Adventures in Cookery, Part 1

In the last several years, in the summer, I would start to get passionate about cooking, usually around late July/early August. It could be hormonal, it could be an ancestral concern about a long winter returning, especially now that we reside above the 49th parallel. Who knows?

In any case, it’s the time of year where I start stocking up on new utensils that (I thought) would help me in preparing whatever recipes I discovered, or rediscovered. I am in no way a gourmet cook, and I have screwed up way more dishes than successfully cooked, but there are some that are my stock in trade (my husband LOVES my roasted chicken, for example, which is a recipe I adapted from what I would see my mother do in the kitchen, and then just remove the salt). Up until this year, I wasn´t doing too badly. I tried a few new things. Some worked, some didn´t, but I wasn´t actively told to JUST STOP!!!

Until last night.

This summer, I added a couple of items to my kitchen. One was hand blender with a boatload of attachments, one of them being a food processor. It´s been wonderful, and while the chopping aspect of it hasn´t always been “perfect”, it’s been just the thing for my needs.

The other has been a slow cooker. Which has not been so perfect. In fact, working with slow cooking recipes, with ONE exception, has been a uniformly frustrating experience.

I don´t blame the slow cooker. I had a small one in the US for a few months before I moved here, and it was a life saver. Especially when I was working the late shift at Apple, and came home to some stewy goodness at around 10:30 PM. The one I got here was imported from England via a German seller on Amazon Marketplace for €40, and it has three settings: Low, Medium, and High. It is big enough for two people with small appetites. Getting a slow cooker locally was not an option, as most stores here don´t sell one (the one place I found that had one was selling it for €300. On sale. ON SALE!!!). Germans appear to not go for that sort of thing (most of the reviews I saw for slow cookers on came from American, British, and Australian expatriates), and get their slow-cooking done through Römertopf clay pots. Which I tried. And they work. Wonderfully. But the clay pots are hard to clean, and I am not really a fan of leaving the oven on at 100oC the whole day, unnecessarily heating our house in the summer, and driving our electricity bill upwards. So I decided to get another slow cooker. I have tried about 5 or 6 recipes, mostly gleaned from the Internet. I frankly had to do some adaptations here and there, in that I tried to make up for what was asked for in the recipe for what I had immediately available (stores close at 8 in the evening; if you don´t plan ahead, or if you didn´t feel like heading out that day to do any kind of shopping, you are toast), and also considered that most of these recipes request of cooking time of 8 – 9 hours on LOW at the most. I tend to have twelve hour work days, including commute time. It is impossible for me to run home and turn the slow cooker on or off at particular points in the cooking process. I also, without exception, prepare everything the night before, as I am not a fan of doing much after I first get up. Then there is the option of pre-cooking the items, as opposed to not cooking them at all, before throwing them in the slow cooker. I tried both. I also tried marinating my meats in things such as Coca-Cola and yogurt the night before tossing them into the slow-cooker the next morning (I am not a big fan of cooking things RIGHT when I get up).

The results have been more or less the following:

  • Meats are tough.
  • Food is too salty.
  • If the food is not salty, it is really, really bland.
  • Sauces are watery. My attempts to thicken them using flour, or cream, or milk tend to make things worse, rather than better.
  • If the sauces are not watery, there is not enough water and the meats are dry AND tough. My attempts to create them using flour, or cream, or milk tend to make things worse, rather than better.
  • When I sat the meats in Coca-Cola to tenderize them, the meats tasted rather sugary. AND tough.

This is all probably the result of a few assumptions on my part:

  • I am leaving the items to cook in the slow-cooker for too long. Which I cannot help. I mean, this is why I got a slow-cooker, right. So my food can be ready when I get home, and I don´t have to stop somewhere and pick up things for dinner, anymore.
  • Due to this first point, I am so afraid that there will be no sauce left (due to the one time I purposefully UNDER utilized some water-based substances in a recipe) that I have tended to overdo the amount of water-based substance needed. I mean, will there be any dish at all, when I get home?
  • I had been adding more salt prior to putting the lid down on the slow cooker and leaving for the day to prevent blandness. Obviously I have been overdoing it. I am thinking maybe I need to use chicken stock, or herbs, instead. Which then leads to point #2.

