In 1977, my 11-year-old self felt daring by staying up late for Saturday Night Live. Those were the best years, the Gilda Radner as Emily Litella saying “Never mind” years, the Wild and Crazy Guy when Steve Martin hosted years, the John Belushi as samurai guy years. You know, the funny years.
For some reason, of all the brilliant sketches I watched in my pajamas in the den with the shag carpeting, one of the bits I remember best was Garrett Morris dressed as a West African man on Weekend Update, asking for fondue sets.
“Namibia is an undeveloped nation, and we are appealing to you as world citizens. We need your fondue sets. Many people in the United States received these fondue sets as gifts for anniversaries, birthdays and housewarmings, and often put them up on a shelf and forget about them. There are thousands of Namibian housewives who could cheer up an otherwise dull dinner party with one of these sets. Oh, please think, please give, please send.”
(Does anyone else remember this, or am I the only weirdo that thinks of this when she hears fondue?)
Fondue sets, with the little Sterno cans blazing brightly beneath them, and the tiny-tined forks ready for dipping, had already become a joke by 1977.
For years, that’s how I used to think of slow cookers too.
Your mother had a slow cooker. You wondered what it was. It sat in the back of the pantry, gathering dust, the wide stoneware pot a place to put bowls and potholders. Maybe she pulled it out once in awhile to make some soup. Or maybe she took it to the thrift store one day in a wild cleaning binge, where it joined the 82 other slow cookers available for $2 each.
(That slow cooker probably was never as dusty as the iron in my parents’ closet. When my brother was 8, he tugged on the stretchy striped cord, and it nearly toppled on his head. “What’s this?” he asked. This was the age of polyblends and never-wrinkle fabric, after all. We had never seen it used before.)
Times have changed, of course, and doubled back on themselves. People have a sudden, passionate interest in canning, preserving, and making jams. We’re growing gardens and learning how to compost. Half the cast of those years on Saturday Night Live are dead, the rest are grey-haired and kind of haggard, but the slow cooker is coming back.
I’m sure the folks who make the Crockpot are thrilled to bits. Especially now that Stephanie O’Dea’s book, Make It Fast, Cook It Slow has been published. They should probably send her a lifetime supply of new crockpots.
If you don’t know Stephanie’s book, you might have heard of her blog, A Year of Slow Cooking. Compelled by that now-ubiquitous drive to do something for an entire year, Stephanie vowed to make dinner every night in her slow cooker. All I could imagine when I read her blog is that she must have lined up 10 or 15 slow cookers on her countertops for all the cooking she was doing. She began the blog, as so many of us do, with no idea of what would happen to her. Within a few months, she got lots of attention, ended up on the Rachael Ray Show, got a book deal with Hyperion, and appeared on Good Morning America last week.
Turns out that slow cookers can do some amazing things.
And, by the way, she and her family eat gluten-free. So with all this publicity also came good news for us gluten-free folks.
With this kind of build-up, and our mission to cook out of one cookbook each week, Danny and I decided to pull our slow cooker out of the pantry and plug it in.
And you know what? I enjoyed this much more than I imagined.
The only time I used the slow cooker in a consistent fashion was the last year before I met Danny. Still teaching high school, and so prying my eyes open in the darkness at 6, I sometimes seared a piece of meat and tossed it into the slow cooker, along with onions and celery, herbs and potatoes. By the late afternoon, when I returned home on the bus, the simmering smells pulled me up the stairs, where I found a lovely braised dish waiting for me.
But then I met Danny, and I stopped teaching high school. We began spending most of our time in the kitchen. The slow cooker was tucked away in the back of the cupboard.
Then, Little Bean turned into a toddler.
