I am new to slow cookers. I bought mine with the intention of immersing myself into the world of the crock pot. My reasons are simple I need to create a few bigger blocks of time each week to immerse myself into other projects. It feels like the right thing to do.
But I have a problem, I am a helicopter cook . I need to walk by the stove and stir the stew, open the oven door to check the slow roasting ragu, or lift the damp towel to see if the bread is rising. I have to be no more then a few steps away. I can’t leave my babies be or they will fail. So for the better part of two years the slow cooker sits relegated to a remote corner in the back of my pantry. No longer. I am going to make use of it, but it’s not easy. After all it’s like letting a stranger into the kitchen to cook for the family. I can’t say I am comfortable with this aspect of crock pots but I am trying.
My other issue with the slow cooker is the dump it in, stir, and set it and forget it mentality. Don’t get me wrong. I understand there are days when this method is the only way dinner would get to the table. I am not above it, I have done it, and there is nothing wrong with it. But as a chef I know there is a process, there are reactions that occur when food is put to high heat that make it taste better. Take browning or caramelizing for instance, the sugars created during the Mallard reaction adds flavor and lots of it. Outside of Pot-au-feu, Corned Beef, or other simmered meats, the vast majority of recipes rely on caramelization to attain the flavors important to that particular dish. Other simple things like hot cooking oil in the bottom of the pan. Fat is flavor so the rule goes. This oil absorbs the flavors of herbs, mirepoix, and animal protein. It is this oil that transfers tons of flavor to your tastebuds as it swaddles the tongue. Have you ever added lots of rosemary to a soup and not really been able to taste it? Then the next time you make soup the recipe has you gently fry the rosemary in the cooking oil before you add stock. The rosemary flavor is much more pronounced when it is emulsified with oil.
See why I have trouble with slow cookers. I mean, I’ll admit I hover to much and spend to much time in the kitchen, way more then I should. You should see it when I am depressed, worried, or problem solving.
Nevertheless I am giving slow cookers another chance and I am determined to make them work this time. To do that I decided I wouldn’t be afraid of dirtying an extra pan for browning vegetables, meats, and deglazing. If cleaning the pan is more then you care to be bothered with then just skip the step and add everything to the slow cooker as is. I just can’t.
My other concern, especially when posting a recipe, and this is because I want it to be successful for anyone who bothers to cook it, is all slow cookers are not created equally. The low temperature on mine seems like high to me. It starts to simmer heavily, meaning bubbles are rising at the edges as if it is getting ready to break out into a boil, long before I think it should. If you use your slow cooker often then you understand its nuances. Use good judgement and make the necessary adjustments.
It’s hard to believe it’s possible to braise meat until it is dry but you can. Often times we use very lean meats when slow cooking and this becomes a problem. To get around dryness issues and to be assured of a great dish I use chuck roast that has a good fat content. I also like to use fresh Asian noodles. Surprisingly I don’t have to go to a specialty grocery for them either. I have noticed lots of groceries carrying them along with dumpling and egg roll wrappers. The good news is any noodle works so if you have spaghetti noodles use them. Star anise is a specialty product as is Sichuan peppercorns. If you would like a substitute, fennel or anise seed is good exchange for star anise, and red pepper chile flakes work in place of the Sichuan peppercorns. Yes your soup will be different if you substitute but it won’t be any less good.
Taiwanese Slow Cooker Beef Noodle Soup (serves 4)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 1/2 lb. chuck roast
1/2 cup rice wine or sake
1 qt. rich homemade beef stock or no sodium beef stock
1/4 cup soy sauce
5 star anise
1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns (optional but recommended)
1 1/2 TBS garlic, minced
1 1/2 TBS. fresh ginger, minced
1 cinnamon 3-inches long
1 TBS. tomato paste
16 oz. wheat noodles
- Place a skillet over high heat. In the dry pan sear the onions until they char at the edges. Remove them to the slow cooker.
- Let the pan cool for a minute or two, add a healthy glug of oil to coat the bottom and sear the chuck roast on both sides until it is very deeply browned. Remove the roast to the slow cooker as well.
- Carefully pour out the excess oil into a heat proof container. Set the pan back over the heat and add the rice wine or sake. Be careful it might flame.
- Add the stock and deglaze the pan. Add the liquid to the cooker.
- Add soup, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and tomato paste to the slow cooker.
- Turn the heat to low and cook for 5 hours or until the meat is tender but not falling apart.
- Remove the chuck roast from the pot and place it on a plate. Using oven pads, remove the crock pot insert and strain the broth into a large bowl
- Pour the broth back into the cooker, add the roast, and dispose of the solids in the strainer.
- Cook the noodles according to the package.
- As the noodles are near to being done throw a couple of handfuls of spinach in with the soup broth. Stir and cook until it has wilted.
- Cut the roast into thin pieces. Strain the noodles and divide them among 4 bowls. Top with broth and spinach.
- Garnish with green onion and serve.