Adventures in Slow Cooking: Broccoli Cheese Soup

 

It’s that time of year when Christmas is over and you’ve had too much booze, brie and baked goods so it’s time to switch immediately to cayenne tea and rocket salads, right? Maybe best throw in a side of diazepam and hide all the sharp kitchen utensils while you’re at it.

So many January eating fads are exactly that- fads. Apart from the fact that any extreme eating plan is never going to be sustainable or good for you in the long term, there are so many more battles facing your will power at this time of year: It’s dark. It’s cold. You’ve driven 400 miles in 3 days to visit a plethora of germ-heavy relations in a centrally heated room full of dusty tinsel. Your sleep patterns are all screwy from combined late night brandy sessions and revised office opening hours. You are more than likely poorer than usual and you are more likely to succumb to the double dip of stress and depression what with all that cold and dark and sleep wobbles. Why on earth do you think you can cope with starving yourself now when you’re already tired and cold with a stretched immune system? Now, maybe even more than through the rest of the year, you need to feed your body with actual nutrition and sensible calories to keep you warm, energised and with the will to continue living. Believe it or not you can do this without a 3000 calorie galaxy and stilton based eating plan. If you want to.

I love my slow cooker in the winter. I’m pretty fond of it all year but it really comes into its own in the post Christmas slide into January. It is so easy to throw something on in the morning, veg out for the day and have a hot, comforting dinner ready with very little input or supervision and although yes you can go all out with some kind of beef fat and cream based fantasy casserole, you can also keep it pretty clean. Your slow cooker loves seasonal root veg and calorie free spices and fat free, protein high beans and pulses and it can make them really delicious too. As I’ve documented previously, not every attempt of mine has been a glorious success but the last couple of years have given me the bad experience enough to come up with my own set of rules to successfully blagging an edible slow cooker tea:

  • The ‘low setting’ is bullshit. Cook it all on high if you want it to cook at all.
  • Do not ever think about putting leeks, ultra lean meat, fish or shellfish in there. Just don’t.
  • Season it well then season it again. I’m not sure if it is the deceptively large pot or something in the process but I always find that I don’t get the kind of flavour intensity as I would if I followed the same recipe set up in a stove top pan in an hour. So use good, strong stock and an extra pinch on your spices.
  • Cruddy produce will be made worse by a slow cooker. Don’t think you’re enhancing those bruised spuds or liquefying courgettes with a five hour cook.
  • Don’t scrimp on your prep time, and prep small. Root veg in particular should be chopped reasonably finely and always crush rather than chop garlic.
  • Sear meat well before adding and if you have time, sweat off onions before going into the pot as they produce an odd aftertaste if they go in from raw.
  • Add creamy stuff at the end. If dairy sticks on to that pot surface it never comes off again.
  • Add booze at your peril, it doesn’t cook out properly.

I came up with the below soup yesterday, my one home-day of holiday this festive season during which I spent a manic morning washing, tidying, stripping beds, stashing presents and filling up my slow cooker before descending into a Netflix and chill sofa shame spiral of some eight and a half hours. Bliss. In related news- Hemlock Grove is some seriously weird but compelling watching for grown up BTVS fans. Weeeird.

Anyway we were in need of some dietary fibre after all that cheese based Boxing Day shiz, and by a random twist of events I was in possession of a lot broccoli so I came up with this soup. It was incredibly tasty and restorative, with a nice punch of slow-carby vitamins from the peas and broccoli plus a gentle homage to the yuletide dairy binge with the addition of soft cheese at the end. Lovely, nourishing, and not too high on calories or weight watchers points. It was even better today as I had the left overs for a self righteous office lunch when others are still having mostly short bread based meals. Give it a bash, it’s proper good.

 

Boomboom Broccoli Cheese Soup

My broccoli slow cooker soup with soft cheese and too much bread on the side. A luxurious winter warmer.

Serves 3-4 as a main meal

All times and quantities assume 3L slow cooker

1 ½ heads broccoli
2 white onions
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ cups frozen peas
200g soft cheese
Butter
1 tspn dried dill
1tsp ground coriander
1tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 bay leaf

Stock see below

Start off at the proper cooker with a frying panand soften  the finely chopped onions in butter until they become translucent then add these to the slow cooker. Throw in the well chopped broccoli, garlic and herbs. I then put in one vegetable and one chicken stock cube then cover the contents of the pot with freshly boiled water from the kettle. You could use made up stock either veg or chicken but make sure you heat it before adding. Put the lid on and leave on high for 4-5 hours until the broccoli stem pieces are tender. Add the peas and soft cheese, stirring very well to combine then wait for the pot to come to temperature again before adjusting seasoning then serving with crusty bread.

