Davison says she had an “aha” moment while experimenting with fish: “Not only is it incredibly easy in the slow cooker, but it’s good.” For one thing, she points out, “there’s more of a window to catch the fish at the correct doneness.” And further, slowly bringing up the temperature of a protein retains moisture, so the result is more delicate. “In the end, it has a silky texture and is tender and moist,” she says.
Even so, ATK’s 2011 book offers no fish recipes (one does contain anchovies). The newer edition has six, including old standbys such asYou chowders, stews and poached salmon.
“We’re a little behind the curve on this,” Davison admits.
Adding fish to the anthology means shifting the slow-cooker mind-set to the idea of cooking in stages.
For example, she gave me an early look at a recipe for garlicky shrimp that appears in the upcoming ATK book. “You start by poaching garlic in oil and pepper for 30 minutes,” so flavors are infused, Davison says. Then the shrimp is added to cook on high for another 20 minutes.
I shared with her my failed experiment with mussels. I had put two pounds of them in the slow cooker, along with garlic, white wine and stewed tomatoes. After half an hour on high, the shells had opened, but their innards were still glossy wet. I waited a while more, checking occasionally, until they looked done. But the cooked meat was rubbery and tasteless.
Davison, whose thoughtful analysis reflects the scientific approach that is an ATK hallmark, wondered whether the acid from the tomatoes might have affected the outcome. My theory was that the mussels spent too much of their cooking time exposed to the air in the slow cooker instead of nestled in their moist little shells. Davison, who has tested hundreds of recipes in dozens of cookers, says she has never tried mussels or clams.
My third fish experiment was more successful. I started with red Thai rice and cubes of sweet potato. In went stewed tomatoes (I have lots of jars from a summer canning binge), plenty of garlic and enough water to cover. Once the rice was nearly cooked and the sweet potatoes became fork-tender, I added coconut milk and dollops of Thai curry paste. When it had heated through, I carefully submerged four tilapia fillets in the stew. It took about 20 minutes for the fish to reach an opaque flakiness. The tilapia was tough to remove intact, so the dish became a kind of Thai curry hash, which I finished with ribbons of fresh basil. That, of course, affirmed another truth about slow-cooker food: Don’t expect it to be pretty.
At least, that’s the way it has always been. When Andrew Schloss began work on his book “Art of the Slow Cooker” (Chronicle, 2008), he says, “I started out by cooking recipes from other books. It was all mush.” He developed dishes with staggered cooking times, and tricks like suspending fish in an aluminum-foil sling to moderate their cooking. His bouillabaisse recipe calls for cooking the base mixture for several hours, then adding the fish.
Like Binn’s book for Williams-Sonoma, Schloss’s slow-cooker book is lush with photography of beautiful plated meals topped with fresh herbs, drizzled with sauces or sprinkled with gremolatas. And, as you can imagine, most of the recipes have more than two steps.
Thomas is a Baltimore freelance writer and editor. Got slow-cooker questions? She and Julia Collin Davison will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.