Last week I extolled the virtues of the slow-cooker, also known as a crockpot, or in my house, “that thing your mother bought us that you never use.” I’ve always had warm memories (no pun intended) of the crockpot, especially around winter. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the crockpot would most often be simmering away for hours upon hours while we were at church, or sledding, or chopping firewood, or any of the thousand other Rockwellian things I remember from my childhood. There was always venison to braise or cider to mull.
If you don’t yet have one, I can’t recommend them enough. Here are eight reasons you should get your hands on a crockpot and start appreciating the art of slow cooking.
1. Warm Beverages
As I’ve mentioned before, mulled wine is a brilliant addition to any Christmas get-together. Cider also mulls nicely with a clove-studded orange and a few cinnamon sticks. Throw some apple or ginger brandy in, if you want to up the ante. And don’t forget warm egg nog, or buttered rum! Essentially any drink you want to keep warm for long periods of time and ladle out in large quantities works well here.
2. Fewer Dishes
Nobody likes doing dishes. It’s the least pleasant activity surrounding Christmas dinner, unless you have one of those creepy uncles or cheek-pinching aunts. Still, think about avoiding piles of crusted pots and slimy pans by reducing your entire meal to one solitary vessel.
3. Easy-Peasy, Puddin’ and Pie
Speaking of making things easy, a slow-cooker is as dead simple as it gets. Seriously, you hack up some ingredients, sprinkle some spices, pour in some liquid, and turn a dial. Then you forget about it for a few hours. You’d actually have to try to screw it up.
4. Depth of Flavor
If you’ve ever smoked or braised meat, or slow-cooked before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Spices have time to work their way in and about, acids break down muscles, vegetables seep into tight corners and work their earthy magic, and everything becomes a cavalcade of sumptuous sensuality. You can’t get this kind of richness from a quick sear. You need to let it love on itself for a while.
5. Best Potpourri Ever
You’re probably familiar with the mesh bags of wood chips and flowers people put in their houses to make things smell like wood chips and flowers. The word potpourri literally means, in the French, “rotting pot.” It was a reference to braising meat over long periods of time until it fell off the bone. And the smell… my god, the smell of slow-cooked chili, jambalaya, pot roast, coq au vin. Nothing makes your home feel more welcoming than the delectable aroma of a hearty meal saturating every sense.
6. I’ll Take That To Go
Are you traveling for the holidays and you’re expected to bring a dish? I know the casserole is an old standby, but this year try slow-cooking overnight. In the morning, you simply transport the entire freaking ensemble. Put it in the trunk. The crockpot has a lid, you won’t even need tinfoil. And when you get there, all you need to find is an outlet. Voila, you’re a genius and everyone loves you forever. You’re welcome.
7. Have a Drink
If you’ve ever received cooking advice from me before, you know my one essential rule: Everything tastes better if the cook is a hedonist. It’s awfully hard to hold a wine glass, beer bottle, or whiskey tumbler if you’re busy sauteing green beans and hand-mashing potatoes. Much easier, I think, to sip your drink of choice while sitting on a couch and occasionally setting it down to go lift the crockpot lid and bask in the glorious smells. (If you’re a teetotaler, you can use all this spare time to go make a snowman, I guess. Or knit a last-minute sweater. I really don’t know what you non-drinkers do.)
8. Join the Party
I can’t count the number of celebrations I’ve attended for which I’ve been asked to act as chef. Several of those were family events, and my son or daughters would often tug on my leg. “Daddy, can we play Hide ‘n Seek? Daddy, can we go outside? Daddy, can we…?” I’d be halfway through searing off chicken breasts, or stirring quartered potatoes, or checking the temperature of a prime rib.
“Sorry, guys. Daddy’s cooking. Don’t come near the stove!” I missed out on a few games and coloring time, and I was too distracted to hear that funny story my sister told that made my mother laugh so hard Chardonnay came out her nose. Everything wonderful about the holiday season was happening right behind my back because I was focused on a saucepan.
This season, set it and forget it. Let the food take care of itself. Let it simmer and bubble and do its own damn thing while you go and do yours. There are more important things to worry about than trying to be Anthony Bourdain this Christmas. Throw some food in a pot, twist the dial, and hope for the best. Then go sip your drink, hear the stories, cast off your worries, and play some Hide ‘n Seek.
Photo by Jen Ivy Meerbaum