tips & tricks
Innovative ways to make the slow cooker your warm-weather friend.
WRITTEN BY NATASHA BOURLIN
PHOTOS BY TY O’NEIL
Chef Colin Smith adds Parmesan cheese to his chicken and white bean soup with pesto
Your slow cooker loves summer, too. Though it’s often a cabinet-bound appliance when the weather turns warm, winter’s culinary wonder also is an exceptional summertime cooking tool. Summer is for parties and play, not worrying about what to feed your friends or family. Enter the slow cooker.
It’s like having a home chef in any season. Arm it with ingredients and a little prep work, then hours later a steaming meal magically appears. But when summer fun is calling, it’s the ultimate kitchen time-saver, from the cooking itself to the ease of cleaning up a single pot versus a plethora of pans.
Plus, who wants to be working over a hot stove or grill when temperatures outside are blazing? Don’t let your epicurean efforts compete with the air conditioning when a slow cooker keeps all its heat contained.
This dawdle-friendly device also is ideal for summer gatherings. It’s easy to transport a ready-to-eat item in one pot, such as slow-cooked beef for tacos or side dishes such as legumes or vegetables. Plus, it’s a cost-efficient way to feed large groups, as even sizable, less-expensive cuts of meat turn succulent when slow cooked.
Brainless cooking is sometimes best in the busy summer. Slow cookers generally have only two settings: low and high. It’s pretty hard to burn anything in a slow cooker because of the liquid produced during cooking. A slow cooker also helps eliminate questions such as, “How long do I cook this?” and “What temperature is ‘simmer?’”
It can be healthier, too. If it had legs, your slow cooker would skip merrily through farmers’ markets, gathering a bounty of fresh produce to leisurely create everything from vegetable soups to cobblers and jams.
“In the summer, if you’re trying to eat more flavorfully but healthier, you can cook in a slow cooker without fat,” says Lara Ritchie, culinary director for Nothing To It! Culinary Center in Reno. “The cooker’s diffused, long, slow cooking time brings out the moisture in everything.”
And flavors are fostered through the process.
“For summer, the slow cooker meal I like is a chicken and white bean soup with herb pesto,” says Colin Smith, chef/owner of Roundabout Grill and Roundabout Catering & Party Rentals in Reno and Sparks. “The cooker is great for getting the chicken and vegetable flavors melding. Then the pesto adds a lively summertime component that you would lose in the slow cooking process … This is a great item to start in the morning and enjoy at lunch or early dinner. It uses the stock from the chicken thighs and lots of garlic and leeks.”
Before you reach grilling fatigue, try rousing your slow cooker from its summertime sleep — you’ll be glad you did.
“The beauty of the slow cooker is that it’s a shortcut that doesn’t sacrifice quality or taste,” writes chef, restaurateur, author, and Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson in his book The Chef and the Slow Cooker.
Acheson shares so many ways to revel in the slow cooker’s glory, you may wish you had two of them instead of just one. Along with its time-saving properties and the way it enables us to cook from scratch more often, its benefits include being able to produce such mouthwatering, easy-to-prepare recipes as Acheson’s apple-butternut squash soup, peach butter, and poached cod with leek-vermouth broth.
Farmers’ Market Sauce
(courtesy of Lara Ritchie, culinary director, Nothing To It! Culinary Center in Reno. Makes 5 cups)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon rosemary, finely chopped
1 tablespoon thyme, finely chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper
⅓ cup olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
2 small zucchinis, finely chopped
1 medium eggplant, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 medium celery rib, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup basil, chopped
In medium skillet, sauté onions, garlic, herbs, and crushed red pepper in oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. If onions start to color, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water and lower heat slightly. Add wine and simmer 1 minute. Scrape mixture into slow cooker.
Add remaining vegetables and salt and pepper to taste. Cook on high 3 hours, or low 6 hours, or just until vegetables are soft. If sauce looks too thin, remove cover for the last 30 minutes. Stir in basil and serve over pasta or rice.
Chicken and White Bean Soup with Herb Pesto
(courtesy of Colin Smith, chef and owner of Roundabout Grill and Roundabout Catering & Party Rentals in Reno. Makes 8 appetizer servings or 4 entrée servings)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup leeks, diced to ½ inch
1 cup carrots, diced
1 cup celery, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2, 16-ounce cans cannellini beans or other white beans, rinsed and drained
½ cup water
4 cans plum tomatoes, drained
1, 14-ounce can fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
3 packed cups baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
2, 8-ounce skinless chicken breasts, diced to ¼ inch
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1, 2-inch piece Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons pickled cherry peppers, julienne cut
1 tablespoon fresh herbs, such as tarragon, chopped
Place all ingredients into slow cooker except spinach. Set to high, and cook 2 hours. After 2 hours, add spinach and cook 20 more minutes. Add more stock if needed. Serve soup in a bowl with a dollop of fresh pesto (recipe below). Top pesto with pickled cherry peppers and fresh herbs to garnish.
½ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
1 garlic clove
2 cups fresh basil
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Place all ingredients in food processor and blend 90 seconds.
Fresh Corn and Zucchini Soup*
(*adapted from The Mexican Slow Cooker, by Deborah Schneider. Courtesy of Lara Ritchie, culinary director, Nothing To It! Culinary Center in Reno. Serves 4 to 6)
4 ears fresh, yellow sweet corn
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 white onion, finely diced
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds, crushed
2 small zucchinis, finely diced
6 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh epazote leaves
Heavy cream or Mexican crema for serving
Remove and discard husks and silk from corn, then cut kernels from each cob. You should have about 3 cups of kernels. Reserve cobs.
In large skillet, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add onion, corn kernels, and coriander. Cover and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to 5-quart slow cooker.
Add corncobs, zucchinis, water, and salt to slow cooker. Cover and cook on low 6 hours. Just before serving, remove and discard corncobs and stir in epazote. Taste and adjust seasoning. Ladle hot soup into bowls, and top each with spoonful of crema or whipped heavy cream.
Lemon-Berry Pudding Cake*
(*adapted from Better Homes and Gardens. Courtesy of Lara Ritchie, culinary director, Nothing To It! Culinary Center in Reno. Serves 6)
Nonstick cooking spray
1 cup fresh blueberries and/or fresh red raspberries
1 tablespoon plus ½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons lemon peel, finely shredded
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup skim milk
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons shortening
Let eggs stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, coat 2-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Place berries in cooker and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon granulated sugar.
For batter, separate eggs. In medium bowl, combine ½ cup granulated sugar, flour, lemon peel, and salt. Add milk, lemon juice, shortening, and egg yolks. Beat with electric mixer on low speed until combined. Beat on medium speed for 1 minute.
Thoroughly wash beater. In another bowl, beat egg whites with electric mixer on medium speed until soft peaks form. Fold egg whites into batter. Carefully pour batter over berries in cooker, spreading evenly.
Cover pot and cook on high heat setting for 2½ to 3 hours. Turn off cooker. If possible, remove crockery liner from cooker; cool, uncovered, for 1 hour on wire rack before serving.