Nice and Slow

By Chef K. Marie Paulk

This winter has been a cold and rainy one. While we waited patiently for March 20th, when spring bloomed, what did we do in the kitchen? Some of us, during this cold rainy time, tend to put on our winter coats and sweaters and sink into some yummy comfort food to enjoy by the fire. This is the time to braise, make stews, soups, a savory pie and cook with one of my favorites (and perhaps yours)—the slow cooker AKA the Crock-Pot. Except for savory pies, you can cook pretty much all of them in your slow cooker. In one of my favorite cooking magazines, Fine Cooking, I’ve read that 80% of households in the United Stated own one. Did you pull it out this winter? Don’t depair, we might have hit spring but I believe we still have some more cold and rainy days to come.

I personally have never tried this, but I know this technique is in my future. An all-time favorite meal of mine is spaghetti and meatballs. Just think, after a hard day’s work you can come home to a great meal with very little work. Cooking the spaghetti should take a mere 11 to 14 minutes. The meatballs should be tender and tasty after slow cooking in the sauce for several hours.

In making your meatballs you should use a good grind. I personally prefer a mixture of both ground beef and spicy sausage. For your herbs, you should use dried herbs in a slow cooker, their concentrated flavors and aromas bloom in the cooker’s high-moisture environment. Fresh rosemary is pretty much the only herb that can stand up in a slow cooker. Just remember, dried herbs have a shelf life of about one year. This time of year, it might also be a good idea to refresh your dried herbs; remember that they do not last forever. Once you have your meatball mixture thoroughly mixed you should chill it for about 30 minutes, so it will make it easier to roll the meatballs. When rolling, just remember to have cold water nearby to wet your hands before rolling each meatball. Roll the meat lightly between the palms of your hands so that it holds together but is not too firmly compacted. A little trick to use for these as well is an ice cream scoop for your meatballs — use the kind with the thumb trigger, which will help release the meatballs as you scoop them. Not only is it easier, but you get much more uniform meatballs.

For your marinara sauce, you can make this in advance and store it in the freezer until you are ready; make sure to defrost it in the refrigerator at least a day in advance. Once the sauce is in, you can place your meatballs in the sauce, cover and cook for three to four hours on high, or eight hours on low. The meatballs may still be a little pink in the center, even when cooked through. If you are in doubt just use your thermometer and insert into the center of a meatball, if you get 160° or higher you are ready to eat.

    Some other useful tips for the slow cooker:

  • Don’t overfill the cooker. Half to two-thirds full is best so moist air can circulate.
  • When in doubt, over-season, but don’t over-salt. Always under-salt. As I said earlier, dried herbs bloom, but salt gets intense.
  • Lift the lid as little as possible, as newer models re-stabilize the internal temperature more quickly than older models. Only lift it up if you think there is a problem. This is also true for stirring. Stir only if the recipe calls for that. The less action the better.
  • If you’re going to use frozen ingredients, either defrost before use or be prepared for them to slow your cooking time.
  • If you have a ceramic insert, treat it with care. Abrupt temperature changes may cause it to crack. When ready to serve, set the hot insert on a towel or trivet instead of directly on the counter.
  • You can even cook chicken wings or ribs in your cooker. Once they are done cooking you can crisp them up in your broiler.

The whole time I have been writing this, I have also been thinking about potpies. Potpies, or shepherd’s pies, are just great in the winter. I also don’t know too many people who can resist a meal where the main dish has a crust. One of my favorite dishes is short ribs. There is nothing better than a short rib falling off the bone with a good glass of cabernet. I think a good combination for the Crock-Pot is a short rib potpie. This would be good for a Sunday when you have extra time. Even better would be two days ahead in your Crock-Pot, then all you would need to do is make the crust when you have a little more time but don’t want to be in the kitchen all day. You could also make your crust ahead of time. It will hold for a couple of days in your refrigerator. If you want to try this just remember the short ribs should be dry and seared before you start the process. Once they are browned, take them out of your Crock-Pot and make your sauce. This dish is normally made in a Dutch oven and kept at 375° for three to four hours. If you are going to do this, though, remember the tip about keeping the lid closed.

Well, that’s it! For now, stay warm, and enjoy this cooler-than -normal spring. Hey, food for thought—I didn’t even talk about soups in your Crock-Pot!