Thursday, February 27, 2014

One-Track Mind

My father, whom most people call the Colonel or KP, kind of has a one-track mind. He gets fixated on one thing and it remains top-of-mind for quite a while. Anytime you speak to him, he'll ask you the one same question as if he's asking you for the very first time. It's like a weird selective amnesia.

Anyway, he really likes comfort foods, such as soups, beef stroganoff, pot roast, etc. So when I moved into my first house after college, my father decided to buy me a "very special gift." He was quite proud that he thought of this and picked it out all by himself. Of course my interest was piqued and I couldn't wait to open this mystery gift. Low and behold, I unwrapped a . . .  crock pot. My reaction was probably similar to my mom's when, upon their first Christmas together as a married couple, she opened her "very special gift" he picked out to find a vacuum cleaner.  [Side note: he wisely adopted a no-appliance gift policy since, which may be the secret to their nearly 52-year union.]

On the upside, my new crock pot wasn't avocado green, like my mom's from Rival in the 1970s. I'm not going to say it was a self-serving gift but I kind of think he was hoping I'd make a lot of slow-cooked meals for him. I also think he thought he was doing me a massive favor by giving me something that would be an easy tool to make really delicious meals. After all, I did love to cook and I was just getting into the work world so I'd have less free time on my hands. I can see how he thought this was the most thoughtful gift in the world.

And then the one-track mind question began. Every single time we spoke, he'd excitedly ask, "So, how's your crock pot?!" I know he was hoping I'd say, "Dad, how can I ever thank you? My crock pot rocks! I'm cooking pot roasts left and right! Come over for dinner!" Instead, I was like, "Umm, it's still in the box." It wasn't that I was defiant about making delicious, easy meals. I think I wanted to spread my culinary wings once out of the nest. I was more interested in making technically challenging, somewhat exotic meals that I hadn't grown up on. I wanted to slave for 3 days in a kitchen making a 7-course French meal. I probably even wanted to woo a man with a proposal-worthy meal, which I guess I didn't think could come from a crock pot. Ironically, most boys would probably rather have a pot roast than a perfectly roasted 2-oz duck breast with a juniper berry gastrique. Oh knowledge in youth is wisdom in age . . . . So my crock pot sat in the cupboard collecting dust from many years, in spite of my father's routine questioning of its usage.

At some point, I realized I was being an idiot. And at some point, I realized the crock pot was rebranded as the "slow cooker," which sounds way sexier. Finally I saw the light my father had been trying to shine on me for years. In short, the crock pot: 1) Makes the cheapest cuts of meat taste amazing. 2) They're blindingly simple to use. 3) Using one means your dinner's waiting for you when you come in from work. Comfort food is comfort food for a reason. And life is busy. If you can use the slow cooker to make some of your beloved childhood meals while you're working your ass off, why not?!

While I don't use my slow cooker as often as I should, a rainstorm is heading to SoCal so it would be an ideal time to get it out. And by rainstorm, I mean "the wettest in two years." And by the wettest in two years, I mean the last time this much rain has come to the area was on March 25, 2012 when 0.91 inches of precipitation fell. I'm just saying that rain in SoCal is a kin to the crippling effects Storm Leon dealt to Atlanta. This winter "storm" will sweep away the 70-degree temperatures the region has enjoyed with temps dropping to the low to mid 60s. Overnight lows could dip precariously into the upper 40s. It might even rain for the Academy Awards on Sunday. *Gasp!* Good lord are we weather wimps! We've only had a total of 1.2 inches of rain since July 1 and have been in a full-on drought. But that's why I live here and not in Portland. 

And if you live in the midwest or on the east coast, I hope your slow cooker has been in heavy rotation. You've had an awful winter and could use a little culinary TLC—and an early spring. Regardless of your geography, almost anyone would welcome a tasty meal cooked with little effort which renders your house intoxicatingly fragrant and allows you to spend the day getting shit done. As such, you should make this recipe. It's not your "everyday slow cooker meal," which I kind of like, but is just as delicious, tender and comforting. Moroccan food is certainly nothing I grew up on, but I find myself gravitating towards the spices and ingredients. More Mediterranean than Middle Eastern, Moroccan food is satisfying yet healthy with layer after layer of flavor given the vast arsenal of spices used. Typically everything is cooked together, yielding a heavenly melange.

The beauty of the slow cooker is its simplicity. You prep your ingredients, add them to the slow cooker and press Start. But there is a difference between a good slow-coooker meal and a great slow-cooker meal. Here are a few simple rules to keep in mind:

Prepping. When you take a few minutes to brown your meat and sauté your vegetables before adding them to the slow cooker, you'll be rewarded with an additional layer of deep, caramelized flavor.

Avoid overcrowding. For best results, fill a slow cooker between one-half and two-thirds full.

Leave it alone. Resist the urge to lift the lid of your slow cooker to stir or peek at your meal. Each time you remove the lid, enough heat escapes to lengthen the cooking time by 20-30 minutes. Only open it once, within the final hour of cooking, to check doneness.

Plan ahead. If you want to turn your slow cooker on first thing in the morning, a little planning goes a long way. The night before do all the prep. Cut and trim the meat, chop the veggies, measure out dry ingredients, etc. Do not refrigerate components in the actual slow cooker. A cold insert takes too long to heat up and affects cooking time and food safety.

Happy slow cooking!

Slow Cooker Chicken and Chickpeas

1 1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
8 bone-in chicken thighs
1/2 tsp group black pepper
2 1/2 cups chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh garlic
1 1 /4 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground red pepper
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 tsp honey
1 (3-in) cinnamon stick
2/3 cup chopped dried apricots
2 (15-oz) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup cilantro chopped

1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirls to coat. Sprinkle meaty side of chicken with 1.2 tsp salt and pepper. Add chicken to the pan, meaty side down; cook 5 minutes or until well browned. Remove from pan (do not brown other side).
2. Add onion and garlic to pan; sauté 4 minutes. Add cumin and next 6 ingredients (through red pepper); cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add stock, honey, and cinnamon, scraping pan to loosen browned bits; bring to a simmer. Carefully pour mixture into a 6 qt slow cooker. Stir in apricots and chickpeas.
3. Arrange chicken, browned side up, on top of chickpea mixture. Cover and cook on low for approximately 7 hours. Discard cinnamon stick. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve over couscous or quinoa.

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