As the evenings draw in and the air becomes nippy, comfort food is what we crave. How wonderful it would be to have some little miracle worker at home to have hot food ready for you after a hard day at work or a crisp walk in the park…
Help is at hand to achieve just that, says Alma Collins.
With prior preparation of generally no more than ten minutes gentle chopping you can pop all the ingredients into a slow cooker before going out and – as if by magic – on your return home find a warming soup or a hot chilli waiting for you: delicious and ready to serve. You will have spent less time in the kitchen than you would need to microwave an instant meal for one and with a far superior result.
Here’s Alma’s assessment of six of the best slow cookers on the market today, plus six of her own tried-and-tested recipes…
Crock-Pot® is the brand for slow cooking in the USA. Americans refer to slow cookers as crock-pots in the same way that we refer to vacuum cleaners as hoovers. My first recommendation, therefore, has to be one of the ‘crock-pot’ range now available in the UK. The Crock-Pot® 4.7L Sauté Traditional Slow Cooker is a stunning model with a removable pot that can be used to brown the meat on the hob before slowly cooking with other ingredients. It has a fantastic 4.7 litre capacity, with two heat settings and a keep warm function. The removable pot is hob, oven, microwave and freezer proof, and, with a rinse-clean coating, it’s as easy to clean as it is to use. RRP £44.99.
Slow cooking is also great for meals for one or two, and the dainty Russell Hobbs Compact Slow Cooker 18446 with its 2 litre capacity is perfect for meals for smaller numbers. It has a removable dish that can be used to serve meals at the table and a tempered glass lid so you can see how the food is cooking without lifting the lid and lowering the temperature. Three settings (high, low and keep warm) add to its versatility, and at £16.99 it’s a great buy for couples and singles.
Lakeland are currently offering two great slow cookers: a 3.5 litre model and a 1.5 litre model, each in brushed steel with a ceramic removable bowl and clear glass lid. Both have low, medium and high heat settings. The larger model is suitable for cooking for four to six people and the smaller suitable for a meal for one to two. I was impressed by the ease of both controls of cleaning. Purchasable on line from www.lakeland.co.uk or any one of the 56 stores nationwide, these slow cookers are priced at a very reasonable £30.99 for the 3.5 litre family sized model and £20.99 for the dinky 1.5 litre model.
The Morphy Richards Flavour Savour 6.5 litre digital slow cooker is a top of the range option for large families or those short of time but with a love of entertaining. This excellent product heats up to 200º, enabling you to seal meat in the slow cooker before adding your veg and stock. It’s dishwasher safe, with cool touch handles, and a style which looks stunning in any kitchen. With browning, fast cook and slow cook settings it’s functional as well as stylish. RRP £89.99
If you are looking for a slow cooker that is a little different from others on the market you could try the 2 litre Swan Ceramic Tagine, unique on the British market. Due for launch through John Lewis towards the end of the month, it has a stunning Moroccan tagine-shaped orange-brown lid and bowl on a base that heats to varying temperatures from warm to hot enough to show off at the table, stir-frying and flambéing in front of guests.
As part of the new Swan ‘Come Dine With Me’ range it comes complete with a recipe book – and a game. If your guilty secret TV pleasure is watching Come Dine With Me, then this is the slow cooker for you. Swan expect it to retail at around £50.
And finally… John Lewis’s own brand 3.5 litre slow cooker is also worth a look. The PSC350 JLU comes in smart brushed steel, with a removable oval pot that is dishwasher safe. This high tec slow cooker has touchpad digital controls and four heat settings. It’s a stunner at £39.
Stunning Sausages in Thick Apple and Cider Sauce
Try my Stunning Sausages in Thick Apple and Cider Sauce for an autumnal family treat. Lovely with a good dollop of buttery mash and some purple sprouting broccoli; serves 4.
700 grams good butcher’s sausages (8 or 9); I like Cumberland or Lincolnshire • 300 grams peeled cored & thickly sliced cooking apples • 300 grams cored & thickly sliced eating apples (skins left on) • 2 medium to large onions peeled and sliced • 3 or 4 sage leaves (optional) • 75 mls veg stock • 150 mls good cider (or make up the amount of liquid with extra stock)
First brown the sausages, then set them aside. Add all the apples, sliced onions and sage leaves to the slow cooker (this may look like a lot of apples, but they cook down to far less in volume). Add the cider and the stock to the slow cooker, placing the browned sausages on top. Set the slow cooker to low and leave to cook for 5-7 hours. This recipe is also great using pork chops as an alternative to sausages.
A light, fresh Thai-style Curry is an ideal slow cooker dish. Serves 2-3.
4 chicken thighs* (with bone in & skin on) • 2-3 tsp of Thai green/yellow/red paste (your own or from a jar) • 3 spring onions (each chopped into 4 pieces) • 4 baby aubergines halved • 1 tin of coconut milk • A dash of nam pla (Thai fish sauce; optional) • 4 baby sweet corn • 1 fat red chilli (in fine rings) • 8 mange tout • Fresh coriander • Lime juice
* or replace with some large chunks of drained firm tofu
First brown the chicken thighs to a nice medium colour and place in the slow cooker. Add the paste, spring onions, baby aubergines, coconut milk, nam pla, red chilli and baby corn, put the lid on the slow cooker and turn onto a high heat for around two to three hours. Take a bath, read a book and chill out. When you’re all relaxed, nip out to the kitchen and throw in the mange tout, adding lime to taste. Leave for 15 minutes and lay your table, light some candles. Stir in a handful of fresh coriander.
