I'm not a fan of winter, it's fair to say. However, winter does have one positive point as far as I'm concerned - winter food! Winter means I can dig out my crockpot and crank it up. I use my crockpot several times a week. I find it easy, convenient and the resulting dinner is so, so tasty.
I have a really basic crockpot (not unlike the one below). It has two settings, high and low. I purchased a timer for about $6 from a hardware store (Mitre 10 or Bunnings I think), so I can control when it switches on and off. I used to turn it on before work, but was finding that sometimes the meals dried out as they were on for almost 10 hours. I set the timer to switch my crockpot on around 10-11am and off again at 6 (depending on what I am cooking).
As I mentioned in an earlier post I often use my crockpot for cooking stock. But, it has so many other uses. Curries, casseroles, stews, and more.
When I am cooking meat in my crockpot, I only use the very cheapest of cuts. It's a waste to use more expensive cuts of meat in a crockpot, as you are not doing them justice. A crockpot is slow, gentle cooking. I prefer chuck and stewing steak, shin, shanks and lamb neck. I have also had success with chicken thighs and legs.
Further to my experimentation with lentils, I made a very successful lentil and chickpea curry the other day. I used red curry paste, coconut milk, vege and of course, lentils and chickpeas. (I pre-cooked the lentils and chickpeas - I keep a store ready in my freezer).
Now, I must admit, I am a little bit of a freak when it comes to being orgainsed. As well as frozen chickpeas, I also keep ready-to-go crockpot meat in my freezer. I find that meat tends to only come in giant packs. So, I get it home, chop it into bite-sized pieces and put enough for a meal in a snap-lock bag and toss it in the freezer. The night before, I then take the pre-chopped meat out of the freezer, put it in the crockpot with whatever else I'm using, set the timer and it's ready to go. I don't have time to be fussing about with it before work.
You may be wondering, what about browning the meat? Well, I don't. I don't find it adds anything, and it's also annoying. It creates a mess and for little gain. Jamie Oliver agrees with me. He did an experiment with browned and un-browned meat, and decided he actually liked the un-browned better.
Some of my favourite crockpot meals are beef stews with red wine, vege (onion, carrot, kumara, potato, pumpkin - I use whatever I have), beef stock, chilli and loads of salt and pepper. You can also add soy sauce, garlic, tinned tomato and various herbs and spices you might like. The great thing about a beef stew is there are no hard and fast rules. You just have to make sure you have enough liquid (at least a couple of cups), and some depth of flavour.
The same goes for lamb. Lamb, rosemary and apricots are all good friends and I made a tasty Moroccan-inspired stew the other day with lamb neck. Lamb, garlic, red wine and orange is also a tasty combination.
If you are using meat on a bone (shin, neck, tail, shanks etc), don't worry about the bones, just put the whole lot in the croackpot, by the time it has finished cooking the bones will be clean and you just have to fish them out before you serve. They add so much flavour.
There are so many things you can do with a crockpot, I would recommend getting it out of the cupboard and experimenting. It's hard to go wrong, just make sure you have enough liquid (if in doubt use more rather than less) and make sure you cook it for at least six hours. Any less and your meat will still be tough and not meltingly tender like it should be. Enjoy!