The Quick Comeback of the Slow Cooker

The economic chill this winter has driven many, in search of a little comfort food, back to home-cooked meals. Get reacquainted with the slow cooker.



The KitchenAid 7-Quart Slow Cooker ($149.99)

The slow cooker, an item of kitchen equipment with a somewhat dowdy past, is hot again. And, as the days grow colder, not a moment too soon, as it can warmly nourish your family with minimum cost and effort. It’s designed for the “dump it and leave it“ cooking method; you toss in meat or poultry, a quick chop of vegetables, and stock or liquid. Turn it on and dash out the door for work. Then, return eight hours later to a house that smells like a home-cooked meal. And rightly so.

Making their debut in 1971 with Rival’s Crock Pot, slow cookers (the term “crock pot” was shed along with its dated image) offers up plenty of function without the high price tag of most kitchen equipment (most models sell for between $50 and $150). According to Antonino Teresi, assistant manager at Hartsdale’s Chef Central, specialty cooking equipment like slow cookers is selling better in these times, as people go out less and look to enhance their home dining experience. This winter, Chef Central features a slow-cooker display, chock full of equipment, cookbooks (such as the Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker, Harvard Common Press, 2005), and flavoring mixes (such as the Purely American Brand slow-cooker mixes, from Texas Panhandle Chuckwagon Chili to the evocative Sunday at Grandma’s Pot Roast Stew).

While the more tender and expensive cuts of meat would fall apart under so many hours of heat, inexpensive “stew” meats are a perfect match for the slow cooker. A more elegant result requires just a bit more effort. Sear the meats first, add an easy homemade crème fraîche or top with brightly colored fresh herbs right before serving, and the result can be a company-worthy dish such as classic beef Bourguignon with fresh thyme, chicken Normandy with crème fraîche, or Moroccan-inspired lamb tagine.

Jonathan Taube loves slow cookers. The personal chef, owner of White Plains-based Rocky Rill Foods, and instructor at Williams-Sonoma at The Westchester raves about his two favorite models. The All-Clad Deluxe slow cooker, with its seven-quart capacity, has a cast-aluminum insert that allows you to brown ingredients on top of the stove and then transfer it back to the base to finish the cooking. He’s also a fan of KitchenAid’s Seven-Quart Slow Cooker, due to its powerful heating element and advanced programming features.

We asked several local professional chefs to share their favorite recipes for elegant slow-cooker dishes (to dazzle your family and guests alike). Think of it as upscale comfort food with a twist.

Normandy Chicken
Serves 4

Chef Jennifer Urda of The Runcible Spoon Personal Chef Service in White Plains says her slow-cooker Normandy chicken goes perfectly with a side of green beans, sugar snap peas, or asparagus. Before she became a personal chef, she spent many years at IBM and loved throwing everything in the slow cooker in the morning to come home to a hot and hearty meal after a long day at work.

Crème fraîche:
1∕3 cup sour cream
1∕3 cup heavy cream
Chicken:
1 Tbsp. butter
10 ozs. mushrooms, sliced
2 leeks, cut in half lengthwise and sliced crosswise
2 Tbsp. sherry wine
1 ½ Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. thyme
½ tsp. celery salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken (breasts or thighs)

In glass jar, mix together sour cream and heavy cream until well blended; put lid on jar and let sit at room temperature until ready to serve chicken. Grease slow-cooker with butter and leave any extra in bottom.

Put all ingredients in slow-cooker except chicken and crème fraîche; mix well. Add chicken and mix again.

Cover and cook on low for 6 hours. Remove chicken to plate and cover to keep warm. Remove ¼ cup cooking juices and discard.

Mix crème fraîche into vegetable mixture; return chicken to slow cooker and stir to coat chicken.

Beef Bourguignon
Serves 6-8

Chef Jonathan Taube says he’s turned to this recipe many times for family, friends, and dinner-party clients, as well as in private cooking classes. He serves it over buttered noodles, mashed potatoes, or rice and suggests adding the additional ¼ cup of wine a few minutes before serving to really perk up the flavor.

3 lbs. beef chuck, cut into 1-in. cubes
1 Tbs. canola oil (or more)
3 Tbs. unsalted butter (1 Tbs. or more for beef, plus another 2 Tbs. for vegetables)
1 cup fruity, young red wine (such as red Zinfandel), plus an additional ¼ cup
2 cups beef broth
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves only (or 1 tsp. dried thyme)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ lb. baby carrots
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 lb. bag frozen pearl onions, thawed (or 2 medium onions), sautéed in butter
3 cups mushrooms, brushed clean,
quartered, and sautéed in butter
Kosher or sea salt, liberal amount
Freshly ground pepper, liberal amount
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Pat beef cubes dry with paper towel; season on all sides with salt and pepper.

Heat large sauté pan over medium- high heat. Add oil and butter, swirling to coat pan. Add beef cubes and sauté until browned on all sides, cooking in batches and adding additional oil or butter if necessary, about 8 to 10 minutes (do not crowd pan).

As each batch is browned, place in 6- to 8-quart slow cooker. After all beef is browned, deglaze pan with 1 cup wine, stirring up flavorful bits. Add liquid to slow cooker, together with beef broth, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, baby carrots, and tomatoes. Cover and cook on high, 4 to 5 hours, or on low for 8 to 10 hours, according to manufacturer’s instructions, until beef is tender.

Sauté onions and mushrooms separately until golden brown and refrigerate until ready; 20 minutes before cooking time is up, add sautéed onions and mushrooms to beef mixture.

Stir to combine; cover and cook additional 20 minutes on high. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more salt and pepper, plus additional ¼ cup wine. Sprinkle each serving with chopped fresh parsley.

Note: If cooking liquid is not thick enough, combine 1 ½ Tbs. softened butter with 1 ½ Tbs. flour and knead together to make beurre manié. Whisk in mixture and cook on high 5 to 10 minutes or until liquid has thickened to desired consistency.

Cuisinart’s Programmable 6.5-quart Slow Cooker ($99.95)

 

Lamb Tagine
Serves 6-8

Taylor Smelser, owner and chef of caterer Taylored Menus in Pleasantville, says Lamb Tagine is a favorite of both family and clients.

One boned and tied leg of lamb (3 to 4 lbs.)
Salt and pepper to season meat
10 smashed cloves of garlic
4 springs rosemary
Pinch of turmeric
Pinch of coriander
Pinch of cumin
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
Rind of 1 lemon
Rind of 1 orange
2 knobs of ginger, unpeeled and smashed (about ¼ cup)
2 to 5 cups water or chicken stock
Chopped green and black olives, if desired
Chopped almonds, if desired
Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper lamb generously. Put all ingredients in slow cooker. Cover lamb half way up with water or chicken stock. Cook on high for 3 hours or low for 6 to 7 hours.

Remove lamb carefully to eliminate twine. Let sit 15 minutes, covered. Slice to desired thickness, garnish with green and black olives, and drizzle with plenty of extra virgin olive oil.

Chop up whole toasted almonds and sprinkle on dish, according to taste.

Margo Rudman Gold is a freelance writer and editor based in Chappaqua. Her son is addicted to her slow cooker short ribs, which she’s already made 10 times this winter.