It is time to give the humble slow cooker its due.
If you associate this hard-working table-top appliance with the 1970s (along with decorative owls, the color combination of burnt orange and brown, and perhaps chunky pleather boots) ditch the quick dismiss and embrace the vibe. A slow cooker can be a busy person's best friend.
Slow cookers ("Crock-Pot" is a trade marked name, like "Xerox" is to photo copiers) gained popularity four decades ago as more women entered the workforce. There was no wave of cordon bleu chefs entering their kitchens to fix dinner while they were at work, so the Crock-Pot offered a time-saving solution: in the morning, drop a roast in the crock, chop up onions, carrots, and celery, pour in some stock, add some spices, set on low, go to work, come home 9 hours later to dinner.
Good, filling, warm — but the sameness of many slow cooker recipes has been noted by more than one regular user.
"I kind of thought of the slow cooker as a glorified pot roast machine," says Stephanie O'Dea, the woman behind the blog "A Year of Slow Cooking." "It seemed like everything I put in it sort of tasted the same, the carrots got a little mushy, and the pot roast tasted like Lipton onion soup and a can of Campbell's chicken and mushroom soup."
Or, kind of like the '70s, but savory style.
With three young daughters, O'Dea has a busy 2014 household. She says she can be easily distracted in the kitchen: "Pasta water boils over, cookies get burnt." A slow cooker is perfect for her. "I don't need to stand around and babysit the food while it's cooking."
But she wanted to go well beyond pot roast. So for a year, she challenged herself to slow cook something new every day. "You can steam fish beautifully in the slow cooker, you can make delicate desserts like cheese cake, you can roast a duck, you can make barbequed shrimp."
And you can make some pretty impressive "Take Out/Fake Outs," O'Dea says, including a gluten-free KFC-inspired chicken.
Her 9-year-old has celiac disease, which takes a lot of the fast food most Americans take for granted off the table. One day, while watching chefs on a cooking show try to recreate Kentucky Fried Chicken's famous secret herbs and spices blend, O'Dea's daughter observed, "I don't know what that tastes like."
O'Dea decided to take up the KFC challenge herself, but without floured batter or deep-frying. She came up with a seasoning rub close to the Colonel's secret recipe and cooked the bird like she always did, in the Crock-Pot.
"The twist in the seasoning rub," she says, "was adding white sugar." O'Dea says a tiny bit of sugar combats the salty and the garlic flavors.
A four-pound whole chicken fits well in the average slow cooker, and O'Dea recommends removing the skin before rubbing the seasoning all over and even inside the bird.
"Put it in the slow cooker breast side down. The chicken cooks in its own juices with the seasoning. Do not add any water. This is one of the most moist chickens you will ever have and it literally falls off the bone."
O'Dea's daughter finally got to experience the taste of KFC and loved it. "She ate both drumsticks, a wing, and half a thigh that night."
Recipe: KFC-Inspired Chicken
My little one with celiac disease has never had Kentucky Fried Chicken and was disappointed when we watched a Top Secret Recipe episode featuring the famous food. The very next day we made this after some extensive spice research, and our entire family scarfed it down. If you'd like to make the spice mix in bulk, use about 1/4 cup for the rub.
1 4-pound roaster chicken, cleaned (I remove the skin; it's up to you)
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/4 teaspoon celery salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
Use a 6-quart slow cooker. Place the chicken into the insert, breast-side down (to ensure moist meat). In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Rub this spice blend evenly all over the bird, inside and out. Do not add liquid. Cover, and cook on high for 4 hours, or on low for 6 to 7 hours. Retain the pan drippings to make rice or mashed potatoes, if you'd like. Check the temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure the chicken has reached an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees before serving.
Excerpted from 365 Slow Cooker Suppers, by Stephanie O'Dea. Copyright 2013 by Jeremy Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.