05 February 2010

The contraption: Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore

I asked Santa for a slow cooker.

My thinking, of course, was since I'm doing more pot lucks where I can neither pop home to get my prepared dish, nor have access to a proper stove, a slow cooker was the obvious option. I can either cook it during the day in some accessable space, or keep whatever I've made the night before warm enough to be palatable.

Santa heard. Santa bought. Santa delivered.

I'm now the owner of a seven quart (6.5L) slow cooker.

I fully realise that me (single and childless) owning such a vessel is akin to Kate Moss owning a 38G bra: wishful thinking at best, delusional at worst.

That's what Santa brought, so that's what I'm going to spend the next year of my life learning how to use.

My introduction to the contraption was akin to setting myself down in front of a blind date. After years of listening to friends and colleagues go on and on about how wonderful it is, and how we'd probably get along, there it sat across from me, all shiny and full of promise. I even found a recipe which I adjusted to better suit my palate.

And like many a blind date, I'm left wondering why on Earth I got my hopes up.

Problem number one: I read the instruction manual. Apparently only qualified operators are allowed to use it. How does one become a qualified operator? Well, one must read and thoroughly understand the manual. No testing. No certificate. Not even a tinned bit of Edward Elgar by kazoo.

I guess if I burned my condo down because I thought I understood the instructions, the manufacturer is trying to absolve itself of any liability. By their logic I obviously lack the necessary mind-reading skills deduce the manual-writer's intention, regardless of what he, she or it committed to words. Talk about a Catch-22.

Problem number two: I bought a couple of slow cooker cookbooks, both of which strongly suggested I brown meat and do some pre-cooking. This baffles me. I thought the entire idea of a slow cooker was essentially a one-pot, wham-bam-forget-it-ma'am type way to feed myself and the invisible army that my slow cooker's capacity dictates.

By the time I was done browning the meat (and by choice the sauteeing mushrooms and onions) I realised that I could easily finish the entire meal in about an hour or so, leaving the pot to quietly blurble away on a nearly invisible flame just to keep it warm. Regardless, by the end of it, I had three pots to wash.

But this was my first slow cooker meal. As per the manual, I didn't preheat the cooker and tipped everything into the pot.

Problem number three: My name is Jasmine and I'm a home cook. I adjust flavours as I go. I know even though these two carrots came from the same bag, this carrot over here could be more carrotty in taste than that one over there. I know that this chicken over here may have actually had the opportunity to walk around before it met with its Marie Antoinette-like fate, where as her cousin was probably stuck in some cage somewhere before she became a cellophaned carcass in the bigscarymegamart's meat case. In other words: ingredients are subject to variations in flavour. I may need more sour, less salt and maybe some sugar than a recipe calls to make the flavours balance. I don't know until I start browning and mixing and sniffing and tasting.

Slow cooking doesn't really allow me to do such adjustments. Every time I open the lid, I need to add 20 minutes of cooking time. Three lifted lids means an extra hour of cooking. So, in hopes of not adding cooking time, I prayed to the kitchen gods that I balanced out the flavours correctly before I turned on the contraption.

Good gravy.

Which leads to problem number four: This is a mightily wet cooking method. Whereas most stews and saucy dishes I make benefit from slow cooking but also reducing liquids to produce clinging, thick, flavourful sauces, my first venture into slow cooking left me with a very wet, soup-like stew. Of course I could add a thickener: a beurre manié or cornflour, but they lack the flavour building that evaporation brings. I must admit that when I reheated leftovers the next day, I tipped everything into my wok and simmered it for about 20 minutes. I was happier.

Before I did that, I tasted it.

Problem number five: Everything tastes the same. The carrots taste like the chicken taste like the mushrooms taste like the peppers. Maybe it's my innate Canadianness, but I think dishes like soups and stews are better when you can actually appreciate and identify individual ingredients, and how well they work together, as opposed to tedious homogeneity.

I know. It seems weird and somewhat wrong. This elevated concept of dump and heat "cooking" is my 2010 project. It's a bit more than that. I'm trying to convince myself that this contraption is not a waste of space, nor a waste of Santa's hard-earned money. My books tell me this thing is much more than an overblown soup-maker, and can make puddings and cakes as well as roasts and ribs. Wish me luck. I think I'm going to need it.

Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore
1.5 kg chicken, cubed into 2-3cm pieces
225g sliced mushrooms
1 rib celery, sliced thinly
1 carrot, sliced into thinnish coins
2 onions, sliced into lunettes
1 bell pepper, slivered
3 Cloves garlic, minced
1 x 796ml tin chopped tomatoes
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
0.5 tsp dried thyme
0.5 tsp dried rosemary
Olive oil

Saute onions and mushrooms until soft. Remove to cooker.

Brown chicken in olive oil, remove to cooker.

In a slow cooker, place the carrots, celery, pepper, tomatoes, garlic, thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper, chicken broth and chicken. Cover and cook on high for 3-4 hours.


I'm a quill for hire!

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Karen Baking Soda said...

LOL! Ditto ditto ditto! I got mine a year ago and encountered the exact same. Especially no.2! And 4!
Used it last night to make lemon curd, took 3 hours. 20 minuts by hand? But the thing is, you don't have to watch it.
It makes the best stock though. And tomato sauce. I'm now in the process of "un-wetting" stew recipes. Overall I like it's presence in my kitchen and I do see advantages but we're not BFF's yet. Keep us posted!

Jerry said...

I'll be interested to her how this experiment goes. I don't understand the allure of the slowcooker. . . I pull ours out every few years, dump everything in, and when I go to eat the dish I suddenly remember why I put it away in the fruit cellar in the first place!

I do believe that they are a convenience more than anything. If you're willing to sacrifice taste for time than they're for you.

I'm not sure I am willing to make this sacrifice any more.

I save making meals with long prep times and slow cooking times for the weekends.

I smiled at your comment about pot lucks and showing up with your slow cooker. I once transported a slow cooker filled with chilli to an office potluck on the GO Train. The LOOKs I got ont he train. I won't be doing THAT again!

glamah16 said...

I confess I don't pre brown when slow cooking. And the less liquid the better because I know its going to almost double. Its taking me a while to get it, but I have made some good meal with mine. My new thing is soup and stocks via slow cooker. Frees up space and I don't have to thing about it.

Valérie said...

Interesting... I've never used a slow-cooker, because I'm still madly in love with my Dutch oven. But I've always been curious about them, and this is very, very helpful. Do keep us posted on your future experiments!

Sara said...

the crockpot conundrum....are they worth it? tale as old as time...

Mickle in NZ said...

Still experimenting with mine - 3.5L. This size will suit me well as a singleton and agree with glamah16 - I wont brown meat anymore and halve the liquid beyond what slow cooker recipes I've used have said.

I don't regret buying it a few months ago, is Mickle who needs to adaot rather than the slow cooker!

Wishing Jasmine slow cooker happiness,

Michelle xxx

La Cuisine d'Helene said...

Mais c'est super cela. Bonne journée!

wine information said...

I love food cooked in the crockpot! It seems to taste more savory and delicious. The food looks yummy! Cheers~

Jenny said...

I'm in between - somethings work very, very well in a slow cooker (try a frozen cheap pork roast with a jar of chunky salsa, leave it, come home and find you have pulled pork for tortillas that night.), whereas others not so well.
And it does make very good stocks because you can throw it all in and leave while it slowly simmers, rather than have it dry out on the stove.
I also have a mini version which works well for hot dips.