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The Italian Slow Cookerby Michele Scicolone
Near the neighborhood where I often stay in Rome is a Tuscan restaurant with a small window in its façade. A large, round, greenish glass bottle sits in a small brick alcove perched above a wood-fired stove. Every morning, a cook fills the fiasco, as the bottle is called, with dried beans, water, and seasonings. All day long, the beans simmer slowly, absorbing the flavors of the garlic and herbs as they swell, becoming tender and creamy. Passing by one day, I salivated at the sight, and I thought, “This is the original slow cooker!” Until that moment, it had never occurred to me to use an electric slow cooker for Italian cooking, but suddenly, there it was.
Not only is a slow cooker perfect for cooking beans, but it's ideal for simmering a Bolognese-style meat ragu, a thick, hearty vegetable soup, or a rich beef stew of the kind I enjoyed in Tuscany. Soups, stews, and pasta sauces, as I had expected, are naturals-no worries about scorching or planning for hours in the kitchen. Just walk away!
With dishes that need lots of babying, the slow cooker really comes into its own, offering advantages the stovetop can't match. Prepared conventionally, polenta is tedious, demanding vigilant stirring so that the cornmeal doesn't scorch. In the slow cooker, it's practically effortless, creamy, and lump-free. The slow cooker makes such a good facsimile of risotto that most of my guests can't tell the difference between it and one made on the stovetop. The texture is a bit softer-slow cooker risotto has plenty of creamy sauce around the rice grains-and since it doesn't require much attention as it cooks, I can serve it on the side even if my main dish is something fussy.
Foods I had never imagined making in a slow cooker turn out beautifully: sal¬mon, halibut steaks, and the Italian-style omelets known as frittatas all emerge in about an hour perfectly moist, allowing me just enough time to set the table or make a salad and a vegetable. Flourless chocolate cakes, puddings, dense cakes with fruits and nuts, and poached fruits are foolproof. The moist, gentle heat is particularly kind to cheesecakes, which never crack as oven-baked versions often do.
Before I got my first model, I had occasionally heard complaints that slow-cooker food was bland or that it all tasted the same. One friend even told me she had given up and put her cooker in the garage, where it was gathering dust. When I asked her to describe why she didn't like it, I was surprised to hear that the recipes she had tried included packaged ingredients and raw meat tossed into the cooker with no preparation. It was easy to understand why she was unhappy. Food that comes out of the pot can only be as good as the ingredients that go into it! Bottled sauces, canned soups, and seasoning packets can make anything taste boring.
I decided to create my own recipes with fresh ingredients distinctively seasoned. Fresh foods not only taste better but are healthier and cost less than packaged products.
Although it's tempting to just toss ingredients into the cooker and take off, browning the meats or sautéing the onions and garlic before slow cooking often means the difference between delicious and dull. Stews, sauces, and braises have deeper, richer flavor and better color, and browning gives the cooking a jump start. Is it essential? No, but these little steps add big flavor and can improve the texture, so they are worth taking to get the best results. For that reason, many manufacturers today make slow cookers with removable liners that can be used directly on the stovetop, so no extra pan is needed. As a bonus, these flameproof crocks are good for reheating food on top of the stove as well.
Like the bottle in that Roman restaurant, the slow cooker doesn't heat up the kitchen, even on the hottest days; it is energy efficient and costs very little to operate; it turns inexpensive cuts of meat succulent and flavorful; and it can feed a crowd. Best of all, I can cook whenever it suits my schedule-on weekends, during the day while I'm out, or when I'm sleeping-knowing that when I finally lift the lid, the result will be unparalleled.
About Slow Cookers
Buying a new slow cooker? Lucky you! Newer models have sophisticated features your grandma never imagined.
If I could design the perfect slow cooker, it would have every one of the features listed below. So far, though, I have not found one model that has all of them.
I CONSIDER SOME ESSENTIAL, SUCH AS:
High, low, and warm temperature settings.
A removable insert.
A signal light so that you can see at a glance when the cooker is operating.
A timer, preferably one that is digital and easy to read. It helps if there is a beeper that signals when the cooking time is over.
Flexible programming so that you can set it on high for a time, then have the temperature switch automatically to low.
An automatic setting that keeps the food warm after the cooking period
THE FOLLOWING FEATURES ARE NICE,
BUT NOT REALLY ESSENTIAL:
A clear glass lid so that you can peek in without lifting the cover.
A flameproof insert so that foods can be browned directly on the stove.
A metal insert-it is not breakable, nor is it as heavy or clumsy as the crockery kind.
An insert with handles that stay cool.
An insert with a nonstick surface.
An oval shape to accommodate roasts and whole chickens.
Rubber feet so that the pot does not slide on smooth surfaces.
A retractable power cord.
