The Chef and the Slow Cooker

Photo courtesy Andrew Thomas Lee

The slow cooker—since its introduction in the 1970s—has found its way into almost every home. You probably have one tucked away in a cabinet or stashed in the pantry. Whether a round, vintage model or modern stainless steel number, this kitchen mainstay—usually brought out only for the occasional pot roast or chili—will soon be the most-used weapon in your kitchen arsenal, thanks to Hugh Acheson. This James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef, cookbook author, and partner at four Georgia restaurants is giving readers dozens of reasons to dust off their old slow cookers in his newest book, The Chef and the Slow Cooker. In this season of feasts, even a professional chef loves a good time saver, and Hugh proves saving time doesn’t have to be at the expense of flavor. He turns his chef’s eye to this humble appliance, highlighting surprising dishes and ingredients that benefit from its controlled temperature and low-and-slow abilities. From beans and greens to pork shoulder and fish, the dishes in this book will ensure permanent counter space for this old, faithful friend.

Recipes and photos reprinted, with permission, from The Chef and the Slow Cooker by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, 2017). Photography courtesy Andrew Thomas Lee.
Photo courtesy Andrew Thomas Lee

Taste of the South(TOS): Why focus on the slow cooker?

Hugh Acheson (AH): A lot of us have a slow cooker that we use for pot roast and not much else. In this day and age of meal delivery services, I want to push people back to cooking from scratch and show them how to do it, even with a busy lifestyle. Cooking doesn’t have to be hugely impactful on your day, but the results can be so much better than you think.

TOS: What was your first experience with a slow cooker?

AH: Like most people, I started out with throwing that whole piece of beef chuck into the slow cooker for six to eight hours until it’s just super tender. And then I stopped there without taking time to think of the possibilities, even though I’m a chef by trade. So, I decided to give it more thought—how could I finish a dish differently or introduce contemporary flavors?

TOS: When did you really get into using your slow cooker?

AH: Four or five years ago I started toying around with my slow cooker. With how much I work, it was nice to find a way to make great food in the home kitchen, but in a style and timeline that keeps up with the pace of family life.

TOS: Were there any uses of the slow cooker that surprised you?

AH: A lot of the fish recipes really surprised me, because you think of fish cooking pretty quickly. But you can slow braise a fish and it will come out beautifully. Also, cooking vegetables and things like that where people don’t typically think about using a slow cooker. It’s just so much safer than a stove when you need to be able to walk away and go run your errands or go to work and back.

TOS: What inspired you to throw so many unexpected ingredients into the slow cooker?

AH: Regardless of the vessel I’m cooking in or the tools I’m using, I’m still a chef. So I think in terms of what flavors meld well together and what flavors we’re discovering, like the kimchis and misos of the world. And that thought process doesn’t stop just because I’m using a slow cooker. We’re trying to break people out of the pot roast mind-set of the slow cooker—that pot roast is the be-all, end-all of that style of cooking. To me, it just needs to be viewed as a temperature-controlled environment in which you can do a gazillion different things.

TOS: What was your favorite discovery in this slow-cooker exploration?

AH: Beans cook up phenomenally well. They get plump and beautiful, and you don’t have to rush them. I figured out that I could make amazing chicken stock in the slow cooker by letting it go for 10 hours, or make great consommés, because it’s a really temperature-stable environment. Also, I love that you can recapture so much time in the day. Knowing that you’re coming home to a healthy, nice meal to feed the family without having to be in the kitchen for hours is probably the best discovery. Plus, having all those smells in your kitchen when you get home is pretty nice.

TOS: Are these recipes that you tend to use a lot at home?

AH: Oh, definitely. Every book I write is meant to be more geared toward the home cook who enjoys good food.

Photo courtesy Andrew Thomas Lee

“I love milk-braised pork. It is moist and succulent and really gives you a glimpse into the reality that Italians do not eat pasta at every meal and don’t all have Ferraris. The diversity of the Italian food map is wonderful, and if you look at it you will see that braised dishes like this are a beautiful staple in the north. And they will often serve them up with some polenta. Pork, milk, nuts, figs…this is such a deliciously savory poem.” -Hugh Acheson

Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder with Fennel, Pecans & Figs
 
Makes 6 servings—Recipe adapted from The Chef and The Slow Cooker by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2017)
Ingredients
  • 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • 2 fennel bulbs
  • ½ cup pecan halves, toasted and chopped
  • 8 dried figs, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
Instructions
  1. Preheat a 6- to 8-quart slow cooker on the high setting for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Pat the pork shoulder dry and season it well all over with salt and pepper.
  3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the pork and sear it for about 3 minutes on each side until golden, for a total of about 12 minutes.
  4. Remove the pork from the pot and set it aside. Add the onions, bay leaves, cloves, and milk to the pot and cook, scraping up any browned bits, for 3 minutes.
  5. Add the milk mixture to the slow cooker, then add the pork. Cover with the lid, reduce the setting to low, and cook for 8 to 12 hours, until the pork is very tender.
  6. Before serving the pork, prepare the fennel by removing the bottom ½ inch of the root ends and cutting away the branches about 1 inch above the bulbs. Cut the bulbs in half lengthwise and then into thirds.
  7. Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the fennel pieces, season them well with salt, and cook for 5 minutes, until caramelized. Then flip the pieces over and cook until done, about 5 minutes more. Remove the fennel from the skillet and set it aside. Add the pecans and figs to the skillet and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and chopped parsley, and immediately transfer the mixture to a small bowl.
  8. Remove the pork shoulder from the slow cooker and place it on a platter. Arrange the fennel around the pork, and garnish the dish with the pecan and fig crumble. The pork will be so tender that you don’t really have to carve it—you can just pull it apart and serve it.

Photo courtesy Andrew Thomas Lee

“We use a lot of slow cooker chicken broth in my house. It is a beautiful thing when crafted from scratch, and who knew it could be so easy? Drop all of the ingredients in and walk away. It’s like a culinary mic drop. This recipe is technically a broth, not a stock, because it’s made from meat as well as bones, giving it richer flavor, but you can certainly use stock wherever you’d use this broth, and vice versa.” -Hugh Acheson

Slow Cooker Chicken Broth
 
Makes about 4 quarts—Recipe adapted from The Chef and The Slow Cooker by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2017)
Ingredients
  • 1 whole chicken (3 to 4 pounds)
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Several sprigs fresh thyme
  • Several sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 medium white onions, quartered
  • 3 large carrots, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 3 celery stalks with leaves, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 6 black peppercorns
Instructions
  1. Butcher the chicken. Keep the gizzards, heart, neck, and backbone for the broth, but set the liver aside for another day. (Livers are great to accumulate in the freezer for use in a pâté or to finish a sauce.) Season the chicken pieces with the salt.
  2. Put the chicken pieces in a 6- to 8-quart slow cooker, and add the garlic, thyme and parsley sprigs, bay leaves, onions, carrots, celery, coriander, and peppercorns. Add 4 quarts of cold water, or enough to cover. Cover with the lid, turn the cooker to the low setting, and walk away for 8 to 12 hours. (Some people call that going to work, but you could do whatever you want.)
  3. Strain the broth into containers, discarding the solids, and use it within 5 days or freeze it for up to 6 months.

Learn more about Hugh Acheson at hughacheson.com and find The Chef and the Slow Cooker online or wherever books are sold.

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