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what a crock

For me, the idea of crock-pot cooking is way better than the reality of crock-pot cooking.

The problem is, crock-pot cooking is advertised as a convenient way to cook, and it’s just not. You have to put a lot of forethought into a crock-pot meal, and wake up pretty damn early to get the meal started, all to save yourself the supposed bother of cooking when you get home.

Browning a five-pound chuck roast over high heat is dangerous business even when I’m fully awake, let alone at 7:00 in the morning. The last time I prepped a meal for the crock-pot, I sleep-walked my way through the first 30 minutes of chopping and browning and woke up only when my arm grazed the hot pan.

The other thing about crock-pot cooking is the timing. Most crock-pot recipes require either 9-11 hours on low heat, or 5-7 hours on high heat. If you turn your slow cooker on at 8:00 AM, that means your meal will be ready to eat at 7:00 PM, or 2:00 in the afternoon. I have been in meetings at work worrying that I won’t make it home in time to prevent my beef stew from getting so tender that it disintegrates. What’s stress-free about that? And about that disintegration: crock-pot timing is especially stressful because a crock-pot meal can develop nicely for the first 10 hours and then, without warning, overcook in the 11th hour into a goulash* devoid of texture or taste.

I once observed the progression of a crock-pot meal during a day at home. I checked on it from time to time, out of boredom. Here’s how the day went:

7:00 AM: ingredients for pot roast in

8:00 AM: is this thing on

10:00 AM: pot bubbling

12:00 PM: whoa where did all this liquid come from

2:00 PM: roast smelling good, looking good

4:00 PM: when can I eat this already

5:00 PM: (leave to pick up kids)

6:00 PM: GOULASH

So, put away the crock-pot, and do what I do, and cook this chicken dish instead, in under an hour. The dish has Indian roots but none of the heaviness of a takeout curry. It’s got a thick gravy that is gingery, garlicky, tomato-y, and tastes like it’s been cooking all day. If you make it in the evening after the kids are in bed, stick it in the fridge, and warm it up for dinner the next day, the flavor’s even better. It’s a great dish for weekday entertaining, for that very reason. And loaded with greens, it’s healthy to boot.

Chicken with Tomato and Greens

Adapted from “Mangoes and Curry Leaves” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Ingredients:

2.5-3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (use breasts if you prefer)

3 cups chopped onions

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 teaspoons ground cumin

4 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

2-3 tablespoons minced garlic

2-3 tablespoons minced ginger

1 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste

32 oz. canned, diced tomatoes (roughly one 28-oz. can plus one 14.5-oz. can), quickly drained of excess liquid

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

3-4 cups packed greens (spinach, chopped kale, chopped chard, pea shoots, etc.)*

1 cup chopped cilantro

Rice or chapatis to serve alongside

Directions:

1. Wash the chicken, pat dry, and chop roughly into smaller pieces. You can chop smaller thighs into two pieces, larger ones into three. Set aside.

2. In a large, wide saute pan or casserole, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring until lightly browned, about 5-7 minutes.

3. Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric, garlic, and ginger, and stir until incorporated.

4. Add the chicken pieces and raise the heat slightly to brown the chicken. Make room in the pan by burrowing the chicken pieces into the onion mixture to get the chicken in contact with the bottom of the pan.

5. Cook, stirring frequently, until chicken pieces are browned in spots, about 5 minutes. Add the cayenne, tomatoes, and salt, and stir until the tomatoes begin to break down and release their liquid.

6. Once things are simmering, lower heat to medium-low and simmer for 15-20 minutes. The dish can be prepared ahead to this point. If preparing in advance, once fully simmered, take off the heat, cool, and refrigerate or freeze.

7. Add your greens. If you’re using spinach, you can turn off the heat, add the greens, cover the pot, walk away for a few minutes, and then come back and stir to incorporate. If you’re using kale or a hardier green, you can simmer for an additional five minutes, or enough to wilt the greens to your liking.

8. Spoon on top of rice and lentils, or serve with chapati. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Take that, crock-pot! Serves 6-8, depending on appetite.

*Notes: to my friends from Eastern Europe–I like goulash. I am not disparaging goulash. But when I start with pot roast in mind, I don’t want to end up with goulash. Regarding the greens: if you are cooking this in advance, remember to toss the greens in when you are reheating to serve, to keep their lovely color. This recipe makes enough for 6-8, or for two meals for a family of four. I typically serve half right away for the family and freeze the rest for another quick weeknight meal.

Sticking with your crock-pot? Try this recipe for Thai Chicken, recommended by my crock-pot-loving friend Whitney.

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Looks sooo yummy – will have to try this… the fish suggestion from another person is a great idea. My mum likes crockpot cooking, mainly for soups. She gave me a small one which i have never used, which is now on loan to a friend, hahahhaa 😉 i like to have my meals made & cooked within an hour or at most 2 hours ;)…

    January 18, 2012
  2. I typically use my crock pot only if I want to make soup, because soup is supposed to look like soup at the end of it all. Great analysis of the steps of crock pot cooking, been there too!!

    January 12, 2012
    • totally agree. great for soup, and that’s about it.

      January 15, 2012
  3. Lovely, I have recommended your blog to my wife previously, now I will insist on it. But was a bit concerned when you mentioned “9-11 hours,” sounds a bit ominous. Should I have them on speed dial?

    January 12, 2012
  4. I have had numerous crock pot woes in my adventures in cooking. I cannot tell you how many tears I have shed over wasted food and time spent on a “quick & easy” crock pot meal. Thanks for the witty post and the what looks to be like a yummy recipe!

    My crock pot frustrations—> http://kailinja.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/another-failed-attempt/

    January 12, 2012
  5. alena #

    Crock Pot meals are like casseroles–(I don’t really have a well thought out end to that analogy, except that I prefer a bowl of cold cereal to both)

    I was going to make ginger garlic chicken tonight with Teryaki, but since all I will have to buy is cilantro, I am giving this a go tonight.

    January 12, 2012
    • Alena, the cilantro here is mostly a garnish, I would say to leave it out and skip the trip to the store. Hope you love it.

      January 12, 2012
  6. Sounds delicious — maybe I will try with tempeh… I’m also skeptical of crockpots — and have had mediocre results with mine. Plus there’s just something more aesthetically pleasing about cooking up a meal in your well-loved Le Creuset. Thanks, Yoonanimous!

    January 12, 2012
    • how do you get the umami without the meat? but yes i bet you could make a bomb tempeh version. you know this is what i made on orcas, right?

      January 13, 2012
  7. Kim Chapman #

    This looks amazing! I am totally going to make it with the mustard greens I have left over from making another recipe I got from you – Steamed Fish with Ginger-Garlic Greens – which I make ALL the time. Thanks!

    January 12, 2012
    • oh i forgot about the steamed fish, kim–thanks for reminding me!! gotta get some.

      January 13, 2012
      • Kim Chapman #

        I made this last night and it was awesome! Like Indian food without the heaviness. I used tilapia instead of chicken because I don’t eat chicken – I just put the tilapia in after it had already been simmering for 10 minutes or so. It was great! I think it would also be good with tempeh or tofu. Thanks Yoona!

        January 14, 2012
      • I’m chicken’ed out. I’m totally trying tilapia. Thanks Kim for hitting me back…

        January 15, 2012
  8. I have to agree – crocks are good for chilli, stew or sauce, but at time are very over-rated…

    January 12, 2012
  9. Fia #

    This looks delicious! I have to try this.

    January 12, 2012
  10. Ryan C. #

    this is making me very hungry at 8 am…

    January 12, 2012

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