair amount of salt & pepper, some garlic and whatever other spices sound good to me that morning. Takes about 10 hours on low or 5 on high.
My slow cooker was a small sized one (I believe about two quarts) the cooking time might be longer if yours is larger.

Kavey said...

Tashar, I know that many folks have adapted lots of my mum's recipes (from mamta's kitchen) to the slow cooker, though as one still needs to cook the onion and spices in a pan first, I don't know that I'd choose to do these dishes in the morning. But for a weekend when I've time in the morning to do that before heading out for the day, that'd be good.
Would welcome your mum's recipes but what is butt roast???! :)

Kelly, thanks for the chicken tips, much appreciated. I vastly prefer chicken thighs to breast anyway, so will also be attempting some dishes with thighs only. But definitely want to try the whole chicken thing!

Recipe man said...

i love slow cooking with meat and beans..mmmmmm

fox-c said...

Next time, I would suggest putting the meat on the bottom next to the onions. It will get more heat that way and so you won't need quite as much time.

Also, slow cooking kills spices, I find. I always have to add them in the last hour or so to get any good out of them, unless, of course, it's booze which will help with meat tenderising. . .

Kavey said...

Recipe man, any recipes you have for meat and bean slow cooker stews would be appreciated!

Fox_c, I'd put the vegetables underneath because all the tips I read on the BBC Food Chat board (which currently has this loooong, looong thread discussing slow cooker recipes and methods) said that the vegetables needed to be immersed in the cooking liquid to cook properly whereas the meat would be fine just being steamed / cooked by the heat in the pot. If I put the meat at the bottom, won't I have to use a lot more liquid to cover the veg sufficiently, which would give me too runny a sauce? I was told not to use too much liquid as none evaporates as it would if cooking on the stove or in the oven. If you've found the opposite, I'd love to know as I'm definitely open to try different ideas out to get better results!


Anne said...

Hi Kavey

I use the slow cooker to make a beef and barley stew here is link to my recipe: Is really thick and delicious, though maybe more suited to the winter months, rather than the glorious sun we are currently having! :)

tashar said...

Boston butt roast = pork loin. (Must be an American way of saying it...) now to dig up the rogan josh recipe...

Kavey said...