My mailbag frequently has a request for a slow cooker recipe suitable for bariatric eating – and never more so than at this time of year when most of us are back from work late; need a nourishing meal on the table for family in record time; and the meal invariably needs to be hot since the evenings are certainly icier. Even those in the southern hemisphere often experience a chilly evening from time to time so I hope this post will suit them too and straddle both camps (but if not come in handy when the summer is over for them). Here’s some basic information to get you started; tips for adapting your present family favourites; news of a divided slow-cooker (genius I think); and a very simple recipe which I think is knock-out!
Slow cookers are becoming ever more popular. Amazon has reported a 55 per cent jump in sales of these appliances and Tesco currently sells 12,000 of them per month across the UK. It’s not surprising, really, when you realise that using a slow cooker is a healthy and safe way to cook that can save time, money and energy.
What is a slow cooker?
A slow cooker is an electric cooking pot which normally contains a removable ceramic or cast-iron bowl where the food is cooked. These appliances usually have a high and low setting, while more sophisticated ones have extras like an ‘auto cook’ setting or a timer. They’re affordable too, with good models available to fit any budget. They are designed to cook unattended at a low, constant temperature over a period of up to 10 hours, meaning that using a slow cooker is an ideal choice for busy mums who want a cost-effective way to feed the family, working professionals who fancy a cooked meal at the end of the day, students looking for a simple and cheap way to cook, or just about anyone.
Here are just some of the advantages of using a slow cooker:
- Economical – slow cooking lets you make cheap, normally tough, cuts of meat nice and tender
- Energy-Efficient – slow cooking uses a fraction of the electricity an oven and hob would use, reducing your carbon footprint and also saving you cash
- Safe – a good slow cooker can be safely left unattended for hours
- Healthy – a slow cooker lid seals tight so nutrients aren’t lost
- Time-saving – slow cookers can be left to cook while you are busy elsewhere
- Versatile – a wide range of foods can be slow-cooked, from casseroles to cakes
- Calorie-conscious – having your meal ready when you come home hungry deters snacking
- Heart healthy – no oil is used in slow cooking and it’s recommended that fat is trimmed from meat
- Simple clean-ups – most slow-cooker dishes are ‘one pot meals’ so you have less to wash up
- Easy to use – just put in the ingredients, turn it on and walk away
Slow Cooker Tips
As you can see, there are many benefits to using a slow cooker. If you are a slow cooker newbie, here are some slow cooker tips to start you off:
- Prepare your ingredients in advance. If you are heading out for the day, prepare your ingredients the evening before, refrigerate them overnight, then place them in the slow cooker before you leave the house.
- Handle with care. Avoid sudden temperature changes to avoid cracking your inner bowl. If the bowl’s been in the fridge, let it stand at room temperature for 20 minutes before cooking. Always wash the inner bowl by hand.
- Don’t use too much liquid. As the lid on a slow cooker seals in moisture, this means the dish won’t reduce. If you’re converting a recipe, cut down on liquid ingredients by about half.
- Brown your meat. This is usually down to personal taste. If you don’t mind your meat looking pale, it’s fine to add it in raw. Browning meat before slow cooking will release more flavour, especially if it’s in small pieces. But if you don’t have time, you can skip this step.
- Don’t cook from frozen. Frozen food is a big no-no as the low cooking temperature may not kill off all the bacteria in the food. Always allow your food to thaw completely before slow cooking.
- Layer your food. When using a slow cooker, place dense items like root vegetables and potatoes in the bottom as these take longer to cook. Hold off on adding dairy-based items like milk or cream for the last half hour or they will separate. The same goes for last-minute flavourings or delicate vegetables like peas and spring greens.
- Keep the lid on. You may be tempted to peek inside now and then, but don’t. This will only prolong the cooking time as heat is lost.
- Trim the fat. This is important for good health, but also so that you don’t have a greasy film floating on top of your food. Always trim off any visible fat from meat that you’re slow cooking.
Converting recipes for slow cooking
It’s quite easy to convert most recipes for use in a slow cooker, especially for items like soups, stews, casseroles, curries, roast poultry or meat. Most slow cookers have just two settings – Low and High – which makes it very simple. Here is a handy table to help you calculate the cooking time of a conventional recipe when using a slow cooker.
|Oven/Hob||Slow Cooker Low||Slow Cooker High|
|15-30 mins||4-6 hrs||1.5-2 hrs|
|30-45 mins||6-8 hrs||3-4 hrs|
|45 mins – 3 hrs||8-10 hrs||4-6 hrs|
- As mentioned above, the slow cooker traps moisture, so there is no ‘reduction’ during cooking. Cut the amount of liquid you use by a third, or half if you prefer a less soupy meal.
- If your recipe calls for browning of meat or frying of onions, garlic or spices, this is good for releasing flavour and is recommended if you have time. If not, it’s ok to add ingredients in their uncooked state.
- If your recipe includes herbs or spices, it’s best to add these towards the end as the long cooking process can cause them to lose their flavour.
- Cook rice or pasta separately as these absorb a lot of moisture and could go soggy. Alternatively, add these in the last hour of cooking if you are at home.
- Using a slow cooker involves a little trial and error when you are new to it. For example, if your dish is a little too liquid, mix a teaspoon of cornflour with a little cool water, mix until smooth then add to the bowl next time. This will help it thicken.
A New ‘Divided’ Slow Cooker
I use a fairly standard family-sized slow cooker for my recipes but sometimes now wish it were a bit smaller or could be more adaptable for when there is just the two of us to eat. So I was delighted to read about the new ‘divided’ slow cooker insert that allows you to cook a main meal dish with its accompaniment in one pot. This clever ceramic insert only works with the correct sized slow cooker (check it out first – I know it works with the Lakeland 6.5 litre slow cooker) and needs the electric base and lid to be functional, but it does mean that for instance you can cook a chilli with rice (see below); a tagine with couscous; pulled pork with baked beans; baked apples with a toffee sauce or a slow-cooked rice pudding with fruity sauce. It’s available from Lakeland and costs £24.99 – a great Christmas present or budget-conscious buy. Details here
And now for a super simple bolognese/ragu recipe:
I don’t think there is a recipe much easier to make than this simple beef bolognese one. Made in the slow cooker it also comes out superbly tender, flavoursome and when you want it. Simple switch up the dial to get on the table pronto when you come home or switch to keep warm to keep until required. I serve with pasta but it’s equally good with jacket potatoes, topped with mash to make a kind of Shepherd’s Pie and to layer between aubergines/eggplant, roasted vegetables or courgettes/zucchini to make a sort of moussaka or baked pie. With just 4 ingredients in its makeup it’s also something of a bargain meat dish. Add a can of beans to the mix if you want to stretch the dish to serve more.
SIMPLEST SLOW COOKER BOLOGNESE
1 kg/21/4 lb extra lean minced/ground beef
540 g/generous 1 lb flavoured passata (I used Cirio Napoletana, flavoured with onion, celery and paprika)
3 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 beef stock/bouillon cube, crumbled
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Brown the beef in the base of your slow-cooker (if you have a slow-cooker that does not have a removable insert then brown in a pan and then transfer to the slow-cooker).
2. Stir in the passata, Worcestershire sauce, stock cube and salt and pepper to taste, mixing well.
3. Cook on HIGH for about 30-45 minutes. Reduce to LOW and cook for 5-6 hours. If you prefer a sauce that is thicker remove the lid for the final hour of cooking time and increase the temperature again to HIGH).
WLS PORTION; 1/2
CALORIES PER PORTION: 249
Some advice courtesy of Tesco