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Food & Drink

If you're just dumping a bunch of stuff into your slow cooker, you're doing it wrong

| Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, 8:27 p.m.

Let's face it: Slow cookers are popular, but dull. Mute. Kinda sleepy. Even on its highest setting (of three total), my six-quart All-Clad slow cooker doesn't simmer stock or sizzle diced shallots. Sometimes I'll reset it in the middle of cooking, just to hear that indifferent chirp. “She's not dead yet,” I say to myself, relieved.

Hugh Acheson, the sharp, often pithy James Beard award-winning chef/restaurateur, “Top Chef” judge, author and self-proclaimed “pot stirrer” on Twitter, is not dull. And this, I imagine, is why his publisher asked him to write a book about slow cookers.

Plenty of chefs have written for home cooks in the past couple of years, but “it's so unique for a person with that experience and that level of authority to want to do something as humble as a collection of recipes for slow cookers,” says Clarkson Potter's Francis Lam, Acheson's editor on the project. It's hard to imagine Acheson, with his tightly cropped haircut and his jeans turned up at the cuffs, moving his tattooed arm toward one of these electric countertop mini-ovens and hitting “DOWN” or “UP” to set the time, then walking off to take out the dog or whatever. And that's the selling point: People will be curious to see what this pairing looks like.

Also, slow cookers are hot right now. Two others cookbooks available this season are “Martha Stewart's Slow Cooker” and “Slow Cook Modern” by Liana Krissof.

“People are into these devices again in part because of the wild success of the Instant Pot,” says Lam of the slow cooker's younger, quicker cousin. “They're seeing that circulate and thinking, ‘Oh, well, I do have a slow cooker.' ”

The recipes in the book range from Japanese dashi stock to Mexican sipping chocolate and tortilla soup. When asked about everyone's favorite hot-button issue, cultural appropriation, Acheson will say that globalism has reshaped that argument: Although his grandfather was born in Ontario and is of Scottish descent, “my dad was born in Cuba but wasn't Cuban. ... I feel much more comfortable making kimchi, which I can eat at various Korean barbecue joints in a strip mall ... than making haggis.”

Acheson starts cooking. He browns the chicken's skin in a skillet, followed by the onions, to soften them. He transfers both to the slow cooker and adds homemade chicken broth, soy sauce and kimchi. Once the chicken is close to done, the chef makes a kind of risotto with middlins, or broken pieces of rice. The rice grits go on the bottom of the plate, then the chicken and its juices, and then crunchy sliced radishes and cucumbers. It's far from the dreary pot roast that the snobbier set might (unfairly?) associate with slow cooking, although the book does contain a recipe for pot roast, which Acheson brightens with a fresh chickpea salad.

It's also far from the swordfish belly with pickled mushrooms and lemon balm on the menu at Acheson's Athens, Ga., restaurant Five & Ten, though Acheson does place his garnishes with tweezers. He's a chef and a home cook.

“You know, everything in the book really worked well,” he says, referring to the range of recipes the slow cooker made successfully. There's oatmeal, gumbo, boiled peanuts, tomato confit, lobster tacos, poached eggs, cactus salad, fig jam and braised beef tongue. “This rudimentary piece of equipment has got a dynamic spectrum of possibility.”

Frankly, Acheson also wants this book to make money. “The economic reality is that restaurants don't make much money,” he says, adding that one of his daughters wants to go to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“The Chef and the Slow Cooker” will probably sell like crazy because of the popular topic and the acclaim of its author ­— a few days before it debuted, according to Acheson, it was one of the top five books on Amazon — but will people cook from it?

For the hordes of cooks who swear by their slow cookers, the appeal is “set it and forget it.” And about half the recipes in “The Chef and the Slow Cooker” require extra doings: blackening an onion in a skillet here, frying your own potato chips in canola oil there. Those recipes are more like “do some stuff, set it, forget it for a bit, check in again, do some other stuff on the stovetop, and then serve it all.” Acheson thinks we should wrap our heads around that being part of what good home cooking is.

“If you're going to just dump a bunch of (stuff) in a pot and walk away, you might as well buy Lean Cuisine,” he says. This book is about maximizing a tool you probably already have, he adds, by learning to use it in inventive ways that produce more vibrant food.

