Let's face it: Slow cookers are popular, but dull. Mute. Kinda sleepy. Even on its highest setting (of three total), my six-quart All-Clad slow cooker doesn't simmer stock or sizzle diced shallots. Sometimes I'll reset it in the middle of cooking, just to hear that indifferent chirp. "She's not dead yet," I say to myself, relieved.
Hugh Acheson, the sharp, often pithy James Beard award-winning chef/restaurateur, "Top Chef" judge, author and self-proclaimed "pot stirrer" on Twitter, is not dull. And this, I imagine, is why his publisher asked him to write a book about slow cookers.
Plenty of chefs have written for home cooks in the past couple of years — Portland's Naomi Pomeroy, New York's Missy Robbins and Marcus Samuelsson, England's Yotam Ottolenghi, Sweden's Magnus Nilsson — but "it's so unique for a person with that experience and that level of authority to want to do something as humble as a collection of recipes for slow cookers," says Clarkson Potter's Francis Lam, Acheson's editor on the project. It's hard to imagine Acheson, with his tightly cropped haircut and his jeans turned up at the cuffs, moving his tattooed arm toward one of these electric countertop mini-ovens and hitting "DOWN" or "UP" to set the time, then walking off to take out the dog or whatever. And that's the selling point: People will be curious to see what this pairing looks like.
Also, slow cookers are hot right now. Editors are putting three this fall on their "best" lists: "Martha Stewart's Slow Cooker," "Slow Cook Modern" by Liana Krissof and Acheson's "The Chef and the Slow Cooker." "People are into these devices again in part because of the wild success of the Instant Pot," says Lam of the slow cooker's younger, quicker cousin. "They're seeing that circulate and thinking, 'Oh, well, I do have a slow cooker.' "
Since I've now seen him cook with one, I'll tell you what Acheson looks like with a slow cooker: comfortable. I don't know what I expected — an awkwardness with the keypad, revealing that this was all a gimmick? — but when I enter his spacious studio apartment on a recent weekend, he is watching football and gearing up to braise some chicken now that the stock is ready and the onions are chopped. Nearby, there's a Ball jar full of colored pencils — "for my doodles," he says, some of which made it into the book — plus a well-stocked bar and an even better-stocked bookshelf.
Acheson starts cooking. He browns the chicken's skin in a skillet, followed by the onions, to soften them. He transfers both to the slow cooker and adds homemade chicken broth, soy sauce and kimchi.
The recipes in the book range from Japanese dashi stock to Mexican sipping chocolate and tortilla soup. When asked about everyone's favorite hot-button issue, cultural appropriation, Acheson will say that globalism has reshaped that argument: Although his grandfather was born in Ontario and is of Scottish descent, "my dad was born in Cuba but wasn't Cuban. . . . I feel much more comfortable making kimchi, which I can eat at various Korean barbecue joints in a strip mall . . . than making haggis."
Once the chicken is close to done, the chef makes a kind of risotto with middlins, or broken pieces of rice. The rice grits go on the bottom of the plate, then the chicken and its juices, and then crunchy sliced radishes and cucumbers. It's far from the dreary pot roast that the snobbier set might (unfairly?) associate with slow cooking, although the book does contain a recipe for pot roast, which Acheson brightens with a fresh chickpea salad.
It's also far from the swordfish belly with pickled mushrooms and lemon balm on the menu at Acheson's Athens, Ga., restaurant Five & Ten, though Acheson does place his garnishes with tweezers. He's a chef and a home cook. Acheson is finalizing a divorce from his wife of over 20 years, and once we finish our interview and he has arranged the clean dishes on a rack to dry, he'll go down the street — "I built the most beautiful house ever" — and spend time with his two teenage daughters.
Acheson and his three older sisters were raised by a single father, an economics professor, in Canada. "He was an awesome dad, but he worked really hard, so we grew up on burnt rice and canned yellow lunch meat," says Acheson. (His late mother "was not really there.") Acheson worked in kitchens from a young age, and by the time 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 in Montreal, Alberta, Ottawa and San Francisco, marrying along the way, and ultimately settling in Athens, where his wife was born.
