February 24, 2006
Cook's delight or just a crock?

crock.jpgEver since Nigel Slater described his love affair with an Aga stove and the lovely "unctuous" stews that were emanating from it, I've been hankering for one of my own. Living in a flat in an urban area (in France, no less) this is not something that will happen soon. Even Nigel had to relegate his to the basement and we do not have a basement. Or, to be more accurate, we do have a basement in this building, but it's ten floors below the kitchen, rather a long way to go to get to the stove.

So when I was alerted to a sale on Crock-pots by a friend I was sorely tempted. I thought of tasty "unctuous" Slater-like stews. I thought of dried beans being cooked to perfect tenderness instead of hurriedly being pressure-cooked into something like edibility. I thought about how they are usually 65-70 euros in Paris and were now on sale for 29 euros. And I thought "What the heck?" and bought one.

When it arrived I was pleased to note that it had a classy chrome and black color scheme, fitting perfectly into our kitchen. (The photo shows the "stoneware" basin removed from the cooking element.) In terms of size, however, it did not fit quite so well. It's big. Really big. It says that it makes a meal for six, but to me it looks like it could easily hold enough for eight or more. Oh well, one of the suggestions on the Crock-pot site is to use it for hot holiday drinks, such as mulled cider and wassail. Well THAT'S certainly something I wouldn't have thought of the last time I saw one of these babies back in the 1970s and helped reconcile me to finding a place for it on top of the cupboards.

Not surprisingly, I turned to Nigel Slater for inspiration for my first crock-pot meal: his Italian-styel slow-cooked aromatic lamb from Real Cooking. I didn't have the beans his recipe called for and made a few other substitutions, but followed his method, hoping for what he described as "A dark and sticky braise. No fuss - just throw the ingredients first into wine overnight then into a pot to bubble slowly."

What I got was not nearly as lovely. Mind you, I'm not giving up on the crock-pot as I think I made some mistakes. I browned the meat before adding it, but didn't do the same for the onions or garlic. I forgot to remove the lid at the end to let the juices boil down. And two of my substitutions were just Bad Ideas: a lemon for an orange (which might have worked if I had only used it in the marinade and not left it in the pot to be cooked with the rest into a bitter limp lump) and fresh garlic instead of "normal" garlic. I chopped the fresh garlic in half and in the long slow cook it came apart, leaving bitter green leaves throughout the stew.

It wasn't inedible. And I think the sauce - without the bitter garlic and lemon - would have been delicious. The meat was so tender that it did in fact fall off the bone. (Though it seemed, like all boiled meat, a bit lacking in flavor in the end.)

So a mixed review for my first foray into that bastion of busy moms: the crock-pot. Below is my recipe, mistakes corrected. I'm sure it will be better than my stew if you try it and I'm pretty sure it will be good. I'm not so sure about great.

If anyone out there has a truly amazing crock-pot recipe or tips for a novice I am all ears.

Not Bad Lamb Stew

Marinade:
1 bottle red wine
1 head of garlic (not new/fresh!)
2 sprigs of rosemary
3-4 sprigs thyme
half a lemon (optional and don't forget to remove before adding marinade to pot)
1 onion, sliced in thick wedges
4-6 anchovies
freshly ground black pepper
dash salt
1 bay leaf

Stew:
2 1/2 lbs or 1.2 kilos (roughly) of lamb
6-8 mushrooms chopped in chunks
1 onion, sliced in thick wedges (this is the SECOND onion)
2 carrots, cut in thin rounds
2 potatoes, cut in chuncks
olive oil

Marinade the lamb in a large bowl overnight.

Brown the meat on all sides in a frying pan with a little olive oil. Remove the meat to a plate and add the onions and mushrooms to the frying pan. Add a little more oil if need be and cook over a medium-high flame until the stewing onions are soft and even a little browned on the edges. Put the carrots in the bottom of the crock pot and then layer the potatoes over them. Add the onions and mushrooms. Place the meat on top of all. Remove the lemon half and onions from the marinade and pour it over the rest of the ingredients in the crock-pot.

Cook on high for one hour and then lower to low for another nine hours. Take off the top roughly fifteen minutes before serving and turn the heat back up to high to reduce the sauce a bit. Serve with lots of crusty bread to soak up the juices.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at February 24, 2006 12:26 PM | TrackBack Print-friendly version
Comments

Crockpots take getting used to. As you probably know, I prefer the pressure cooker--the same idea, worked in the opposite way, but i like my crockpot, too.

Here are a couple of posts with my own crockpot recipes you might like.

One is for flageolet bean stew:

http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2005/04/20/bean-cuisine-i-country-french-flageolet-stew/

The other isn't a recipe per se, but a description of how I threw some beef, leeks and parsnips into the crockpot to make a nice braised beef dish. Again, I think you would like it and it is plenty easy.

http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2005/03/24/what-a-crock/

You will get the hang of it, Meg, and once you do, you will enjoy it.

Posted by Barbara on February 24, 2006 at 10:39 AM

I thought all crockpots had to be that awful dark yellow color. Yours sounds moderately attractive.

When my mother passed, my dad made crockpot beef stew every week. I got sick of it eventually, but it was very very good.

