/karen/

Ready, steady, slow cook!

Saturday, 06 June, 2015

This post is for Elsie because she asked for it (and also because she very kindly lent me her slow cooker three months ago.)

So if you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll already be aware of my views on cooking. (If not read this and this, and then for a light diversion, have a laugh at this.) Last July, I had a bit of a rant about my hatred of cooking on Facebook (it's this post if you're my Facebook friend. If you're not, you can't see it, sorry!) It seemed to elicit a strong response from people: people either sympathised and agreed with me about the evils of cooking, or people tried to persuade me why cooking is fun, or people gave me tips on how to make cooking more bearable (all of which was helpful in its own way).

Re-reading the thread, there are a few things worth quoting, I think. One friend asked me why I hate cooking, and I replied:

Well … I am tempted to say “everything”, but to narrow it down for you …

  • It frustrates me that a meal that takes 1-1.5 hours to prepare will be consumed in about 15 minutes. The chopping alone can take half an hour! (I know some people just chop ahead of time and freeze but my freezer can't hold that much.) I can think of a lot of other things I'd rather be doing with that time.
  • Cooking is never as simple as following a recipe because recipes leave out an awful lot (because it's assumed knowledge or something. Also, some recipes are just plain wrong, e.g. it does NOT take 3 minutes to sauté onions). Which means that my version never turns out the way it should.
  • I can't do improvisational cooking. Improvisational cooking = cooking disaster for me. I do not have an affinity for food.
  • Cooking is so precise: if you don't cook something for long enough, it's undercooked (and potentially dangerous—e.g. chicken); cook it for too long and you've ruined it.
  • Every single ingredient in cooking has its own properties, characteristics and behaviours. And even those change when you combine them with other ingredients or if you cook them in a different way (e.g. fry vs. steam vs. boil vs. oven bake, etc.) It drives me nuts. Too much to remember! E.g. I have a foolproof muffin recipe (it's the only muffin recipe I use), but the time in the oven varies according to whether you're making cake or muffins or mini muffins, and also depending on what sort of filling you use with it. Oh, and depending on what sort of oven you have. Result? I burn the muffins. Also, it's not necessarily true that a related ingredient will behave the way you expect.
  • Weird ingredients in recipes. I read a recipe and think, “Okay, I can get that … that too … yep … sure … WHAT THE HELL IS THAT AND WHERE ON EARTH AM I GOING TO FIND IT???” Furthermore, “Is it necessary to the dish if I leave it out?” and being plagued by doubt the entire time because I simply don't know.
  • Multitasking in the kitchen when everything has different cooking times/methodologies, etc. E.g. trying to make couscous while steaming vegetables while also grilling sausages. I burn the sausages every time. Super stressful.
  • (Now that I have kids …) Trying to cook while looking after the kids. WORST. THING. EVER. I don't know how anyone does it without resorting to TV.

(I'd also like to add one more reason: cooking for kids is frustrating and exasperating as they invariably dislike anything new and refuse to eat it. I realise that this is normal behaviour for kids—that the best way to manage it is to tell them they don't have to eat it, or tell them that they only have to have x number of spoonfuls or some such thing—but none of that detracts from how frustrating and exasperating the whole business is—especially when you already hate cooking as much as I do.)

Reflecting further, I compared cooking to another domestic art: knitting:

Continuing the rant, I was comparing knitting to cooking and reflecting on why I like knitting more and came up with the following:

  • Knitting is not time-specific: you can pick it up and put it down. You can not touch a project for years and then come back to it and find it as you left it. But time is integral to cooking.
  • Knitting has structure because the needles give it structure. So do the patterns (although there are also badly written patterns). Cooking has too many variables to be structured. The variables contribute to things going wrong.
  • If something goes wrong with the knitting, there are always ways to fix it without frogging the entire thing. (Though admittedly you have to have some experience and know what you're doing.) With cooking, when things go wrong, the dish is often unsalvageable.
  • Knitting does have a similar tendency to cooking ingredients in that there are many different types of yarns with different properties, and you can't always just directly substitute. But all yarns can be categorised by ply, and you learn what materials work best with the sort of thing you're making (and what materials don't). There aren't as many variables as with food, IMHO.
  • Not as much multitasking as with cooking.
  • It's easier to knit in front of the TV than it is to cook ;P

Anyway, coming back from that tangent, one of the suggestions my Facebook friends gave me was to try a slow cooker. (Another suggestion was a Thermomix.) I don't own either appliance, and even though a slow cooker is a lot cheaper than a Thermomix, I decided it was probably worth borrowing one to try out rather than rushing out and buying one myself.

Enter Elsie, who purchased one on sale ages ago and who wasn't really using it. She said I could borrow it for a season as long as she could have it back by winter. So I picked it up one Sunday after dropping off my girls and took it home. She also gave me a couple of slow cooker packets—Pataks and Masterfoods ones, I think. I was so ignorant, I didn't even know such things existed!

Anyway, every now and then, I get a bit optimistic about cooking and trying new things. So I thought I would start with one of the Pataks packets: I bought the ingredients (well, Ben did because he looks after the grocery shopping now), followed the instructions and chopped them up, threw them into the slow cooker and set it to low.

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The end result looked like this:

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Yep, that's right: it burned. Optimism crushed! I couldn't help but feel like a bit of a failure. (Yeah, I know I get a bit too emotional about cooking.) After all, people had told me that slow cooking was easy—that you just throw everything in the pot and leave it to cook—and I had still managed to stuff up even that.

