Slow-Cooker Meals: A Warm Welcome Home

The wind chaps my face as I struggle with the key. A bag of groceries weighs down my shoulder. Jiggle, jiggle — c'mon! I pull off my glove (didn't I oil this lock?), turn once hard and ... CLICK! The door swings in, and ahhh ... a warm waft of beef and wine and garlic wraps itself around me like a blanket.

The best thing about cold weather — and perhaps the only good thing about winter — is walking into a toasty house where the slow cooker has been going all day.

I got my first slow cooker maybe 15 years ago, a hand-me-down from my mom, who I think had gotten it using airline miles that were about to expire. It was ugly. It was big. It was white and round, with cornflower-blue designs meant to evoke Dutch porcelain. What went into it wasn't much better. The slim instruction booklet also contained recipes, which I read and then dutifully began following: open a can of chickpeas, open a can of tomatoes, open a can of, I think, Veg-All — processed carrots, peas and beans.

I peered into the souplike mess. "Ew," said my then-boyfriend (now husband) over my shoulder. "Are we going to eat that?"

We did eat it. But it was years — and years and years and years — before I hauled out the slow cooker again.

The slow cooker was born in 1971, when the Rival company transformed an electric bean cooker by adding handles and a steel casing, and expanding the appliance's repertoire of ingredients. Driven by a recession-minted desire to conserve energy — remember gas lines? — and to save money, Rival's "Crock-Pot Slow Cooker" became a popular way to tenderize inexpensive cuts of meat using little electricity. More women were heading to work in the '70s, and the idea that dinner could be ready when you walked through the door appealed to anyone who couldn't bear the thought of cooking after a full day at the office.

About The Author

Michele Kayal is a food writer specializing in the intersection of food, culture and identity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the late great Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler and many other national outlets. She writes regularly for The Associated Press and on her blog, The Hyphenated Chef.

Long, low, moist cooking isn't new. And it isn't particularly American. In parts of India, cooks seal a heavy-bottomed pot with dough and let rice or meat braise over a low flame for many hours, basking in nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and other spices. In Greece, a traditional lamb preparation involves cooking it in an underground oven sealed with mud. Ditto for Hawaii, where locals still celebrate weddings and a baby's first birthday by roasting a pig in an imu, an underground oven heated by rocks and kept moist with banana leaves. Moroccans slow cook meats in a tagine, a clay pot whose conical shape recirculates the juices, just like in an American slow cooker.

I'm not sure exactly when I rehabilitated my slow cooker, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with becoming a mom and realizing that I no longer had seven hours to stay put and make sure whatever I was braising or simmering didn't set the house on fire. Then I discovered that you could put anything into the slow cooker — meat bones, onion stubs, flaccid carrots, flat beer, forgotten scraps excavated from the freezer — and it would produce actual food. Like, real, honest-to-goodness, delicious soup or stew. Today I own two: one family-sized, and one gorgeous, stainless-steel programmable dinner-party sized. I gave the old white one to a friend in an evangelical frenzy (I kind of want it back).

Slow cooker usage is booming, according to Jarden Consumer Solutions, which now owns the Crock-Pot brand, the most widely used slow cooker. Roughly a dozen companies manufacture slow cookers, and Crock-Pot alone offers a jumble of them: 3-quart, 4-quart, 5.5-quart, 6-quart, 7-quart, programmable, portable, patterned, customizable with pictures of your kids. For the past two or three years, says Jarden spokeswoman Tricia McKenzie, people have re-engaged their slow cookers, exchanging recipes online and creating social media and Facebook pages that are odes to the appliance. Hard economic times and a focus on eating healthfully and locally are probably driving the trend, but it's also likely that a new breed of slow cooker cookbooks that require knives instead of can openers have brought it back to the countertop, and changed what many of us put into it.

It's true that I often use my slow cooker the way others use a compost bin, tossing in compatible food scraps and working with whatever comes out. But I have also embraced its potential to make everything from Indian dhal to Mexican mole better and with less hassle and cleanup. Some people even make cakes and puddings in their slow cookers.