Techniques and Tips
The recipes in this book are intended for use in a large slow cooker with a 5- to 7-quart capacity, which is ideal for 4 to 8 servings or for quantity cooking with freezable leftovers. A large-capacity cooker also enables you to cook cakes, puddings, and molded foods in pans or baking dishes placed within the insert and can accommodate large cuts of meat and whole chickens.
TIMING in a slow cooker is, in most cases, not very precise. Some foods, especially soups, sturdy cuts of meat, and most sauces, can handle extra cooking time, while delicate foods, such as seafood, eggs, boneless chicken breasts, and cakes, require attention because they can overcook. When you first use your cooker, stick around and observe how it cooks so that you can adjust the cooking time.
FOLLOW THE TEMPERATURE INSTRUCTIONS given in the recipes. Some foods (such as soups, meat, and beans) cook better on low, while others (egg dishes, cakes) fare better on high. Low temperature in a slow cooker is 180° to 200°F, while high temperature is 250° to 300°F (depending on the wattage of the cooker and the temperature and quantity of the food). Note that many older slow cookers cook at a lower temperature. But to ensure food safety, models made in the last ten years or so cook hotter. If you have an older model, plan on a little extra cooking time.
PRECOOK FLAVORING VEGETABLES, like onions, carrots, and celery, on the stovetop or in the microwave, if you prefer, to soften them and draw out their flavor.
POTATOES, CARROTS, AND OTHER ROOT VEGETABLES should be cut into evenly sized pieces so that they all cook through at the same time. When cooking meats and vegetables together, place firm vegetables in the base of the pot and meats on top. This helps the vegetables to cook evenly.
FOR DRIED BEANS, you'll get the best results by soaking them overnight before cooking. The cooking time will vary according to the variety of beans and how fresh they are.
BROWNING MEAT BEFORE SLOW COOKING enhances the flavor, texture, and color. To brown, first pat the meat dry with paper towels. Heat some oil or other fat in a wide pan over medium heat. Place the pieces of meat, such as chops or chunks for stew, in the pan in a single layer so that they don't touch one another. If there is too much meat in the pan, the moisture in the meat will create steam and it will not brown properly. Cook the meat on one side for about 5 minutes. Use tongs to turn the pieces without piercing them. Cook until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer the browned pieces to a plate and continue browning any remaining meat.
FOR FISH AND SHELLFISH, choose thick, sturdy fish steaks and fillets like salmon and halibut and avoid thin, delicate varieties like sole and flounder, which will fall apart. Watch them carefully so that they don't overcook. Add shellfish to a soup or stew toward the end of the cooking time.
FOR CHICKEN, remove and discard any large pieces of fat before cooking and set aside the neck and gizzards for broth. Leaving the skin on a whole chicken helps to keep it intact, but since the skin does not brown, I generally remove it while carving the chicken. When cooking chicken parts, remove the skin from the pieces of dark meat, since it is naturally moist. Leave the skin on white meat, since it's delicate and dries out easily and the skin gives it a little protection. If it looks unappetizing, you can always remove it before serving.
INEXPENSIVE CUTS OF MEAT from the shoulder, rump, and leg turn out especially well in the slow cooker, because their fat and connective tissue melt in the long cooking, moistening the meat and making it tender. Bones add flavor, so choose bone-in cuts when possible. Trim meats to eliminate excess fat.
AVOID UNNECESSARY PEEKING. Lifting the lid and stirring the contents reduces the temperature inside the cooker and may affect the cooking time. It's OK to stir the food once or twice, but avoid opening the cooker, especially in the first hour or two, when the food is coming up to cooking temperature.
YOU MAY NEED TO THICKEN SOUPS AND STEWS, since slow cookers keep in the steam that would normally escape from an open pot. There are several ways to thicken them. The easiest is to simply turn the temperature to high and uncover the cooker for the last half hour or so to allow some of the liquid to evaporate. A quicker way is to pour some of the liquid into a saucepan and boil it on the stovetop until reduced. Another method is to stir together until smooth 1 tablespoon cornstarch or all-purpose flour and 2 tablespoons cool water for every cup of liquid you want to thicken. Blend it into the simmering liquid. Cook for several minutes until thickened slightly.
POLENTA will stay soft and smooth after it's cooked for an hour or more with the cooker set on warm. If it gets too thick, you can loosen it by whisking in a little water, broth, or milk.
WATCH RISOTTO CAREFULLY to make sure the rice does not overcook and become pasty. Risotto does not keep well on warm, so serve it as soon as it is done.
FOR CAKES COOKED IN PANS that will be placed inside the slow cooker insert, you will need a 7-inch springform pan and a 6-cup-capacity baking dish. They are available at many cookware stores and online. But before you buy one, make sure that it will fit the dimensions of your slow cooker.