So what is the one recipe that has worked for me every, single, time I make it in the slow-cooker? This chicken stock recipe. That´s right. Chicken stock. On the weekends that I remember to, I pick up a pretty decent stock starter from Edeka (with the celery root, onions AND carrots pre-packaged for convenience), and after our Sunday ritual of roasted chicken (which is the one thing I am REALLY the best at making. Seriously.), the carcass gets thrown in the cooker, with the chopped onions (that need to be washed), carrots and celery root, along with a handful of Herbes d´ Provence, several garlic cloves, just a dash of salt, and left on LOW in the cooker for 8 hours. The next morning, the stuff gets strained, poured into jars, and popped into the fridge. I don´t get the grease I hear about, so then they go in the freezer. It´s the best stock I have ever tasted OR made.

Because I am around to turn the damn cooker off, apparently.

So, I am at a point of frustration. I WANT the slow cooker to work for me and my partner. But I cannot get it to. At all. And the husband is frankly getting fed up with my experimentation on cooking. He is tired of being kind of forced to eat over salted, over cooked, or overtly bland items that I put together and had cook while I am at work. Because it’s a new thing I am trying out.

Then last night, was the final straw.

I didn´t even use a slow cooker. Husband wanted to go out for dinner. I didn´t feel like going out, so I offered to make dinner instead. I defrosted some bone-in pork chops. I could have gone the easy route, and just spice them, fry them, and be done with it.

But NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! I had to be fancy. Because experimentation, right?

So, I went into pinterest (Because it has been a lot better for me at finding recipes than any app I downloaded into my tablet or anything I randomly picked out from the internet), and found this nugget:

I didn´t have any basil leaves and had no way to get any, because it was close to closing time at the stores, so I used Herbes d´Provence, instead. I let the stuff sit while we watched this pretty bad movie about murderous dominitrixes or something. We have a grill pan, so I used that. 5 to 6 minutes per side. Just like the recipe said. I should have cut the chop open to check, but why? 5 to 6, right?

I also deglazed the pan with some left over sangiovese, instead of opening the new bottle of white, which I should have done. Again, tried to be fancy. Didn´t smell that great.

Chops ended up being served raw. Husband freaked out. I had to throw them both into the microwave to achieve the right amount of doneness. I was a little angry, at this point. Why am I not getting ANY of this right?

The points near the bone were a little pink. The rest of the chops were done, but due to the sangiovese sauce and the frankly inappropriate herb crust, the taste left a lot to be desired.

We had a bit of an argument over this, because, of course, I was in denial about the whole thing.

After I asked “the question”, he finally said to me, yes, you need to stop cooking.

We have a lot of options around here, he said. This was not necessary.

Yes, I was heartbroken. I am still heartbroken. I am always this way when dinner turns out to be a bust. I hate feeling like a failure, especially at something as basic as cooking. I am sure, in a few weeks, it won´t be that big a deal, as I will go back to doing what I always did: going out to eat somewhere, or picking things up at one of the in-store metzegeris at either Galleria Kaufhof or Karstadt, or even at the train station, and save the cooking for the roasted chicken Sunday dinner ritual.

But for now, I am feeling such a total loser about this.

At this point, I am probably going to pull back on doing so much cooking using the slow cooker and just save it for chicken stock. Do a small bit of experimentation for items I can cook for myself (something I can cook and then have for lunch), and not share with the spouse until I think I have perfected the recipe.

And just totally disregard anything that says to cook at 5-6 minutes per side, and trust my own judgment, as I should have done.

Also, I can also find a cooking school and sign up for a few classes. I understand enough German to get by, so no big deal. I hope.

I have more to say on this, but part two will have to wait.