For the perfect Friday night romantic meal for two, serve with simple Thai coconut rice: cook rice in the usual way, adding 2oz of grated creamed coconut to every 4oz of dry rice and 8 floz of water.
One of my favourite recipes for batch cooking in my slow cooker is Ratatouille; this makes a great family meal, adding summer sun to winter days. Can be eaten at once or frozen in individual containers and then served with jacket potatoes or rice for a quick meal, or used to perk up a winter casserole. Serves 4.
1 firm large aubergine (sliced) • 1 courgette (sliced) • 1 yellow pepper (sliced) • 1 red onion (sliced) • Packet of passata • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes • 4 cloves of garlic (crushed) • 2 table spoons sundried tomato paste • 2 big handfuls of finely chopped curly English parsley
Throw everything except the parsley into the slow cooker, replace lid, set to low and go out and enjoy the next six to seven hours. When you get back, add finely chopped parsley and stir. Wait for another 20 minutes or so while you cook rice or pasta, and serve.
To turn this into a sunshine Mediterranean Beef Stew add about 700 grams of stewing steak (large pieces) with your vegetables.
For active families finding time to cook a traditional Sunday roast can be a bind, so why not try a Rolled Brisket in the slow cooker for an all-in-one pot roast meal that takes minutes to prepare and will cook while you are enjoying life. Serves 8.
1.4-1.6kg piece of rolled brisket • 6 chunky cloves of garlic (peeled) • 8 smallish waxy potatoes (halved) • 8 baby leeks • 800-1000 grams mixed baby root veg (carrots, parsnips, turnips) • 100 mls red wine • 150 mls hot beef stock (made from a cube is fine)
Season the brisket and brown the sides in a pan; you’re looking for a good golden colour. Place garlic, potatoes, root veg, and leeks in your slow cooker and nestle the brisket at the centre of the vegetables. Add red wine and beef stock. Turn the slow cooker onto low and enjoy the next seven to nine hours or thereabouts. When you return home, the brisket should be cooked. I like to serve the brisket and veg inside individual giant oven ready Yorkshire puddings that take around ten minutes to cook. Just place the cooked Yorkshire pudding on the plate and put veg and brisket inside with a few spoons of the cooking liquor for the easiest Sunday dinner ever. Warning: don’t be tempted to buy a more expensive cut of meat for this recipe; firmer, cheaper cuts such as chuck and brisket work far better for slow cooking; expensive cuts will just leave you with an expensive mush.
Carrot and Butternut Squash Soup
You could try my warming Carrot and Butternut Squash Soup, which is great for slow cooking and can be kept on warm so that all the family can help themselves, as and when they come home. This is also great as a starter when you are hosting a dinner party. Serves 5-8.
600-700 grams of butternut squash • 3-4 large carrots around 400 grams (chopped) • 1 large onion diced • 3-4 large cloves of garlic • 1-1.5 inch piece of ginger • 1 stick of celery • 1 litre stock • 125ml cream (optional)
First dice the onion and grate the garlic and ginger add to the slow cooker. Halve and deseed the butternut squash and chop it into 2cm chunks, leaving the skin on (butternuts are a pain to peel and the skin is edible and will soften in the cooking process). Pop these in the slow cooker. Chop the carrots to about the same size and add to the rest of the veg along with one finely diced stick of celery. Pour over 1 litre of stock, preferably a low salt variety as conventional stock adds an unpleasant taste.
Turn the slow cooker to high for four hours or low for six hours. When the soup is cooked, and the vegetables soft, blend into velvety smoothness. You may need to add a little more stock or water if you prefer a thinner consistency. Ladle into bowls, and for a touch of luxury add a swirl of cream or a dollop of thick Greek yogurt.
Saucy Chocolate Fudge Pudding
If you’re looking to cook something a bit different in your slow cooker try a Saucy Chocolate Fudge Pudding. This cooks on high in around two hours and is great for an easy pudding when you have guests. I can’t normally get my teenage sons to help in the kitchen– but they’re always seem more than willing to volunteer to make this for me. This recipe serves 4 teenagers or 6 adults, and is not suitable for preparation in cookers over 3.5 litres
For the batter
150g plain flour • 80g dark brown sugar • 50g caster sugar • 4 table spoons cocoa powder • Pinch salt • 1 packet of Minstrels • 130 mls milk • 25 grams melted butter • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
For the sauce
120g dark brown sugar • 4 table spoons cocoa • 500 mls boiling water
Grease your slow cooker with a little spray oil or oil on a clean piece of kitchen towel. Place all dry batter ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly then add the milk, melted butter and vanilla and combine. Tip ingredients in to the slow cooker.
Mix the cocoa and sugar for the sauce and sprinkle on top of the batter. Pour boiling water over. Turn slow cooker onto high and leave to cook for around two hours. Serve this with single cream or vanilla ice cream.