Slower Food Less Work

by Ann Summers | May 1, 2008 7:07 pm

“Three hours is good, but four is better.” That’s the rule my mother taught me for pot roast. Now, think about the last time you planned a meal far enough ahead to cook something like that, and you’ll see we can all fall into a modern food convenience trap.

People tell us to make meals in 30 seconds, and all we have to do is stir fry this stuff and flip it onto the plate, and Wahoo! Whatta time saver! Except that it isn’t. Most TV people who do insta-meals already have their veggies cut up for them, And have you ever tried to do a quick stir fry from scratch?  I love veggies, but prepping them and cubing meat, and arranging your seasonings and aromatics takes lots of time. But even if you spend time prepping, most of the quick meals we know require your attention up to the very end. How can you spend time with your family or guests when you’re standing over the stove? And let’s not even talk about clean up.

So let’s get back to slow food like pot roast. You prep, the food cooks by itself, and you go do other stuff. I bet you don’t need any suggestions of what you can do with that time, so maybe a little planning is worthwhile. Get some quality local ingredients to start: local chicken or rabbit, local grass-fed beef. Just remember, the better your ingredients, the less you have to do to make them taste great.

I’m sorry, but I don’t own a slow cooker.  I have tested the timed bake feature on my oven while I was at home, and I’m now comfortable setting the oven up and leaving for the day while my dinner cooks. But  slow cookers can be useful if your oven doesn’t time bake or is too scary to leave on its own. However, if you can start with one pot and stay with it, do so. To really get flavor you need to brown meat first, otherwise it just tastes boiled. You can brown in a skillet or on a tray under a broiler (I do ribs under the broiler) but then you’ve used another pan…. With a dutch oven (a big pot with a lid), you can brown first and then braise in wine or stock with a heavy, well-fitting lid. Don’t have that? Cover tightly with heavy duty aluminum foil.

What to braise? Rabbit, chicken, lamb shanks:  all like slow cooking because you use the whole thing, bone-in, skin off.  Everything cooks down until it falls apart. A bone-in pot roast or brisket is a perfect choice because for beef, you need a tougher cut of meat. What happens at low heat is that the connective tissue cooks down and provides a rich, moist flavor that doesn’t come from fat. People say we like foods with fat (marbled steak, fried foods) because they taste good.  But I disagree. I think we are always trying to recapture the complex taste and texture of foods with true flavor that comes from using tougher, more flavorful cuts of meat, or from the growing conditions of the vegetables. Fat is just a cheap mimic. If you’ve trained your palate to crave a coating of fat, retrain it to crave the real deal—flavor. For the braising liquid, use stock, wine, beer, or lemon.

Veggie prep is easy since whatever you put in will cook down. You don’t have to be slicing and cubing things perfectly.  Seasoning is important, but the most crucial is salt and pepper, especially with flavorful meats. Got a favorite spice rub? Go for it. Barbeque champs cook long and slow and they usually use powdered garlic and onion, and dried spices and herbs. Or go for the fresh stuff if you like. Beef needs more acid, and dry wine is a good start. Good canned tomatoes are great, and a little cider vinegar doesn’t hurt. My sister-in-law uses a half-gallon of vegetable/tomato juice on her beef and it is spectacular. Toward the end, with, say one hour to go, toss in some peeled potato. Or never mind that, anything with gravy in it is great with fresh bread.

The main thing about slow cooking is planning. Make sure you’ve got your meat, your veggies, your braising liquid. If you have garlic, onion, wine, and meat, you can braise. But if you want, cut up the veggies the night before, and if your meat is frozen, thaw it out. If you’re cooking for guests, start in the morning. Or even the day before.  Braised meals are one of the few things that will actually taste better when you heat it a second time. By the time everyone arrives, all you have to do is serve. Set up your dinner to cook, and go away. No peeking! If you leave the house, prepare to be hit with intense and fabulous smells upon returning. Now all you really need is some crusty bread and time to savor the food.

And while we are on the subject, let’s do bread. Yes, you can, and no it isn’t scary. The trick is the same: use fresh simple ingredients. I use local organic whole wheat flour ground at the market. It is much finer in texture than pre-bagged whole wheat, and white flour is just yucky (sorry) and unless you’re making a wedding cake, you don’t need it. Bread is alchemy, but it is also basic.  Like all great slow foods, it shouldn’t be complicated. If your bread recipe is a page long and takes 14 steps, don’t use it. That one is for people with no hobbies. Find a basic recipe and learn to make it. And use a kitchen thermometer. Get a metal probe type at the grocery store for a buck-fifty. It is the best insurance you can take out against failing bread. Bread yeast likes to proof at around 110 to 112° F, and all you have to do is fill your measuring cup with hot tap water, and stick your thermo in. Adjust with a little cold or hot until it is in the zone. That’s it, no guesswork. Get it right and you can stir in your yeast and in a few seconds, it’ll start to move on its own.

Most serious bakers use cake yeast, and maybe I should. But I try not to be too serious. If you feel anxious about the welfare of your powdered yeast (you don’t need instant), get your water temp right, stir it in and wait a sec while it hydrates. Then, blop in a little honey. Yeast eats sugar, and burps carbon dioxide, which makes bubbles that makes your bread puffy. By the time you mix your flour and salt in a big bowl, your cup of yeast will be burping its head off. Or just put the honey into the flour and mix it all together. Knead it in the bowl until it looks like bread dough (my kids love this part, and it is only dough, you can’t hurt it). Cover it and leave. When you come back, plop it into a greased pan, on a sheet pan, in a dutch oven or whatever you have. If you are the busiest person alive, or just fairly forgetful, do this the night before and put the bread dough in the fridge. When you come home, take it out and it will finish rising on the counter. Plan ahead a little, work less, but be ready for awesome sights, smells and tastes when you’re done.

You can find local meats and other wonderful ingredients at the Nebraska Food Co-op.  See them online at or call (800) 993-2379.

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