At the end of a hard day at work, there’s something extremely gratifying about walking into a home filled with the aromas of a long-simmered crock-pot meal.
So why aren’t you using yours more often? That’s the question my husband posed to me last week in response to my rant regarding a lack of time and energy to produce delicious meals.
After all, he reminded me, our crock-pot — aka slow cooker — is the kind and gentle solution for producing maximum flavor and tenderness with minimal effort.
Let’s face it, cooking at a daily pace is frustrating, even for those of us who have a genuine passion for cooking. Particularly after you’ve run the numbers and realize that over a lifetime, the family cook cranks out more meals than, well, do we really want to go there?
So any time I can ease the stress and still produce a fine meal I feel I’ve beaten the system.
Thus, I’m taking the slow-cooker pledge right now: At a time of year when savory, stewy entrees are most appreciated, I will enlist my slow cooker more often. It can do the heavy lifting in the kitchen while I carry on with my life in other corners of the world.
Beyond simple encouragement to get you back into the crock-pot groove, do I really have to tell you how to use one?
The only major piece of advice I have is to brown your meat and onions before adding them to the pot.
I know that there are tons of crock-pot recipes out there extolling the virtues of not doing that, but there’s a huge color and flavor difference in a stew or soup that has started out with browned meat and onions and one that hasn’t had such preliminary treatment.
So I’m sharing some of my favorite tried-and-true crock-pot maneuvers.
Feel free to fine-tune them to fit your taste. The first recipe, Gingered Beef Short Ribs, was my “company’s coming” meal just last week. I hadn’t made it in quite a while, but remembered how rich and flavorful it is, thanks to the melange of finely minced garlic, carrots, celery and ginger that melt into the beefy broth, producing an off-the-chart eating experience.
Indeed, everyone went home feeling pampered and satisfied.
This is very rich and complex in flavor. Because short ribs are very fatty, I strongly suggest making this dish one day ahead to allow the fat time to settle at the top of the sauce for easy removal.
Gingered beef short ribs — slow cooked
- 3½-4 pounds meaty beef short ribs (see “short ribs” note)
- 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
- 1 stalk of celery, minced (see “mincing vegetables” note)
- 1 large carrot, peeled and minced (see “mincing vegetables” note)
- 2 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger (see “mincing vegetables” note)
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (see “mincing vegetables” note)
- 2 tablespoons black bean garlic sauce (available in Asian cooking sections of most supermarkets)
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 2 cups beef broth
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Cooked rice or dumpling noodles
Brown the short ribs in the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Turn each rib to brown on all sides. Remove the browned ribs and place them in a slow cooker (of at least 4 quart capacity).
Deglaze the pan by pouring in the 1 cup of wine, stirring and scraping to dissolve all of the cooked-on bits of food. Scrape this sauce into the slow cooker. Add the onion, celery, carrot, ginger, garlic, black bean sauce, soy sauce, broth and black pepper to the slow cooker. Stir to combine the ingredients.
Cover the cooker and cook on low for 8 to 9 hours, or until the beef is very tender and beginning to fall off the bone.
Serve over mashed potatoes or pasta.
Short ribs note: When I say “meaty,” I mean it. If you can find only short ribs with bones and fat — with no thick layering of meat to go along with it — just pass.
Mincing vegetables note: All of these vegetables can be minced quickly by cutting them into chunks, then mincing together in a food processor by using the on-off or “pulse” button.
Make-ahead note: Because short ribs are so fatty, I make this dish one day ahead. Once cooked, I remove the short ribs from the broth, and using a slotted spoon, scoop out all the tiny bits of chopped vegetables and layer them on top of the meat. Cover the meat and refrigerate. Pour the broth into a shallow container and refrigerate.
On day two, all you have to do is lift off the layer of fat that has hardened on top of the broth. Discard the fat.
Now unite the meat and vegetables with the broth and gently re-heat in the oven or slow-cooker before serving.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Recipe adapted from “Slow Cooker Cooking,” by Lora Brody.Country style pork ribs — these are the ones without a bone — cook up tender and flavorful in this recipe. If you can find the extra lean ones, there’s a lot less grease to spoon off at the end of the cooking.
