I have a real weakness for kitchen gadgets. I think I might be addicted to them, I really need a bigger kitchen so I can fit them all in. I’ve always been a bit of a mad scientist in the kitchen, and I think having a lot of equipment really helps me play the part. One of my favourite kitchen gadgets is my slow cooker. Pretty much any recipe for stew, casserole, soup, curry or chilli can be adapted for the slow cooker. It’s an economical way of cooking, and with a bit of planning you can put your dinner on in the morning and spend the rest of the day feeling smug about not having to cook in the evening (I fully accept that this is slightly flawed logic, but there are some days when this can be an advantage).
When I first bought my slow cooker, I found a forum thread about them, and excitedly asked if anyone had any vegetarian ideas. I was very quickly shot down by some very condescending folk saying there was no point, slow cookers are made to soften up tough meat, and vegetables cook quite quickly anyway. Well, if you tell me I shouldn’t do something it only makes me want to do it more, so I set out to prove them wrong. Slow cookers are great for vegetarian food, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Here are a few things you should know about vegetarian slow cooking.
The cost. Using a slow cooker is one of the most energy-efficient modes of cooking. Running a slow cooker for eight hours uses less than half the electricity of running an electric stove for one hour. Great if you’re on a budget.
Timing. So, there was a nugget of truth in what the rude forum people said, vegetables don’t take as long to cook as meat. You could cook a vegetable stew in 4-6 hours, if you include dried beans (see below) it will take at least a couple of hours longer. You can get things started a bit quicker by adding hot ingredients, by using boiling water instead of cold, for instance. Don’t do what Mr Veg and I did on the day we bought ours. We arrived home from buying it at about 5pm and were too excited to wait until the next day to try it. We put in frozen veggie sausages, green lentils, raw onion and cold stock. It was obviously a massive failure and we ended up eating slightly crunchy lentils at 10 o’clock at night.
Beans. Dried beans are a lot cheaper than tinned ones, and they work really well in a slow cooker. They absorb flavours a lot better than tinned ones too. As always with dried beans, you must soak the beans in water overnight before cooking them, and then boil them for at least 10 minutes before putting them in the slow cooker. The slow cooker is too, well, slow to destroy the toxins found in the dried beans, so you must soak and parboil them first.
Fake meat. You can cook fake meat in a slow cooker (think vegetarian “chicken” stew or sausage casserole), but I find the result a bit strange. It does take on a lot flavour, but also absorbs an awful lot of water and ends up soft and squishy.
Rice. A slow cooker also works well as a rice cooker, so if you have trouble getting rice right you could try it this way. Put equal volumes of rice and boiling water into the slow cooker, along with any flavours you want to add, cook for a couple of hours and voila! Perfect fluffy rice. I’ve made some pretty mean Jamaican rice and peas this way.
Salt. When cooking in a slow cooker, you should always always check for seasoning and add salt at the end of the cooking time rather than the beginning, for two important reasons. Firstly, if you are cooking dried beans you shouldn’t cook them in salted water as it can toughen the skin (yuck). Secondly, during cooking the amount of water with reduce (through evaporation and absorption), and the flavour will get more concentrated. What tastes right at the start could end up horribly salty later on.
Herbs, spices and other seasonings. Some flavours go a bit flat after eight hours in a slow cooker. It takes a bit of trial and error to work this out. I’d say as a general rule, aromatic or warm seasonings, such as dried herbs or ground spices are best added at the start of cooking. Fresh or zingy flavours, such as fresh herbs, green leafy veg, ginger, citrus and chilli are best added towards the end of cooking.
Dumplings. For me, a stew wouldn’t be a stew without a few dumplings. For eight dumplings (a generous amount for two people), about 45 minutes before you want to eat mix 50g of dry fat (e.g. grated cheese, vegetarian suet, margarine) with 100g self-raising flour, any herbs or spices you like, and enough water to bring it together into a soft dough. Divide the dough into eight equal pieces, roll into balls, and pop on top of the stew. Put the lid back on and leave them to puff up in the steam from the stew. Lovely.
Adapting recipes. It’s easy to adapt favourite recipes to the slow cooker. There are three basic rules and trust me, they are very basic:
- the simmering part will take a lot longer than standard cooking;
- if the recipe says you should fry something (e.g. onions, spices), then fry them before adding them to the slow cooker;
- repeatedly removing the lid of the slow cooker lets all the precious heat out and slows down cooking, so try and add as many of the ingredients at once, rather than in stages.
Here’s an example. I recently made Hottie Black-Eyed Peas and Greens, one of the many excellent recipes from Appetite for Reduction by Isa Chandra Moskowitz (you can also find the recipe on the PPK website at: http://www.theppk.com/2011/12/hottie-black-eyed-peas-with-ginger-sweet-potatoes-apples/). Soak the beans overnight, them parboil them for 10 minutes. Fry the onions and garlic as described in the recipe. Put the fried onions and garlic in the slow cooker, along with the drained beans, water, tomato sauce and broth. Cook for around 8 hours. When cooked, add the greens, hot sauce and liquid smoke, and check for seasoning. Leave for a few more minutes until the greens are cooked.