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Cooking for One: Discovering slow cookers

Slow-Cooker Lamb Stew Agrodolce
Slow-Cooker Lamb Stew Agrodolce (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

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By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I know, I know: You slow-cooker devotees can make anything in it, can't you? That's the line, anyway. Forget the soups and stews, you say; time to move on to risottos, custards, overnight oatmeal, lasagna. When I recently tweeted news of my early success at a slow-cooker experiment, one local food blogger fired back: "You can do better than chickpeas, try Peking duck."

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No matter how much I've heard about the versatility of slow cookers, two issues have kept me from buying one -- until recently. One, of course, is about timing. When I first looked at slow-cooker recipes, as a teenager, I guffawed: Who could possibly wait six hours for soup? These days, I'm more likely to find that the device doesn't cook slowly enough. Who could possibly make it home from work in just six hours?

The other is their size. The appliances seemed so family-oriented that I doubted one could fit my single-guy lifestyle. I've gone on record as saying how much I like variety in my diet, something that prevents me from properly appreciating huge amounts of leftovers.

The latter difficulty has been easier to overcome than the former. Slow cookers now come in capacities as small as 1 1/2 -quarts, and authors such as Beth Hensperger have put them through their paces. A few years ago, Hensperger expanded (or contracted?) on her previous work by writing "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook for Two" (Harvard Common Press). The cookbook also works for singles like me who appreciate having the makings of an extra meal or two.

Hensperger's smaller-scale recipes prompted me to take the plunge, but I just couldn't decide which size to buy. Finally, I decided not to decide: I bought one with multiple stoneware inserts (two-, four- and six-quart), allowing me the flexibility of cooking for just me, for a party of eight or for anything in between.

But still, what to cook? The risotto featured on Hensperger's cover is beautiful and bright: certainly not what you'd expect from a slow cooker. But it takes a mere 2 1/2 hours, making it something I might concoct on a weekend. And, in that case, why would I need a slow cooker at all?

Beans turned out to be the sweet spot where my appetite best overlaps with the slow cooker's talents. Chickpeas, for one, take at least a couple of hours on the stove top when you start with dried, depending on their age. They and other legumes, which benefit from slow, even heat, are made for the crock, and vice versa. Rick Bayless includes a bean recipe among a handful of showstopping slow-cooker ideas in his "Mexican Everyday" (W.W. Norton, 2005), and even bean guru Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo fame cooks them this way sometimes.

In the morning, Sando combines beans with chopped aromatic vegetables, a little fat and water to cover by an inch or two (less if he has soaked the beans in advance). They cook all day, getting tender by the time he gets home. The only problem: Because the slow cooker doesn't allow for much evaporation, the bean "liquor" is relatively thin and bland compared with the results of a stovetop method. "The minute you get home, I recommend taking the lid off and putting the pot up to high," he told me in a phone interview. "Let some of that pot liquor breathe, and get some life into it, for another half-hour to hour."

Sando prefers slow-cooker dishes that can become elements of other meals rather than one-pot wonders. "I fought the Crock-Pot for a long time," he says. "I grew up in the '70s, and those flabby meats my mother made came out so anemic-looking, and everything had that hodgepodge flavor." Now, he's more likely to cook a pot of beans and poach a chicken on the weekends, then use those ingredients in tacos and other dishes during the week. He has two young sons, but he cooks for himself four nights a week, "and if you have those three things -- beans, chicken meat and stock -- you're pretty much good to go," he says.

Russell Warnick, the blogger at Endless Simmer who challenged me to think beyond slow-cooker chickpeas, echoed some of Sando's ideas. Warnick's live-in boyfriend is a picky eater, leaving Warnick in the position of fending for himself at times. For that, the slow cooker is a godsend: "I don't see slow cooking as a onetime deal," he wrote in an e-mail. "I cook with meals in mind, so I don't think of anything as leftovers -- more as portions of future meals. For instance, if I make a Bolognese, I will use whatever I don't eat for filling a lasagna, or add it to rice, baked potato or noodles."

Hensperger's Lamb Agrodolce was just that type of dish for me. I initially ate it over rigatoni, the hearty pasta standing up nicely to the tangy-sweet chunks of lamb. But as with almost any tender meat, I was soon thinking about tacos, and that's how I finished the batch a couple of days later.

Warnick, 30, feels my pain about the not-slow-enough recipes. Between work and the gym, he's usually out of the house for at least nine hours a day, so he knows from trial and error which six-hour recipes can be stretched to suit his schedule. "Those rules can easily be broken," he says, "either by adding more liquids than a recipe calls for or cooking on lower heat for longer."

He's right, especially with forgiving foods such as tough cuts of meat and, well, chickpeas. The chickpeas I combined in a stew with chorizo and sunchokes were probably done after a few hours, especially because I was using Sando's younger and quicker-cooking beans. Chickpeas hold their shape better than other varieties of beans, though, so even when I let the pot go for nine hours on the low setting, they were fine. More than fine, actually: They were scrumptious.

I might not be a slow-cooker devotee quite yet, but I'm working on it. Just give me a little time.

Recipes

Slow-Cooker Lamb Stew Agrodolce

Slow-Cooker Chickpeas with Sunchokes and Chorizo

Yonan is writing "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," to be published by Ten Speed Press next spring.


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