On the weekends I like to cook a big meal, something I can break down into portions and take in for lunch over the course of the week, and freeze for future consumption. I’m broke, and therefore frugal. This summer I’ve been trying to make these meals in the slow cooker. This has the benefits of holding a lot of food, doesn’t throw off much heat, and once the food is in it requires no attention from me so I can piss off and do what I please all day—a great combination.
Last weekend’s somewhat ill fated attempt was to cook a whole chicken. Cooking whole poultry has always been a bit of a challenge for me; you always want that pretty presentation that an intact bird gives, but getting the damn thing to cook evenly is nearly impossible, given the thickness of the breast meat and the thinness of the limbs. Also I keep forgetting to buy kitchen string and it turns out normal string will burn through and snap pretty quickly at 375 degrees. I put in a lot of research before attempting to create a bird without the oven. The recipes did not reach a consensus amongst themselves. Several said to cut the chicken down into pieces, but I felt the point was to do it whole, so I went with the few I found that gave instructions on that front. A great source here was the blog A Year of Slow Cooking, a woman that used her crockpot everyday for a full year, she did the whole chicken thing at least twice. Then there was the big dilemma: The recipe book that came with the crockpot called for me to leave the skin on, and brush with butter. Many websites I found regaled the horror of doing so—apparently the fatty skin simmering for hours on end does not produce a pleasant smell or presentation. This being the case I found myself last Saturday, kitchen scissors in hand, going about the task of cutting all of the skin off a raw chicken at nine in the morning. Concentration called for me to get my eyes, and therefore nose, damn close to the thing while I worked. As I wish to keep this blog an appetizing place to visit, I did not take a picture. Realizing that the wings are mostly skin I attempted to hack them clear off the bird, and when that mangled project did not work (ever try to rip bone out of the socket of an uncooked bird? It’s HARD) I decided it might be okay to just leave them on. Also Will was threatening to take away my scissors, because, by his description, I was wielding them in an unsafe manor and screaming at an already dead animal.
After plunking the bird in the crockpot and, per A Year of Slow Cooking’s advice, covering it in lemon slices and rosemary, I flicked it on low and left it alone for 6-8 hours. A handyman was coming to do some work in the apartment that day so for several hours, I couldn’t leave. The point of slow cooking is that you can leave for awhile, and therefore are not hanging around for the many hours that the scent of food fills your home. Herbs and chicken are fragrant, and I was snacking far more then usual. As soon as the workman was out the door I was packed up and headed for the coffee shop, the chicken and I needed some time apart.
In the end, I made another mostly dry chicken. The juices fell to the bottom of the pot and kept the leg meat very tender, but the breast meat dried out more then I would have liked. Still edible, but not juicy. I was surprised when I went to lift the chicken out of the pot, the entire thing fell apart on me. Oh sure, now the bones come apart.
Determined to get the hang of this appliance, this past weekend I made a childhood favorite, Red Beans and Rice, using my mother’s very German-American, Not-Very-Spicy-Except-For-A-Green-Pepper recipe. She has always cooked it using a pork shoulder, and simmered for hours in a Dutch Oven which sounded like slow cooking to me. My mother has a tendency to give me her recipes assuming I know the ingredients and portions as well as she does, which usually involves several follow up phone calls on my part to straighten out everything. I’ve gotten recipes from her that simply include the instruction “add butter.” How much butter? Your guess is as good as mine. I swear to god, one of these days she’s going to give me a recipe for sugar cookies that simply says, “make sugar cookies.”
This particular recipe had the ingredient “pork butt.” It took several phone calls to find out that she meant a skinless, boneless pork shoulder of about 1-1 1/2 pounds. Gah. Using a little more then four cups of water, a chopped green pepper, a chopped onion, a bay leaf, and about three cloves of diced garlic, I turned my attention to the pork butt. Again, as I was working on a slow cooker adaption, I tried to do some research. As it turns out, the dish I had been eating my entire life is not a completely loyal interpretation of what most people think of as Red Beans and Rice. That’s right, my mother lied to me. Historically it was made with leftover ham bones from Sunday dinner as part of the New Orleans Creole tradition. Many recipes today still call for a ham hock, or in some cases smoked sausage. For many today it’s a completely vegetarian dish. I found exactly zero recipes that called for pork shoulder in red beans and rice. This lead me to research pork shoulder as cooked in a slow cooker, which pulled up many a pulled pork bbq recipe, usually involving about five pounds of meat. This was getting frustrating. The best advice I could find was that to cook the meat in a slow cooker, cutting it up into pieces was probably the best bet (though not all recipes agree here either.) I cut the shoulder down into two inch chunks, trimmed as much fat off as I could, threw it in the pot and banged on the lid. See you in eight hours, bastardized red beans and rice. I’m getting a latte.
Red Beans and Rice in the Slow Cooker
Adapted from my Mom
- 1 bag of red pinto beans, washed
- 1 Green Pepper- Diced
- 1 Large Yellow Onion- Diced
- 3 Garlic Cloves -Diced
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 1 and 1/2 pound boneless pork shoulder
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 4 cups of water
Place all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 6 hours, until meat falls apart.
When the lid came off, I felt a little mixed about my results. The taste was about right, but because evaporation doesn’t happen much in a crockpot, it was much more watery then it should have been, so the flavor was a bit diluted. I’m actually still considering throwing the leftovers in the dutch oven and letting it simmer uncovered for about half an hour to try to thicken things up.
As I try to find harmony with my crockpot, I should probably look into working with recipes that have been designed for the device, instead of trying to adapt recipes to an appliance I’m not entirely comfortable with yet. Even the maddest of mad scientists take baby steps before they go off the deep end. Then again, my mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe is also supposed to simmer for hours….