Ever 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
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
freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
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
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.