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