My lack of culinary experience is something of a running joke in the office. It's not malicious and there's never any implication that I'm a bad cook, but my coworkers are often stupified by the things I've never eaten (the list includes meatloaf, Twinkies, sweet potato casserole, jello molds, and more) and the things I've never done — most glaringly of which is use a slow cooker.
As of February of last year, I officially had no excuse. A very pretty slow cooker —white with black polka-dots — arrived at my Brooklyn apartment. It was, I'll admit, an uncomplicated-looking device that seemed easy enough to master, and it didn't make my kitchen look ugly. In fact, I put it rather prominently on display.
And there — on my Container Store open shelving — it sat. And sat. And sat. Until just now when I decided it was high time. Or really, if I'm being honest, our food editor Hali decided it was time.
So it was on Friday morning that I found myself staring at the recipe for slow cooker chickpea tikka masala with equal parts dread and anticipation. I had a dinner guest who was expecting slow cooker chickpea tikka masala (accompanied by rice and neatly sliced wedges of lime) so there was really no getting out of it.
I was surprised by the amount of prep involved — this is not a dump-and-go recipe — and also by the number of pots, pans, and utensils involved. I thought the slow cooker was supposed to be easy, I grumbled to my dog, Charlie, as I chopped and minced onions, garlic, and ginger.
Of course, I needed to make things even more difficult by halving the recipe, which called for a whopping four cans of chickpeas (or one pound of dried chickpeas). I had soaked a bunch of chickpeas the night before with no real idea of how much they weighed, except that it was definitely less than a pound, but surely more than half that (the one-pound package was mostly empty, maybe there was 1/4 or a 1/3 left).
I decided to roughly halve the recipe, but this didn't apply to everything: I used the full amount of onions, garlic, and ginger and, with the spices, I eyeballed it closer to 2/3 of the recommended. I figured I had already gotten the spices somewhat wrong (coriander seed and ground cumin instead of ground coriander and cumin seeds). Plus, I like spice.
Lesson #1: I am terrible at following recipes.
I followed the next steps of the recipe relatively well, using butter instead of coconut oil to sauté my root veggies until wilted (because I like butter and have fantasies that perhaps I am secretly French), then adding my somewhat-wrong spice mix.
Next, the aromatics went into the blender to get whizzed up until they were ready for the slow cooker. In they went, along with the coconut milk and the chickpeas. Finally, I was ready to turn my slow cooker on.
I put the lid on, set the machine to low and ... that was it. It didn't light up or automatically appear to do anything. It definitely didn't grab my hand and shake it and say, Well done, Geraldine!
Lesson #2: I appreciate an obvious display of emotion (or at least an indication that something is happening).
While the slow cooker did its work, I had a few other things to do — whiz the tomatoes in the blender (at least I didn't have to clean it first!), wash the spinach, make the rice and the tarka, and slice the limes. But really most of that could be done later — as in, eight hours later. Right now, there was nothing to do except wait. And wait. And wait.
Since I was working from home (as I often do), it took me exactly an hour to get curious about what was happening in the slow cooker. And then every hour, on the hour, if not more frequently, I checked on the progress of my chickpeas.
After four hours, I decided they needed more coconut milk. I opened the lid, added the remainder of the coconut milk, and, while I was at it, had a taste. Yes, still crunchy (but delicious).
And so it went: I continued to check and taste until it was time, I decided a full two hours early, to add the tomatoes.
Lesson #3: I am (extremely) impatient.
Of course, for most people, impatience isn't an issue. In fact, the main point of the slow cooker is that you set it and forget it all day long. While you go to work or about your day, your slow cooker is doing all the work. You don't have to think about it until it's almost time for dinner.
Clearly, I am not most people. Plus, this recipe in particular did call for some interim steps — notably, the addition of the puréed tomatoes, followed by an additional 30 minutes to an hour in the slow cooker — which meant it wasn't your typical set-it-and-forget-it meal.
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There was also the rice to cook (in another pot!), the tarka to prepare (I used butter again instead of coconut oil), and the final touches of adding the spinach to the pot and slicing the limes. So maybe this wasn't the very best recipe for a complete newbie to make?
Regardless, exactly 12 hours after I stared down the recipe and my yet-unused slow cooker, dinner was on the table — and it was really, really good. (My dinner guest said so.)
Was it better than cooking in my trusty Le Creuset Dutch oven? If I were heading into the office that day (which I sometimes do), I'm pretty sure I would have been over the moon to come home to find dinner mostly done. I did wonder, however, whether this particular recipe, combined with my work-from-home schedule, would have been better suited to stovetop methods.
But I'm officially intrigued and as I forge ahead into the mysterious-to-me world of slow cookers, I'd love your advice and feedback. Do you have a favorite no-fail slow cooker recipe you love? Do you have any tips for the curious cook who can't leave her slow cooker be?
Share your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned as I continue to test out my first slow cooker in the coming weeks and months.