When you think of a slow cooker, what do you think of? Do you even know what a slow cooker is? Yeah, your mom might have had one — a white crock most likely adorned with a stenciled blue flower design around the outside like my mom’s — used only when she made beef stew. Otherwise it probably sat in the deep corners of a lower kitchen cabinet next to the juicer or meat grinder. You probably thought beef stew was the only thing you could make in a slow cooker. Or that it’s an appliance you would never need in your kitchen. Do they still even make those things?
There seems to be some mystery behind the slow-cooker – or is it a Crock-Pot? According to The Daily Meal’s Will Budiaman, slow cooker and Crock-Pot are synonymous, just as Xerox is with photocopy and Kleenex is with tissue. Crock-Pot® is “the Original Slow Cooker,” according to its logo, and has been supplying these appliances since 1970. At the time of its invention, the slow cooker gained popularity with its “set it and forget it” method of cooking. Slow cookers are designed to slowly cook food over long periods of time. Since they’re covered, slow cookers also naturally baste food in its own liquid, as steam released during the cooking process condenses within the crock, making for a moist and tender final product.
Today, modern moms still love slow cookers. Pinterest, the newly popular online platform, is host to thousands upon thousands of slow-cooker recipes. Take, for instance, one pin I found titled, “44 Slow Cooker Recipes with 4 ingredients or less” showcasing recipes like “Easy Cheesy BBQ Chicken” made of boneless skinless chicken breasts, a bottle of barbecue sauce, bacon slices, and cheese. Or “Crock Pot Monkey Bread” made from a tube of Pillsbury Grands®, cinnamon, a stick of butter, and brown sugar. However, for someone who loves cooking with fresh ingredients and finds chopping vegetables relaxing, I found these store-bought, minimal-ingredient recipes disappointing. I wanted more from my slow cooker.
I might not be busy carting kids to soccer practice, but I am a thrifty college student that is in class most of the day and works at night. My slow cooker is a lifesaver for giving me home-cooked meals when I’m not actually home all day to cook them. However, I can tell you it has been a challenge trying to find decent recipes to use in my slow cooker that don’t look like they came off a Betty Crocker box. So for the at-home gourmands, with palates not cut out for “Easy Cheesy BBQ Chicken” or “Crock Pot Monkey Bread”, a new wave of slow cooker recipes is emerging. Culinary artists are reinventing the slow cooker. Food and Wine’s Daniel Gritzer has composed a list of culinary masterpieces all made in a slow cooker. Recipes such as Coconut Pork Curry, Ropa Vieja, and Sour Cream Cheesecake are a far cry from the previous generation’s tender but bland meals.
Many of these modern recipes are taking a step or two away from the traditional “set-it-and-forget-it” method of slow cooking. Gritzer suggests, for example, browning meat on the stovetop in advance, then deglazing the pan for added flavor, but the overall result of his recipes is still hassle-free, creative, and delicious. This new wave of cooks is also using fresh and unique ingredients. For slow cooker pulled pork, Food and Wine’s Melissa Rubel Jacobson uses sambal oelek and molasses. Or, for a more elegant spin on pig, The Daily Meal’s Maryse Chevriere braises pork butt in a sultry mixture of red wine, bay leaves, and cinnamon. In these recipes, I had found the inspiration I needed for my slow cooker quest.
Thumbing through my beloved copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by the late Julia Child, I stopped at a page for the classic French dish, Coq Au Vin. “Chicken in Red Wine with Onions, Mushrooms, and Bacon”, as Julia lists it, is a 12-step novel of a recipe not meant for the faint-of-heart cook. Simmering bacon, sautéing, browning dried chicken, flambéing with cognac, roasting and simmering, chopping onions, chopping mushrooms, skimming fat, seasoning, reducing the wine and stock, beurre manié, fresh parsley, bay leaves, brown-braised onions — this recipe requires practically a full day in the kitchen with one, maybe two, really quick bathroom breaks. But my research had given me an idea.