 

Variations: Add a handful of chopped ham to each bowl before serving or top with toasted almonds as a treat addition for the vegetarians. As with many slowcooker efforts, this isn’t the most photogenic brew as the green from the veg fades over the long cooking period so if you wanted to serve as a show stopper you can do the whole thing in about half an hour on the stove and maintain a brighter green. 

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Adventures In Slow Cooking- Parsnip & Apple Soup

It’s been a rough couple of days on body and spirit so when faced with a free Wednesday afternoon I felt up to little more than filling the slow cooker and sitting still for a nice while.

Fridge contents put me in mind of how frequently I’ve seen parsnip and apple soup on menus of late as I had both of these things in, and by happy coincidence the result was bloody lovely. Substantial and slightly sweet, this is a great, vegan friendly winter warmer.

Boomboom Parsnip & Apple Soup


all times and quantities assume 3l slow cooker


2 medium white onions, finely chopped
500g parsnips, grated
3 small eating apples grated,
1.5L vegetable stock
3 cloves garlic minced
1 1/2tsp each ground coriander, ground cumin
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
bay leaf
1 small red chilli finely chopped and de-seeded
fresh ginger to taste, grated (about a thumb sized piece at most)

Simply sling all the veg and spice into your slow cooker then cover with hot stock and cook on high for about 4hrs. Season and serve sprinkled with linseeds or roasted pumpkin seeds and hot buttered toast.

Variations- using a combination of stock and cider might make for a more festive version of this soup and the non vegans might wish to use chicken stock or add some cooked lardons at the beginning and a slug of double cream at the end.
Grating the veg and apples gives a thicker, more soupy finish and the apple will dissolve completely into the broth but you may wish to use a stick blender before serving if you don’t like it rustic!
 If you use cold stock add another hour to the cooking time but it’s much easier to just warm in a saucepan (or use fresh from the kettle) first.

Adventures in Slow Cooking- Brisket with Onion Gravy

I’ve been meaning to take on a brisket for some time and would like to take a moment to thank Geller’s for being open late on a Friday and enabling me to do so. Early hours at most of the butchers in my town plus an unfriendly policy towards raw meat in the overpopulated office fridge mean that it’s rarely easy to make an impulse meat purchase on a school day.
Not that you should really cook a brisket on impulse for the first time- this is a slow cooking cut that takes the best part of a day, at a bare minimum, to do justice to.
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There are a million brisket recipes out there- slow roast, casserole, BBQ, smoked, brined, pulled beef (ghastly phrase) and many more. One day I’ll go on the BBQ trend but barely prepared as I was, I decided to give my slow cooker a chance to redeem itself from past disappointments. This is a simple but slow recipe, mostly using things I would guess you either have in the cupboard or can get from a local shop, meat notwithstanding. The sauce is wonderfully rich and would serve as an extra special french onion soup if you find yourself not wanting to drown your dinner in it all at once.

Points also to this recipe for having massive taste to pennies ratio- three pounds of meat shouldn’t cost you a lot over £10 and will make at least 4 hearty plates of dinner. Like many tougher cuts (such as shin, my favourite stew cut), brisket gets the wow factor from a long time at a low temperature and when it shreds effortlessly on to your plate you will know that time was worth it before you even get to tasting it. I might even dare to say that any leftovers (?) will improve over night.

Boomboom Brisket with Onion Gravy

All times and quantities assume a 4l slowcooker

3lb rolled brisket
2lb white onions
2 sticks celery
5-8 cloves garlic
1 pint beef stock
3Tbspns Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce
1tsp soy sauce (optional)
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper
Butter & oil for frying

Give your brisket at least half an hour out of the fridge before you plan to begin cooking. This is a good time to very roughly chop your onions, then separately very finely chop the celery and mince the garlic.

Next chuck some butter and a glug of rapeseed oil into a large, heavy based pan. Now cover a dinner plate in a mix of fresh ground black pepper and sea salt (Maldon salt if you can!). Roll all sides of your brisket over this plate to season. When the pan is hot, gently place the brisket in and seal on all sides (including the ends) until the meat just begins to brown. This should take a couple of minutes only for each turn, no more than ten minutes to do the whole thing.
image

Remove from the pan immediately and place into a cold slow cooker.
Add the uncooked celery and minced garlic plus bay leaves to the slow cooker pot.
Use the pan you sealed the beef in to now fry the onions (add a little more fat in needed). You may wish to get on with this but be patient and continue to cook the onions until they are translucent and just starting to caramelise- this give your gravy a rich, comforting substance upon serving. Now add the onions and the pan juices into the slow cooker.
If you are using a liquid stock then warm this up and add the Lea & Perrins’ and soy sauce. If you are using a (good quality please) stock cube then you may wish to forego the soy as it may tip the salt balance. You can always add later if the seasoning needs adjusting.
Add the stock to the pan, get the lid on and cook on high* for at least 7 hours. Check periodically after the first 3 hours, baste the meat if necessary. Try not to drool into the pot as you take in the heavenly aromas.

falling apart and ready to go.

falling apart and ready to go.

With regards to cooking, you are looking for the meat to be soft enough that you can pull it into thick shreds with very little pressure from a fork.

Serve on a chilly night covered in lashings of the gravy with some buttered greens and mashed potatoes and a chunky glass of red.
Enjoy.
Repeat.

*please note that the ‘low’ function on my slow cooker basically means ‘off’. It should take 4+ hours to get up to a low simmer

Adventures in Slow Cooking- Easy Onion Soup

fml-Slow Cookers Anne Shooter-4.jpg

A quick, easy recipe for you and a rare success from my slow cooker, debuted for Booze Booze Booze night at the September meet of the Victoria Inn Cookery Club. It was then titled ‘French Soup’ though I must now confess I used a Kiwi wine. It’s dead easy to do and was well received, by them and by me!

Full write up of that evening pending.

Easy Onion Soup

All times & quantities assume a 4.5L slow cooker

250ml white wine- for heavens sake use something you would drink, not the £2.79 value stripes cooking wine!
1l chicken stock
500g shallots
1 stick of celery, plus leaves if possible
6 cloves garlic
Butter
Double cream
Fresh thyme
Bay leaf
Salt & Pepper

Put the wine into your cold slow cooker with a big bay leaf and 5-6 sprigs of thyme (strip the leaves off if you can be bothered and discard the stalk) then add the garlic either crushed or very finely chopped. Finely chop the celery and shred the leaves if using.

Make up your stock if using cubes or concentrate then put to one side. I like Kallo organic cubes if you don’t have the real thing. If you are using made stock, warm it up on the stove to aid the cooking times.

Chop the shallots reasonably finely and soften for two minutes in at least 20g melted butter then transfer into your slow cooker. Pour over the warm stock, season well with black pepper and sea salt ( I love Maldon Smoked sea salt for this) then cover and allow to cook on high for at least 6 hours.

Just before going to the table check your seasoning, fish out your bay leaves and thyme stems then add 4 tbspns double cream. Serve with fresh crusty bread and butter.

Variations- easily vegetarianise by swapping to vegetable stock or go vegan swapping butter for rapeseed oil and forgoing the cream. If you don’t have time to soften the onions  or warm the stock just put them in cold along with the butter and add an hour to the cooking time. This is intended as a light dish or starter/appetizer, it would work well with some baby potatoes added or carrots to make a heartier dish, use extra liquids also.

Adventures In Slow Cooking- Medieval Stewed Heart

As promised from the last VIFC review, full instructions for the slow cooked stew I cobbled together using commonly heralded ingredients from the era, rather than an actual recipe. Because I couldn’t find one.

I must give due respect to the fellow foodies for all piling in for this without so much of a squeam at the idea of eating heart, unlike my dear other half who had steadfastly resisted my suggestions at giving it a go for both the sense of adventure and fiscal advantages as a decent sized tub of Ox Heart will get you change from £2 at your local Morrisons at the moment.* And it is very tasty, tender meat indeed though like many cheaper beef cuts it takes a lot of cooking. It’s also relatively low fat for those of us who care about such things.

I have to say this was one of my prouder slow cooker moments and has re iterated the previous lessons that you have to slow cook for a very long time and be heavy handed on the herbs and spices. My soggy bread fear was also promptly quieted as infact the addition of a crusty roll into the mix gives a great thickness to the stew, making it another winner amidst some past slow cooker disappointments.

*please check all their produce origins before buying as although much of the meat on sale is British farmed their fruit and veg is highly imported.

Medieval Stewed Heart

All times & quantities assume a 4.5L slow cooker

DSC_0353

You will need:

700g Ox/beef heart, diced
Flour for dusting
Oil to fry
1 large white onion
1 bunch parsley
4 cloves
10 cardamom pods, lightly bruised
1tsp mace
2tsp cinnamon
2tsp ground black pepper
Good pinch saffron
1 crusty bread roll

Mix a couple of tablespoons of flour with salt and pepper then dredge over the meat and toss gently to ensure a thorough dusting. Fry in a light flavored oil or butter to seal then set aside.

DSC_0355Another glug of oil into your slowcooker then add the roughly chopped onion and parlsey, herbs and meat. Cover (only just!) with water then give it a stir, set on high and go away for 45 minutes and have a nice sit down. After this well deserved rest, roughly chop up your bread roll (at least a day old one if you can) and add that to the mix.YOU MUST USE A CRUSTY ROLL FOR HEAVENS SAKE! Cheap, soft, white bread will give you a gluey and grim final dish. Crusty roll from a bakery, no exceptions. Now go away for at least 4 hours and do something a little more constructive than having a sit down, don’t worry you have time. After this point feel free to try a little bit and tinker with seasoning as you wish, give it a stir if the bread isn’t breaking up. As always keep an eye on your pot, try not to take the lid off too often and add liquid if it looks like it’s drying up.

This will be a 5-6 hour cook and is ready when the meat is tender and the bread has completely broken down to give a thick sauce.

This is quite a fragrant dish and should serve at least 3 hearty (ha!) appetites or more as a buffet or side dish, perfect for a chilly evening after a long day in fields! To keep in with the middle ages theme you could served with more bread and a big glass of beer or modernise somewhat with some rice or a baked potato and something red. Enjoy.

variations- you could use any cut of stewing meat, shin would work equally well. Swap your spices as desired, if the sweet-savoury mix doesn’t appeal you can drop the mace, cinnamon and/or cardamom and use a beef stock or beer or red wine instead of water to give the sauce some kick. 

Adventures in Slow Cooking- Light Beef Stew

Keep your onions thinly sliced for better slow cook results.

Keep your onions thinly sliced for better slow cook results.

Another Saturday, another chance to try for a decent dinner out of the 2014 Valentines gift that is my slow cooker. As previously reported, successes have been sporadic so far.

This week there was a pack of casserole beef and a rare unfinished bottle of red to be had, so a beef stew seemed obvious. Results were on the pleasing end of the satisfaction scale and the below method should yield a tasty, not too hefty dinner dish with a fragrant and tasty but thin liquor. It’s not quite a soup, but not as weighty as some traditional stews including my previously billed recipe based more on a flammande style.

The big lesson of this week is to again shy away a little from the dump and go method and take time to quite thinly slice the veg, especially the onions as often the slow cook fails to completely tenderise big lumps of veg and the softer they get, the more flavour they release.

 

Light Beef Stew

All times and quantities assume 4.5l slow cooker

Serves 2 healthy appetites

500g beef from a suitable, slow cook cut such as shin or generic stewing/casserole beef
5 small white onions
1 large green pepper
2 large, ripe tomatoes
1 large glass of red wine
Equivalent amount of vegetable stock to wine
2 bay leaves
1tsp mustard seeds
1tbspn dried mix herbs
black pepper
Olive oil
Butter
plain flour

To begin, a glug of olive oil in the cold slowcooker pot. Now finely chop the onions and tomatoes and add to the cold pot. You can afford to go a little chunkier with the green peppers, then add these to the pot along with the wine, stock and seasonings. I prefer the lighter finish of veg stock with this kind of stew, though you could use chicken or beef stock as required.

Dice the beef and dust with a little plain flour. Melt a good sized knob of butter in a frying pan with just a touch of olive oil to avoid it burning. Only when the pan is good and hot, add the beef (best done in 2 batches unless you have a mahoosive pan). To test the heat, drop one chunk of meat in, it should sizzle immediately. Keep the beef moving in the pan only long enough to seal then transfer to the slow cooker pot, along with the juices from the pan.

Give it all a good stir, you should have enough liquid to just cover the other ingredients. Put the lid on then leave on high setting for at least 5 hours. As previously said, you may wish to keep some stock on side to top up the liquid levels depending on your personal tastes but make sure it is hot before you add it. Taste the stew at this time and adjust seasoning as you wish, if the liquor is too thin add a handful of split red lentils which will soak up some of the excess and then dissolve nicely into the sauce.

Leave to cook for another hour, then serve.

Simple stewed beef with onions and peppers in a light broth.

Simple stewed beef with onions and peppers in a light broth.

 

 

Adventures in Slow Cooking- Lentil & Bacon Stew

fml-Slow Cookers Anne Shooter-4.jpg It’s not been an easy few weeks in Boomboom land, so today I took to one of my favourite therapeutic activities, namely making a big mess in my little kitchen, with better results than usual for both my appetite and general stress levels.

