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Eric: The Alchemy of the Slow Cooker

I used to say that I was culinarily impaired. "I need special ramps to use the toaster," I would say. That would get a chuckle, and then I'd tell the regretfully true story of how once I toasted a plate, while leaving the bread on the kitchen counter. This was when I was a teenager. The counter was orange. The plate was quite small. It was four in the morning, so perhaps there is some slack that can be had.

I don't tell those stories now. Instead, I have begun, slowly, to learn the arts arcane. The alchemy of the kitchen is rich and warm, and raw foods combine to make the most remarkable creations. Set free by the wild magic of approximation and experimentation, any two edible things can together make something new. New and often better than the components.


Last night I prepared for tonight's dinner. As with all good spells, it began with a cauldron. This one was black and ceramic, however, fitting in a metal sheath with a low and high setting. Crock. Pot. One fits within the other. Its scientific name is 'slow cooker,' but no matter what magicks I learn from Alton Brown and no matter what scientific names he ascribes to it, cooking is not science. Perhaps one day, for me, it will be art, but for now it is a craft. It is construction paper cut apart and pasted together with Elmer's, for my own pleasure. If I do it well, my mother may hang it on the refrigerator.

This is my best alchemy. It starts with chuck roast, steak cut so the muscle fibers are short. But that sits in the fridge. I need it to begin, but it is the last to be added to the slow cauldron.

Onion is first. It would be best to have fresh, they say, but onion's purpose in this pot is to change and almost vanish, to impart flavor to the broth and become texture without form. To make the parts that aren't meat all the grander. So I take the frozen chopped and slide some in. White crystal chunks of onion spread out over the black ceramic of the pot's bottom.

The first is potato. I have potatoes now. Real ones, that wait for peeling. But this was late and I was not prepared to play with knives, no matter how grand my Christmas knives are. So out come cans. A can of whole potatoes that turns out to have two tiny potatoes and one giant one, so I drain and dump within and, with freshly washed hands, I reach down and break the large one apart. Chunks of potato in my hands. I then add a second can, this time sliced, and there is potato enough. I do not need to touch the sliced potato with my hand.

I have carrots too, sitting in the bottom of my fridge, but pot roast is not a time for slicing. Tonight, when the dregs of one meal becomes the base of another, I will slice fresh potato and fresh carrot and add them, but for today, another can gives up orange goodness, mixing with the white of onion and the gold of potato. A blend of colors.

And then comes spice.


The modern alchemist has his own tools and accoutrements. Gone are the days of beaker and crucible, for the most part. Only the most arcane and well rounded enchanters use mortar and pestle. And for all too many, the open flame is disposed of in lieu of the glowing red electrical coil or the microwave.

The microwave itself is a wonderful, terrible device. It allows for the heating of food made elsewhere, the application of heat without cooking. For years, I 'cooked' with it, a panorama of premade meals and prepared things. The closest I came to cooking was pasta, and that rarely.

Then, I started making what I termed "Bachelor Casseroles." I learned a good method of making rice in the microwave, then added frozen vegetables, sometimes some kind of meat and some kind of sauce base -- golden cream of mushroom soup being the traditional -- mixed and microwaved again until hot. If there was cheese to be had, it would top it to make a crust. Not as good as a baked casserole, perhaps, but a casserole nonetheless, and with appropriate Mrs. Dash or Garlic or other simple spicing, something cooked. Something made. Something which, by virtue of its very randomness had never existed before in quite that form.

Then came the George Foreman Grill. This is a sandwich style grill, heating top and bottom at once, as no doubt you know. And sandwiches was its first result, of course. It took roast beef or turkey and cheese and vegetable and resulted in panini, the bread grilled flat and the foods combined. And the fear and surety of my non-cooking ability began to fade.

Then came the steamer. The steamer which turned eggs into perfectly hard cooked eggs, made a different quality of rice than the microwave, made vegetables glorious.

And then the Crock Pot. The Slow Cooker. Magical thing, that took ingredients and, unattended, made glorious things from them. And then I was cooking not just pot roast but stews and soups and dishes. Now I was truly cooking. Now the craft came easy, and fear was banished. Even a failed beef stew did not ruin it for me.

And make no doubt, I was learning new arts. Alton Brown and cooking shows and books and experimentation began to teach me the black sorcery of the kitchen. Oh, I was a hedge wizard at best, unsuitable for court and perhaps not able to call down rain, but I was learning which spices to use when, and what herbs were best on what vegetables, and how to coax what I wanted from my tools and -- if need be -- from my oven or stove.

