I'm a sucker for a good gadget, or, well, let’s be honest, any gadget (that’s what “sucker” means, right?) When I got my first slow cooker, it was no doubt thanks to some marketing lackey’s storyboard fiction: Place random boring ingredients in, turn it on, go off and enjoy your day, and a delicious dinner will ensue. Wondrous visions filled my head. I imagined easy slow cooker recipes that would have me throw in a few chicken parts, a whole onion, some random spices, and head off to work for the day only to find, upon my return, a fabulous, fully cooked gourmet meal.
After years of experimentation, there's one thing I've learned: I don’t love the kind of food that involves throwing a bunch of ingredients into a pot and applying heat. But, not one to give up on the ever-growing army of gadgets that fill my kitchen (or, god forbid, get rid of them as my husband frequently suggests), I have persevered. And it turns out, the slow cooker really can be a magical, wondrous, time-saving gourmet cooking tool that will make dinnertime more delicious. I’ve more or less given up on the casserole-style CrockPot meals I once dreamed of concocting. These days, I mostly rely on easy slow cooker recipes for prepping ingredients that will serve as the foundation for multiple meals.
Herewith, The Lazy Gourmet's Top 5 Slow Cooker Tricks:
#5 Slow Cooker Chicken, Plain and Simple
When you just want a bunch of simple, cooked chicken—say for making chicken enchiladas, chicken pot pie, or chicken salad—you can’t beat the slow cooker for ease. My favorite recipe for Crock-Pot chicken is barely even a recipe. Just chop up an onion and put it in the bottom of the cooker. Take a whole chicken (make sure to remove the bag of goodies inside the cavity! Save these for making stock), rub it all over with a hearty dose of salt, pepper, paprika, and any other dried spices you fancy. Place the chicken in the cooker, cover, and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours. Voila! Perfectly cooked, tender chicken.
#4 Slow Cooker Chicken Stock
After cooking your whole chicken, remove the meat and set it aside for meals. Any skin that you don’t plan to serve can be discarded. Place the chicken bones into the slow cooker (if you used the above whole chicken cooking method, you don’t even need to wash the cooker. Leave the diced onions and juices in it and put the bones, etc., right on top. Add the giblets and neck if you've saved them.) Add a couple of carrots, parsnips, and/or celery stalks if you like. Fill the slow cooker with water to about an inch or two below the rim. Add salt—2 or 3 teaspoons, depending on how much water your cooker holds—cover, and cook on low for 10 to 12 hours. Strain the broth through a colander set over a large bowl, discard the solids, and ladle the broth into jars. Let the broth cool, then cover the jars, and refrigerate for up to a week. Stock can also be frozen indefinitely (place into labeled, freezer-safe, heavy duty sealable plastic bags and freeze flat).
#3 Slow Cooker Roasted Beets
I love a good beet salad made with sweet roasted or steamed beets, but fresh beets can take up to two hours to roast in a hot oven or steam on the stovetop. Stick them in the slow cooker, though, and you can get on with your life while they cook and still have beautiful, delicious, nutritious fresh beets in your salads for a whole week. Simply wash the beets, trim off the leafy greens and such, wrap loosely in foil (I usually do 3 to 6 beets in one large piece of foil), put them in your slow cooker with about a quarter of an inch of water in the bottom, and cook on high for about 4 hours or on low for 6 to 7 hours. Peel the beets (the skins will slip right off) and store them in a covered container in the fridge for up to a week. Put them in salads, puree them into soup, or use them to make a vibrant Roasted Beet and White Bean Hummus.
#2 Slow Cooker Roasted Garlic
Sweet, earthy roasted garlic adds amazing depth of flavor to sauces, dips and spreads, grilled or roasted meat or fish. There are a million and one ways to use roasted garlic to boost the gourmet quotient of your meals. The problem is that it takes a good hour or more to roast in the oven. No good when you're looking to whip up a delicious dinner quickly. Enter the magical slow cooker. Just cut off the top half inch or so of a head of garlic, exposing the cloves, drizzle with olive oil, wrap loosely in foil, and cook on low for about six hours, until the garlic is soft and golden brown. Squeeze the cloves out of the skin and use them as you please. Six hours of cooking time may seem like overkill just to make an ingredient that will flavor other dishes, but I make it worth my while by roasting four or five heads of garlic this way and then freezing the cloves, one head’s worth per freezer-safe sealable bag. That way, I have roasted garlic ready to go for months to come.
#1 Slow Cooker Duck Confit
Duck confit is quite possibly the most delicious food ever conceived. Rich, flavorful meat cooked to falling-off-the-bone tender in a bath of luxurious, flavorful fat. And it's versatile, too. It makes a fantastic filling for tacos or enchiladas, a hearty addition to a green salad with a tart vinaigrette, a luscious rillette perfect for spreading on toast points, a satisfying cassoulet, and so much more. Until I discovered this super fantastic slow cooker confit method, I rarely made it, though, because it seemed too time consuming, too messy, and too expensive (while duck legs themselves are quite reasonable--I pay around $5 a pound--rendered duck fat doesn't come cheap!) But behold The Lazy Gourmet's mindlessly easy, tidy, and affordable duck confit.
Take some duck legs and rub them all over with kosher salt (I used about 2 tablespoons for 4 legs) and smashed garlic (about 1 clove per leg). Place them in a single layer in a baking dish and grind some pepper over them. Cover the pan loosely with foil and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. Rinse the legs, discarding the garlic, and pat them very dry with paper towels. Put them, skin side up, into your slow cooker. Pour olive oil (yes, you read that right. Olive oil. I use even use the cheap stuff from Trader Joe's! I promise you won't be able to tell the difference in the end) over the legs to cover them completely (this was about 4 1/2 cups for me). Put the lid on and cook on high for 4 to 5 hours. Remove the legs from the fat and serve as desired. (Important safety note: For reasons that are more complicated than I have space to go into here, I recommend that you store your confit not in the cooking fat as is traditional, but tightly wrapped in the refrigerator for no more than 2 or 3 days, or in freezer-safe plastic bags in the freezer. To be extra safe, I also recommend that you apply high heat--either by placing it in a hot oven for 5 or 10 minutes or by searing it in a hot pan--before serving.)
Of course, there are plenty of other ingenious uses for this trusty, old-school gadget: Roasting whole winter squashes (butternut, acorn, kabocha, etc.), baking sweet or regular potatoes, making a breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal while you sleep, and more. What's your favorite thing to make in a slow cooker?