I never sit down anymore, unless I am writing at night. She walks with confidence, no longer holding her hands up to balance herself. (For weeks, she looked as though she was saying, “I surrender!” as she wobbled across the living room floor.) In fact, she’s nearly running. We play music and dance, then she walks to the blocks, knocks some over, tries to get into the kitchen cupboards, slides her way into the one-inch space between the playpen and the wall to squirm past the barrier and run to the computer room to stand on her tiptoes to touch the mouse. Repeat, all over the house, with books and food and plush stuffed bunnies she hugs to her chin then drops like an old boyfriend. That’s about 20 minutes. Repeat, again and again — adding talking and eating and playing and laughing — for hour upon hour, again and again, and you have one happy, healthy toddler, and one exhausted mama.
(Danny has been working a couple of days a week, so those are the days I’m on my own. When he’s home, we tag team. There’s a bit more rest. And on the afternoons where I’m pushing against deadline, Danny chases Little Bean around the house and ends up one exhausted papa.)
I love it. Every moment of it. Okay, not the moments when I’m so exhausted I could cry. Or the moments when I cannot stand in the kitchen for longer than ten minutes without her clinging to my pants, or figuring out the baby locks on the cupboard under the sink.
During those hours, there’s not much elaborate cooking going on in our kitchen. And on those days, the slow cooker was a lifesaver.
Especially when I noticed that Little Bean was fascinated by the process. She’s sturdy enough on her feet now that I could set her on a chair, next to me at the counter top. While I chopped yams and shallots for a stew later that night, she played with measuring cups and bottles of vanilla extract. We were cooking together.
(And actually, the photos from above are when we first baked together. That devastated me.)
That stew tasted better that night than I expected.
So Make It Fast, Cook It Slow helped me to slow down and enjoy this more, knowing we’d still have a good dinner at the end of the night.
A number of the dishes made satisfying meals for us, dinner and lunch. The presidential chili in the book (based on a recipe for Obama’s favorite chili, apparently) simmered all afternoon. By the time that Tita, John, and Meri showed up for dinner, it smelled like peppers and turkey, chiles and smoked paprika mingled. And better yet, I had bowls of warm food to feed my friends only half an hour after putting the exhausted toddler to bed. We enjoyed the chipotle chicken with sweet potatoes, although I will advise you to use less chipotle than we did. Simmer that all day and the roof of your mouth might come off with the first bite.
That’s where slow cookers work best, I think. Chilis and stews, braised meats and main courses. There are plenty of those in Make It Fast, Cook It Slow, including the Indonesian peanut butter chicken curry I still want to make.
Not everything worked so well. I was genuinely excited about the slow cooker recipe for homemade yogurt, because I’d love to make our own. Little Bean could eat her weight in yogurt every day, it seems. However, at the end of the all-day process, I ended up with a jug of slightly thickened milk. (O’Dea put a packet of gelatin in the ingredients list but suggested it is optional. I’d like to suggest that with this recipe it’s essential.)
We made the baked oatmeal recipe, using certified gluten-free oats, because O’Dea’s description appealed so well. “The flavor is sweet, and it tastes like a huge oatmeal cookie.” However, at the end of 4 hours, it didn’t really hold together. It was a bit like dried-out oatmeal, with shriveled prunes.
However, we’re going to make the recipe again, because we figured out something new to do with it. We let the baked oats cool, then beat 5 egg whites to stiff peaks. After combining them, we pressed the dough into a square pan and slid them into the oven. 15 minutes later, we had oatmeal bars.
Little Bean ate half of them.
And then there were the recipes I’m not likely to make in the slow cooker, if at all. Danny refused to do any of the seafood dishes in the slow cooker. (“You’ll ruin the salmon,” he told me.) I’m not sure he was right, looking at the dishes, particularly the seafood stew. But he was eating too, and we had to agree on the recipes. I dislike the cloying sweetness of a pumpkin spice latte at the coffee shop, so I wouldn’t make it in the crockpot, either. And while I love the home-crafted spirit of the recipes, I’m not likely to make crayons in the slow cooker. Or candles, either.
