Seasonal Pantry: Slow cooker is made for winter meals
If you have not yet made friends with your slow cooker or if you don't have one, now is a great time to learn your way around this helpful kitchen appliance.
There isn't much to master when it comes to necessary techniques: Understand heating and cooling, how to program temperature and cooking time (it's easy), and how to clean it. It also is crucial to learn what foods can be cooked successfully in a slow cooker, what foods can't and when it is the best choice.
To state the obvious, slow cookers are best used for long cooking, either all day or overnight. Certain cuts of beef, pork, lamb and goat blossom during long, slow simmering, as do grains, especially polenta, grits and steel cut oatmeal. Some types of dried beans, including red beans, duck legs and sausages, are suited to the technique as well.
But pork loin becomes dry and tough, seafood develops an unpleasantly fishy taste, and chicken becomes stringy and takes on an unpleasant flavor. Most most grains, including pasta, lose their texture, and vegetables become mushy.
My most successful use of a slow cooker has been with soups (mushroom, French onion, potato, lentil, ginger beef), corned beef, creamy polenta and grits. You'll find links to several of these recipes at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
Another classic dish that lends itself to a slow cooker is the boiled dinner, as it is called in New England. In France, it is known as pot-au-feu; in Italy, bollito misto. The concept is simple. Cuts of meat that benefit from slow cooking are simmered for hours with aromatics (garlic, shallots, onions, leeks), spices and, typically, root vegetables.
Sometimes the dish is served as two courses — first the fragrant broth, followed by the meat and vegetables — typically with several condiments alongside, and sometimes it is served all at once, in a big, wide soup plate. It's hard to imagine a more satisfying meal on a winter's night.
'Boiled Dinner' doesn't sound very sexy, but it is the most accurate name for this dish, which borrows from French, Italian, Irish and American traditions. If you prefer to call it Sonoma Pot au Feu, please do.
Don't be put off by the long list of ingredients; actual hands-on work time is minimal. Feel free to vary ingredients according to your preferences, especially the types of meat and condiments. You'll need a large (6- to 8-quart) slow-cooker, and if you don't have one, you can use a large soup pot and cook it on top of the stove. To make this a truly Sonoma dish, use a mix of local, grass-fed and pastured meats, including lamb, goat and beef. To serve this as the centerpiece of a holiday meal, use cranberry relish (see below) in place of the salsa verde.
Sonoma Boiled Dinner
Serves 6 to 10
3 large leeks, white and pale green parts only, washed, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 large onions, peeled and cut into ¼-inch rounds
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 garlic bulb, cloves separate and peeled
— Kosher salt
— Several fresh parsley sprigs
2 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
5-6 pounds meat (see note below)
1-2 cotechino sausages, optional
— Homemade beef stock, water or a mix of the two
2 pounds very small potatoes, scrubbed
1 small green cabbage, cored and cut into wedges, or 1 large bunch Lacinato kale, sliced into 1-inch wide crosswise strips
— Black pepper in a mill
— Olio nuovo or extra-virgin olive oil
— Dijon mustard or prepared horseradish
— Italian-style Salsa Verde, recipe follows
Spread the leeks over the bottom on your slow-cooker, top with onions and carrot and scatter the garlic on top. Season generously with salt. Add the parsley, cloves, bay leaves and peppercorns. Set the meats on top, add enough stock and/or water to cover everything, and set the control to high. Cover the pan.
When the liquid reaches a boil — it will take more than an hour — shift the control to low and cook for several hours, until the meat is so tender it falls apart when pressed. Add water or stock as needed to keep everything submerged.
About an hour before serving, transfer the meats to a platter, cover with aluminum boil and keep warm in a slow (200-degree) oven. Increase the slow cooker heat to high, add the potatoes and cabbage or kale and cook until tender, about 45 to 60 minutes.
To serve, uncover the meat and use tongs to remove any bones. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes and cabbage or kale to the platter with the meats. Taste the cooking liquid, correct for salt and use tongs to remove and discard the bay leaves and parsley sprigs. For a thick sauce, puree with an immersion blender.
Pour the sauce, puréed or not, into a soup tureen or large bowl and serve right away, with the meats, vegetables and condiments alongside. Enjoy in one or two courses.
Note: Use a mix of beef brisket, tongue, short ribs, chuck roast, shanks and oxtail; lamb shanks and shoulder; pork shoulder; or goat shoulder. You can use a single cut, if you prefer.
Italian-Style Salsa Verde
Makes about 2 cups
2 bunches Italian parsley, chopped; large stems discarded
2 shallots, minced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon drained capers or drained green peppercorns, optional
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
— Juice of 1 lemon
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Put the parsley, shallots, garlic and capers or green peppercorns into a medium bowl and toss well with a fork. Add the mustard and lemon juice and toss again. Season with salt and several turns of black pepper and stir in the olive oil. Taste, correct for salt and acid, cover and let rest for 15 to 30 minutes before serving. This salsa verde will keep, covered and refrigerated, for a day or two.
Makes about 3 cups
1 package cranberries, soft berries discard
2 tablespoons sugar, plus more as needed
1 orange, preferably Cara Cara, cut in wedges
1 serrano, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1 ripe pear, peeled and diced
— Arils from 1 pomegranate
— Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
— Kosher salt
Put the cranberries, sugar, orange and serrano into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse several times, until the mixture is uniformly chopped. Tip out into a medium bowl.
Add the pear, pomegranate arils and cilantro and toss gently. Taste and add a bit of sugar if it is too tart. Add a pinch of salt, toss again, cover and let rest 15 to 30 minutes before serving. This versatile condiment will keep, covered and refrigerated, for 10 days or longer.
Michele Anna Jordan is author of the new 'Good Cook's' series. Email her at email@example.com or visit her blog at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.