First attempt using a slow cooker: Close, But No Cigar!

I’ve been thinking about getting a slow cooker for quite a while. They seem to be going through a resurgence, perhaps in response to the recession and the growing interest in cooking cheaper cuts of meat slow and long, perhaps just because it’s time for this fashion to come around again. Certainly, I’ve been reading various posts about them on foodie chat boards for quite a while.

But I couldn’t decide whether I’d really use a slow cooker very much or whether it would end up being a white elephant along the lines of the electric donut maker my sister bought for my husband (yes, really – he asked for it, since he’s a bit of a J.Homeresque donut-fan, but it really wasn’t good) and the ice-cream machine that I bought myself last year (which has seen a little more use, at least). Being undecisive, as I am, my mum kindly suggested I borrow hers for a few weeks to help me make up my mind.

She delivered it on Thursday evening and I planned my first trial for Saturday. My sister-in-law was visiting and she and Pete had an agenda of lots of hard manual labour in our garden. A hearty casserole seemed just the thing to feed to them that evening.

Having read lots and lots and lots of approximate recipes, ideas and advice I bought myself some decent quality cubed steak, carrots, onions, garlic and some ready-made beef stock. (Although I do like making stock at home, it’s nearly always chicken since we rarely buy/ cook beef on the bone. I’d intended to pick up a pot of fresh stock but as there wasn’t any available, I opted to try the relatively new Knorr beef stockpots instead).

So on Saturday morning I peeled and chopped the onions, cut them into eights and put them at the bottom of the slow cooker crock. The carrots were peeled, chopped and added in. And in went 3 bulbs of garlic cloves, mostly whole though somewhat crushed (as that’s how I peel them, pushing down on them via the knife blade with the palm of my hand). I had planned to add potato too but realised there wouldn’t enough room so, on top of the vegetables, I spread out the meat. I dissolved one of the stockpot jellies into 400 (instead of the recommended 500) ml of boiling water and poured this over the meat. And then added 100 ml of port. And a sprinkle of rosemary.

And then popped on the lid, turned the slow cooker to high and left it going for an hour and a half. After that I turned it down to medium and left it another 5 hours. At this point, whilst I expected it to still need more time I was surprised that the meat, whilst cooked, was not yet tender at all. More worryingly, whilst the kitchen smelled absolutely wonderful, the taste of the dish was extremely bland.

I decided to throw in another stockpot jelly, a very generous squirt of double concentrated tomato puree and some more rosemary and turned the heat back up to the high setting for the next 2.5 hours. And crossed my fingers.

Luckily, the extra time, at high heat, did render the meat lovely and tender and the extra stockpot and tomato puree provided much more flavour.

Much to my surprise, I didn’t need to thicken the liquid before serving either. I’d fully expected to, given what I’d read about slow cookers in preparation. Not only was the sauce reasonably thick, as I served the stew over plain boiled potatoes, it was easy to mash some of the potato into the sauce too.

All in all, I was relieved that the final result turned out OK and was even relatively pleasant. But I was disappointed that it wasn’t more special. For example, whilst the long, slow cooking did make the garlic mild rather than strident, as it is when raw, it didn’t render it into a sweet, unctuous mush, as I would have expected had I cooked it in an oven.

If anyone has some tried and tested slow cooker recipes that are guaranteed to impress and to get me hooked on the slow cooker phenomenon, please do share! My plan for the coming weekend is to cook a whole chicken, with just a little stock at the bottom for moisture.

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