The best slow cooker recipes require at least a little effort, some browning or sweating of vegetables. I have seared bison short ribs and caramelized onions, then let the slow cooker turn them into exquisite dinner party fare. I have prepared phodni — spiced oil used in Indian cooking — and stirred it into slow cooker dhal creamier than anything I've ever made in the pressure cooker. I have even made a cassoulet with duck legs and sausage that was so good, a French friend who grew up hating the dish ate two helpings.

But the best part, the part that gets me every time, is still opening the door and being welcomed home, where dinner is (nearly) on the table.

Tart Whole Pigeon Peas

This hearty, almost meatlike dish gets its alluring fragrance from fresh curry leaves. It makes a great main course eaten hot with Indian flatbread and a dollop of yogurt. It's also delicious as a side dish, cold, with a good sprinkle of lemon. This recipe is adapted from one of my favorite books, The Indian Slow Cooker, by Anupy Singla (Surrey 2010). The ingredients can be found in an Indian market. The recipe is intended for a 5-quart or larger slow cooker but is easily halved and made in a 3.5-quart slow cooker.

 Tart Whole Pigeon Peas i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
 Tart Whole Pigeon Peas
Michele Kayal for NPR

Makes 8 to 10 servings

3 cups dried, whole toor dhal (also called pigeon beans), with skin, rinsed well

9 cups water

2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

1 tablespoon black mustard seed

1 large yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

4 to 6 whole green Thai, serrano or cayenne chilies, stems removed, halved lengthwise

10 to 15 fresh curry leaves

1 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

5 to 6 dried red chilies

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon kosher salt

Juice of 1 lemon

Put the toor dhal and water in the slow cooker. Cook on high for 3 hours. After cooking, if there is too much water left, drain it off. (Tip: I save this liquid and use it as a base for vegetable soup.) This should be a dry dish, suitable as a salad.

Place the oil and one or two mustard seeds in a frying pan over medium-high heat. When the seeds pop, add the remainder. Shake them gently over the heat, letting them pop but not burn. Add the onions and green chilies and cook, stirring frequently, until onions begin to brown. Add all remaining ingredients except lemon juice and cook for another minute or two, until fragrant.

Add this mixture to the slow cooker along with the salt. Cook for another hour. Sprinkle with lemon juice to serve.

Simple Split Chickpea Curry

This gently flavored, soothing dish counts as Indian comfort food, and it's always a big hit with children. The slow cooker imparts a nuttiness as well as a very smooth texture. It's one of my all-time favorites, adapted from Anupy Singla's The Indian Slow Cooker (Surrey 2010). Try cutting Indian flatbread into strips and letting kids use them as dippers (consider leaving out the chilies and chili powder for children). The ingredients can be found in an Indian market. The recipe is intended for a 5-quart or larger slow cooker but is easily halved and made in a 3.5-quart slow cooker.

 Simple Split Chickpea Curry i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
 Simple Split Chickpea Curry
Michele Kayal for NPR

Makes 5 to 10 servings

3 cups dried chana dhal (a type of yellow pea), split and skinned, rinsed thoroughly

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped

1 medium tomato, coarsely chopped

1 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 green Thai, serrano or cayenne chilies, stems removed, finely chopped

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon red chili powder

1 tablespoon kosher salt

9 cups water

Put all of the ingredients into the slow cooker. Cook on high for 8 hours.

After cooking, pulse with an immersion blender until smooth. If you prefer a bit of chunkiness, reserve 1 cup, blend the rest, and add the reserved cup back into the mixture.

Eat with hot basmati rice or Indian flatbread, such as roti or naan, as a main course. Spicy pickle is also delicious on the side.

Roussillon Meatballs

These meatballs, adapted from The French Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012), hail from a town in southern France near the Spanish border. The touch of cinnamon makes them seem almost Moorish. Delicious. Serve atop buttered egg noodles for a rich, fancy dish. The recipe is intended for a 5-quart or larger slow cooker.

Roussillon Meatballs i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
Roussillon Meatballs
Michele Kayal for NPR

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 28-ounce can tomato puree

1/2 cup water

2 scallions, white and green parts, minced

2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 pound ground beef chuck

1 pound ground pork

3/4 cup crumbled French or Italian bread, soaked in water and lightly squeezed

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish

2 large eggs

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup chopped pitted green olives

In a large bowl, stir together the tomato puree, water, scallions, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the cinnamon. Pour half the sauce into the slow cooker.

