Slow Going, Texas Style: An Introduction
1 A BREAKFAST TO KICKSTART YOUR DAY
2 STARTERS, TAILGATING SNACKS, AND SOUPS
3 CHILI AND STEWS
4 BEEF, BISON, AND VENISON
5 PORK, GOAT, AND POULTRY
6 GULF SEAFOOD AND FRESHWATER FISH
7 BEANS, VEGETABLES, AND OTHER SIDES
8 DESSERTS AND OTHER SWEETS
About the Author
SLOW GOING, TEXAS STYLE: AN INTRODUCTION
I’m not the most likely person to write a book on Texas slow cooking. It’s no necessity for me to rely on a cooking method that’s more leisurely than a herd of free-range snails. I work at home, so I have the luxury of whipping up lunch or dinner when I wish, easily keeping an eye on a saucepan bubbling away on the stove. I live on my own, making the quantities that are often required in a slow cooker a little hefty. Also, I truly enjoy spending time in the kitchen, playing around with food, rather than simply putting it on and leaving it. I am no fan of many so-called convenience ingredients, ones that are heavily processed, and form the core of so many slow-cooker recipes populating the Internet. Those canned soups, prefab spice blends, and jars of Cheez Whiz don’t appeal to me.
So, what brought me to this? I am in awe of a device that encourages and helps families to get a great hot meal on the table, with little hassle. I see how a slow cooker simplifies life for people like my Austin-based daughter, her husband, and their three kids. They have an unending schedule, and slow cooking aids them in sitting down to dinner together many nights of the week. Slow cookers offer another valuable advantage. We all find fast food and other take-out valuable from time to time. However, a cook preparing food at home has total control over how much sugar or sodium goes into a dish. Slow cooking gives busy families a decent shot at having a brief sit-down with the gang to share a good, easy meal between lacrosse, dance class, and theater practice.
I should clarify one other point. Currently, I don’t live in Texas. I reside in New Mexico these days, and have for some years. When a major Texas newspaper, a few years ago, wrote a feature story about me and my late husband, Bill, my longtime coauthor, the two of us were described as having a mixed marriage—he was a Texan, I was not.
Texas is, though, under my skin, indelibly and profoundly part of me. As the bumper sticker goes, I got to Texas as soon as I could. Shortly out of college, I moved by choice to Dallas during the go-go era of the late 1970s, and I lived there into the 1980s when a dream arts job lured me to Santa Fe.
Bill’s family hails from the Hill Country area, from Buda, Onion Creek, and Sprinkle, all in the Austin area. His grandfather, E.J. Cleveland, is remembered as the first person in Buda to buy a new-fangled automobile, and he was in the Texas State Legislature in the 1930s. Bill lived in Wimberley before coming to Santa Fe, too, and we returned with frequency to that little charmer of a town on the Blanco River. Over the years, we jumped at opportunities to teach cooking classes at places like the Central Market cooking schools throughout the state, as well as at the Lake Austin Spa, Texas Book Festival, and for super-chef Stephan Pyles. Now on my own, frequent trips take me down through El Paso, the Big Bend area, the Davis Mountains, Buffalo Gap, and to see family in Austin and San Antonio.
Writing together, Bill and I envisioned many of our books—four of which won James Beard Foundation book awards—as paeans to under-recognized or underappreciated topics. Among our early books was Texas Home Cooking. Published in 1993, it was among the first in a newer generation of books to recognize and revel in the national cuisine of the Lone Star state. Following it came Smoke & Spice, a celebration of American barbecue traditions. It grew organically out of the Texas book and a chance meeting with a founder of Pitts & Spitts, a premiere Houston crafter of barbecue pits meant to last a lifetime and beyond. The craft of smoke cooking was in danger of becoming a lost art when we penned the book. I know that’s darned hard to imagine now, with the passion for barbecue that has swept the country and has been taken up by many serious chefs.
