David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite’s Culinaria and author of The New Portuguese Table, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. David provides occasional posts for CHEFS in which he shares his experience about everything from champagne to Welsh food to high tea to being a super taster for publications including the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post, and others. His website, which he created in 1999, is a two-time James Beard Award-winning site.
I want to say up front that I’m a longtime hater of slow cookers. Ever since I was a kid in the ’70s, all I ever saw come out of Crock-Pots was brown slop. It all looked alike, it all tasted alike. A decade or so later, after I began to cook, I still looked upon slow cookers as cheating. I saw them as symbols of middle-class consumerism pandering to an increasingly lazy society. (Damn, I should have brought a soapbox.)
With the original Crock-Pot, you were really cooking about as much as Lance Armstrong was really winning. Throwing all the ingredients into a pot, walking away for 12 hours, and expecting genius to spill out was ridiculous. Where was the impeccably timed stirring? The gentle nudging of meat? The careful spooning of broth over vegetables? If I wasn’t cooking as my grandmother and mother did, then I was committing fraud in the first degree. And I wasn’t about to risk a criminal record.
Not surprisingly, this hard-nosed point of view was reinforced at my weekly avocational culinary classes taught by equally hard-nosed Chef Hans. In his Schwarzenegger-ish accent, he pounded into my brain the proper way to mince garlic cloves, which was with the very tip of my paring knife so as to spare the tips of my fingers from the same fate. That I should always double-fry potatoes—at two different temperatures–for the perfect pommes frites. That I must make stock only by dumping a wheelbarrow’s worth of chicken bones into a pot and then fastidiously skimming scum while sleeping on the counter as I waited for the water and bones to reduce to a jiggly puddle of gelatinous godliness. I clutched to that last belief as recently as this past January when, in a testament to ancient cooking methods, I spent a day making quart upon quart of duck stock for my annual cassoulet party.
Yet after being incessantly peppered by requests for slow cooker recipes, I caved. And so Renee and I decided to try to reverse engineer a dozen or so recipes from the site to see if they could work in a slow cooker. If a dish—say, my Momma’s incredible, and incredibly popular, Portuguese beans—tasted as good out of the old Crock-Pot as it did out of the Dutch oven, then I’d forever consider the slow cooker a valid cooking tool and I’d make room for it in my already overcrowded arsenal of kitchen workhorses. To me, that’s the true test.
Long story short, we triumphed. So impressed was I with our testers’ results that I ordered my brand spanking new slow cooker from CHEFS Catalog, left it out on the counter—extremely valuable real estate in our house—and seldom has it been empty since.
Of all the recipes we tweaked for the slow cooker, the one that impressed me the most was this slow cooker chicken stock (recipe below). Now, I know from stock. But this “recipe” seemed so ridiculously simple, so 180° from actual cooking, I doubted it could touch the real thing. (Sorry, Renee, but I did.) Still, I dutifully dumped in the carcasses of two rotisserie chickens, some vegetables, and aromatics, and, channeling my best Ron Popeil, said to myself, Set it and forget it!
And that’s what I did. I had dinner, watched “The New Normal,” and went to bed. And I slept so soundly, you’d never know I have sleep apnea. Never before have I left food cooking on the stove or in the oven unattended. Hell, I don’t even take naps or run to the store for milk when a pot is burbling. But I took Renee’s advice to let go—and Momma Leite’s advice to let God—and 12 hours later I was graced with a stock that was so rich, so flavorful, so wafting with gallinaceous glory that even Devil Cat was sitting at attention.
Once the stock had cooled, I poured it into large resealable plastic bags and placed them in the fridge. When I reached in for some lunch a few hours later, I checked on it. And it was every bit as gelatinous and jellylike as my pain-in-the-tuckus-eight-hours-of-attentive-skimming-and-scumming-of-25-pounds-worth-of-duck-bones stock. Damn.
Crock-Pot, can you ever forgive me?
2 pounds chicken wings, necks, backs, or other parts (raw parts or roasted carcasses)
4 smallish carrots, rinsed and roughly chopped
1 leek, rinsed and roughly chopped
1 smallish onion, peeled or unpeeled, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 fresh bay leaf (optional)
1 sprig fresh thyme
Place all of the ingredients in your slow cooker, add enough cold water to cover, and cook on low for at least 12 hours or overnight. You may need to skim the surface toward the beginning of cooking.