Slow Cooker Safety
SLOW COOKERS ARE SAFE. Since a slow cooker uses only about as much electricity as a 75-watt light bulb, you can leave it on while you sleep or are out. To be extra careful, keep the space around the cooker clear when it is in use.
TO PREVENT THE GROWTH OF HARMFUL BACTERIA, foods placed in a slow cooker should reach a safe cooking temperature (at least 145°F) as soon as possible. Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator before adding them to a slow cooker. Don't add oversized pieces of meat to the cooker or cook without the cover, as this may result in temperatures that are not safe.
NEVER HEAT AN EMPTY SLOW COOKER, since it can overheat, cracking the insert or causing damage to the heating element. To preheat the slow cooker before adding hot food, fill it with hot water and set it on high.
DO NOT USE THE SLOW COOKER TO REHEAT COLD FOODS. It takes cold food too long to heat through, which can give harmful bacteria a chance to grow. You can reheat food on the stovetop and then place it in the slow cooker to keep warm.
DON'T UNDERFILL OR OVERLOAD YOUR SLOW COOKER. Since the heating elements are located around the sides of the cooker, it should be filled at least halfway and not more than three-quarters full for even cooking and food safety.
IN THE EVENT OF A POWER OUTAGE WHILE YOU ARE AWAY, throw out the food even if it looks done. If an outage should occur while you are at home, transfer the food to a gas stovetop or an outdoor grill to finish cooking.
DON'T RUN THE SLOW COOKER on an extension cord. The electric cord on a slow cooker is purposely made short to avoid accidents. Find a place to plug it in that is close to an electric outlet.
The Italian Pantry
A well-stocked pantry makes cooking easier. Most of the ingredients used in this book are available in many large supermarkets. Others can be found in Italian specialty markets.
Homemade broth is easy to make in the slow cooker, but I always keep canned or boxed broth on hand for emergencies.
This tender fresh cheese from southern Italy is made by shaping fresh mozzarella into a pocket and stuffing it with cream and shreds of mozzarella cheese. It does not have a long shelf life, so be sure that it is fresh when you buy it. If burrata is not available, substitute another soft cheese, like goat cheese or robiola, which is a mild, soft, and creamy cheese from northern Italy that's made from a blend of cow's and goat's milk.
Capers are the flower buds of a bush that grows wild all over the Mediterranean. After they are gathered, they are preserved in salt or vinegar. The salted capers have more flavor, but either can be used. Soak them in warm water for a few minutes to eliminate excess salt or vinegar. Drain and dry the capers before using them.
Farro is an ancient variety of grain that is similar in taste and appearance to wheat. (It is sometimes sold as emmer.) Cooks in Tuscany and Umbria, in central Italy, use it often for soups and salads. If you can't find it, substitute spelt, wheat, or barley.
Fresh garlic adds good flavor to many Italian dishes. If you like a mild garlic flavor, use less or add it toward the end of the cooking time.
I like to use fresh herbs when they are available, but for convenience, I always have dried on hand. Two herbs that I never use in dried form, however, are basil and parsley, because their flavor is completely unlike that of fresh. When fresh parsley or basil is not available, I leave it out of the recipe or substitute another herb.
Frozen chopped fresh herbs are becoming more widely available and are very handy. I also freeze my own. They darken when they thaw, and although they may not be attractive for garnishing foods, they do add good flavor.
Powerfully flavored herbs like rosemary become stronger during long cooking, so start with a moderate amount. Taste food at the end of the cooking time. If the flavor of the herb has dulled, you can always add a pinch or two more.
Marsala is a fortified wine from Sicily. It has a rich, nutty flavor and is often used in Italian cooking in desserts and in savory dishes such as veal or chicken Marsala. If you can't find it, substitute sherry, port, or a red table wine.
The richness of olives is essential to many Italian dishes. Italian and Greek olives have the most flavor. If they seem too salty or vinegary, soak them in warm water briefly before using. Add the olives at the end of the cooking time so that they retain their bright flavor.
Pancetta is Italian bacon made from fresh pork belly that is salted and cured and rolled into a cylinder. Generally, pancetta is not smoked. Chopped pancetta adds a meaty flavor to soups and stews. When purchasing pancetta, it's useful to buy it sliced rather than in a chunk. I buy it in quantity, then separate the slices into 2-ounce portions and wrap each one in foil. Stored in an airtight plastic bag, the individual packages keep well in the freezer and thaw quickly. When I need a few ounces for soup or beans, I remove a portion or two from the freezer and let them thaw briefly. While the pancetta is still partially frozen, I chop it into small dice. Some companies sell pancetta already diced in small packages, which is convenient, if you can find it. You can substitute salt pork, bacon, or ham if pancetta is not available.