Most recently, George Foreman brought his Rotisserie into my home. Now comes simple oven roasting. I am still learning this magic, but it goes well. Pork is now a glorious thing, and I have seen the black spice glaze of roast beef form before my eyes.

There are other tools -- a juicer, a bread maker, a cuisinart -- but these see little use, comparatively. For now. Given time, who can tell how often I might use this.

In the meantime, we have gained utensils. Good knives. A zester. A peeler. Spoons and ladles.

Slowly we learn.


For the spicing, I chose a bold blend. Old Bay, unknown to me until now but as familiar to Alton Brown as his beloved Kosher salt, made its first appearance. A pinch of said kosher salt -- a pinch more than my mother would use, but hardly much added sodium. Black pepper. Garlic powder. All over the potatoes and carrots and onions.

Then, the liquid. I usually use broth, but today beef consommé takes its place. A can of Campbell's, and then a can of water.

And then the meat comes out, and out of its package. It is deep red, somewhat marbled but not too badly. With this cut of meat, it looks almost like a too-thick steak, and perhaps that is apropos.

I start with the kosher salt again. Just the tiniest bit. Kosher salt is thick -- flakes and chunks, rather than grains -- and settles across the meat visibly. It is visceral. Then, I dust with garlic powder, then Old Bay, then Black Pepper. The same blend as before.

My hands freshly washed, I press the spice into the meat. Perhaps this is silly, but perhaps not. It connects me to the meat, to the food. I am part of this process. I am part of the cooking.

And then the meat is turned over, and the spicing is repeated. Both sides needed. Balance must be achieved. Both sides rubbed.

I lay the meat across the spiced vegetables and consommé, sitting atop it all. I add the lid, and lift the crock out of the pot, putting it in the fridge where it will lie in wait. I wash my hands of spice, and set a timer to remind me of dinner in the morning. I let it sit. I walk away.

Comes the dawn, just before seven, the timer will go off. At 6:58 I will lift the crock out, and set it in its chrome enclosure. I will turn the dial to 'low,' and I will again walk away. The magic, prepared hours before, will begin to flow. The alchemy will begin to occur.

By 7:40 the meat has changed color, and steam has collected on the top of the heavy glass lid. I leave it to work. All the day long, it will change and alter and percolate and cook. All the day long, it will become. And when I return home, sometime after five, its smell will have filled the apartment and the transformation will be near to complete. I will sit and chat with my cat, and then I will eat. Good food, made from base components. Hot and tasty and wholly unlike any other pot roast that came before or will come since. Gold from lead. Health from cans and packages.

Food.

I am no chef, but I can cook. I am no artist, but I have craft.

The remaining juices and consomme, blended together in the pot after I have eaten and packaged the leftover pot roast, will become the stock for beef stew. This will be where fresh carrots and potatoes are added, along with yet more frozen onions and some other frozen vegetables. This is where stew meat and flour will come to thicken and hearten. Thyme and cumin and basil and onion powder will join the spices already within. From this, food. Days worth of pot roast, days worth of stew.

And then? I have a yen to make Beef Bourgogne. I have all the ingredients. I have rice to serve it over, and two ways to cook it, not counting the stove.

Magic.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at January 22, 2004 10:33 AM

Comments

Comment from: Eric the .5b posted at January 23, 2004 3:50 AM

"My hands freshly washed, I press the spice into the meat. Perhaps this is silly, but perhaps not."

Certainly not. My sainted mother, mistress of said arcane arts, considers such manipulation fundamental to the shaping of foods.

Comment from: kirabug posted at February 15, 2005 2:03 PM

This is hands down the most interesting recipe I've read in ages. Thank you.

I was raised by a chef, but didn't start to experiment in my own kitchen until finding a husband and a dog that needed feeding. I don't know anything at all, except what feels right -- and sometimes that can fail a person miserably. Most times the flavors and textures meld just right, and I don't know how I did it.

The best gift I got this Christmas was a book called "Learning to cook without a book", which I tossed aside at first, preferring to use a cookbook full of recipes. But I modify almost every recipe I read anyway, so learning the common sense of cooking makes more sense. You might enjoy it too :)

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 3, 2006 6:27 PM

I love my new crockpot. I've learned that crockpots are best for day-long recipies like stews and soups.

I also learned that AB was right on about the kosher salt.

Now for my next experiment: making mac and cheese in a crock pot.

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