Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ode to a Slow Cooker: Beef Stew with Dumplings

The Spouse and I received two slow cookers as wedding gifts. We returned one, which was gigantic and kept the reasonable sized one that my friend Sharon had given us. Back then, when we were childless and snobby, we didn't use the slow cooker much. Groovy thirtysomethings in a superfantastic downtown flat don't cook like suburbanites. We knew that. We'd been to the meetings. Except for a couple times a year when The Spouse fired up a batch of Payson's Papa's Chili, the slow cooker sat unused, unappreciated, unloved.

But times change, people grow up, children come and bring extracurricular activities with them and so now, while still caring passionately about food, I have come to love, nay, adore my slow cooker.

One of my deepest held values is that we sit down to meals together. But as children grow this becomes more and more of a challenge. The Child participates in her share of extracurricular activities. These sometimes means not getting home until 7. If I try to whip up something when we get home, even if it's a time-saving recipe we still might not eat until 8. This is not optimal for a school night. So, when the extracurricular season begins I celebrate the annual Return of the Slow Cooker.

As I go about my day it sits on the counter, bubbling joyfully, filling the house with the unctuous scent of beef and onions. With the knowledge that dinner will be waiting when we get home comes an almost ridiculous elation: a little searing, a little chopping and I'm done cooking for the day. A one-dish meal doesn't require all sorts of fussing and side dishes. And clean up is virtually non-existent.

There is a slight down-side to slow cooking. In my experience recipes are pretty hit and miss. Not everything I've tried has been spectacular. And you just don't forget a truly awful meal. (Remind me to tell you the Tuscan beans story sometime). These failures, few though they may be are, I believe, what informs The Face that The Spouse makes when he sees the slow cooker come out. He doesn't say anything but I know he's worried that there will be some mooshy, flavourless glop on his plate come dinner time; not a happy thought for a man who works hard all day and wants to have a pleasant meal with his family at the end of it all. (I bet he doesn't realize that he has a "slow cooker face". He knows now). But this just inspires my ongoing quest for fantastic slow cooker recipes.

Here's a tried and true one that never fails to please.

Beef Stew with Herb Dumplings
1 # stew meat
1/2 c. red wine (remember, never cook with anything you wouldn't drink)
1 -2 c. beef stock
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, sliced
1 c. baby carrots (or you could peel and chop 2 adult carrots)
1 c. diced tomatoes (from a can is just fine)
1 c. frozen peas

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Toss in a little olive oil and quickly sear the meat to lock in the juices (and keep the meat from looking grey and squished after 6 hours of cooking).

Remove beef to slow cooker with vegetables. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and pour over ingredients. Add beef stock to cover. Season to taste with salt & pepper, a dash or three of Worcestershire sauce, a spoonful of Dijon mustard and a sprig or two of fresh thyme. Give everything a stir to combine and turn cooker on low for 6 hours to 8 hours.

Herb Dumplings
1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 egg
1/4 c. plus 2 T. milk
2 T. vegetable oil
dried herbs, any combination you like (dill is especially yummy)
Stir together dry ingredients and add herbs.
Combine wet ingredients then add to dry, stirring just to combine.

About half an hour before you want to eat toss the frozen peas into the stew and bring up the heat to high. Glop on the dumplings by spoonfuls over top of stew. Replace lid and cook for about 25-30 minutes until dumplings are fluffy and cooked through.Note:

There is an immediacy to dumplings. They get weird if the dough sits so don't make them until just before you're going to cook them. If you know you are going to be pressed for time you can combine the dry and liquid ingredients separately and put them together when it's time to eat. Better yet, call your Spouse from the car on the way home and have him or her finish off the dish while you're en route.


Jon said...

I love a cook that says "glop" as both a noun and a verb in her recipes.

Lorraine said...

Love you right back!