I go back and forth on slow cookers (or crockpots, if you must). A few years ago I bought one because I'd gotten it into my head that it would allow me to effortlessly create fabulous savory meals, save me oodles of time and keep my unairconditioned kitchen cool in the summer. I scoured the web for recipes, I bought Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook, and eagerly perused Secrets of Slow Cooking, given to me by my mother for Christmas.
I was seduced by the hype, I admit it. We've all had some version of the "dump recipe" that saves time and effort by letting you put everything directly into the cooker, relying on cans of soup to add body and flavor to various types of meat. They're terrible. I knew that. But I bought the hype anyway and hoped some new amazing method had been discovered. Quite frankly this was a lot like opening the refrigerator every hour on the hour in the hope that something yummy has magically transported itself to one of the shelves. Dumb, but you do it anyway. Consequently I needed some time to regain my kitchen sanity. If I were in charge of the world I'd mandate the following warning label: If your expectation is that you'll simply toss ingredients into the pot in the morning and end up with great food in the evening you will be sorely disappointed.
Slow cooker recipes that result in good food require exactly the sort of up-front prep you'd expect of any decent recipe regardless of cooking method. Feeling resentful over the hour spent sauteing onions and browning batches of meat before getting anywhere near the slow cooker is just silly. A slow cooker is merely an alternative cooking appliance-- one that lets me walk away from it, which I can't do when I'm simmering stew on the stovetop.
While I'm complaining, I'll add that I have mixed feelings about slow cooker recipes, too. I find it irritating that the convention is to write out the cooking setting in all caps. "Cook on HIGH for 6 hours." Why? You don't see this for other cooking methods. You never see directions to "simmer over a LOW/MED flame." Is it received wisdom that slow cooker cooks are a little slow?
All this said, the slow cooker has definitely found a place in my kitchen. In addition to the expected stews and soups, it has kept Christmas party Glögg warm and when my sister and I hosted a 50th wedding anniversary bash for our parents earlier this year we had two slow cookers keeping ten pounds of chinese meatballs warm and ready for the chafing dish. Other favorite uses include Lora Brody's (Slow Cooker Cooking) method for caramelizing garlic-- you can work with as many heads of garlic as will fit in the bottom of your slow cooker or with just one or two. Caramelizing onions is ridiculously easy. Making stock and broth works very well, too, as the lowered evaporation rate results in rich, concentrated flavors. Last but not least, a dish that really lends itself beautifully to the moist even heat of the slow cooker, is bread pudding.
Prep the heads of garlic by cutting off the top of the bulb, exposing just the tops of the cloves. Place the garlic, cut side up, in the bottom of the slow cooker and pour in olive oil to about one third of the way up the sides of the garlic bulbs. Cover and cook on HIGH for 4 to 6 hours, or until the garlic is very soft when pierced with the point of a sharp knife. Cool the garlic bulb in the oil. Place the whole bulb in the center of a rimmed plate and pour some of the garlic oil around it. Serve with crusty bread. The oil can be kept tightly covered in the refrigerator for a month.
I make a large amount (8 to 10 onions) at a time, either for French Onion Soup or to freeze in small batches and then use later in pastas or on pizza. Peel the onions, slice them thickly and toss with olive oil. Cook on low until they've browned. This will take most of a day, so be patient.
Fresh Raspberry Bread Pudding
from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook
serves 6 - 8
This works best in the type of slow-cooker that is wider than it is tall.
5 - 6 cups cubed stale french bread (crusts off)
1/2 pint fresh rapsberries (you can cheat and use frozen)
2 cups cream
2 cups milk
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
Coat the slow cooker with butter-flavored non-stick spray and layer in half of the bread cubes and sprinkle with half of the berries. Repeat.
In a large bowl whisk together the rest of the ingredients until smooth. Pour over the bread and berries and gently push down on the bread to make sure it's all moistened.
Cover and cook on high until it's puffed and a knife comes out (relatively) clean-- about 2 1/2 hours.
Remove lid and let cook another 15 minutes.
Cover, turn off the cooker, and let it set for about 30 minutes.
Serve warm with whipped cream and more berries, if desired.