I’ve got a lot of small subjects that aren’t, in themselves, worthy of a whole post, so perhaps, since I’m experimenting with Slow Cooking, I should just throw them all in the pot.

Actually, while we’re on the subject, let’s get right to that Slow Cooker. Long days on the crushpad or in the vineyards, then Sonoma’s cool nights creates a perfect environment for the kind of cooking you start early in the cool morning, then let simmer all day unattended to eat at night when it’s cool again. But I’d been having unsatisfactory results until I started to experiment. Maybe it’s because I’m armed with the chemistry of winemaking that I started looking at Slow Cooker cookbooks with a more critical eye. And my conclusion is that most are clueless about the dynamics and physical properties of what happens in a slow cooker — hence so many tasteless watery results. Firmly pulling my Alton Brown Food Science Nerd cap on, I set out to experiment.

The key thing to remember about Slow Cooking: condensation. The liquid recycles and never evaporates. So you need to take other steps to concentrate flavors.

The key thing to remember about Slow Cooking: condensation. The liquid recycles and never evaporates. So you need to take other steps to concentrate flavors.

First off, don’t accuse me of not doing my research. I think I own every current Slow Cooker cookbook out there. Sadly, the vast majority are of the “chop stuff up, throw it in the pot and let it stew” variety. Nothing with that little effort is ever going to yield anything good. And as I added ingredients and experiments, I’ve found some Slow Cooker secrets that most cookbooks will never tell you:

1) The Slow Cooker, by the nature of the way it cooks, can’t concentrate flavors (nothing evaporates), so don’t fergawdsake ever add water to any recipe. Substitute the appropriate stock for anything that calls for water. I had wild success with beans cooked in stock and a very special beer as documented here. You’ve got to try these beans. FABULOUS!

2) Poultry skin, raw bacon and any other fat is nasty unfried and uncrisped. Why on earth would a recipe to ask you to put such a thing in the Slow Cooker where it will just stew and get slimier? But most of them do. Bollocks, as my English husband would say. Add bacon, by all means, but fry it up crisp first. I did this with my fabulous beans and with a recent Cassoulet and it was just the ticket. All the bacon flavor and, after hours of slow cooking, it was still crunchy.

3) And while you are crisping up all that bacon, use the rendered fat to brown any meat or root or hard veggies you are planning to put in the pot. That goes for onions, carrots, parsnips, etc. Believe me on this one point. When you brown things first, you get a depth of flavor that the Slow Cooker can never achieve on its own. And stop freaking out about that fat. Most of it stays behind in the skillet. Just enough makes it to the Slow Cooker to make a world of difference in the result. I used these techniques in my Slow Cooker Cassoulet and Cousin John had three helpings and declared it “restaurant quality”.

I used these techniques in my Slow Cooker Cassoulet and Cousin John had three helpings and declared it restaurant quality. Did I mention that one of Cousin Johns careers was a deejay at fancy European ski resorts? Cousin John knows his food!

Did I mention that one of Cousin John’s careers was a deejay at fancy European ski resorts? Cousin John knows his food!

Okay, there is a reason that I am not a food blogger, nor do I play one on the Interwebs. Because, I’m not a trained enough cook to come up with anything original. Yet, 99.9% of Slow Cooker cookbook authors don’t tell you what I’ve just learned, but one does.

If you buy only one Slow Cooker cookbook, make it this one. Andrew Schloss has cracked the secret code of the Slow Cooker.

If you buy only one Slow Cooker cookbook, make it this one. Andrew Schloss has cracked the secret code of the Slow Cooker.

Andrew Schloss is no “throw it in the pot and hope for the best” slow cooker and he’s way ahead of me on all the things I thought I discovered. He explains the science of the Slow Cooker, what it can do and what it can’t do. He will only steer you to cooking with the ingredients that are truly enhanced by the cooker. And he’s got some great ideas, such that one about removing all skin from poultry, rendering it and using the fat to brown the veggies and the meat. The result: the same depth of flavor you get from cooking something long and slow in the oven — without the oven’s requirement that you hover over the pot and make sure it isn’t scorching.

Another great suggestion/technique he advocates: thicken liquids and sauces BEFORE you put them in the Slow Cooker. Or, strain the ingredients afterwards and thicken the strained sauce by boiling it. Hey, it’s a bit more work. But if you want to do zero work in cooking, go to McDonalds!

New subject: Cousin John and the great Fermentation Face-Off. Twitter and Facebook have been lit up since I told of this culture clash now happening on our crushpad. (People, talk to the blog!) I hear the odds are changing in Vegas hourly as our college educated UC Davis yeasts compete with Cousin John’s juvenile delinquent local yeasts. Which will produce the best wines? It’s going to take at least a week for us to see how fermentation goes, and months after that to assess the final results. Meanwhile Cousin John, on behalf of his yeasts, has thrown down the revolutionary rhetoric:

“My wild yeast shall prosper after the revolution while your decadent intellectual yeast shall be sent to reeducation camps in the countryside to learn how to be productive members of the ecosystem without sucking at the tit of the corporate funded dogs of Davis!”

Signed The FSRF
(Free Saccharomyces Revolutionary Front)

Just call Cousin John’s yeasts Che, Ho, Cinque and Patty Hearst.

Hey, Did Someone Mention Salma Hayek?

I once mentioned the Mexican Bombshell in connection with a Spanish class I’m taking. I was unprepared for the groundswell of worldwide interest. My web hits quadrupled. From around the world. So I had to follow with this completely gratuitous Salma Hayek post. And since that date back in June, the most frequent Google search that drives hundreds of readers to my blog, from Internet cafes as far-flung as Indonesia and Mali, is “Salma Hayek Cleavage”.  Then just the other day, a sometime reader sent me an email telling me that he’d be a more frequent visitor if I’d include more pictures of Salma Hayek.

Okay okay. Can we count this as the post that seamlessly melds wine, terriers, slow cooking, eccentric English friends and husbands into one post, and still open the door for dozens of completely gratuitous shots of  Salma Hayek’s…er…assets.

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