The most heated fight about food I ever had with my mother, Lucy, was about the slow cooker.
I am a fan of the slow cooker because it is quick and easy. She doesn't understand why I would sacrifice flavour for ease. Because slow cookers simmer food from the bottom and stop moisture loss, the flavours don't intensify as much as when braising in the oven, and the sauce doesn't thicken as much. But a conventional braise takes hours of oven time, and you can't leave for work with the thing turned on all day.
Enter the slow cooker, a necessary appliance for a busy family. The tiny amount you give up in flavour, you make up for with peace of mind knowing you have a hot meal to come home to. I'm sorry if I'm betraying our family heritage, Mom, but sometimes, especially as a working parent, you must accept that it's just dinner (and a very good dinner with minimal cleanup).
The challenge this week was to come up with a slow-cooker recipe that my mother would happily eat. And we achieved it – but not without some hurdles.
Slow-cooker aficionados often advise making stews in the appliance, so we started with a Moroccan beef stew with apricots and squash. When we tested the recipe, Lucy seared the meat to enhance browning and flavour before adding it to the slow cooker, but I just tossed in the beef cubes with the other ingredients. Both ways, the meat turned out fairly tough – stewing beef is not fatty enough to stand up to eight hours of slow cooking.
If you want to use beef in this recipe, try cutting up short ribs or having a butcher cut some chuck for you. The type of meat that does best in the slow cooker has lots of long threads of fat and sinew running through it. Any kind of shanks do well, as does pork shoulder. Next, we tried chicken thighs, a much better choice for our Moroccan tajine. Stay away from boneless chicken breasts, which turn rubbery – boneless thighs are a much better choice. Meat on the bone is even better – but forget the chicken skin.
I can't say that we turned Lucy Waverman into a total slow-cooker fan, but after her experiments, she can see why people are such devotees of the appliance and concedes I have a point about ease. I won't be surprised if occasionally I walk into her kitchen and see the appliance on her counter with a delicious-smelling braise softly bubbling away. I think she was very close to saying I was right. I can definitely dine out on that.
Cooking time varies depending on the brand of slow cooker, so check your machine. Mine, an All-Clad slow cooker, took four hours on high and eight hours on low. You can find premixed Moroccan seasonings, but this easy one can be made in larger quantities and will keep in a container for six months. Harissa can be found in a tube in most larger grocery stores. We used precut butternut squash in this recipe – a time-saver ingredient that is available in many produce sections.
Ready time: 8 to 10 hours
2 lbs (1 kg) chicken thighs, bone in, skin removed
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp turmeric
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tsp chopped garlic
1 19-oz (561-mL) can chickpeas, drained
3 carrots, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut in 2-inch chunks
1 cup dried apricots
1 798-mL can tomatoes, crushed with your hands or puréed
2 cups chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
1 tbsp harissa
3 slices preserved lemon (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Grated zest of half a lemon
Add all ingredients to slow cooker except parsley, cilantro and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Stir around. Cook for 8 hours on low setting or 4 hours on high.
Remove from slow cooker. Sprinkle with parsley, cilantro and lemon zest and serve with couscous, flatbread or rice.