Near the neighborhood where I often stay in Rome is a Tuscan restaurant with a small window in its façade. A large, round, greenish glass bottle sits in a small brick alcove perched above a wood-fired stove. Every morning, a cook fills the fiasco, as the bottle is called, with dried beans, water, and seasonings. All day long, the beans simmer slowly, absorbing the flavors of the garlic and herbs as they swell, becoming tender and creamy. Passing by one day, I salivated at the sight, and I thought, “This is the original slow cooker!” Until that moment, it had never occurred to me to use an electric slow cooker for Italian cooking, but suddenly, there it was.
Not only is a slow cooker perfect for cooking beans, but it's ideal for simmering a Bolognese-style meat ragu, a thick, hearty vegetable soup, or a rich beef stew of the kind I enjoyed in Tuscany. Soups, stews, and pasta sauces, as I had expected, are naturals-no worries about scorching or planning for hours in the kitchen. Just walk away!
With dishes that need lots of babying, the slow cooker really comes into its own, offering advantages the stovetop can't match. Prepared conventionally, polenta is tedious, demanding vigilant stirring so that the cornmeal doesn't scorch. In the slow cooker, it's practically effortless, creamy, and lump-free. The slow cooker makes such a good facsimile of risotto that most of my guests can't tell the difference between it and one made on the stovetop. The texture is a bit softer-slow cooker risotto has plenty of creamy sauce around the rice grains-and since it doesn't require much attention as it cooks, I can serve it on the side even if my main dish is something fussy.
Foods I had never imagined making in a slow cooker turn out beautifully: sal¬mon, halibut steaks, and the Italian-style omelets known as frittatas all emerge in about an hour perfectly moist, allowing me just enough time to set the table or make a salad and a vegetable. Flourless chocolate cakes, puddings, dense cakes with fruits and nuts, and poached fruits are foolproof. The moist, gentle heat is particularly kind to cheesecakes, which never crack as oven-baked versions often do.
Before I got my first model, I had occasionally heard complaints that slow-cooker food was bland or that it all tasted the same. One friend even told me she had given up and put her cooker in the garage, where it was gathering dust. When I asked her to describe why she didn't like it, I was surprised to hear that the recipes she had tried included packaged ingredients and raw meat tossed into the cooker with no preparation. It was easy to understand why she was unhappy. Food that comes out of the pot can only be as good as the ingredients that go into it! Bottled sauces, canned soups, and seasoning packets can make anything taste boring.
I decided to create my own recipes with fresh ingredients distinctively seasoned. Fresh foods not only taste better but are healthier and cost less than packaged products.
Although it's tempting to just toss ingredients into the cooker and take off, browning the meats or sautéing the onions and garlic before slow cooking often means the difference between delicious and dull. Stews, sauces, and braises have deeper, richer flavor and better color, and browning gives the cooking a jump start. Is it essential? No, but these little steps add big flavor and can improve the texture, so they are worth taking to get the best results. For that reason, many manufacturers today make slow cookers with removable liners that can be used directly on the stovetop, so no extra pan is needed. As a bonus, these flameproof crocks are good for reheating food on top of the stove as well.
Like the bottle in that Roman restaurant, the slow cooker doesn't heat up the kitchen, even on the hottest days; it is energy efficient and costs very little to operate; it turns inexpensive cuts of meat succulent and flavorful; and it can feed a crowd. Best of all, I can cook whenever it suits my schedule-on weekends, during the day while I'm out, or when I'm sleeping-knowing that when I finally lift the lid, the result will be unparalleled.
About Slow Cookers
Buying a new slow cooker? Lucky you! Newer models have sophisticated features your grandma never imagined.
If I could design the perfect slow cooker, it would have every one of the features listed below. So far, though, I have not found one model that has all of them.
I CONSIDER SOME ESSENTIAL, SUCH AS:
High, low, and warm temperature settings.
A removable insert.
A signal light so that you can see at a glance when the cooker is operating.
A timer, preferably one that is digital and easy to read. It helps if there is a beeper that signals when the cooking time is over.
Flexible programming so that you can set it on high for a time, then have the temperature switch automatically to low.
An automatic setting that keeps the food warm after the cooking period
THE FOLLOWING FEATURES ARE NICE,
BUT NOT REALLY ESSENTIAL:
A clear glass lid so that you can peek in without lifting the cover.
A flameproof insert so that foods can be browned directly on the stove.
A metal insert-it is not breakable, nor is it as heavy or clumsy as the crockery kind.
An insert with handles that stay cool.
An insert with a nonstick surface.
An oval shape to accommodate roasts and whole chickens.
Rubber feet so that the pot does not slide on smooth surfaces.
A retractable power cord.
Techniques and Tips
The recipes in this book are intended for use in a large slow cooker with a 5- to 7-quart capacity, which is ideal for 4 to 8 servings or for quantity cooking with freezable leftovers. A large-capacity cooker also enables you to cook cakes, puddings, and molded foods in pans or baking dishes placed within the insert and can accommodate large cuts of meat and whole chickens.
TIMING in a slow cooker is, in most cases, not very precise. Some foods, especially soups, sturdy cuts of meat, and most sauces, can handle extra cooking time, while delicate foods, such as seafood, eggs, boneless chicken breasts, and cakes, require attention because they can overcook. When you first use your cooker, stick around and observe how it cooks so that you can adjust the cooking time.
FOLLOW THE TEMPERATURE INSTRUCTIONS given in the recipes. Some foods (such as soups, meat, and beans) cook better on low, while others (egg dishes, cakes) fare better on high. Low temperature in a slow cooker is 180° to 200°F, while high temperature is 250° to 300°F (depending on the wattage of the cooker and the temperature and quantity of the food). Note that many older slow cookers cook at a lower temperature. But to ensure food safety, models made in the last ten years or so cook hotter. If you have an older model, plan on a little extra cooking time.
PRECOOK FLAVORING VEGETABLES, like onions, carrots, and celery, on the stovetop or in the microwave, if you prefer, to soften them and draw out their flavor.
POTATOES, CARROTS, AND OTHER ROOT VEGETABLES should be cut into evenly sized pieces so that they all cook through at the same time. When cooking meats and vegetables together, place firm vegetables in the base of the pot and meats on top. This helps the vegetables to cook evenly.
FOR DRIED BEANS, you'll get the best results by soaking them overnight before cooking. The cooking time will vary according to the variety of beans and how fresh they are.
BROWNING MEAT BEFORE SLOW COOKING enhances the flavor, texture, and color. To brown, first pat the meat dry with paper towels. Heat some oil or other fat in a wide pan over medium heat. Place the pieces of meat, such as chops or chunks for stew, in the pan in a single layer so that they don't touch one another. If there...