Where the slow cooker really shines is in making stocks, jams (you don't risk scorching them), braising and holding poaching temperatures, and Acheson makes good cases for each. “Say, for fish, the cooking time is spent on building a broth, then you drop the fish in 20 minutes before you eat,” Acheson says. “The traditional idea of, food's done when it's done — that's not really how we live anymore. My daughter Beatrice might get back from a volleyball game in rural Georgia at 10:15 at night. She and her team ate something on the road — crappy fast food, probably ­— but then she eats something more sustainable and good at home. Dinner is no longer just at 7, you know? It's nice to have food that can be pretty much done and ready whenever anybody wants it.”

Julia Bainbridge is food editor of Atlanta magazine and host of “The Lonely Hour” podcast.

Kimchi-Braised Chicken

The fiery heat and complexity of cabbage kimchi mellows into a lovely sauce for the bird here. You'll need a 6- to 8-quart slow cooker. Serve with pickled vegetables, such as carrots, okra and daikon. 4 servings

One 3- to 3 12-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces (giblets and wing tips removed)

Kosher salt

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 shallots, minced

One 4-inch knob fresh ginger root, peeled and minced (3 tablespoons)

1 cup sake (may substitute Chinese rice wine or dry sherry)

1 12 cups no-salt-added chicken broth

2 12 cups chopped cabbage kimchi, with juices

2 tablespoons light soy sauce \

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Cooked rice with cilantro and mint, for serving

Pat the chicken pieces dry, then season liberally with salt all over.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, work in batches to brown the chicken pieces on both sides, transferring them to a plate as you go. (This should take about 10 minutes on the skin side and 3 minutes on the second sides.)

Once all the chicken's done, add the shallots and ginger to the skillet and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring, until softened. Pour in the sake; increase the heat to high and cook for about 2 minutes, or just long enough for the wine to evaporate.

Transfer the shallot mixture to the slow cooker, then add the chicken pieces and broth. Add 1 12 cups of the kimchi and its juice, plus the soy sauce. Cover and cook on LOW for 4 hours.

Uncover and add the crushed red pepper flakes and the lime juice, stirring gently to incorporate. (The chicken will be falling-apart tender.)

Divide the chicken, its kimchi sauce and some rice among individual wide, shallow bowls or plates. Top each portion with some of the remaining cup of kimchi, and place a few pickled vegetables on the side of each one. Serve warm.

Nutrition: Per serving (not including rice, cilantro and mint): 680 calories, 39 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 44 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 1,260 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

Mexican-Style Sipping Chocolate

Dried chiles bring a slow heat to to this party-friendly, slow cooker beverage. If you aren't a fan of spicy, cut back the chiles by 1. You'll need a slow cooker with a capacity of at least 6 quarts. 8 to 16 servings (makes 8 cups)

Serve with biscotti, for dunking.

Make ahead: The chocolate takes 3 hours to cook, and can be made a day in advance and reheated on Low or Warm.

8 cups whole milk

3 whole dried guajillo chiles (see headnote)

One 3-inch cinnamon stick

2 12 cups semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chunks, preferably Guittard brand

12 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Combine the milk, guajillo chiles and cinnamon stick in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours.

Uncover and whisk in the chocolate and cayenne pepper, until the chocolate has melted. Cover and cook on high for 1 hour; the sipping chocolate will be quite thick.

Discard the cinnamon stick and the chiles, if desired. Whisk well before serving.

Nutrition: Per serving (based on 16): 270 calories, 6 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 20 g sugar

Oatmeal With Maple Syrup, Pear and Pecans

Creamy and nutty-tasting are welcome traits for this vegan take on a slow-cooker staple. You'll need a slow cooker with a capacity of at least 4 quarts. 4 to 6 servings

Serve with pecan milk or another nut milk — or dairy milk if you opt for non-vegan.

Make ahead: The oatmeal cooks for 4 to 8 hours, so an overnight cook works well. It can be made a day or two in advance and reheated on low or warm.

1 cup steel-cut oats (do not use quick-cooking or instant)

2 firm pears, cored and diced

12 cup chopped, toasted pecans (see note below)

14 cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

4 cups cold water

1 cup pecan milk or other nut milk (see headnote)

Combine the oats, pears, pecans, half the maple syrup and all the salt in the slow cooker. Pour in the water, cover and cook on LOW for 4 to 6 hours.

Uncover, stir and taste; add more salt, as needed. Divide among individual warm bowls, then use a spoon to make a well at the center of each portion and add some nut milk.

Use the remaining maple syrup to drizzle over each one. Serve right away.

Note: Toast the pecans in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, stirring, until fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Cool completely before using.

Nutrition: Per serving (based on 6): 250 calories, 5 g protein, 40 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar

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