Art of the Slow Cooker
By Andrew Schloss
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast, 2008 soft cover, $27.95; 216 pages

The operative word here is “art.” Schloss is bound and determined to undo some misconceptions about slow cookery.

He winces when someone describes this scene: Throw everything into the pot, plug it in and leave for the day. No, no, no, he cautions. You get what you put in and if the results when you come home are less than spectacular, there’s a reason.

“Slow cooking is easy, but it’s not effortless, and the more you take heed of both its strengths and its limitations, the more artful your efforts will be,” he says.

The primary advantage of a slow cooker is that it will cook your food for hours without fear of scorching or overheating. The big downside is that it will not brown or sear any of your ingredients and and by not browning first in a skillet, you lose the “brown bits”, the caramelized essence of meats and vegetables, that add such huge flavour and aroma — succulence, Schloss calls it — to the finished product.

A few more hard and fast rules from Schloss for successful slow cooking:

Use minimal liquid ingredients, unless you want soup;
Never use water because it will leach flavour. Use broth, juice, wine – anything that will add flavour;
Except for hot peppers which amplify painfully during slow cooking (add at the end, he says), season with gusto. Whole herbs and spices are better than ground because their flavour tends to cook out in the first hour, he says.

Schloss also says some foods do better in the cooker than others. He avoids slow cooking chicken breasts, beef fillets, pork chops or any other cut of meat that doesn’t have enough internal fat and connective tissue to simmer all day without falling apart. Fibrous root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots and beets do well in the cooker, while very moist vegetables such as spinach or zucchini should not be added until near the end. Schloss also said he had little success slow-cooking  whole grains such as brown rice, wheat berries and quinoa . The only exception, he says, is barley which makes a wonderful risotto, creamy, tender and yet with a nice bite to the grains.

Here’s his recipe. The finished dish, he says, is “like a savory pudding, overflowing with rich dairy textures, cheesy aromas and meaty chunks of mushrooms.” Serve it as a first course or alongside roast meat or poultry.

Mushroom-Barley Risotto

1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
8 medium white mushrooms, trimmed and cut into slices
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 cups pearl barley
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken or mushroom broth
1 salt
¼ tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
½ oz. dried porcini mushrooms, crumbled (¼ cup)
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup cream or half-and-half
1 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and mushrooms and saute until tender, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and barley and saute for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add wine and stir until almost completely absorbed. Transfer to a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker. Add broth, salt, pepper, dried porcini, and rosemary to the slow cooker and stir to moisten the barley. Cover crock with a folded towel and top with lid. Cook for 3 to 4 hours on high, until barley is tender. Stir in Parmesan, cream and parsley and fluff with fork until the cheese melts and the barley is moistened. Serve immediately. Serves 6-8.

Variations: Use a combination of Romano and Parmesan instead of all Parmesan, or replace half the cream with 2 oz. of creamy fresh chevre.

– From Art of the Slow Cooker