No one can possibly think that slow-cooker cooking is endangered. It’s never been more popular than it is right now. Heck, people reportedly own more slow cookers than coffee makers. The slow-cooker does, though, have a bit of an image problem, and I think it’s a bit undervalued. Lots of folks who are serious cooks, chefs, and culinary professionals are in awe of their fancy sous vide machines for cooking very low and slow, but they look down on the accessible home cook’s device, the slow cooker. It makes me want to do a slow burn.
A little of that attitude may come from early experiences with a slow cooker, especially for those of us who came of age with slow cookers from a generation ago. We plopped a pile of ingredients into it, set it, and forgot it for thirteen hours. Then we found a pot full of, well, “gray meat and grayer carrots,” as one of my colleagues put it recently. Another friend who had experimented with a slow cooker said that no matter what she put in, at the end of the day, everything looked and tasted like beef stew. This book will help you avoid those problems. I’ve taken the guesswork out of timing, and I’ve enlivened the recipes and their preparations with seasonings and techniques that I hope will delight all manner of taste buds.
Bold Texas flavors make that part easy. The assertive seasonings common to the state make the perfect recipe for a blended, multicultural pot. It’s an interdenominational, homey cooking style of South meets West—where a part of the state sits at the corner of old and New Mexico, where Germans and Czechs set down roots in the nineteenth century, and where they were joined by Vietnamese and Pakistanis in the twentieth century.
What passes, though, for assertive seasonings in other styles of cooking isn’t perfect for the slow cooker. The cooking process can rob spices of their punch, making them more like, in the words of iconic Texas politico Jim Hightower, “weaker than Canadian hot sauce.” A classic chili recipe, for instance, might call for two garlic cloves, but here I suggest an eyebrow-raising eight to ten cloves. You will see an occasional ingredient that might strike you as odd, for instance soy sauce in a Tex-Mex beef preparation. Soy sauce gives umami-style depth to dishes, which is a particular help with long-cooked dishes. So does Maggi seasoning sauce, a vegetable protein–based sauce with a similar roasty, toasty taste that’s great for rounding out sauces, soups, and stews, in particular. Maggi has no soy, but it does have MSG. It is considered essential in the Mexican pantry as well as in Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Sometimes a bit of tomato paste gives the desired depth. When the cooking time is relatively short, I usually sauté the dish’s primary spices in oil to start. The process allows their flavors to bloom more fully.
Slow cooking keeps food moist, more so than just about any other technique. Even when meats shed, say, a cup of liquid while cooking down, they do not become dry or leathery. Just about anything you would usually braise can be prepared in a slow cooker, though you can generally cut back on the amount of liquid by 50 percent because there is very minimal evaporation. Many foods you are used to cooking in other ways, like fajitas, can work slow and low, too.
Maybe, on second thought, it’s not so unusual for me to write about slow-cooker cooking. I am known for writing about barbecue, the ultimate low-and-slow cooking form, where tough cuts of beef become tender as the connective tissue breaks down. As it happened, I found that some of the techniques I know from the barbecue world actually translate well here. For instance, turbinado sugar—a granular brown sugar—doesn’t break down nearly as fast during hours of cooking as more finely processed and ground sugar. The heftier dose of dried spices used in dry rubs, or garlic, for example, in a seasoning paste, help flavor these long-cooked items, too.
And just one more thing. Anyone who has ever sweated his or her way through a blistering Texas summer should welcome a cooking technique that doesn’t raise the temperature in the kitchen.
EQUIPMENT FOR SLOWPOKES
In the 1970s, I was gifted a burnt-orange Crock-Pot, one of the models that was made in one piece, making it awkward to wash out. Today, virtually all slow cookers have a removable insert of stoneware or heavy metal that can be removed from the base and washed in a dishwasher. The lids, too, are dishwasher safe. Some lids are hinged, which takes care of the issue of where to set the lid when serving from one of the cookers. If you have a small kitchen, like me, that’s quite a helpful feature.