After getting over being emotional (and after eating the meal—not the burnt bits, of course, but the rest of it was all right, albeit a bit overdone), and after doing a bit of Googling, I discovered the following:

A bit of time passed before I was willing to try again. This time, I chose a Masterfoods packet: beef and red wine casserole. Also, this time, I doubled the quantities and used two packets:

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I followed the instructions and browned the chuck steak beforehand. But I didn't have any red wine (Ben thought that we did but it turned out not to be the case). So I substituted with water instead, and the consensus from my Facebook audience was that the tomato paste would probably do the trick. (Later I learned that you just use less liquid for slow cooker recipes anyway.)

So far so good:

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And it turned out pretty tasty too!

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(Yes, that's sweet potato. Because I didn't have any proper potatoes.)

After that, I tried Masterfoods lamb casserole—

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—with similar results:

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(though I didn't like that one as much as the beef). I think I also tried a chicken one too, which I didn't photograph and which Astrid didn't like because she isn't into spicy things (but Ben liked it).

Then I thought I'd have a go at something Bec had done when we'd gone away to the Blue Mountains a couple of years ago: make a whole chicken in the slow cooker. I wasn't quite sure how to do it, so I looked up a few recipes on Yummly (which is basically Ravelry for cooks) and sort of worked out the principle of the thing. And then I got a bit tangled up: I had some fresh coriander in the fridge (which was supposed to go with another Pataks slow cooker packet as I had only one packet and didn't think I could get another, so I asked Ben to buy coriander, and then he was able to get another slow cooker packet, which left me with the coriander), and I thought perhaps I could use it on the chicken, so I tried to find recipes that involved coriander, and stumbled across this one and gave it a go:

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It turned out like this:

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And it tasted fantastic! However, it was completely the wrong recipe for my kids, who cried and were upset with me because it was just too hot for them: the recipe had involved a rub of garlic, chili, cayenne pepper, black pepper and cumin, and that flavour went through EVERYTHING—even the vegetables. (Yep, should have thought that through a bit more: if a recipe calls for red pepper, black pepper AND chili, it's bound to be hot …)

Roughly a month later, I tried it again—but this time, I seasoned the chicken with rosemary, thyme, lemon and onions.

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And then I popped it in the oven right at the end to let the skin go brown and crispy:

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You get the idea.

After all that, I started to get the hang of things. I wanted to get away from using packet bases and wondered what else could be slow cooked. So I started looking at other dishes. Risotto? Yes, but you need to stir it frequently. (I made far too much and didn't stir it enough.) Beef stroganoff? Yep: here's a Martha Stewart recipe. (I think I'll use less mustard in the future; it was still a bit too hot for my girls.)

Even standards in my cooking repertoire ended up in the slow cooker—like the mince and onions for Shepherd's Pie and the bolognaise sauce for spaghetti bolognaise. I am not sure if slow cooking them actually made them tastier, but it certainly made things easier sometimes.

And then I went back and tried a recipe I'd done before that hadn't worked: Bec's mum's Hungarian goulash:

Plated:

And that worked a treat! (I think my problem the first time was that there wasn't enough liquid covering everything during the simmering part, so the meat didn't go nice and tender, but instead was tough and chewy. Slow cooked, however, there was a bit too much liquid, so in the future I might refrain from putting in any water as it already has two cans of tomatoes in it. In addition, even though I quartered the amount of cayenne pepper, paprika and black pepper I put in it, it was still a little too hot for Astrid. [She complained that her mouth was burning. *Sigh.*])

Yesterday I decided to give pulled pork a try as a friend had recommended it several weeks ago and then another friend had had a go and posted the results on Facebook. (And also Ben loves pulled pork.) This

became this:

If you want to do it yourself, here are the instructions:

Ingredients

  • Shoulder of de-boned pork (which you can buy at the supermarket; I did not know that!)
  • 1 bottle of some kind of barbecue sauce (your preference; I have no opinions about barbecue sauce!)

Method

  1. Drizzle some olive oil in the bottom of the slow cooker.
  2. Rinse the pork and pat it dry. (I forgot to do that but it turned out fine.)
  3. In the slow cooker, rub sauce all over the pork. (Oops, I did it outside the slow cooker).
  4. Put it fat side down and turn the slow cooker on low. (Make sure it isn't touching the sides too much as those parts will burn.)
  5. Baste every hour or so. (I actually missed an hour, but it doesn't really matter.)
  6. Turn it over after about three hours.
  7. After six hours, it should be done! Take it out of the slow cooker (and out of all its juices) and pull it apart with forks, separating the fat from the meat and disposing of it.
  8. After you pull it apart, put more BBQ sauce on it to keep it moist. Use 3/4 cup of sauce thinned out with 1/4 cup of water and mixes it in thoroughly. (I didn't do that; I put some of the juices on it and mixed it in because I saw a woman do it in a YouTube video.)

Pulled pork keeps for about a week in the fridge. You can also freeze it.

Some concluding thoughts: I can see why people were recommending slow cooking to me. After doing it roughly once or twice a week for three months, I've come to like that I can do all the chopping/browning in the morning or mid-morning, throw everything in and then just forget about it until closer to dinner—at which point, I can do some green veggies in the microwave or on the stove, and/or make rice or pasta to go with the dish. I love what it does to both meat and veggies, making them all tender and delicious. (Funny enough, my kids also love that aspect too!) I also love that Elsie's slow cooker is big enough to do quite a bit in bulk—which means that one meal can last two or three nights. (Two packet bases usually equate to just two nights though.) I can see why people would get sick of it if you were slow cooking all the time. However, it's still quite a versatile appliance: you can do all sorts of things in it that aren't just casseroles or stews.

When I have to return this one to Elsie, I'm definitely going out and buying my own!

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