Parmesan cheese from Italy should be called by its real name, Parmigiano-
Reggiano. To be sure you are buying the genuine article, check the rind to see if the name is stamped into it. Its distinctive flavor is nutty, rich, and tangy all at once. When sprinkled on pasta, soup, or a salad, it livens up the flavor. I buy Parmigiano-Reggiano by the chunk and keep it in the refrigerator both for snacking and for seasoning. The cheese should look moist and fresh, with no sign of molding or drying. If it has been precut, check the expiration date on the package to be sure it is still fresh. At home, wrap it in wax paper and keep it in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Made from sheep's milk, Pecorino Romano is sharper and saltier than Parmigiano-Reggiano. In many parts of central and southern Italy, Pecorino is used for grating on soups and pasta, especially those made with olive oil instead of butter. I like Pecorino best on tomato sauces and vegetable dishes where I want a more pronounced cheese flavor. Pecorino Romano should be wrapped in wax paper and stored in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Soft, creamy-textured pine nuts come from the stone pine trees that grow all over Italy. I buy them in bulk at Italian and Middle Eastern stores, where they are much less expensive than the little jars sold in the supermarket. Pine nuts spoil quickly at room temperature, so keep them in the refrigerator or freezer in a tightly sealed container. Substitute slivered almonds or pecans if pine nuts are not available.
DRIED PORCINI MUSHROOMS
Dried porcini mushrooms add concentrated smoky, woodsy flavor to Italian soups and stews. You can generally find them in small cellophane bags at the supermarket. If they are not available, substitute another dried variety. Dried mushrooms should be reconstituted before they are used. Let them soak in warm water to cover for at least 30 minutes. Save the soaking water. If it seems gritty, filter it through cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter. Then add the water and softened mushrooms to the dish.
Nothing is quite as delicious as a fresh, ripe tomato, but since the growing season is so short, I rely on canned whole tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, tomato puree, and tomato paste.
For canned whole tomatoes, try several brands until you find one with tender, sweet tomatoes and no hard, white spots that signify the fruit is unripe. I like the Italian brands best, such as Marinella and La Squisita, because they taste exactly like ripe tomatoes.
Drying intensifies the flavor of tomatoes and preserves them as it eliminates moisture. Dried tomatoes also come marinated in oil and spices, but since those extra flavors are not always desirable, I look for the plain sun-dried tomatoes, which are usually available in the produce aisle.
Tomato puree is good for sauces and other dishes in which you want a smooth, thick texture. Look for a brand that is thick, smooth, and sweet tasting.
For tomato paste, I prefer the kind sold in tubes, because I often need just a tablespoon or two. The paste keeps for months in the refrigerator. Look for tomato paste labeled “double-concentrated” for rich tomato taste. One brand I prefer is Amore.
Many Italian recipes call for a small amount of wine. For best results, choose an inexpensive dry variety with a neutral flavor. Ask at the wine shop for some suggestions. When you open the bottle, taste the wine. It should be pleasant enough for you to enjoy drinking a glassful. Never cook with a wine that is spoiled or that you don't like, because its flavor will permeate the food and can ruin the dish.
If you prefer not to use wine, substitute broth, juice, or water, as appropriate to the recipe.
Mushroom Soup with Marsala
Here is an elegant soup for a company or holiday meal. It makes a suitable prelude to roast beef.
SERVES 6 TO 8
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup hot water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large shallots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 pound button mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 cups Meat Broth (page 47) or canned beef broth
3 cups water
2 fresh thyme sprigs or 1/2 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup dry Marsala (see page 12) or sherry
3/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Place the dried porcini in a bowl with the hot water. Let stand for 30 minutes. Lift the porcini out of the water and squeeze them to extract more liquid. If the water seems gritty, filter it through a piece of cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter. Set the soaking liquid aside. Chop the porcini.
In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Scrape the mixture into the slow cooker.
Add the porcini, the soaking liquid, button mushrooms, broth, water, thyme, and tomato paste. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, or until the mushrooms are tender. Just before serving, stir in the wine and cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with the cheese, and serve.
Chicken with Vinegar and Garlic
Whole garlic cloves infuse this chicken with flavor, while a little vinegar gives it liveliness and sun-dried tomatoes add color. The only difficult thing about this easiest of recipes is waiting for it to be done! The juices are delicious, so serve this dish with some crisp bread to sop them up.
31/2 pounds bone-in chicken legs, thighs, and breasts, skin removed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)
6 whole garlic cloves, unpeeled
3 3-inch fresh rosemary sprigs
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Place the pieces in the slow cooker. Tuck the sun-dried tomatoes, garlic cloves, and rosemary around the chicken pieces. Pour on the wine and vinegar.
Cover and cook on low for 5 to 6 hours, or until the chicken is tender. Remove the chicken pieces to a platter. Discard the rosemary sprigs. Squeeze the garlic cloves to extract the garlic. Discard the skins. Mash the garlic into the sauce and pour it over the chicken. Serve hot.
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