Today’s cookers often sport a chrome or stainless steel exterior, or they may be enveloped in another metallic finish, perhaps copper, red, or even purple. Some have a removable exterior wrap, so that the color or pattern can be switched out, depending on your whim or holiday. You can get one emblazoned with the logo of your preferred college or NFL team, or perhaps one with a lid that snaps into place to make it a breeze to tote, perfect for tailgating. If you go to eBay, you might be able to score a model shaped like a football. You can find a Crock-Pot called the Little Dipper, perfect for queso for your tortilla chips, and you can find one large enough to cook an entire turkey.
In the course of writing this book, I have tried out a multitude of slow cookers. Initially, I tested them side-by-side to see if they would come to a boil, or come to another temperature and hold it there. That was pretty much the case. The ones I used most for this book were two models of Crock-Pot. One is a basic round 4- to 5-quart (3.8- to 4.7-l) version, which cost me under twenty dollars at Target. The other is a mid-range, moderately equipped, digital countdown model. Its oval shape holds 6 quarts (5.7 l), and it cost about sixty dollars. The basic model just has a low and high setting. Two helpful features—a timer and a warming setting—come on the pricier version.
My third go-to cooker is a sleek 6-quart (5.7-l) All-Clad, an investment of more than two hundred dollars for a fairly top-of-the-line version, at least when I acquired it. A feature I especially like is that the cooking insert is not ceramic, therefore I worry less about chipping or cracking it when moving around the kitchen. However, given the price difference between it and some other models with ceramic inserts, I could afford to break several crocks before the cost invested would catch up. Also, the All-Clad features a pair of holes in the lid which vent a bit of excess steam. I find that especially useful when baking something, such as a cake or brownies, in the slow cooker.
LOTS OF FOLKS WHO ARE SERIOUS COOKS, CHEFS, AND CULINARY PROFESSIONALS ARE IN AWE OF THEIR FANCY SOUS VIDE MACHINES FOR COOKING VERY LOW AND SLOW, BUT THEY LOOK DOWN ON THE ACCESSIBLE HOME COOK’S DEVICE, THE SLOW COOKER. IT MAKES ME WANT TO DO A SLOW BURN.
The contemporary slow cooker tends to run a bit hotter—on both low and high settings—than the earliest models. This has addressed concerns about keeping the food temperature in the safe range above 140°F (60°C). That means the timing suggested in recipes can and should be more precise than eight to twelve hours, for example.
Today there are slow cookers with a searing plate, and food can be browned off right in the slow cooker, rather than transferred from a skillet to the slow cooker. Some slow cookers can morph into steamers or pressure cookers, too. Take a look at the Crock-Pot multicookers or the model that has an auto-stirring feature. One of the newer models of All-Clad cookers holds 7 quarts (6.6 l); it has three slow-cooking settings, a setting for cooking rice, and a programmable twenty-two-hour timer. Oval cookers are now nearly as common as round ones. Hamilton Beach offers a more design-y looking Party Crock, with a cast-iron insert that can go into the oven.
If you are preparing meals for one or two people, smaller cookers are out there, but I find it’s nice to have some leftovers. Most dishes that excel in the slow cooker also keep well for another day or more, so why not have some planned leftovers? If you really want to make a fresh dish daily, just for you, the petite 11/2-quart (1.4-l) slow cooker is worth having. These are inexpensive enough you can add one to an existing collection of cookers.
If I were going out to buy a single slow cooker today, it would likely be the 6-quart (5.7-l) Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo, which retails for about $130. WeMo refers to the cooker’s Wi-Fi connected smartphone app, allowing the busy cook to adjust the cooking time or temperature when on the go. Crock-Pot owners can take advantage of live chat online now, too. You can even have Crock-Pot–ready meal kits shipped to your door, ready to pop into your slow cooker. You may not want or need all of the bells and whistles, but it’s good to know what’s available.
TIPS FOR TAKING IT SLOW
Spray the inside of the cooker with cooking spray or smear it with the wrapper of a stick of butter. Either makes cleanup a cinch. You can buy slow-cooker liners in many supermarkets, but I don’t think they are all that helpful and they create one more thing that goes to the landfill.
