Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Crock Pot Cookery

A long time ago, my mother had a neighbor who had a second wedding. Said neighbor then held a garage sale to unload all the duplicate household items acquired at wedding number two. Amongst the pickings was a new Rival Crock Pot, which my mother bought for five dollars and sent along to me.

My maiden venture was a recipe for beef stew. I didn't really know how to cook yet, but bought stew meat, carrots, and potatoes. If I thought to add anything else, I don't remember now. I suppose there was some sort of liquid, likely wine. I got home from work, arranged all my ingredients in the pot, then stood there, increasingly distressed, as the pot barely heated up. Why, it was five-thirty! Six! This thing worked really slowly!

At that point I must have read the instruction booklet and realized my error. God knows what we ate that night.

Fourteen years along, the metal heating element has grown dingy with encrusted yuck. Yes, I wash it. But it isn't submersible. The insert and plastic lid are going strong. The appliance itself is ugly, a sort of blue and cream "country flower" design that looks laughable beside today's gleaming stainless numbers.

Yesterday, as I turned off the pot for the zillionth time to serve dinner, I realized the cord was tangled and perhaps may be crossing into the frayed n' flammable zone. It may be time for a new one. A troll of the net reveals that money may buy programmable pots, pots with multiple temperature settings, and "removeable stoneware with an easy-clean finish." Say what? My humble cooker boasts two settings: high and low. Low is around 225 degrees. I have no idea what high is; I've never used it.

It's funny, but for whatever reason I associate Crock Pots with right-wing Christian ladies who collect Precious Moments figurines, the provenance of declasse, meals-in-minutes cooking.

I realize my stereotype is inaccurate--no less a chef than Paula Wolfert uses a Crock Pot to prepare confit. I cannot imagine doing this, as confit preparation is all about temperature control. Paula must have the Ferrari of Crock Pots. I do not, and limit my exploits to stews and roasts. I've tried soup, but the long, slow cooking means whatever is in the pot either disintegrates into mush or expands--as in the case of lentils--into stew, intended or not.

Poultry doesn't fare well, either. Both chicken and duck take on an odd texture, almost chalky, if you can imagine wet chalk. Pork also takes on this strange mouthfeel.

The pot really does best with dishes like short ribs or braised beef. All respectable cookbooks instruct one to brown the meat first, but in my view Crock Pots are about easy meals. A Crock Pot is for the weekday from hell. Yes, all weekdays are hellish. I refer here to the hellish days where you know cooking dinner will not be an option. The night before, take out your Crock Pot. Fill it with your short ribs or piece of tough beef or your stew chunks.

Now you have some choices. You can add the usual suspects: carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes. A bay leaf. Olive oil, wine, canned tomatoes. A squeeze of tomato paste. Some celery, if its aggressive flavor doesn't bother you. From here, if you are making beef stew and can afford citrus in our global-warming-destroyed-the-crop economy, trim a piece of orange peel and toss it in to the pot. Yeah, I know it sounds weird. It will be wonderful. Trust me.

If you do not keep kosher, salt pork or some diced smoked bacon will do wonders.

But say you have little. Tomorrow will be long day, because your supervisor, who has a lousy marriage and therefore prefers to be at work, has scheduled a meeting for 4:45. You will deal with the stupid meeting, fight your way through traffic, only to get home to your significant other and perhaps some people under fifteen who want to be fed. Or maybe you'll get home to a wonderfully empty, peaceful home, greeted only by your cat. No matter: you deserve a nice meal after all that hard work.

This is what to do. Right now, or really, really soon, take out your Crock Pot. It you do not own one, Rival Crock Pots may be found at drug and hardware stores across the land. Get your keys.

Back? Fabulous. Make this:

Beef (stew cuts, short ribs, and chuck all work beautifully) with canned tomatoes and mustard.

The original recipe comes from Gourmet's Five Ingredients, a fun cookbook I almost never use. They call it "Braised Short Ribs with Dijon Mustard," and it you want to follow it slavishly, turn to page 96.

Quantities are up to you. This recipe is extremely forgiving. You can make it for a dozen or you and kitty.

Red Wine--2-4 cups.

Cow of some kind suited to long-cooking (see above). You want something heavily marbled, tough, and cheap. I generally cook one pound of meat for two people. This leaves leftovers. Impress your office mates with your terrific lunch.

Shallots (onions work just fine). Amounts to taste.

Coarse grained Dijon Mustard (I've used all kinds of French mustard with success, though ballpark American mustard would be too harsh). The original recipe calls for 1-3 Tablespoons. I never measure. I just slather some on the meat.

4-6 plum tomatoes, halved (I always, always use a 14 oounce can of Muir Glen canned whole tomatoes).

Throw all of the above into your Crock Pot right now. You might think about cutting up the shallot or onion. You might also smash up some garlic cloves and throw them in. Or not. Toss in some salt and pepper. Put the insert in your fridge. Tomorrow morning, while you wait for the coffee to brew, take the insert out, shove it into the heating element, and turn the pot on. Drink your coffee. Put on your work costume. Your sane, I-am-a-contributing-member-of-society uniform. Leave the house.

Now, a few of you are mumbling about leaving the house with something electrical on. Yep, you are. Your tv, microwave, telephone, and home computers are all also plugged in, might spark the towering inferno, and are certainly draining the grid. If you have a gas oven, the pilot is on. Don't forget your little bedside alarm clock, or all those smug surge protectors protecting your expensive media system.

You get where I'm going with this. So quit worrying about it, ok?

Endure work. Come home to find your abode perfumed with the scent of something good. Prepare for Kitty to mew piteously depsite his full bowl of Science Diet (dry food, people!). Pour yourself a drink. Slice some bread. Turn off your Crock Pot. Serve yourself, or the S.O. and the progeny. Bask in the glow of your culinary genius. Consider the cooking life. Perhaps you should give up the corporate grind. Hone your skills at the Culinary Institute of America.

I hear Gordon Ramsay is looking for chefs.

Bon Appetit!

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