So I set out to make Coq Au Vin in my slow cooker. I was on a mission to prove that busy people can still enjoy sophisticated, gourmet dishes without having to settle for the cop-out Pinterest slow cooker recipes. I did some online research and found a seemingly decent Williams-Sonoma recipe for Slow Cooker Coq Au Vin. However, Williams-Sonoma’s recipe used the Cuisinart Multicooker. This god of the slow cookers has four fully programmable cooking features that not only include slow cooking, but also roasting, browning/sautéing, and steaming. Its maximum temperature is 500 °F and includes a 7-quart aluminum dishwasher safe pot. With stainless steel finish and blue LCD displays, it’s also a countertop beauty. It also retails for $365. As I stared at my humble, 3-quart, $35.04 Hamilton Beach slow cooker, I thought Slow Cooker Coq Au Vin might be too great of a challenge. But I was determined to prove my point. After a trip to the market, I hurried home with bags of shallots, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, chicken thighs and legs, fresh thyme, bay leaves, flat leaf parsley, and of course, a hefty bottle of red wine.
I pan-fried bacon, then dried and salt and peppered the chicken legs which were then browned in the reserved bacon fat. Once browned, I placed them on a plate and mushrooms, shallots, and garlic entered the pan. Once the mushrooms were browned and sautéed, I added butter and flour to thicken the oncoming liquids, then added tomato paste and reduced red wine to the pot. The mixture married wonderfully as I dumped it in the crock of my slow cooker along with handfuls of fresh herbs. Seven hours later, I was enjoying the warm and hearty aroma of herbs, garlic, and red wine all throughout my dorm room.
Served on top of a heap of garlicky rosemary mashed potatoes, the Slow Cooker Coq Au Vin was incredible. The tomatoes and wine had reduced into a heavenly sauce. The earthy vegetables had softened and the chicken, unsurprisingly, slid from its bones with the slightest tug from an inquisitive fork. The Hamilton Beach had succeeded! I was proud of it — revealing that I didn’t need the fancy schmancy $365 Cuisinart to make a slow-cooked masterpiece. And I was proud of my Coq Au Vin, which had taken me measurably less effort than Julia Child’s classic rendition, while, I believe, providing the same gustatory satisfaction. Yes, it took more effort than simply throwing chicken, store-bought sauce, bacon, and cheese in a crock and calling it dinner. But for those of you who are culinarily bold and innovative enough to think outside of the box (crock?), I strongly urge you to push the limits of your slow cooker. You’ll be glad you did.
Slow Cooker Coq Au Vin
1 bottle red wine, like Pinot Noir
5 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
½ leek, cut lengthwise
6 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut into ½-inch dice
3¼ pounds whole chicken legs
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 pounds small button mushrooms
¾ pounds shallots, halved
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1¾ cups chicken broth
¾ pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
Make a bouquet garni by tying the parsley sprigs, thyme sprigs and bay leaf against the cut side of the halved leek with kitchen twine. Set aside.
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, cook bacon until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Working in batches, brown the chicken, turning once, for 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Transfer to a plate.
Again, discard all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan, then add the mushrooms to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Set aside.
Add wine to saucepan and boil until reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Set reduced liquid aside.
Melt the butter in the pan. Add the garlic, tomato paste and flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Whisk in the reduced wine and the broth and bring to a simmer. Add the bacon, chicken, mushroom mixture, carrots and bouquet garni. Set the slow cooker on low, cover, and cook until the chicken is fork-tender, about 7 hours.
Transfer the chicken to a plate. Skim the fat off the sauce. Discard the bouquet garni and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper. Return the chicken to the crock or plate on a separate serving dish. Garnish with the chopped parsley and serve immediately, preferably over mashed potatoes.
Serves 4 to 6.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma online and Canal House Cooking, Vol. 2, by Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton.