I had been living in the US for less than a year when this acquaintance of mine told me something that in his mind should have shocked me. "Do you realize that 83% of American households have a slow cooker?", he said sounding very sad. "83%, do you know what it means? DO YOU?".
I kept quiet, and showed enough fake consternation to apparently please this guy. When I was finally free of his slow cooker generated rage, I went away with only one question in my mind: what the hell is a slow cooker?
I had never heard of this thing, but if 83% of American households had it, then I too would have it. If I was to understand American food culture and really embrace it I had to have something that was as common here as a moka coffe making machine in Italy (although I guess that 99.9% of Italian households have a moka coffee making machine, not just 83%).
So I did my research. And to the benefit of those readers living in the Mediterranean countries (the UK readers know what this is...) here is what a slow cooker is: an electric pot. Yes-sir. That's it. An electric pot that cooks food for a very long time (8-10 hours) at very low temperatures, unattended, so that the cook can go out and about doing his or her things.
The machine was invented in 1971 by the Rival Company: the Crock-Pot (this is the trademarked company name for its slow cooker, which is commonly used to indicate any slow cooker, like scotch is used to indicate any adhesive tape) was made of a ceramic vessel lined in a steel casing where a lot of wires are located, to generate heat through electricity. And it is still exactly like this now, 40 years later.
By the end of the '70s, the Crock-Pot was a huge success: more and more people were starting to cook in America, and they were looking for easy ways to make something tasty out of inexpensive ingredients, without having to spend all their time attending the food while it cooked. Julia Child had instilled the desire to cook in many Americans, but many of them were not willing (or able) to spend their time behind stoves, cooking French gourmet meals. The Crock-Pot was therefore perfect: by cooking for 10 hours even the toughest piece of meat will give up its connective tissues and become tender and moist, turning into an edible stew. Anybody could do this.
When I started looking into this, I was puzzled. Not because I couldn't understand the basics of cooking something slow and for a long time. Slow cooking in pits dug out of the earth is probably one of the most ancient forms of cooking...and I knew that Japanese cooks had been using clay vessels to slow cooked food thousands of years B.C. And without getting too fancy: Italian cuisine is FULL of slow cooked recipes: my family's ragu (bolognese sauce) recipe calls for the meat to cook 6-7 hours on the stove; a Tuscan vegetable soup needs to be boiled for hours to develop flavors.
But I had an issue: all of the dishes I was familiar with required some level of preparatory work: you needed to prepare a soffritto, you needed to brown the meat...you couldn't just take a piece of meat, throw it into an electric pan with very low temperatures (the highest setting in a slow cooker is normally at 280 F/130C, and the lowest setting is at 170F and 77C) and let it cook for 8 hours. I thought this would come out bland, soggy, sad. Yet, this was the method that was suggested to me by a couple of US acquaintances, and the one described in a few recipes I had found on the internet and in a couple of cookbooks: throw in this piece of meat, add beer, put the lid on, cook on high for 8 hours and here you are. Well, no. Here you aren't. I tried a couple of these recipes, and I was less than happy about the results.
I wasn't alone in thinking this. The lack of flavor was one of the reasons that led many foodies to abandon the slow cooker concept in the '90s. Slow cooking became associated to bland food. Recently, though, the old is new again, and there is a resurrection of slow cooking everywhere here in the States. The reason is very simple: people want to coook, but people don't have time...
The more I looked into this, the more I struggled, until it hit me: if slow cooking means cooking food for a long period of time, covered more or less in liquid, well, it isn't any different than braising or stewing foods on a stove or in the oven. So I switched gear: how about I simply use the slow cooker as a replacement of a pan, while NOT skipping all the preparatory steps that are normally needed to have decent results in the kitchen? The advantage would still be that AFTER you did all the preparatory work, you could throw everything in the slow cooker, and then leave and do your thing.
So I started experimenting. And the results started to come in, and we will start seeing them in the next post.
PS: I know that for many American this will all seem very stupid: dude, this is just a slow cooker. But remember: this was all new to me...even the concept of an electric pan was something I had never heard of...