Umami in the slow cooker…

flats of plants on tailgate of truck to be loaded for the farmers' market.

for market

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.

wagon of flowers in buckets

cutting flowers

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.)

packaged cross-cut beef shank

beef shank

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.

Krups rice cooker/slow cooker and steamer

Krups rice cooker

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!

Braise-roasted sausages, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts

Another dreary, rainy, winter day…not particularly cold, but as usual on a day like this I’m in need of comfort food.  In trying to keep one of my New Year’s resolutions to be sure and use what’s in my freezer, I was rummaging through the freezer to see what was there.  Interesting package of four plump sausages.  Only problem, I don’t know what they are–except that they are labeled “hot”.   But I’m sure they are due to be used–probably a sample that I got at one of the farmers’ markets this summer.  So we’re going to cook those this evening.  (I usually try to be careful to label things that get put into the freezer–I suspect that these were frozen when I brought them home, so I just tossed them into the freezer and…now I don’t know for sure what I’ve got.  But–they look like the should turn into a luscious meal once cooked.

Looking through the vegetable drawer in the fridge I found Brussels sprouts, potatoes (yes, I do keep my potatoes in the fridge because they aren’t in there long enough to change taste or texture.)

Onions, garlic, chili peppers, potatoes, sausages…and sprouts.  I’m being lazy today so I want easy food, but flavorful and satisfying.  Since there are four sausages I think that I should just do about 4 serving of this dish: one for another day this week, and maybe one for the “ready-to-eat” part of the freezer, along with the soup and the chilli.

I took four medium size Yukon Gold potatoes scrubbed but not peeled, cut into 1-1/2-inch chunks, mixed with about 6 or 8 garlic cloves, one medium onion chopped into 1-inch chunks, about 15 trimmed Brussels sprouts, all sprinkled with a three-finger pinch of salt.  On top of that go the four sausages, skins pierced so that they won’t explode, and some herbs. (Being in truly lazy mode, I used herbs de Provence since that’s got a variety of herbs so likely something will connect with the sausage seasoning.

I added about 1/4 cup of water, covered the baking dish tightly, and popped it into a 350 ° F oven.  I’ll check it in about 45 minutes.  When the potatoes are close to being done,  the cover comes off and  it finish cooking uncovered.  Add one green salad, or maybe just the sprouts, and there’s comfort food, and lazy comfort food at that!

Fast food: basic omelette

Whether you choose to spell it omelette or omelet, it’s still a god-send when cooking for one,  when you need fast food (even for several), or when you just want to make a meal without going to the grocery store.

Omelettes come in several styles–thin and rolled or folded, or thick and puffy; usually with filling or other added ingredients.  It’s the filling/topping possibilities that make this a meal in itself–these can range from a simple cheese filling to mixtures of vegetables, and even jam or jelly for a sweet treat.

My favorite style is the thin, folded (not puffy) with a filling of some sort–even “leftover” caprese salad in the summer time, or cheese, mushrooms, onions, and spinach–there are lots of “classic” fillings for omelettes that you see on restaurant menus–Denver, Spanish, Mexican, Greek, et cetera but there are virtually endless possibilities.

First, choose the appropriately sized pan:  I use an 6- to 8-inch skillet (All-Clad) when cooking a 2- or 3-egg omelette just for me (and the cat).  Too small and All-Clad stainless steel skilletthe omelette will be too thick to fold and too large, the omelette is too thin.  Just like other cooking for one, the size of the pan is important.

An omelette is most easily made in a skillet or frying pan because the slanted sides allow you to roll or fold the omelette easily.  You may see ads for “omelette pans” but the plain skillet or frying pan is the only thing that you need so long as it is of good quality and heat is conducted evenly.  Nonstick is not necessary–any good skillet, if preheated and oil added appropriately works fine.

If your filling needs cooking, e.g. mushrooms, onions, peppers, or the like, prepare that by sautéing the ingredients and setting them aside. You should allow about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of filling for each two eggs.  Your imagination and your taste are the only limitations on what can be used as a filling for your omelette.  Cheese of your choice is always good–add a salad and you’ve a meal right there.  Fresh herbs with tender greens such as spinach can be quickly sautéed with a little butter and/or olive oil and used as a filling.  In the summer, tomatoes, summer squash are possibilities.  Leftover boiled or roasted potatoes or roasted root veggies–certainly.  Even “tough” greens such as kale or chard can be used if precooked. Leftover fish or smoked salmon works well.  Even creamed spinach from the freezer, or just some of the salsa from a jar.  Recycle some of the sausage-potato casserole as omelette filling….

For a flat, folded (or rolled) omelette, I start with two large eggs, add a splash of milk or cream, a pinch of salt, and beat the eggs until yolks and whites are well blended.  I like to beat them with chopsticks or a fork since I don’t want the omelette to puff.

From Cook's Illustrated

French omelette

Using a whisk will incorporate air and those bubbles will expand and give you a somewhat puffy omelette, which I don’t like as well as the thinner, folded or rolled style.  I also prefer not to have my omelettes browned–I want that nice cooked, but still moist style.

For an evenly cooked omelette without spotty browning, you need to preheat your pan thoroughly (5 or 6 minutes) before adding the eggs so that they will cook evenly.

Over medium-high heat, add some butter (about 1-1/2 teaspoons).  When the foam subsides, pour in the beaten eggs, and pull the edges as they set toward the center of the pan, allowing unset egg to run to the edge–maybe 30 rule out 45 seconds.

Spread your filling over the surface of the omelette, cover (foil or a plate if you don’t have a lid that fits your frying pan) and remove from the heat for about 60 to 90 seconds to allow the residual heat to finish setting the eggs on the top of the omelette; it should appear moist, but not runny.  If it’s not set enough, return to the heat briefly with the cover still in place.