My recipes are written for slow cookers in the 5- to 6-quart (4.7- to 5.7-l) range. If yours is a 4-quart (3.8-l) model, you can make minor adjustments such as using a 21/2-pound (1.1-kg) roast rather than the called-for 3-pound (1.4-kg) one. Subtract one red waxy potato, for instance, or 1/2 cup (120 ml) from the main source of liquid. If you have a 7-quart (6.6-l) big-boy slow cooker, you can opt for up to a 1/2 pound (225 g) more meat or poultry, or add a couple of carrots, another chunk of onion, and another potato, to bulk up the ingredients. The suggested cooking times won’t be far off the mark.
Some dishes, like an omelet or brownies, can be presented more attractively when removed from the slow cooker whole or intact. An insert of crisscross pieces of aluminum foil—a sling of sorts—can be molded to the inside of the slow cooker before adding the food, and then used to lift out the finished dish when ready.
I recommend a quartet of easy-to-find kitchen equipment if you want to take advantage of every recipe here. You may already have them in your home cabinets. One is a high-sided quart (946 ml) soufflé dish; another is a 6-inch (15-cm) cake pan with a 2-inch (5-cm) tall rim; another is a 6-inch (15-cm) springform pan, the kind used for cheesecake. All come in handy when baking in the slow cooker. The last item is a round metal biscuit cutter, about 3 inches (7.5 cm) in diameter. You’ll be using it “off label,” in this case. It makes a perfect stand for any of the dishes or pans you want to lift from the bottom of the slow cooker, balancing them well.
Vegetables cook more slowly than meat. To counter this, I suggest putting dense vegetables such as carrots and potatoes at the bottom of the slow cooker or along its edge, closer to the heating element. You can also cut those vegetables in smaller chunks than the meat, in a dish like a stew, for instance.
In general, fill slow cookers approximately three-fourths full. I have to admit I ignore this routinely with smaller quantities, and they just cook a little faster. If your food quantity is really light though, add some more vegetables to bulk up the quantity. Don’t go over three-quarters full though because hot ingredients can expand. The exception to that rule is with greens, where they wilt and cook down substantially.
ANYONE WHO HAS EVER SWEATED HIS OR HER WAY THROUGH A BLISTERING TEXAS SUMMER SHOULD WELCOME A COOKING TECHNIQUE THAT DOESN’T RAISE THE TEMPERATURE IN THE KITCHEN.
Even on low heat, the exterior of every slow cooker I have worked with gets hot, as does the lid. From my experience, even handles that look like they are meant to be heatproof get uncomfortably warm. Make sure everyone working or playing in your kitchen knows this. Keep the slow cooker back from the edge of the counter and the cooker’s cord safely tucked behind it.
One of the advantages of a slow cooker is the ability to leave it all day, almost always on the low setting. Since the heat radiates from the sides, make sure the cooker is on a heatproof surface, and pulled away from walls and cabinets. Vent holes in the lid should be free to let steam out into the air, rather than into the bottom of a cabinet.
Avoid opening the cooker more than absolutely necessary. It’s not just that you let out the slowly built-up warmth. The steam created forms a seal around the edge of the lid. It’s broken when opened, and then needs to form again when the lid is replaced.
The high setting cooks about twice as fast as the low. Each cooker works just a bit differently than all of the others. The first time you try a recipe, check a little in advance of the time projected for doneness. Make notes on the recipes as you complete them in case you need a small adjustment. It will likely always require the same adjustment whenever you prepare it in the future.
Every recipe notes the expected number of hours required for cooking each dish. If the cooking time on high is mentioned first, that’s the preferred heat level, but the other works nearly as well. If a recipe only lists “on high” or “on low,” it’s because you don’t get the desired result using the other setting. For example, most of the dessert recipes are cooked exclusively on high. For your convenience, I also have noted when a recipe can be held in the slow cooker on “warm” without compromising its texture or taste.
Avoid putting a hot crock in a sink of cold water or running cold water into it. Be careful, too, with icy granite counters on a winter morning or in the height of air conditioning season.