The main activity of the day will come in later writings to add to The Xmas Files, but around sorting that out I decided to have another bash at getting a decent dinner out of my slow cooker. I have to say I was hoping to have a chapter of slow cooking stuff by now but the hit rate since the presentation of his valentines gift (ah, the romance!) has been in the lower percentile to put it kindly. I’ve managed one absolutely knock out tomato and basil and pepper stew type thing, a passable barley risotto and maybe a dozen mildly disappointing curries, soups and watery stews. I’d say it’s been a learning curve but I can’t quite explain why what has worked has worked, and why the nots really didn’t. Each time I have worked on the basic slow cooking principles as provided by google but there seems to be no science to it- the kitchen gods are on my side once in a while but more often than not they have gone out for Chinese instead. I can say with confidence only three things on the subject of my slow cooker:

1: Slow cooking wont make good of crappy or tired ingredients. If you wouldn’t eat it fresh, don’t bother slow cooking it.

2: The low setting aint cooking anything in less than half a day, if you’re lucky. Even longer if you keep taking the lid off to check it.

3: In slow cooking, as in life, bacon is very often your friend.

So, here we are, present day, a free and slow starting Saturday and another attempt to tame that stainless steel beast into making me a half decent dinner. The usual principles apply, the staples are all in stock and bless my onions if it didn’t all turn out rather wonderfully tonight. So wonderfully in fact that my confidence is restored, and herein begins the chapters of Adventures In Slow Cooking, where I will endeavour to report all further outings, good and bad.

Slow Cooker Lentils & Bacon

All ingredients and times assume a 4.5L slow cooker

Serves 3-4

2 cups dry split red lentils
300g smoked cooking bacon, trimmed of fat and rinsed
4 medium carrots
5 celery stalks with leaves if possible
500ml vegetable stock
1 tin or carton chopped plum tomatoes
1 cup carrot juice
Dried piri piris or fresh red chillies to taste
4 cloves of garlic
1 bay leaf
Black pepper

The real joy of slow cooking is that it is more or less a dump and go job. I say more or less as there are a couple of touches for this method before you just chuck it all in the pot and bugger off for 5-6 hours.

To begin, chop up your carrots and celery and mince the garlic then throw into your cold slow cooker. Add the lentils, bay leaf, chillies if using and pepper before pouring on the stock, tomatoes and carrot juice. Next, the meat.
Now please indulge me while we have a word about cooking bacon. It is generally a bona fide bargain if you don’t mind not having rashers and take a little bit of care to have a good look and select a pack with less fat and gristly looking bits. Cooking bacon does however tend to be on the saltier side, to the point that it can spoil a dish like this which is why we rinse it. There’s a lot of hype about rinsing meat and I’m just going to say that I have never suffered from the food poisonings with the following method, used immediately before you start cooking: Cut the bacon into rough chunks and trim the fat then transfer to a large colander. Then in a clean sink, without any dishes drying or pan scourers etc anywhere near by, rinse the bacon under a slow stream of cold water (so it doesn’t splash raw bacon run off all over the place). You don’t need to go overboard, just a brief rinse of all the bits. Leave it to drain for a minute (literally a minute, time it!) then put the bacon on top of the other ingredients in the pot, stir it all well then put the lid on and switch to high. Wash your hands and clean the sink thoroughly.
Now before you head out to the shops or sit down to watch Titanic set a timer for about 15 minutes. When you return the lentils will have started to absorb some of the liquid, top up now so the liquid covers the entire mix well. Give it another stir and then bugger off and please yourself for at least four hours, probably more like 5.
Keep a casual eye on your modern day cauldron on after this point and take little tasters as you please to make sure everything is tender and seasoned to your taste.  Do not taste the stew before it has been at a low simmer for atleast 45 minutes, there’s bacon in there! You may wish to top up the liquid at various points depending how much moisture is yeilded from the veg you use, for the sake of flavour I would have some extra stock kept by for this but in a pinch you can use water and it should be at least warm when added if not hot to avoid putting your cooking temperature back down.

You’ll get four decent bowls out of this one and it’s great served with some chunky buttered bread and more freshly milled black pepper. Delicious!

Not the prettiest dinner going, but a mighty tasty one, and thrifty too.

Not the prettiest dinner going, but a mighty tasty one, and thrifty too.

Variations: Easily veganised by leaving out the bacon or the carnivores might wish to swap it for chorizo or even kabanos and chicken stock will work as well as vegetable. If you use rasher bacon, still trim it but no need to rinse. For a sweeter finish use half carrots and half parsnips. You could add some curry powder and leave out the bayleaf or experiment with adding some fresh herbs 3 hours into the cooking time. If you don’t have the carrot juice use extra stock.