Pork stew with chile and cumin
- 3 pounds country style pork ribs (these are boneless; preferably, “extra lean”)
- 1?-2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 14½ ounce cans diced tomatoes with green chiles
- 1?½-2 tablespoons powdered cumin
- 1?½-2 tablespoons ground chili powder
- 2 teaspoons instant beef bouillon granules (I use Wyler’s)
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1-½ cups beer or ale (I use Deschutes Brewery’s Cinder Cone Red Ale because it contributes a rich flavor due to its malty character)
Cut each rib portion in half. In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, over medium-high heat, brown the pork pieces on both sides in the olive oil. You may have to do this in two batches because you don’t want to crowd the pieces of meat too close together or they don’t brown.
While the meat is browning, place the tomatoes, cumin, chili powder, and beef bouillon granules in your crock-pot. As the meat is browned, go ahead and place it in the crock-pot along with the tomato mixture.
When all of the meat has been browned and added to the crock-pot, add the onions and garlic to the skillet and saute over medium-high heat just until the onions soften and begin to turn translucent, about 2 minutes. Stir in the beer then stir and scrape the bottom of the pan to dissolve any cooked-on bits of meat drippings. Add this liquid to the slow cooker, then give everything a good stir to distribute the sauce around the pieces of pork.
Note: You can prepare the dish to this point up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerate. Proceed with the cooking as directed below.
Cook on high for 4 hours, or until tender, or up to 8 hours on low. Delicious with rice or tortilla chips.
Another option: This meat is very tender and shreds nicely. So, instead of serving it in large chunks, shred it with a fork, return it to the sauce, then cook down until it’s a slightly thicker consistency.
In this form it makes a great base for a platter of nachos or to roll up in flour tortillas with an assortment of condiments such as sour cream, green onions, chopped tomatoes and shredded lettuce and cheese.
Makes about 6 generous servings.
Slow-cooked Southwest beef
- 1-½ pounds boneless beef chuck (cut into 1-inch pieces), or stew meat
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ¼ cup beer, red wine, broth, or water
- 1 15½-ounce can pinto beans, drained
- 1 16-ounce jar commercially prepared picante sauce (or thick and chunky salsa
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro (optional)
- About ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Optional condiments: tortilla chips, sour cream, guacamole, shredded cheese, and/or chopped onion
Using a heavy-bottomed skillet, brown the beef in the vegetable oil over medium high heat.
Place the browned meat in a slow cooker. Deglaze the pan by pouring in the ¼ cup of beer (or wine, or broth, or water), stirring and scraping to dissolve all of the cooked-on bits of food.
Scrape this sauce into the slow cooker.
Add the beans, picante sauce, cumin powder, chili powder, and cilantro. Stir to combine the ingredients. Cover and cook on LOW 8 to 9 hours, or until the beef is tender. (No stirring is necessary during cooking.)
Adjust seasonings, adding the salt and pepper to taste.
Serve in bowls with desired condiments.
Makes about 4 servings.
Adapted from “Cook-Ahead Beef Favorites,” by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
- 2-½-3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ¼ cup dry red wine, such as Merlot (or additional chicken broth)
- ½ pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- ¾ cup chicken broth
- 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
- Fresh pasta
- Parmesan cheese for garnish
Brown the chicken in the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Turn each thigh to brown on both sides. Remove the browned chicken from the pan and place them in a slow cooker (of at least 3½ quart capacity). Deglaze the pan by pouring in the ¼ cup of wine, stirring and scraping to dissolve all of the cooked-on bits of food. Scrape this sauce into the slow cooker. Add to the cooker the mushrooms, onion, garlic, broth, tomato paste, basil, sugar, salt and pepper.
Cover and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours or on high for 3 ½ to 4 hours, just until the chicken is very tender. Serve by spooning the chicken over cooked noodles. Pass the parmesan.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Recipe adapted from “Slow Cooker Cooking,” by Lora Brody.Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.