Let’s face it. Danny and I are not the target audience for this book. When we’re not chasing the toddler around, we still spend more time in the kitchen than any room in the house. (Every day, she’s spending more time there too.) We’re finishing up a cookbook. We love to be in front of the stove.
But I think this book would be perfect for someone who is recently diagnosed with celiac, or who doesn’t trust her cooking skills yet. As O’Dea wrote: “I am not the best in the kitchen, and before this challenge, had no idea which spices went well together and why. I have certainly expanded my culinary expertise through this exercise, but I would never consider myself to be a good cook. I like having fun. I treat the Slow Cooker as an Easy-Bake oven for grown-ups.”
That’s what I love about O’Dea’s voice, and I why I think you would too. She’s honest. She’ll tell you when a dish didn’t work. She lists what her young kids thought of each dish so that you can avoid the sight of a plate untouched. She’s funny and confident and wonderfully accessible.
So many people will benefit from this book. So many people will start cooking after reading Make It Fast, Cook It Slow. That’s the only point, for all of us, in all this work — that more and more people move into the kitchen and begin to feel confident.
And I can tell you this: our slow cooker is not going back into the pantry after this week. This has inspired me to throw in some grits before we go to bed, so Little Bean can have some breakfast when she wakes up ravenous. I will still be simmering stews and soups, long into this winter.
The fondue pot, however? That went to Namibia.
We were sent this cookbook by Hyperion, and we were grateful to receive it. Now, we’d like to offer a copy to the next person who would like to use it. Stephanie has kindly volunteered to send out a signed copy herself! Tell us a story about slow cooking, or cooking with toddlers, or your favorite autumn stew, and we’ll choose a comment at random and send you this book!
Jamaican Pumpkin Soup with Coconut Milk, adapted from Make It Fast, Cook It Slow
Danny can’t resist fiddling with a recipe the second time he makes it. It’s in his nature. But he has always told me: make every recipe once, as written, then make it yours.
We are hoping you do that with our cookbook.
So we made this pumpkin soup in the slow cooker, using the suggested spices and servings. It was good. But it felt just a little flat to us. Maybe that’s because I didn’t grate the fresh ginger into the soup, the way we should have. (I must have been tired when I read this.) So we added a touch more ginger, a touch more nutmeg, more than a pinch of salt.
Stephanie suggested finishing the soup with cream. But Danny wanted to try coconut milk, to make this soup gluten-free and dairy-free.
Hell yeah. This soup is so easy to make, if you have a slow cooker, an immersion blender, and a can of coconut milk. It’s full of fall spices, with the subtle sweetness of pumpkin, and a touch of something wonderful with the coconut milk.
3-pound fresh pumpkin
1 red onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 yams, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon sugar
6 cups water 5 ounces coconut milk, more or less, depending on your taste
1 tablespoon pumpkin seed oil (you can substitute olive oil if you don’t have pumpkin)
Preparing the pumpkin. Cut both ends off the pumpkin. Peel the skin with a sharp knife. Cut the pumpkin in half. Scrape away the seeds. Wash the pulp off the seeds, then set them aside. Chop the pumpkin flesh into 8 pieces.
Cooking the soup. Put the pumpkin pieces, the red onion, celery, yams, garlic, and ginger into the slow cooker. Sprinkle in the salt, turmeric, allspice, nutmeg, and sugar. Pour in the water. Stir it all up. Cover the crock pot and cook the soup on low, for about 8 hours.
Finishing the soup. When the soup is fully cooked and smelling delicious, pour in the coconut milk. Stir up the soup and let it simmer until the coconut milk is fully incorporated. Puree the soup with an immersion blender until is completely blended. Taste the soup, then season with salt and pepper, and touch more nutmeg, to taste.
Toasting the pumpkin seeds. Put the pumpkin seeds in a nonstick pan on the stove, over low heat. Drizzle them with the pumpkin seed oil. Move the pan around on the burner, occasionally, until the seeds are toasted, about 10 minutes.
Ladle soup into bowls and top with the toasted pumpkin seeds.