Don’t put a heated slow cooker insert filled with food into the refrigerator. It won’t cool quickly enough to avoid the danger zone for bacteria. It’s okay though to prepare a crock with a recipe and refrigerate it overnight, for example. Let it come to room temperature before proceeding. Never start a recipe with a block of frozen food.
Most digital slow cookers have a warm mode to keep food that way for up to several hours after cooking. They won’t allow you to put food in and then have a delayed start because of safety concerns. Never use the warm setting to slow down the cooking. It’s too low a temperature to cook safely.
Part of slow-cooker culture has been the heavy reliance on processed ingredients, whether canned soups or sawdust-tasting, prefab seasonings. I can appreciate that speed is integral to getting the food into the pot. I use a few canned or jarred items, ones that I find of good quality, especially canned broth and tomato products. I also like Ro-Tel–style tomatoes and green chiles, and evaporated milk for making sauces that don’t break during extra-long cooking. I would much rather, though, measure out the ingredients needed for a dry seasoning blend instead of ripping open a packet of stale dry rub or taco seasoning made mostly of salt and sugar.
Today’s Texas cooking uses a generous amount of long green chiles from neighboring New Mexico, often called Hatch chiles in popular late summer and fall promotions. There isn’t actually a Hatch variety, but use them and enjoy them, whatever you call them. Find them fresh in late summer and fall; at other times during the year, look for frozen versions, such as Bueno Foods, or jarred versions, such as 505 Southwestern brand.
If you prepare food at an especially high altitude, the boiling temperature of liquid lowers. That means it takes longer for foods to cook. I have tested recipes near sea level and up to 7,000 feet altitude, and I have found the differences in the approximate time range already common to slow cooking to be minimal. The one exception is dried beans. They may indeed take up to several more hours than mentioned, and they may need more liquid added to avoid drying out.
SURE WAYS TO LIVEN UP SLOW FOODS
Foods that come out of a slow cooker sometimes suffer from the moosh texture. I have tried to avoid that in the basic structure and timing of my recipes as much as possible. There are many little hacks you can use to add contrasting crunch or crispness or brightness:
• Toasted bread crumbs, small panko type crumbs, or torn, larger, uneven bits of country bread toasted in a skillet with butter or oil.
• Finely chopped herbs with lemon, lime, orange, or tangerine zest. Add a little garlic or onion, if you wish.
• Citrus juice or zest.
• Watercress or arugula leaves, maybe with a touch of oil-and-vinegar dressing.
• Pumpkin seeds, sunflower kernels, black or white sesame seeds, or chopped or slivered nuts.
• French-fried onion rings. Yes, those cans of the holiday’s favorite casserole topping. Make something similar if you like, from scratch, by frying thinly sliced shallots in about an inch (2.5 cm) of vegetable oil until they crisp.
• Chicharrónes, or fried pork rinds, chopped in a food processor or blender.
• Grated or spiralized carrots, cucumbers, or zucchini.
• Slivered snow peas or other fresh vegetables.
• Simple quick-pickled vegetables, such as cucumbers, carrots, jalapeños, or jicama. To 1 cup (235 ml) each of vinegar and sugar, add 2 to 3 teaspoons (12 to 18 g) of salt, and refrigerate for at least several hours.
• Fermented escabeche (jalapeños, carrots, and onions) or sauerkraut or other pickles, chopped if needed.
• Pico de gallo or other fresh salsa, or chowchow or other vegetable relish.
• Quick, simple, shredded cabbage salad, with splashes of oil and vinegar, and sprinklings of salt and pepper.
• Salad of tiny homegrown tomatoes or farmers’ market tomatoes, halved and tossed with enough oil to glisten, and a generous dusting of salt and pepper.
• Chopped store-bought pickled okra or pickled watermelon rind.
A quick history of slow cooking includes the fact that Joe Garagiola, genial Major League Baseball catcher, broadcaster, and NBC Today show regular, was enlisted for a 1970s ad campaign for Rival’s Crock-Pot. What a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark success the slow cooker has become. Enjoy using yours, along with this book, for a celebration of Texas tastes.