To be honest, we’ve always been ambivalent about slow cookers. Wherever we live, there never seems to be enough counter space. Worse, our current kitchen has exactly two double electrical outlets, both inconveniently placed. The biggest issue for me, though, is that, in my admittedly limited experience of eating slow cooker food, everything has tasted at least a little like canned Dinty Moore beef stew.
But slow cookers have been experiencing a bit of a renaissance, with people who love food and know a thing or two about it embracing them. There are entire food blogs devoted to them. So when we approached the tower of four-quart Crock-Pots priced at under 20 bucks, we an impulsive decision.
Slow cookers gained popularity in the 1970s as a growing number of women entered the workforce. Their primary selling point was convenience. You could throw various ingredients into them in the morning and come home to a cooked meal, ready to eat. Recipes tended to reflect that mindset as well as the times. Canned cream of mushroom soup was featured in an alarming number of them, as were packets of dried onion soup mix.
This approach to slow cooker cuisine still has plenty of proponents, relying on heavily processed food products and producing meals that are familiar, if prepackaged in flavor. Happily, there are also many cooks working with fresh ingredients and big, exciting flavors. Longtime food blogger Kalyn Denny recently launched the blog Slow Cooker from Scratch as a “resource for home cooks looking for tested slow cooker recipes that use whole food ingredients.” Food writer Anupy Singla has created "The Indian Slow Cooker," an accessible cookbook with 50 authentically Indian recipes.
For my first foray into slow cooker cooking, I chose pot roast. Chuck roast is a flavorful beef cut that lends itself to long cooking, perfect for the eight or more hours required. I grew up loving this hearty, if often chewy roast. Over the years, I’ve prepared it numerous ways here, including adding a mysterious quality with Indian biryani curry paste and giving it a Provençal flavor with capers, garlic and anchovies.
This time, I wanted something a little more straightforward, but still with some flavor and complexity. A mix of red wine, onions, garlic, carrots, rosemary, bay leaves and beef stock sounded like it would do the trick. The resulting roast was a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs meal perfect for the cold snap and snow that invaded Chicago last weekend. It was less complex than I expected – the long cooking time muted the rosemary and bay leaf. But it’s the kind of meal that would be great to come to after a long day.
Slow Cooker Pot Roast with Carrots
2 to 2-1/2 pound boneless chuck roast
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
2 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped
5 to 6 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch sections
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1-1/4 cup dry red wine [editor's note: substitute cooking wine]
1-1/4 cup reduced sodium beef broth
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1. Season the roast generously with salt and pepper and dust it lightly with flour on both sides. Heat a large skillet over medium flame and brown the roast on both sides, about 10 minutes, turning occasionally.
2. Transfer the roast to a 4- to-5-quart slow cooker, cutting into 2 pieces if necessary to make it fit. Add onions, carrots, garlic, wine, broth, rosemary and bay leaves. Cover slow cooker and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours.
3. Using a slotted spoon, transfer carrots and onions to a bowl and cover to keep warm. Transfer roast to a platter and tent with foil. Turn slow cooker to high. Combine cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of cold water in a small bowl and whisk until it is smooth and lump-free. Add add a couple of spoonfuls of liquid from the slow cooker to slightly warm it, stirring to combine. Whisk cornstarch mixture into the liquid in the slow cooker, stirring constantly, until it thickens slightly into a sauce, about 1 minute or so. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper as needed.
4. Slice pot roast and serve slices with carrots and onions, spooning sauce over everything. I also cooked mashed potatoes, which played nicely with the sauce.