In a large bowl, mix the meats, bread, garlic, parsley, eggs, the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Moisten your hands and roll the meat mixture into 2-inch balls. Place gently into the slow cooker.

Cover meatballs with the remaining sauce. Cover and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours, until the meatballs are cooked through. Just before serving, stir the meatballs in the sauce and add the olives. Serve hot, garnished with parsley.

Back-Of-The-Refrigerator Soup

The great beauty of the slow cooker is its ability to turn even the vaguest scraps into delicious food. Consider this "recipe" a guide to making a hot, healthy meal from items that might otherwise have gone to waste. For the grain, consider using freekeh, roasted green wheat popular in the Middle East. The recipe is intended for a 5-quart or larger slow cooker.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Back-Of-The-Refrigerator Soup i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
Back-Of-The-Refrigerator Soup
Michele Kayal for NPR

3 pounds chicken, turkey or ham bones, preferably with a bit of meat on them

1 onion, peeled and quartered

2 celery stalks, roughly chopped

2 large carrots, washed and trimmed, but not peeled

2 large sprigs rosemary

Parsley ends if you have them

2 tablespoons salt

8 cups water

1 cup brown rice or other grain

3 cups shredded Brussels sprouts, chopped green beans and chopped snap peas, or any other vegetables on hand

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the bones, onion, celery, carrots, rosemary, parsley, salt and water into the slow cooker. Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or on high for 4 to 5 hours.

Strain the stock into a pot, pressing down on the solids. Discard solids.

Taste the broth. If it tastes weak, simmer, uncovered until reduced by about a third. Add the grain, cover the pot, and simmer until the grain is almost cooked, about 45 minutes. Add the vegetables, and salt and pepper to taste. Replace the cover and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes, until vegetables are cooked, but not mushy.

Serve with good, crusty bread and a salad.

Mexican Vegetable Stew

This mild, deep-red stew makes a hearty, vegetarian main course that is wonderful served over rice or with fresh corn tortillas. To spice it up, try adding 5 or 6 dried red chilies. This recipe is adapted from The Gourmet Vegetarian Slow Cooker, by Lynn Alley (Ten Speed 2010). The ingredients are available at a Latin market. The recipe is intended for a 5-quart or larger slow cooker.

Mexican Vegetable Stew i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
Mexican Vegetable Stew
Michele Kayal for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For The Sauce

12 dried guajillo chilies

3 cups water

4 whole allspice berries

4 whole cloves

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

9 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tablespoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

2 tablespoons sesame or other flavorful oil

1/4 cup raisins

1 small yellow onion, cut in half and lightly charred under the broiler

1 corn tortilla, torn into pieces

3 tomatillos, washed, husked and quartered

For The stew

1 large chayote (Mexican squash), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 pound red potatoes, unpeeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 pound butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

3 Portobello mushrooms, thickly sliced

Juice and zest of 1 orange

6 ounces green beans, trimmed and halved horizontally

Garnishes

1/2 pound Mexican queso fresco or feta cheese, crumbled

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

To make the sauce, wash the dried chilies well (they are often dusty). Toast them in a dry frying pan over medium high heat briefly and lightly on each side. Do not allow them to burn or they will become bitter. When they cool, remove their stems, slit them open, and remove the seeds and veins. Tear the chilies into pieces and place them in the slow cooker. Cover with the water.

In an electric coffee mill or with a mortar and pestle, grind the allspice, cloves and cumin seeds to a powder, then add to the chilies. Add the garlic, oregano, oil, raisins, onion, tortilla and tomatillos. Cover and cook on high for about 1 hour.

Using an immersion blender, pulse the mixture until relatively smooth. The sauce can be made 1 day ahead.

To make the stew, add the chayote, potatoes and squash to the sauce in the slow cooker. Re-cover and cook on low for 3 hours, or until the potatoes are tender but still hold their shape.

Add the sliced mushrooms, orange juice and zest and green beans and cook for another 30 minutes, until beans are just tender.

Serve topped with crumbled feta and chopped cilantro.

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