SLOW ’N’ NOT QUITE SO EASY
Let loose and be more adventurous with that slow cooker, chef says
Let’s face it: Slow cookers are popular, but dull. Mute. Kinda sleepy.
Hugh Acheson, the Top Chef judge and author of The Chef and The Slow Cooker (Clarkson Potter), is not dull.
The recipes in his book range from Japanese dashi stock to Mexican sipping chocolate and tortilla soup.
Although his grandfather was born in Ontario of Scottish descent, “I feel much more comfortable making kimchee, which I can eat at various Korean barbecue joints in a strip mall … than making haggis.”
His slow cooker dishes are far from the swordfish belly with pickled mushrooms and lemon balm on the menu at his Athens, Ga., restaurant Five & Ten.
Acheson and his three older sisters were raised by a single father, an economics professor, in Ottawa.
“He was an awesome dad, but he worked really hard, so we grew up on burnt rice and canned yellow lunch meat,” Acheson says.
Acheson worked in kitchens from a young age, and when he enrolled at Concordia University in Montreal, he was a pretty good cook. Two years later, he dropped out to pursue his culinary career full-time, working at fine-dining restaurants across Canada and in San Francisco, ultimately settling in Athens, where his wife was born.
“I knew that if I moved to a small Southern town and did white-tablecloth cuisine, I was going to be dead in the water,” he says of his decision to open Five & Ten as a neighbourhood restaurant with a daily blackboard menu.
Acheson says he’s “jazzed” about slow cookers. “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.”
The book will probably sell like crazy, 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.”
About half the recipes require extra doings: browning an onion here, frying your own potato chips 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, that is part of what good home cooking is.
“If you’re going to just dump a bunch of s--- 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.
“It’s a gateway drug to getting people interested in cooking from scratch again, actually cutting things on your own again.”
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.