Celebrating Slow Cookers

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Some people swear they can’t boil an egg, Others have no idea what to do with supermarket convenience food much less the farm-fresh local delights of each season. As a trained chef and nutritionist, I’ve always wanted to show how truly easy and rewarding it is to nourish yourself and those you love.

Good food does not have to be complicated. Anyone can do it, and you can do it too!  My good friend Chelsea is a personal project of mine. She’s a young successful businessperson, owning Body Be Well Pilates in Red Hook and Catskill. But she insists that cooking has no place in her busy lifestyle. When she purchased her first home, I provided her with a slow cooker, a frozen turkey breast and Slow Cooking for Dummies. Chelsea was horrified.

During the later 1990s, I developed and ran a recipe-testing and development company called RecipeWorks in NYC.  In 2000, I landed a contract with Wiley publishers, who at that time were doing all those  “…. for Dummies”  books. In a 9-month span, I tested recipes for 7 cookbooks including, Mexican Cooking for Dummies, Healing Foods for Dummies, Italian Cooking for Dummies, and, yes, one of my favorites, Slow Cooking for Dummies.

I loved these projects because the talented people who authored these books broke down their topics to the most basic level. My job was to take it to the kitchen, further simplify and streamline the recipes, and make sure, of course, that the recipes actually worked and were intentionally written to guide the reader/cook.

Slow Cooking for Dummies was a favorite for several reasons. It debunked the snobbery around Crock Pots, a name manufactured to describe a simple electric appliance that cooks something slowly over several hours. It demonstrated the versatility of slow cooking vessels – not just soups, stews and braised meats, but roasts, casseroles, and even desserts.  (I did draw the line at risotto, though). And it convincingly demonstrated how 10 minutes of prep and pushing a few buttons, followed by 4 to 8 hours of delicious aromas, could produce a great meal

When showing people how to cook, it’s best to approach it like learning a new language. It is all about building blocks of understanding and skill development, where every stage of progress can be enjoyed for itself. You’re certainly not going to be laughing at, much less telling, jokes in this new dialect in the first months, but fluency will come faster than you expect.

In future columns, I’d like to delve more into basic skills like using a knife with confidence, approaching odd-looking seasonal ingredients, and  developing those basic techniques that free us all to cook: sautéing, searing, grilling, roasting, braising, steaming. Perfecting these time-tested practices, one by one, frees you to be the impromptu cook who can go to the farmers’ market, select the best goodies and then prepare a quick and delicious meal.

Back to Chelsea. I dog-eared the page for “Master Roast Turkey Breast “and another page that related to the basic do’s and don’ts of slow cooking, and said, “Go at it!” My theory was this lean, moist turkey breast could be enjoyed as a meal straight from the cooker, then used in salads, soups, pasta, risotto, and sliced into sandwiches throughout the week.

Chelsea proudly called to let me know it was D-day for turkey breast. I wished her luck, then reluctantly called her back to ask, “Did you happen to read Chapter 18, the one about the Ten Tips for Great Slow Cooking?”  When she said, no, I had to ask, “You defrosted the turkey, right?” Silence.

Laura Pensiero, a registered dietician, is founder and creative force behind Gigi Hudson Valley, which operates the award-winning Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck and a catering business. She is author of Hudson Valley Mediterranean cookbook.

SLOW COOKER ~ Master Roast Turkey Breast

(Adapted from Slow Cooking for Dummies  (Lacalamita & Vance, Wiley Publishing 2001)

Roast Turkey Breast is often dry and stringy. When made in a slow cooker, however, it is extremely moist and tender; it even browns!

2 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium-large onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chicken broth or stock
2 bay leaves
1 whole turkey breast, 4 to 5 pounds, bone in, skin on, completely thawed if previously frozen
salt and freshly ground black pepper to season

Lightly spray or rub bottom of slow cooker with olive oil. Layer the carrots, celery, garlic, and onions on the base, then add the chicken broth and bay leaves.

Trim any visible fat or excess skin from the turkey breast. Rinse body and cavity under cold water then thoroughly dry. Season both the body and cavity with salt and pepper and place in the slow cooker.

Cover and cook 5 to 6 hours, or until an instant-read thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the breast reads 175 to 180F. [Most modern slow cookers have timers and a low setting if  you’re out of the house for 5 to 6 hours or longer.]

Remove the turkey breast from the slow cooker and let cool 15 minutes before cutting. Toss out the bay leaves and save the flavorful broth and vegetables for a deep rich poultry gravy if desired.

With a chef knife, remove the breast halves from the bone, one at a time. Enjoy sliced, cubed, or shredded.

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