When cooked to your taste, use the chopsticks or fork to roll or fold the omelette.  I usually simply fold it into thirds, or even in half, rather than rolling it up. Turn out on a plate, and it’s ready to eat.


Omelettes are ubiquitous…for an interesting survey of variations (including some seen on restaurant menus) see the Wikipedia article on omelettes.  Your taste is your guide to making this a quick, delectable meal.

A son goût!  

Griddled dinner

I was recently scanning through my e-mail update from and I saw “Griddled Broccoli”.  It was one of those keep-scanning moments, and then (when the brain caught up with the eyes)–back up and look again, and read carefully.  This looked like something that would be great for single-serving cooking .  I set out to cook my whole meal as a griddled dinner.  The house supervisor was on duty, approved  and was waiting anxiously to see how this was going to turn out.

A favorite cooking tool in my kitchen is my cast iron griddle which goes across two burners of my gas stove.  It’s not a pre-seasoned one–but that’s really easy to do.  I got it from mycast -iron griddle
local garden store which also carries Lodge cast iron.  Sometimes I contemplate getting a grill-pan, but I, despite needing two burners, I really like the flexibility of being able to have the grill/griddle combination.  It’s certainly not a glamorous piece of cookware, but it’s functional and not all that expensive either.

I have found that trying to use it with only one burner lit really does not let it heat well.  It does not have a non-stick finish since I’m concerned about the effects of high heat on that, but it’s well seasoned and non-stick in effect.  Besides I also has doubled as a broiler pan too, and I certainly could not do that with non-stick coatings.

I’ve got a lovely rib-eye steak for a red-meat splurge.  I could do on my Weber Kettle Grill, but given the uncertainty of the weather now and finding the griddled broccoli recipe, I decided I’d try my whole meal on the griddle.

The griddled broccoli recipe calls for parboiling the broccoli for a few minutes before the actual griddling, but that seems simple enough, even for a quick meal.   I want some other vegetables as well as the broccoli with my steak, so I though I’d add some mushrooms, some sweet potato slices, and maybe some red bell pepper to my griddling.

I started by salting the steak as recommended in Cook’s Illustrated; it’s really worth the time to do this.  While the steak was Rib-eye steakresting with the salt, I prepared broccoli almost according to Wright’s instructions,  sliced the mushrooms, part of  a yellow bell pepper (the red ones at the market just didn’t look or feel really good), peeled and sliced the sweet potato into 1/2-inch thick cross-sections.  Because I wanted a variety of vegetables, with two of them that needed a bit of pre-cooking, I opted for steaming instead of blanching for the par-cooking. I steamed the broccoli for only about two minutes since it was cut in fairly small pieces.  I steamed the sweet potato slices for about three minutes and then set these aside for griddling a bit later.  Because I wanted to cook the whole sweet potato and the more of other vegetables for some planned leftovers, I started on the vegetable a bit before I put the steak on the griddle. I preheated the griddle until I got a good “bounce and sizzle” when a drop of water was flicked on the surface; we were good to go.

I thought that the mushroom and peppers could be easily reheated while my steak was resting and the broccoli was finishing, so I started with those and the sweet potato slices which were still firm.  I patted the sweet potatoes dry, since they had been put into cold water to stop the cooking after steaming.  I tossed the vegetables with a bit of  olive oil, and put them on the hot griddle.

Once the mushrooms and peppers were nice and brown, I removed them from the griddle, moved the sweet potatoes to the front since they would require more attention than the steak.

I patted the steak dry (a little moisture accumulates while it is stand with the salt, and I put the steak on the griddle to start cooking.  Since the broccoli has been steamed and put into cold water, I drained it and let it rest on paper towels to dry a bit.  While the steak was browning on the first side, I attended to the sweet potatoes and sliced some zucchini which I had decided to add as last-minute addition while looking in the refrigerator for something else.   After about  seven minutes, I peeked at the underside of the steak.  It was a lovely brown, so I turned it over and continued cooking it.  Since I like my steaks on the rare side of medium rare, I thought it would take about another five or six minutes, so I put the now-drained broccoli into a bowl and tossed it with a little olive oil.  I wanted the steak to rest for about five minutes after coming off the griddle to let all those lovely juices redistribute–evenchecking temperature that short of a rest does make a difference.

Now for the broccoli.  I put that on the griddle to finish the cooking, and I used an instant-read
thermometer to check the temperature of the steak since it was a very thick one.  It showed 115 ° F  on the thermometer, so I turned the heat down under the griddle and  put all the vegetables back on to rewarm.  I took the steak off and set it aside on my plate to rest.  After a five-minute rest the vegetables were reheated, and it was time to eat.

Even allowing for the salting time for the steak, I was sitting down to eat in about an hour and twenty minutes.  I spent some extra  time cooking veggies while the steak was “salting”, but I have plans for those–some can be reheated, and some can go into a salad for another meal.   And…yes, there is left-over steak–that thing was huge! That will be good in a sandwich for lunch with some horseradish, or perhaps in a salad; but I won’t try to reheat that.

Had I not wanted the extra vegetables for planned leftovers, all this could easily have been prepared on the griddle at the same time and easily tailored to provide even a mix of vegetables in a single-serving quantity.

The clean-up was really minimal–the steamer, two small bowls, and the plate!  The griddle, when cooled just needs a quick rinse under hot water, and drying over  flame for a few minutes.  It really is non-stick, and it’s easy to keep it properly cured.  It does get a lot of use: grilled cheese sandwiches, grilled chicken or pork chops.  The red meat aside (and that is a rare splurge) it was a pretty healthy meal: lots of veggies, and very little oil involved in the cooking…but it was really good.  I’m definitely a fan of griddled broccoli.

Empty plate