When I was a student I used to have this dinner called a “cheese and crisp feast”. The first two ingredients were obvious, the feast part was the addition of plenty of cheap, strong pickled onion. I’m not ashamed of that, I could also cook actual food. I’d do it again, we’re it not for the fact it stinks, salt and fat and blah blah blah and I have the only child in the world who doesn’t like cheese.
But yeah, some days I will happily hide in the kitchen shouting “oh dear sorry no, I’m cooking. ..” to every ridiculous request. Others I either get the other half to cook or bang out the slow cooker (it is actually a crock pot, for reasons I will go into later, but for some reason I don’t name drop my mid range kitchen appliance. So humble). Then I run off down to soft play hell or work or whatever and act like I actually cooked that night.
My slow cooker food is famously ugly. Really ugly. Like people have said mean things on Instagram ugly! It is, however, also famously tasty and I’ve very, very rarely had leftovers let alone anyone not finish their first plate. Sometimes I have to hide the batch for freezing later! So yes, I’m more than a convert now.
This isn’t a list of recipes or technical stuff, but if you want recipes, why not follow my Pinterest board for slow cooker and crock pot recipes? Because I’m addicted to my phone and image hoarding, it’s updated almost constantly. Here, I’m going to share some general tips for choosing and cooking -including some shortcuts and cheats.
How to choose your slow cooker.
I love a bargain but have had issues with cheaper slow cookers – so my first tip would be check the reviews! We had an ‘own brand’ one which had a thin, useless glaze. Even with proper care hairline cracks appeared and after a week in the cupboard they started to show signs of mould (from the food trapped within which could not be scrubbed out, not that I have mould!). So far our Crock Pot has faired much better. There are many brands out there: the main quality point you want is the quality of the bowl and a well fitted lid. You do not need any fancy dials or attachments though – high, low and keep warm are all you need!
One last thing: if you have a dishwasher then get a dishwasher safe bowl. Scrubbing out a slow cooker is a nasty job (soaking it with bicarb, a squirt of fairy liquid and warm water overnight helps though).
My top tips.
1. Spice mixes, blends and stock pots are your friend. Put them in at the start and they’ll pervade the dish perfectly, pick them up on offer or in bargain shops like Poundstretcher or B&M. Unless you are strictly following a recipe they will save time and you will end up with favourites (Tesco smokey is my current love … you can add it to veg and tinned butter beans and come out with something rich as ever). Collecting them is also useful if, like me, you enjoy hoarding stuff in plastic ice cream tubs in your cupboard.
2. Canned or pre-cooked frozen pulses are useful. You can use a slow cooker for some smaller pulses but they are far from reliable. Have some tinned or batch cooked and frozen on standby. Using pulses until they pulp can be a useful way to thicken your broths without corn flour.
3. Thicken broths by leaving the pot on for 45 min on high to reduce and/or adding pluses or floury potatoes from the start and/or sprinkling in poha (flat rice flakes) in the last half hour and/or using a traditional corn flour slurry. Otherwise it will be water-runny. If you forget all of the above and haven’t salted the dish much … gravy granules to the rescue. Thanks Aunt Bessie.
4. You can “roast” (more like pot roast) by putting meat on top of veggies with hardly any water.
5. You don’t always have to brown meat before adding it to the slow cooker. Cheap books and Internet recipes often go on about browning, but after reading some articles on experiments I did my own and found (as the articles suggested) the only reason would be if you wanted a particular texture or colour. Sealing in shouldn’t do too much in a long, wet cooking process designed to blend flavours together. This saves cooking and washing up time.
6. The less water, the more oil. Or it will stick. The exception is minced beef or pork which has so much fat proportionally you don’t need oil.
7. Anchovies. They melt in and add a rich tang.
8. Always, always have some frozen casserole veg in the freezer. I have created soups out of this, a tin of kidney beans and a carton of tomatoes before (plus my herb and spice hoard) which tasted proper. Casserole veg + protein + half mug of water + seasoning = all in one meal, dump in the morning, eat in the evening.
9. Look out for bones in your butchers, or real long-cooking tough cuts. These are often cheap – now oxtail is trendy it’s hard to find at a bargain price but I made a lentil broth using the bones of some organic beef from Hook & Cleaver which cost me under £2 total. Ended up as three hearty meals, really similar to if I’d used oxtail. Always choose cheaper cuts of better meat over the ‘best’ cuts of value meat, more flavour and less water!
10. To adapt a regular recipe, I x3 the time for a slow cooker on high, or x4/5 for low. I then add 30 min for the cooker to get up to hot. I aim never to stir more than twice though sometimes I feel it needs a scrape so end up stirring more! But remember – every stir lowers the heat and releases the steam!
Finally I leave you with one recipe that will sort you out in a bind (or not). Throw a couple of tubs of (Tesco Everyday Value in my home) passata, half a grated (or panic chopped) brown onion, a generous squirt of ketchup, pinch of salt, half a teasoon of sugar, teaspoon of dry oregano and garlic (crushed, paste or powder) to taste into your slow cooker. Leave on low. Voila, several portions of smooth, vegan, child friendly, goes with anything but pasta tonight because you didn’t have time to shop, tomato sauce. Just don’t forget freezer bags and tuppeware. We’ve got a load of bolognaise sauce in a child’s lunch tub in our freezer!
Do you slow cook? What are your tips?