Strain and let cool completely. Freeze in 1- to 2-cup portions.
2 medium apples
1-1/2 tablespoons whole cloves
10 whole cinnamon sticks
1 orange, thinly sliced
4 quarts apple cider
1 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons allspice
1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg, grated
2 cups rum (optional)
Stud the apple with the cloves. In 6-quart slow cooker, combine all of the ingredients and cook on high for 2 to 3 hours or on low for 4 to 6 hours. Ladle into mugs and garnish each with a cinnamon stick.
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup steel cut oats
2 apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch pieces
3 cups boiling water
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
In a large saucepot, melt butter. Add the oats and stir for 2 minutes to toast. Add apples and stir to combine. Add the boiling water and reduce heat to a simmer. Keep at a low simmer for 25 minutes, without stirring.
Add milk, buttermilk, sugar, and cinnamon. Stir, gently, to combine. Cook for an additional 10 minutes. Spoon into a serving bowl.
To reheat, place 1 cup cooked oatmeal in microwave proof bowl. Stir in 1/3 cup buttermilk. Microwave in 1 minute increments, stirring between, until hot.
Overnight Variation Using Slow Cooker
Use a 3-1/2 quart or larger slow cooker. Spray the inside of the crock with nonstick spray. Add all ingredients in the crock. Set slow cooker to cook on low for 6 to 7 hours.
I package Heirloom Seven-Bean Medley, soaked overnight
2 pounds ground chuck
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
3 tablespoons Chili Spice Blend
5 cups beef broth
One 28 ounce can San Marzano Tomatoes
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
sour cream for garnish
In a large skillet, over medium heat, sauté the beef until it begins to change color but not turn brown. Lower heat, add onion and garlic, stir until translucent. Add chili seasoning, stir.
Drain beans and put in a 7-quart slow cooker with tomatoes and beef mixture. Stir in beef broth. Set slow cooker on low, cover and cook 8-10 hours, or until the beans are tender. Serve garnished with cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chives.
Serves 8 to 10.
Chili freezes very well. Divide large quantities into small shallow containers, cover tightly, and freeze for up to 3 months.
Traditional cacciatore with pancetta
5 to 6 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, diced
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stems removed and quartered
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 chickens, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds each, cut into 4 pieces (2 breast pieces, 2 thigh-drumstick pieces, wings reserved for another use)
1 large yellow onion, sliced into ¼” slices
2 medium red bell peppers, seeded and sliced into ¼” slices
3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup dry red wine
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
One 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, puréed
5 sprigs fresh oregano
1 bay leaf
One 2-inch rind Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 cup capers, drained
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley leaves
fresh cooked pasta for serving
freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for serving
Tip: A rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is used here to add extra flavor to the braising liquid. It softens during cooking and lends richness to the sauce. They can also be used in soups, stews, and other braised dishes.
Warm 2 to 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until it starts to crisp and turns golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Add the mushrooms, lightly sprinkle with salt and stir to combine. Cook until the mushrooms start to release moisture and turn a light golden brown, about 7 to 8 minutes. Remove the mixture from the skillet and transfer to a slow cooker.
Season the chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper. In the same skillet, warm 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil if needed. Brown the chicken pieces in batches, skin side down, in a single layer until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Turn the pieces over and brown the second side, about 3 to 5 minutes more. Transfer the chicken to the slow cooker.
Reduce the heat to medium, add 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, if needed, the onions and red peppers to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and starting to brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil.
Remove the pan from the heat, add the chicken broth, puréed tomatoes, oregano, bay leaf, and Parmigiano rind. Stir to combine then transfer to the slow cooker.
Cover and set to cook according to manufacturer’s instructions on shortest setting, up to 6 hours.
Transfer the chicken and vegetables to a serving platter and cover with foil. Discard the bay leaf and Parmigiano rind. Pour the braising liquid into a large saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, maintaining a simmer until the liquid has reduced by half.
When the chicken has cooled slightly, peel off the skin and discard. Add the capers and parsley to the braising liquid and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour half the sauce over the chicken and use the other half for tossing with pasta. Sprinkle with grated Parmigiano and serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.