Oven-braised lamb and garbanzo beans

It’s another grey day–unseasonably warm, but at least not hot, sticky, and terribly humid today–the kind of day when you need to smell something cooking–long, slow, and tantalizing.   I found lamb shoulder chops on special (2-1/2-pound package) at the grocery store, I decided to try the lamb/garbanzo slow-cooker thing in the oven since it’s not too hot (and I’ll use the oven to prepare a second dish for reheating tomorrow (acorn squash stuffed with Sicilian sausage).

Book coverThe slow cooker version of this concoction was really good, but I thought it could be improved by doing it in the oven. Even after reading the Cook’s Illustrated Slow Cooker Revolution (volume 1), I am still not a wild fan of the slow-cooker.  I use it because it does some things well, and is necessary at times to fit cooking into a working schedule.  The Slow Cooker Revolution has improved my slow-cooker results immensely, mostly because I’ve discovered some unusual ingredients that can improve flavor.

My impression was that many of these recipes required more preparation time than I would be able to put into a slow cooker recipe, given that I use it for utter simplicity.  I’m interested in seeing what comes from volume 2 of the Slow Cooker Revolution.  If I have to do a lot of preparation for the recipe, then I might as well not use the slow cooker.  I still find that I like over-braising when possible; however, I do find I’m using the slow cooker even more since I read the first volume of this book. That said, I still prefer oven braising, especially if I’m working at home.

Romertopf clay baker (oval)I had intended to do this in the Romertopf, (one of my favorite things for roasting and baking hearty, peasant-style comfort food in the winter) but by the time I had boned the lamb and added other ingredients, it wouldn’t fit in either of my small ones (great for single-serving cooking), and was not enough to fit in my large Romertopf (for roasting whole chicken, for example)–so it was the Dutch oven for today.

(Shoulder chops are reasonably priced, and the boning doesn’t take long if you use a boning knife rather than trying to do it with a paring knife or chef’s knife.  Those bone went into a saucepan with a tad of salt and some bay leaves to make stock.  After boning out, I had about 2 pounds of lamb, so that’s what I started with.)

Oven-braised lamb and garbanzo beans

lamb from chopsIngredients

  • 2 pounds lamb (from boned shoulder chops)
  • 2 14.5-ounce cans of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 large onions, chopped
  • 1 14.5-ounce can of fire-roasted, diced tomatoes with juice
  • 2 tablespoons of Hatch chilli powder (used for the slow cooker), but more added after tasting this halfway through cooking
  • 2 teaspoons of salt, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon fresh Mexican oregano, minced
  • 1 cup water

PreparationIMG_7667

  • Put everything in pot
  • Cover
  • Pop it into the oven, and check for liquid in an hour
  • Go get laundry or whatever, then check liquid again

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In order to be as much like the slow-cooker, I did not brown the meat or cook the onions separately–just combined everything, covered, and put in a preheated, 300-degree Fahrenheit oven.  I added 1 cup of water to start, and checked in one hour but there was plenty of liquid.

On tasting, I found it needed more than the 2 tablespoons of chili powder so I added about 1 tablespoon more, stirred, covered, and let it continue to cook. There was plenty of liquid, so next time, I’ll not add any water–just rely on the juice from the tomatoes, onions, and meat.

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The stock made with the bones smelled really good–if more liquid had been needed during baking, I would use some of the stock.  There was some meat from the bones in the stock, but I not enough to spend time picking off, although I’m not compulsive about trying to get every bit off when I bone meat like these chops. Since I started the stock in cold water, the meat that was left was pretty flavorless, but the stock was good.

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There will be a next time for this–and unless I’m really pushed for time, or can’t leave the oven while I’m out, I’ll opt for the oven method to cook this–a much more complex flavor with the same ingredients, likely attributable to the bit of evaporation that takes place in the oven but not in the closed slow-cooker.

Getting this added flavor lead me to consider the energy used in the various cooking methods–the energy required for cooking is certainly part of the energy required to make that food edible–the energy  of production and transportation, and the cooking is all part of the picture: the footprint of feeding me. We cannot ignore the energy used for cooking when we talk about other energy costs associated with our food so I spent some time browsing to find information on different cooking methods.

In trying to research this issue, I’ve perused many different sources–and the gas/slow cooker comparison is difficult, and I get the feeling that the answer to which is more efficient is an “it depends” situation.

Interestingly, an article on slow cookers versus electric ovens from the University of Connecticut Sustainable Living suggests that there may not be a significant difference in energy use.  SFGate discusses gas versus electric energy use, which gets more complicated, but I’m not sure that there difference is significant enough to make me give up oven braising, even though I’d like to minimize my “carbon footprint” as much as possible. If my slow cooker requires eight or so hours of cooking, and my oven braise requires only two or three hours on low to medium heat, then it may be a toss-up, since the slow cooker doesn’t cycle, and the oven (gas or electric) does.

Oven braising in the wintertime helps warm the house so probably cuts my heating use some, but I’m certainly NOT going to oven braise in the summer and increase the use of air-conditioning.  There is lots of conflicting information out there on the ‘net.  The “best” I found was from the Consumer Energy Center (California Energy Commission)–from that information, I’m not going to give up oven braising for the slow cooker anytime soon, but I’ll still use the slow cooker for some things.

