Umami in the slow cooker…
Obviously I’ve not been giving a lot of thought to cooking things lately–it’s been end-of-term grading, indexing and proofreading, or getting ready for the farmers’ market, or actually being at the farmers’ market, with more energy going to planting things, both for later harvest and for selling at the market than into cooking.
One of the down sides of working the farmers’ market is that I’m one of those people who wake up like a compact fluorescent bulb–pretty dim at first–so getting to the farmers’ market on time on Saturdays involves getting up before the birds just to give me time to be awake and functional. Even Fridays demand early rising, especially as the weather gets hotter–flowers to cut early in the morning and produce to be harvested before the heat of the day sets in and thing wilt…and just to avoid being out in the worst of the heat.
I’m getting into the swing of that now but it still takes time for my lights to come on, though less painful now. That early rising on Friday and Saturday makes me into a really lazy slob on Sunday. Now that the Spring term is over, I’m not meeting classes during the week so I’m enjoying the summer hiatus from lecturing, but still working at freelance indexing so the absolute laziness has to be confined to Sundays and Mondays through Thursdays are still busy.
All this means that for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday cooking is likely to be focused on one-dish meals, and dishes that are good (or even better) when reheated. Sometimes Saturday meal is not even something reheated–it’s my treat-yourself day–OnlyBurger for after-market meal before I devote the rest of the day to quality time with the cat! (This past Saturday the treat was a Texan (burger with braised brisket on it) and a peach ice cream sandwich (handmade at OnlyBurger) after the market. The evening meal was Carolina Moon cheese and strawberries–both from the farmers’ market.)
This weekend schedule means that I try to do some planning and cooking on Thursday to have reheatable food on Friday and Sunday.
This weekend’s meals are going to feature an absolutely lovely cross-cut beef shank from Meadow Lane Farms (also from the Durham farmers’ market) in an easy dish that can cook mostly unattended: osso bucco, but with beef shank rather than veal shank. (The osso bucco really just means “bone with a hole” or marrow bone.)
It’s a dish that’s easily adapted for one person–there’s nothing fussy about it–no need to be exact or tedious in measuring ingredients, and to make even more “unattended”, it will go into the slow cooker (also serving as rice cooker and steamer) while I’m out working on the farm.
I have to admit that I’ve not been a fan of the slow cooker until recently, at least for anything much more than cooking dried beans, or poaching a beef tongue. The flavors and textures just aren’t the same as when the slow cooking was done in the oven where some evaporation, browning and concentration takes place even in a covered dutch oven.
My attitude about slow cookers has changed since I found the Cook’s Illustrated Slow Cooker Revolution (See Bibliography) and learned some techniques for making food out of the slow cooker more flavorful. I’m not ready to quit slow-cooking in the oven despite that, but in hot weather I’ll certainly use the slow cooker more often with some of the “tricks” I learned from that cookbook.
What I missed most in slow-cooker dishes was that savoriness that comes from browning (Maillard reaction) when you slow-cook in a traditional oven or brown/sear on the stove-top. In the slow cooker, you can make this absence less noticeable by adding ingredients that contribute “umami“.
Some of the most useful things I learned from that Slow Cooker Revolution are ways to use the microwave oven to facilitate the slow cooker, and using some “unusual” ingredients in recipes–not esoteric ingredients, just pantry staples that boost the umami flavor:
- precooking aromatics like onions in the microwave so that they don’t stay crispy-crunchy in the slow cooker,
- using tomato paste (for umami) by browning it with the aromatics either in a skillet or in the microwave before adding it to the slow cooker,
- using dried mushrooms to boost flavor (again, umami),
- using foil packets in the slow cooker to keep some ingredients from over cooking.
- using soy sauce or fish sauce to add more of that umami that many slow-cooker dishes don’t get without the evaporation and browning as in the traditional oven.
- using the microwave to precook some ingredients to get rid of excess moisture that would otherwise dilute the dish in the slow cooker.
These are all easy to do–they really don’t add significant extra prep time or effort, and do really make a difference in the flavor. I expect an easy, flavorful meal (or two) from the braised beef shank that is going to emerge from my slow cooker on Friday evening, thanks to some added umami!