"I may not be extraordinarily academically learned, but 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 neighborhood restaurant with a daily blackboard menu. The James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine magazine awarded him accolades. Acheson had two children, wrote two books, helped revive Southern cooking, and became a celebrity partly known for what a parody Twitter account calls his "Hughnibrow." Now, 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."
Frankly, Acheson also wants this book to make money. "The economic reality is that restaurants don't make much money," he says, adding that one of his daughters wants to go to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
"The Chef and the Slow Cooker" will probably sell like crazy because of the popular topic and the acclaim of its author — a few days before it debuted, according to Acheson, it was one of the top five books on Amazon — but will people cook from it? I found myself flipping through many of the recipes thinking, "Why wouldn't I just do that in a pan?" Granted, I'm not his target audience; I bought my first slow cooker just weeks ago to research for this article.
For the hordes of cooks who swear by their slow cookers, though, the appeal is "set it and forget it." And about half the recipes in "The Chef and the Slow Cooker" require extra doings: blackening an onion in a skillet here, frying your own potato chips in canola oil 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 being 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." (That was some shade being thrown at Blue Apron and other meal kits.)
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," says Acheson. "The traditional idea of, food's done when it's done — that's not really how we live anymore. My daughter Beatrice might get back from a volleyball game in rural Georgia at 10:15 at night. She and her team ate something on the road — crappy fast food, probably — but then she eats something more sustainable and good at home. Dinner is no longer just at 7, you know? It's nice to have food that can be pretty much done and ready whenever anybody wants it."
The halibut I poached in a sherry- pimentón broth was perfectly tender. The oatmeal, one of the more popular things to make in a slow cooker long before Acheson ever started work on this cookbook, was just as easy as you might imagine.
The Korean bo ssam worked well, too. I seared a six-pound pork shoulder, put it in the slow cooker, watched a movie, went to bed, woke up the next day and ran some errands, and it was ready for Sunday lunch by the time my friends arrived midday. I had to pull apart some lettuce leaves and whip up a couple of sauces, but that took 20 minutes total. The rest was left to the slow cooker.
Just like the slow cooker itself, that bo ssam was popular. And according to my guests, not the least bit dull.
Bainbridge is food editor of Atlanta magazine and host of "The Lonely Hour" podcast.
You'll need a 6- to 8-quart slow cooker.
Light soy sauce is thinner and saltier than regular soy sauce, but you can use regular soy sauce here.
Serve with pickled vegetables, such as carrots, okra and daikon.
MAKE AHEAD: This chicken tastes even better after a day's refrigeration.
Adapted from "The Chef and the Slow Cooker," by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, 2017).
One 3- to 3½ -pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces (giblets and wing tips removed)
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 shallots, minced
One 4-inch knob fresh ginger root, peeled and minced (3 tablespoons)
1 cup sake (may substitute Chinese rice wine or dry sherry)
1½ cups no-salt-added chicken broth
2½ cups chopped cabbage kimchi, with juices
2 tablespoons light soy sauce (see headnote)
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Cooked rice with cilantro and mint, for serving
Pat the chicken pieces dry, then season liberally with salt all over.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, work in batches to brown the chicken pieces on both sides, transferring them to a plate as you go. (This should take about 10 minutes on the skin side and 3 minutes on the second sides.)
Once all the chicken's done, add the shallots and ginger to the skillet and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring, until softened. Pour in the sake; increase the heat to high and cook for about 2 minutes, or just long enough for the wine to evaporate.
Transfer the shallot mixture to the slow cooker, then add the chicken pieces and broth. Add 1½ cups of the kimchi and its juice, plus the soy sauce. Cover and cook on LOW for 4 hours.
Uncover and add the crushed red pepper flakes and the lime juice, stirring gently to incorporate. (The chicken will be falling-apart tender.)
Divide the chicken, its kimchi sauce and some rice among individual wide, shallow bowls or plates. Top each portion with some of the remaining cup of kimchi, and place a few pickled vegetables on the side of each one. Serve warm.
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