Like everyone else, I have my favorite recipes & old standbys, and often can be found eating much the same thing week-to-week, until one gets sick of the treadmill and breaks out and suddenly buys a whole leg of lamb for $40 or something equally dire [from a ‘how do I cook this? standpoint]
Also, like everyone else, I do pizza and burgers and other casual dining much too often (bad for both my wallet and waistline) and while at work, I’m more likely to buy something than bring something for lunches/dinners/and-occasional-breakfasts.
So my actual cooking is limited; and since I learned to cook from Mom&Dad (cooking for a family of four) whenever I do cook, I cook too much (quantity-wise) and end up eating leftovers for a week. Actually, this isn’t so bad, so long as your go-to recipes freeze well – but it makes it a bit harder to experiment as—at best—you can try two new things a week. And you often have to eat your mistakes.
Nearly all of my recipes are in a state of flux; I’m always trying something new – substitutions, either by choice or necessity – different time constraints or techniques – shifting from soup to stew to roast-in-sauce to roasts-to-slice-for-sandwiches to hash-for-breakfast and back to soup again.
Anyway: One reason I’ve never contemplated a “Recipe Blog” in and of itself is: that’s not how I cook. I’m a seat-of-the-pants chef, always willing to try something new, always willing to ruin a dish if it seems like I’ll learn something from it.
“Ruin” is a relative term anyway: even a dish that comes out too salty [almost impossible to recover from] can usually be combined or served with plain white rice, potatoes [baked or mashed], served as pasta sauce, or diluted into a soup. One needs to be omnivorous to an extent as well, and embrace the inner scavenger. “So, I overcooked the roast. It’s dry, stringy, inedible – almost. I guess I’ll have to slice it across the grain as thin as I can, and then whip up a gravy. A lot of gravy. And egg noodles – that’ll be good.”
It takes some imagination and quite a bit of knowledge to make these pivots after you make a mistake. The payoff, though, is that some mistakes are serendipitous moments of discovery – when you mess up an out-of-the-box recipe and discover something new.
To date, I have just two go-to resources for cooking experimentation: First, Alton Brown. I own many of his cookbooks, but there are AMAZING resources available online as well. A google search will soon reveal recipes, transcripts, possibly illegal full-episode rips of Good Eats episodes available on YouTube, and other resources. Alton Rocks. Thank You Alton.
However, no matter how good the information presented, Alton only gets a half-hour to present a topic — and a little background knowledge will inform what you see on TV and also help when Alton glosses over issues that might have multiple interpretations, or when he’s plain wrong. [Yes. Good Eats rocks but it’s not a peer-reviewed journal, it’s popular entertainment]
One book you should own is On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. This is not a cookbook, it’s a food book. McGee has built upon the first book and actually has a cookbook, released two years ago, but I heartily recommend the original book for those who want to know about their ingredients. It’s not a light read (at 900 pages) — OK, I’ll leave it at that.
It’s a textbook. The subject is food and cooking. [It says so on the tin.] You can just follow TV & magazine recipes – or you can read, learn, grow as a home chef, and know why a substitution will work, or why a tweak one way or the other helps the dish, or at least changes it.
So I managed to sneak in a book recommendation and mini-review: mission accomplished.
[The folks who produce America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated magazine are releasing a similar fine-looking food-science book – but I don’t have a copy yet so I can’t review it here; they have an excellent track record and reputation though, so this is on my shopping list.]
So after I posted the last recipe I got quite a bit a feedback (over twitter; no one in the know comments on blogs anymore, that’s so 2011) and one reader pointed out that slow cookers are *great* but nearly all slow cooker recipes are for 8 hours – with no allowance [for most of us who do in fact work full time jobs] for commute times or other delays.
The good news is: an extra hour or two will not affect the final dish. Some care must be taken with meats [which can quite easily be over-cooked] but many dishes either have enough liquid, or specify cuts of meat that are generally forgiving, such that a pot roast or stock not only won’t be ruined but might benefit from the extra time.
Also: the requisite cooking time can be extended by starting cold, or frozen: the defrosting time gets added to the cooking time and is a built-in buffer. If I’m cooking a pot roast, I might start from frozen and plan for a full 12 hours of cooking time in the crock pot.
Little did I know: this is an internet controversy, and my easy-going approach makes me an apostate.
Before we get too deep into the topic: the most important bit is the final temperature of the fully-cooked dish: if you start from 40°F [refridgerated] or stone-cold-frozen and the whole crock is 160°F or more for ‘sufficient’ time — it would seem that no one wants to commit to an exact time online, but I think if the whole mass is at 165°F, dude, we’re done — than no matter how long a dish might have rested in the ‘danger zone’ (40-140°F) – Hot Food is not going to make you sick.
The trick is to make sure the whole dish is fully cooked; “hot” food may not be Hot all the way through. A slow cooker is a nice insurance policy – given how it heats food and the length of time it takes it is going to be the very rare case where an odd cold or frozen bit survives the slow-but-steady-heat-onslaught.
The USDA has specific guidelines, but these folks also make restaurants put warnings about medium-rare burgers and sunny-side-up eggs on menus: Yes, their warnings are justified but I still eat my burgers rare. [eggs I prefer scrambled or ever-easy]
Please read for yourself; not just the links above but also:
This last one is a fine reference for ‘target’ temperatures of meats, from the new science of sous vide cooking: http://www.sousvidesupreme.com/en-us/sousvide_cookingtemperatures.htm
Another important point to consider is the make-and-model of your slow cooker, and how it cooks. One thing I discovered in researching this article is that my own Crock Pot doesn’t have a heating element in the bottom: the actual heat is supplied from the sides. This means if I make a half-batch rather than filling the crock to the rim: heating will end up being uneven and cook times will take longer. [So I’m not really doing myself any favors by halving recipes: fill the sucker to the brim]
When the idea of ‘slightly longer’ cook times came up on twitter, I had to think: “just how far can we push it?” With my bean & bacon soup, the main ingredient was beans, and can we really overcook bacon fat? so when I made the second batch:
I cooked it in my slow cooker for three days.
Obviously I was using the low setting. Actually, I’d flip it from ‘low’ to ‘warm’ and back every 12 hours or so, but this was the long, long, Long slow-cooker recipe. Even stirring occasionally, there was some scorching on the sides, but the burnt, slightly smoky flavour was an excellent match for the bacon. The dish was never ruined.
So: bean soup. very hard to overcook.
This success led me to think: “Well, is there any dish I’d intentionally overcook?”
Oh yeah, there is one: French Onion Soup.
French Onion Soup is all about caramelized bits and a long slow cooking time, and toasted crouton and melty gruyère and ramekins and broilers — and actually, quite a bit of fuss.
If my slow cooker is going to burn the soup anyway, why not burn some French Onion Soup?
IF your slow cooker has a heating element on the bottom, you’ll be able to use it much like a dutch oven. You *can* brown onions in the crock and make a decent French Onion Soup. My Crock Pot [which heats from the sides, not the bottom] will not make French Onion Soup — at least, not without help.
And this is the reason I don’t have a recipe to post this week: I built on last week’s recipe. I tried a few things. I went well past what I knew and tried something I thought would work and committed and followed through
While this is obvious in science, it’s also a staple in cooking. Actually, most cooking is science: we just don’t think of it that way.
Like everyone else, I have my favorite recipes & old standbys, and often can be found eating much the same thing week-to-week, until I get sick of the same-old-same-old and Try Something New.
And that’s what I’m going to post.