The slow-cooker was my most breathlessly anticipated and has been my most woefully crushing culinary purchase on record.
I bought it about five years ago after hearing how deliciously complex and flavorful everything from basic Mexican black beans to beef bourguignon to cardamom rice pudding turned out to be after six hours in the cooker and a few nominal peaks-n-stirs.
(NB: I never actually sampled the goods; at that point, I still assumed that one man’s luscious, tender and delicious coq au vin was another man’s luscious, tender and delicious coq au vin. Those were innocent times: I also assumed that people who ate Hamburger Helper and Big Macs were doing so out of convenience and due to grim economic constraints, not because, well … they actually like the way they taste.)
The DIY back to basics, 1950’s laboratory, vaguely Midwestern ethos of the contraption also appealed.
Then I purchased edible items to put in the pot, followed recipes explaining how said edible items should be mixed together, turned the pot on, waited for the prescribed amount of time for said items to be done, opened the pot, did an excited jumpy jig and then sampled the wares.
A veritable parade of hideously bland pap emerged from the slow cooker’s dark and ominous maw, despite my most earnest efforts — after five or six tries, I felt no ingredients could leave that oven’s black hole unsullied. Not only were flavors invariably as flat and uninspired as a baking powder pancake, starches became gluey, proteins became sodden, stringy and/or sloppy and vegetables turned into wet chunks of baby food.
I quickly relegated the slow cooker to the back of the culinary bus, along with a rusting cocktail shaker and a half-melted egg timer. But the other day, as bent down to pick up my beloved, always trusty Le Creuset French oven, my gaze was arrested by the sad, slow cooker. I decided there had to be a way to adjust one of my tried and true pain-in-the-ass recipes for the slow cooker — I hate wasting storage space and I couldn’t stand the notion that I was just a tweak or two away from a simple, but tasty dish sans the effort.
I also finally finished reading the New Yorker’s annual food issue, and after reading Jane Kramer’s love letter to root vegetables, “Down Under,” I was inspired to create a little roast of my favorite root vegetables. It seems that preparing root vegetables, a hardy survival food since time immemorial (beloved as much for its bomb of calorie-dense energy, its storability, versatility and cheapness), is an exercise in nostalgia for a lot of people.
The scent of starchy vegetables cooking in oil and honey with a bit of cumin, coriander, cardamom and turmeric always makes me feel Hallmark-y, warm and taken care of. Like slipping my ungloved hand into my husband’s coat pocket on a blustery December day while munching on roasted chestnuts and sipping hot chocolate (this has never actually happened, but I’m quite sure it would be lovely).
In addition to cooking roots, I love shopping for them — it’s always a hilariously phallic experience. It’s quite difficult to poke around bins examining and prodding long, pale daikon radishes, small and squat taro roots and bulbous sweet potatoes without feeling a bit perverse and giggly. Or perhaps that’s just me.
To distract myself from an unsophisticated urge to text photos of people suggestively smelling the daikons, I wandered into Kam Sen‘s fabulous noodle aisle and decided to round out the week’s cooking with a nice bowl of Thai-inspired Chicken Noodle Salad.
Recipes for the week: Thai Chicken Salad with Brown Rice Noodles, Slow Cooker Aromatic Risotto and Root It Out Roast.
Thai Chicken Salad with Brown Rice Noodles
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Makes 6 servings
- 10.5 ounces brown rice noodles
- 4 large garlic cloves
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
- 1 TBSP fresh lime zest
- 1 TBSP smooth organic peanut butter
- 3 tsp chopped and peeled fresh ginger
- 1 TBSP sriracha sauce
- 2 TBSP vegetable oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 large chicken breast halves, poached and shredded (add salt and pepper to chicken breasts, cut up carrot and celery, 5 sprigs parsley, 1 bay leaf, throw all in pot, cover with water, bring to boil, reduce to simmer, cook until done, about 15 minutes)
- 4 cups shredded Napa cabbage
- 1 cup grated carrot
- 2 red bell peppers, sliced thin
- 1 1/2 cup bean sprouts
- 1 medium red onion, halved and sliced
- Cook noodles in small pot of boiled and salted water until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain.
