Authors: Dana Carpender
Healthy Dinners That Are Ready When You Are!
For my sister Kim,
who works way too hard,
and loves her slow cooker.
I have a confession: When my editor, Holly, suggested I write a low-carb slow cooker book, I balked. Oh, I knew it would be popularâmany readers had written me asking for a slow cooker book. I just wasn't thrilled at the idea of a couple of months of slow cooked dinners. I'd made some slow cooked meals that were pretty good, but overall, it seemed to me that most slow cooked food was not brilliant. Too many dishes seemed to be waterlogged, mushy, and insipid. Furthermore, so many slow cooker recipes seemed to rely on high-carb canned cream soupsâindeed, many slow cooker books seemed to think that “put food in pot, dump in condensed cream of mushroom soup, and cook on low until you come home from work” was a recipeâbut not in my book, figuratively or literally!
So I resisted for quite a while, but those e-mails saying, “Please, please, write us a slow cooker book!” were piling up in my inbox. I needed to write a slow cooker book! But it was clear I had to get better at slow cooking.
Well, my mom is a retired librarian, and I learned years ago that if you want to learn something, you need to look it up. So I went to Amazon.com and read reviews of slow cooker books to determine which were drawing raves. I then read the books that got the best reviews, gleaning what I could from them of the tricks of making slow cooker food as appealing as possible, both in taste and texture. Not surprisingly, my slow cooker performance took a remarkable upturn!
I also got an idea of what slow cookers do well. Obviously, they're not for anything that you want to come out crispy and brown, but if what you need is slow, moist cooking, a slow cooker will do it better than any other appliance. Preparing soups and stews and braising are obvious slow cooker strengths, but I also learned that a slow cooker is terrific for cooking anything that needs to be baked in a water bath (sometimes called a bain-marie)âcustards, in particular. I was thrilled to discover that my slow cooker did the best job ever of roasting nuts and seeds, and it's perfect for hot beverages for parties and hors d'oeuvres that would otherwise need a chafing dish.
I was very surprised to learn that cooking fish in my slow cooker worked well. You can't leave it for hours and hours because fish overcooks easily. But just an hour or so of the gentle heat of the slow cooker leaves fish tender, moist, and succulent. Do try it when you have an hour to get dinner on the table, even if you mostly use your slow cooker to cook supper while you're out of the house for hours.
I also had a few spectacular failures. (Don't even ask about the brussels sprouts!) But overall, I was pleased to discover that with a few simple considerations in mind, slow cookers can turn out truly wonderful food.
By the time I finished this project, I owned three slow cookers. All of them are Rival Crock-Pots, the original slow cooker. (Crock-Pot is a brand name. All Crock-Pots are slow cookers, but not all slow cookers are Crock-Pots.) The Crock-Pot, as the original, is pretty much the gold standard of slow cookers. The heat comes from all around the crockery insert, rather than only coming from the bottom. If you have one of the slow cookers that has the heating element only on the bottom, you'll have to experiment a bit with these recipes to see if the times are correct.
The “low” setting on a Rival Crock-Pot is around 200Â°F (93Â°C) (just above, actually, because things will boil eventually at this setting, and the boiling point is 212Â°F [100Â°C]), and the “high” setting is around 300Â°F (150Â°C). If you have another brand of slow cooker that lets you set specific temperatures, keep this in mind. If you have another brand of slow cooker and you're not sure what temperature the settings will give (look in the booklet that came with it for this information), you can fill the slow cooker with water, heat it for 2 hours on low,
and test the water's temperature with a kitchen thermometer, but this is a lot of trouble. I'd probably just use the low and high settings and keep mental notes on how meals turn out.
A good thing about the original Crock-Pot is that the crockery insert lifts out of the base. This allows it to be refrigerated, microwaved (if your microwave is big enough), andâmost importantâput in the dishwasher.
put your slow cooker in the dishwasher if the crockery cannot be separated from the heating element! Nothing electric should ever be submerged in water.
My slow cookers range in size. The smallest holds 2 1/2 quarts (2.4 liters), the middle-sized holds 3 quarts (2.8 liters), while the big one holds 5 1/2 quarts (5 liters). The 5 1/2-quart can easily hold enough food for 8 people. It's the obvious choice if you have a big family or like to cook enough to have leftovers for future meals. The 3-quart is the most common size. If you have a family of 4, it should be about right. If you have this size, figure you'll need to halve recipes that make 6 to 8 servings. The 2 1/2-quart is great for making dips, hot hors d'oeuvres, and hot beverages, but it is a bit small for family cooking.
Another consideration: My 5 1/2-quart Crock-Pot will fit a 6-cup (1.4 L) casserole dish, 8-inch (20 cm) springform pan, and a standard Bundt pan opening up many new cooking options. If you have a smaller unit and want to make custards, cheesecakes, and other dishes that call for inserting a dish or pan, you'll have to find dishes that will fit. It's easier with a bigger slow cooker.
Keep in mind that slow cookers come in round or oval shapes. You'll want a round slow cooker, instead of an oval, so you can insert a round glass casserole or a springform. Sadly, a big, round slow cooker takes the most storage space. I know of no good way around this.
â¢ Browning meat or poultry before putting it in the slow cooker upgrades vast hordes of recipes. Yes, it takes time and dirties up a skillet. But the flavor and texture that browning bring are worth it, worth it, worth it. Often I'll have you sautÃ© your vegetables, too.
â¢ It's important to keep liquids to the minimum that will make the recipe work, especially in recipes that have a lot of vegetables. All of the liquid that cooks out of the food while slow cooking will accumulate in the pot because no evaporation occurs. It's easy to end up with very watery food. This rule does not apply to soups, of course.
â¢ Because of this accumulation of liquid, it's a good idea to use concentrated flavors. In particular, you'll find that in many of these recipes I use both broth and bouillon concentrate to make what amounts to a broth that is double-strength or more.
â¢ Sometimes it's a good idea to transfer the liquid from the slow cooker to a saucepan and boil it hard till it's reduced by half. Half the volume means double the flavor.
â¢ It's generally best to use lean cuts of meat, and you'll see I've often used skinless poultry, too. This is because fat that becomes crackling and succulent in the oven makes slow cooker food unbearably greasy. This makes slow cooking a great way to cook some of the leaner and tougher cuts of meat that you might not want to roast. It also makes slow cooking a good cooking method for those of you who are watching calories as well as carbs. It can even save you moneyâoften tough and bony cuts of meat are cheap.
â¢ For some strange reason, vegetables cook more slowly in a slow cooker than meat does. If you put vegetables on top of the meat in your slow cooker, you may find that they're still crunchy when the rest of the dinner is done. Put the ingredients in the pot in the order given in the recipes in this book.
â¢ For this reason, too, it's best to cut vegetables into fairly small pieces. You'll find I've told you what size to cut things, for the most part. If the recipe says 1/2-inch (13 mm) cubes, and you cut your turnips in 1 1/2-inch (3.8 cm) cubes, you're going to have underdone turnips.