Cover, pressure cooker perfectionOne comparison that I’d really be interested in is slow cooker versus pressure cooker energy use, and taste of the same dish prepared in both. Most data that I found suggested that the slow cooker wins on convenience, and the pressure cooker on energy saving. A taste comparison would certainly be interesting.  I’m almost certain that a pressure cooker can’t replace a good old-fashioned slow braise in the over.

I’ve recently started playing with a pressure cooker–it’s a lot different than what my mother used. The recipes in Pressure Cooker Perfection have been a good starting point. I suspect that I’ll be using a pressure cooker more  in the future, as well as the slow-cooker. Climate, air conditioning, and heating, are all things that will enter into my decisions. I’m also trying out an portable induction unit which is supposed to be ore energy efficient.

So many options for energy efficiency–but what about taste?  I doubt that any other method is going to come out tasting like an oven braise, no matter how many umami-enhancing ingredients you add.

A son goût!

Dutch oven with lamb and garbanzos

very simple, very tasty

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Supermarket special….

Andrea is passing close to us and the rain is the kind that makes you want to have quality time with the cat and a good book–so glad to be indoors.  But, my unpreparedness did make me venture out (cat litter very low–very serious problem!); fortunately, out and back before the heavy rain started.

tuna medalions

tuna

I came home with an impromptu purchase–the local HT had lovely looking tuna (wild caught) on sale.  I’m going to make a small batch of tuna confit to use with my summer salads, though I suspect that one of the small “steaks” is going to supplement the grilled or griddled shrimp for supper.

I’m really intrigued by the sous vide cooking technique–and I’m constantly drooling over recipes from Stefan’s Gourmet Blog!  Such perfectly cooked meat, and the veggies, too. But, as Stefan points out, it takes equipment!  I’d love to try tuna like that as it seems that fish do well that way.

For now,  I  will settle for the very slow “poaching” as an alternative.  It certainly beats the average canned tuna (unless you can get one of the canned variety that is hand packed, and cooked only once.

I keep wondering if there are any low-budget ways of trying the sous vide  technique! I think some research is called for here.

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!

Chilli con carne

I love weather where I can get up want to put on clothes and  warm food like oatmeal for breakfast!  This morning I turned on the space heater in the office for a bit.  This means it’s time to cook things that will give me quick comfort food during the colder weather.

One of my favorites  for winter is chilli con carne–a version that I learned from a cook who spoke no English,  by watching it being made.  I’ve only made one modification to that original “recipe”–and that has been to add some sun-dried tomatoes; otherwise, it’s as I saw it made originally.

This is not a recipe that has fixed amounts–you’re going to have to taste and season it to suit yourself.  It’s a bit time consuming, but since it’s a large quantity and freezes well, it’s well worth the time and effort.

You can manipulate the “heat” by leaving in some seeds from the chile peppers, or by adding cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes to achieve the desired hotness.  I usually leave the seeds in about half the chile peppers–I’d consider it mild to moderate in heat, depending on the particular batch of chile peppers.

Ingredients:

  • 4 slices bacon or fatback minced, browned and reserved
  • 6 to 8 medium yellow onions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 3 pounds beef, diced or coarsely ground
  • 3 pounds pork, diced or coarsely ground (shoulder preferred to loin)
  • 4-5 chipotle peppers in adobo (1 small can)
  • 2-3 dried ancho chilli peppers, toasted and crumbled (seeds removed)
  • 2-3 dried guajillo or pasilla  negro chilli peppers, toasted and crumbled (seeds removed)
  • 1/2 cup minced garlic
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup masa harina, toasted; cornmeal can be substituted if you don’t have masa harina)
  • 32 ounces of beef broth/stock
  • kosher salt to taste (approximately 3 teaspoons)

Assembling the chili:

  1. In a large dutch oven, sauté bacon until brown and crisp; remove and reserve.
  2. Remove all but about 2 tablespoons of fat, reserving excess, and add the chopped onions; cooking slowly until caramelized.
  3. Meanwhile, toast the dried chilli peppers by holding in the flame of a burner until aromatic.  Remove seeds and crumble.
  4. Toast the masa harina in a small skillet and set aside.
  5. Add cumin and coriander to the onions and sauté until aromatic.
  6. Add garlic and sauté for about 1 minute.  Remove to a bowl and set aside.
  7. Add additional bacon fat if needed, and brown meats in small batches, transferring to the bowl with other ingredients.
  8. Remove excess fat from dutch oven, and deglaze by adding beef stock.
  9. Transfer meats and other ingredients from the bowl to dutch oven, add chipotle peppers and adobo sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, and salt.  Stir in the toasted masa harina.
  10. Cover tightly and place the dutch oven in a very low (275 ° to 295 ° F) oven and allow to cook for approximately 4-6 hours, tasting and adjusting seasoning as needed.  Add water or more stock if it becomes too dry, but I prefer this to be a thick chili.

I’ve tried this once in a crock-pot or slow cooker, and just not been happy with the final result.  I think that the oven cooking allows just enough evaporation and concentration to do good things with the flavor that just cannot be gotten with a crock-pot.  It was certainly edible when done in the crock-pot, but just lacked a little something.  Were I doing this in hot weather, I’d certainly use the crock-pot, but since the weather is cooler now, the oven heat is not a problem, and I get to savor the aroma as it cooks.