- Puree next 7 ingredients in blender. With machine running, gradually add oil and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
- Mix chicken, veggies, toss with noodles, dressing. Serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Thai Chicken Salad with Brown Rice Noodles: 275 calories and 8 grams of fat; good source of low-fat protein, fiber, Vitamin C.
Cost breakdown for Thai Chicken Salad with Brown Rice Noodles: $8 or $1.33 per serving. (I had spices, oil, sriracha, soy sauce and carrots at home).
Verdict/In the future: This dish was the hands-down winner of the bunch. It was fun to eat, colorful, yummy and the perfect balance of heat, salt, umami and sweetness. Because there were so many elements, there was also a little adventure in each bite. We both loved the level of spice, though I will probably double the dressing ingredients next time — and Stephen still wants even more soy sauce. Oh, and beware the insane volume this recipe produces. It came to the top of my biggest stock pot when I was tossing it with dressing! This will definitely become part of our rotation.
Slow-Cooker Aromatic Risotto
Makes 4 servings
- 1 cup short grain brown rice
- 1 small carrot, small dice
- 2 small shallots, halved and sliced thin
- 3 small leeks, halved and sliced thin (white and light green parts)
- 1 small red onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
- 1-1.5 cups water, divided
- 1/3 cup white wine
- 1 cup green peas
- 2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
- 10 pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
- 1 TBSP freshly grated lemon zest
- 2 TBSP fresh basil or parsley
- 1 TBSP fresh lemon juice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Coat slow cooker with cooking spray. Add rice, veggies and garlic to slow cooker. Add broth, 1 cup water and wine. Stir to combine. Cover and cook until rice is tender, 3.5 hours on low.
- Before serving, cook peas and drain. Turn off slow cooker, add peas, Parmesan, olives, lemon, fresh spices and mix. Add hot water if it’s dry.
Nutritional breakdown for Slow-Cooker Aromatic Risotto: 300 calories and 6 grams of fat. Aromatics are a super source of antioxidants, blood regulating kaempferol, B vitamins, manganese and inflammation busting properties.
Cost breakdown for Slow-Cooker Aromatic Risotto: $8. I had rice, stock, olives, peas, herbs and wine at home.
Verdict/In the future: A chronic garlic-phobe, Stephen was terrified when he saw the gargantuan pile of aromatics I was chopping up for the quasi-risotto (arborio rice would not work in a slow cooker, so I went with my go-to rice worker mule, basic brown). Unfortunately, you could barely taste them after 3 plus hours in the slow cooker, which will forever be little more than a flava’ robber in mind. The rice was gummy. The texture was reminiscent of pilled, threadbare fabric soaked in dirty bathwater. Epic fail. Will I learn? Doubtful. I’m tempted to try a chili next!
Root It Out Roast
Makes 5 servings
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, halved and sliced thin
- 2 medium red potatoes, halved and sliced thin
- 1 medium daikon radish, halved and sliced thin
- 2 medium carrots, sliced into thin rounds
- 3 small taro roots, sliced into thin rounds
- 1 medium leek, halved and sliced thin
- 2 small shallots, halved and sliced thin
- 1 small red onion, halved and sliced thin
- 2 whole peeled garlic cloves
- coriander, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, salt and pepper to taste
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 3 TBSP honey
- 2 TBSP minced parsley, sage, tarragon or rosemary.
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Put all of the vegetables into an oven proof baking pan, sprinkle with spices, toss with olive oil, honey. Cover with foil.
- Roast at 425 degrees for 45 minutes; go in and toss them about and fuss over them every once in a while. Remove foil and roast for 10 minutes. Add fresh spices, adjust seasoning and serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Root It Out Roast: 300 calories and 8 grams of fat per serving. Fantastic source of fiber, Vitamin A,C and E. Full of antioxidants.
Cost breakdown for Root It Out Roast: $7 or $1.40 per serving. (I had spices, oil and honey on hand).
Verdict/In the future: This is not a dish for Stephen; root vegetables have never gotten him hot and bothered unless they’re mixed with equal parts butter, cream and salt. I love them though; roasted, they’re perfectly crisped, salty and oily on the outside, and meltingly tender under their tough little crust. More oil is always better though — I’d douse it in more oil and dial up the spice level next time.