Posted by barrett on February 24, 2006 at 10:47 AM

We've got several. I haven't used it yet and haven't been impressed with what my wife has done with. I do however, use the smaller of the two for keeping gravy warm at the table during the holidays!

Biggles

Posted by Dr. Biggles on February 24, 2006 at 12:04 PM

Barbara, I'll definitely take a look at your recipes - thanks! Barrett, I'll try to take a photo of the whole thing later and link it in the post.
Dr. B - Ingenious idea (and my mouth is watering at the amount of gravy you must make to fill even a small crock-pot!!).

And Dr. B's idea leads me to another musing...fondue savoyarde?? On the low heat, it might just work. Too bad you can't put the stoneware insert on the stovetop, though - would need to melt the cheese in another receptacle I would guess.

Posted by Meg in Paris on February 24, 2006 at 12:15 PM

Thanks for the recipe, I think I'll give this one a try. Overall, I've been disappointed with the crockpot -- I just haven't found many good recipe ideas.

It does work really well for hot drinks during the holidays though :)

Posted by Kim U on February 24, 2006 at 3:00 PM

There is a crock pot that has an insert that is stove top usable. It was shown on one of America's Test Kitchens show last year. Perhaps their website lists it in its equiptment testing area. I cannot remember who makes it, but it would eliminate dirtying a seperate pan for browning foods prior to placing in the crock-pot.

Posted by cyndy on February 25, 2006 at 12:57 PM

Meg, this Ask Metafilter thread of favorite slow cooker recipes could hardly be more timely.

Posted by Elsa on February 25, 2006 at 5:46 PM

Cyndy, sounds like a great improvement - not only fewer dishes to wash but also it would make it easier to include the browned bits that stick to the bottom of the pan.

Elsa, thanks for the link! There were a lot of good ideas and I've bookmarked the site to consult later!

Posted by Meg in Paris on February 26, 2006 at 6:47 AM

I have one like you bought and a Rival that can go on the stove top. I grew up in crock pot house and my Mom always doubled the spices (except salt) and halved the liquids. But she ws using a 70's crock pot cook book. Maybe the recipies are better now? After you use it 6 times or so you will get your own method down.

Posted by Shevvi on February 27, 2006 at 5:32 PM

I have used crock pots for years and love the, you can find tons of good recipes on the internet if you look...I love using it to cook short ribs and roasts and all kinds of beans

.Don't give up on your crock pot..It is great feeling to come home to a house that smells good and a hot tasty homecooked meal that is ready to eat the minute you walk in the door.

Posted by jumper on March 28, 2006 at 6:11 PM

Hi Meg, I have 2 crockpots/slow cookers and use them all the time. bolognaise sauce or chilli con carne are so no fuss just brown the mince and onion and garlic really quickly I also cook the tomato paste to take away the floury taste, then add the usual ingredients ( wine, stock, tomato sauce spices ) just watch the salt. cook on low 4-6 hours.
the internet provides masses of recipes and hints. I made stuffed baked apples from an internet recipe yesterday so easy, core approx 8green apples stuff with sultanas and sugar and cinnamon dot tops with butter and add 1cup water cook on low for 4 hours, very nice all the best with your crock pot endeavours

Posted by nicole on April 12, 2006 at 9:13 AM

The lamb crock pot recipes sounds great, thanks for the recipe.
Regards-Steve

http://www.easy-crockpotrecipes.com

Posted by Steve on May 23, 2006 at 12:54 PM

I just moved to Munich from the U.S. and would like to find where to buy a crockpot. Have had no luck in German stores. We are going to south eastern France in 2 weeks...where can I find one? Thanks!

Posted by Sue on August 13, 2006 at 11:19 AM

Crock pots are great, but you have to know how to use them. It isn't the same as making a stew or braise in an oven, because:

- The liquid doesn't boil off, so you have to use a lot less. Just leaving the lid off at the end won't compensate, as it will take a very long time to boil down. Experiment with your own slow cooker, but you should probably half the amount of liquid if using a stove-top or oven recipe. It also helps to add thickeners (flour, cornflour or similar) to help the gravy along.

- Veg cooks slowly, so cut it small and it's best to saute onions first (though you don't have to)

- You don't have to brown the meat, although it can add flavour and improve looks.

- Definitely avoid citrus, the long cooking time makes it bitter If you want to use it, add it at the end.

- Downgrade the meat. Tough cuts are delicious in the slow cooker, but tender cuts will disintegrate. So whatever your stove-top recipe calls for, downgrade it. If it says leg of lamb, use shoulder. If it says shoulder, try neck. For rump, read brisket, but if it says brisket, try shin (or a mixture of shin and oxtail - you'll need to pull the bones out at the end, but it's gorgeous!).

The choice of meat is probably the most important bit. You're not looking for any old offcut - you want lean meat, as fat won't melt off, it will just go rubbery; but it should be a tough cut, ideally with plenty of sinew (the translucent stretchy stuff) as this breaks down during very slow cooking, and lubricates the meat. It almost acts like fat does in a roast. Bones are not a problem, just pick them out at the end. Once you get the hang, it'll save you money, and you'll be amazed how tasty some of the mega-cheap "soup cuts" are when slow-cooked.

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