Many people regard the slow cooker’s main -- or only -- asset as convenience. Get up in the morning, dump in a bunch of ingredients, turn it on the low setting. Come home from work, and you have a big pot of hearty... but somewhat generic-tasting... food ready to serve for dinner.
But in reality, a slow cooker -- often referred to as a Crockpot after the trade name of a popular brand -- can produce delicious, restaurant-caliber braises, soups, stews and other items that you would be happy to share with company, no less your family. It’s all a matter of whether you have time and are willing to trade some of that toss-it-in-the-pot convenience for a bit more preparation and technique.
Using a slow cooker really is little different from long cooking on the stovetop over a low flame or in an oven set at low temperature, with a couple of non-insignificant advantages. Once you start a slow cooker, you can walk away for hours, as it needs no tending or stirring. And most up-to-date slow cookers have automatic timed shut-offs, in case you forget, during those hours after you walked away, that you put up food to cook.
In terms of the taste of the final dish, it makes a huge difference you take the time to brown the meats and saute at least the aromatic vegetables (onions and garlic, for instance) before putting them in the pot. It is often the difference between truly savory and kind of meh.
Take, for instance, the excellent chicken cacciatore I made in my slow cooker recently. I promise you, it is one of the most delicious versions of this simple rustic dish that I have tasted.
The recipe, Chicken Cacciatore with Porcini and Cremini Mushrooms, is from the cookbook “Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever” by Diane Phillips (Chronicle Books, 2009). While the title may sound a bit aggrandizing, I’ve made several recipes from the book and they’ve all turned out very good.
As with most recipes, this one is open to embellishment. I added a chopped green bell pepper, which is not in the recipe, and also deglazed the pan after browning the chicken with a little more red wine, then added the resulting syrupy concentrate to the slow cooker.
Here’s the basic recipe. Mangia bene.
Chicken Cacciatore with Porcini and Cremini Mushrooms
(from “Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever” by Diane Phillips. Chronicle Books, 2009)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound crimini mushrooms, quartered (cut larger mushrooms into eighths)
2 teaspoons salt
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup dried porcini mushrooms, crumbled
1/4 cup red wine
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes with their juices
10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1) Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over high heat.
2) Add the crimini mushrooms with a teaspoon of the salt, the red pepper flakes, oregano and garlic. Saute until the liquid in the pan has evaporated (7-10 minutes).
3) While this is cooking, reconstitute the dried porcinis in the red wine. When the crimini mushroom mixture is done, add the porcinis and wine along with the can of tomatoes to the skillet.
4) After transferring this mixture to your slow cooker crockery, sprinkle the chicken evenly with the other teaspoon of salt, add the remaining two tablespoons of oil to the skillet, and cook in batches (do not crowd) over high heat until browned on all sides.
5) When browned, place chicken in the crockery and cover with the mushroom-tomato sauce.
6) Cook on low for 4 to 5 hours, until chicken is tender and fully cooked, then serve.