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
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
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.