Slow cooking your way through winter

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Virginia Munro plates servings of Slow Cooker Indian Chicken Curry which she's prepared for the class. — Michael Cummo

Dust off that old, slow Crock-Pot that you received years ago as a wedding gift. Scour the thrift shops for discarded ones. Sneak into your mother-in-law’s basement and snatch one. Slow cooking is back and, as performed by Virginia Munro, flies way beyond the standard chili and chicken stew.

Ms. Munro, programs coordinator for the Edgartown library and longtime cooking and dining aficionado, makes it her mission to take her favorite recipes and transform them into slow-cooker wonders. She has begun to share her prowess once a month during the winter with demos at the library.

For January, she demonstrated Slow Cooker Indian Chicken Curry, adapted from Islander Uma Datta’s recipe.

Although we remember slow cookers best as the most duplicated wedding shower gift of the 1970s, it was actually patented in 1940 by its inventor, Irving Naxon. Then called the Naxon Beanery, the design was sold in the early ’70s to Rival Manufacturing, which rechristened it the Crock-Pot. At that time women were beginning to work outside the home, and since microwaves were not yet available to consumers, it was a terrific solution for preparing a meal: Dump the ingredients into the liner in the morning, arrive home to a fully cooked and hearty meal. As Ms. Munro explains it, “Put it together in 15 minutes before work and it’s like Mummy has been cooking all day.”

Early slow cookers had one knob and two settings — “on” and “off.” Now, enjoying a comeback, they are available with removable inserts, multiple settings, computer timing, and a variety of accessories. According to ConsumerReports.org, 83% of families owned a slow cooker in 2011. No wonder Ms. Munro enjoyed a capacity crowd at her January demo.

The lower level of the library — not really equipped for cooking — became a temporary kitchen with a double hot plate, sauté pans, a cutting board and knives, and a large slow-cooker sitting atop a bookcase. The 12 or so viewers (a good turnout for an especially cold day) lined up chairs along a narrow aisle. The sightlines were surprisingly good. Ms. Munro began by apologizing. “This is my first cooking demo in about 20 years,” she confessed. “But now I’m so much better a cook.”

While Ms. Munro was sautéing chicken and chopping onion, garlic, ginger, and cilantro, she explained how she discovered slow cooking. “With all the great [dairy] farms on the Island,” she said, “I wanted to start making my own yogurt. It went from there to all of the special things I like to cook with.” She cited the French sour-cream-like crème fraîche as an example: “I wouldn’t give you two cents for what’s available in the supermarket, and it’s expensive. But you can make your own in a slow cooker.”

She also advocates using the slow cooker in summer, instead of heating up the kitchen. On low heat, the cooker gives off about the same amount of heat as a 75-watt light bulb. At high, it’s about the equivalent of a 300-watt light bulb — still a lot less than a standard oven would produce. And, she adds, slow-cooked meals freeze well.

The participants asked questions and nodded their enthusiasm as Ms. Munro cooked.  Almost as one, they inhaled the piquant aroma when she warmed the spices in the sauté pan. Mouths begin to water and midday stomachs growled. Everything was in the pot and ready for its one-hour stint on high before the heat was lowered for the duration.

Sampling of the finished product is de rigueur at cooking classes and demos, but unfortunately, a slow-cooked recipe can’t be rushed, and of course, no one was going to stay the four hours until completion. Ms. Munro had that covered. She’d made a batch of the Indian Chicken Curry the night before, and the viewers were treated to lunch-size portions of the recipe — accompanied by rice and two kinds of Indian bread.

Eyes closed and heads fell back in appreciation of the flavors. Some oohed. Others ahhed. All agreed that the dish has a nice spicy kick, but not enough to alienate the pepper-phobic.

As napkins wiped the last of the sauce from mouths, Ms. Munro invited all to return on Feb. 12, when she’ll be demonstrating Slow-Cooked Beef Bourguignon in honor of Valentine’s Day. It’s a recipe she adapted from the famous one by Julia Child.

As the participants leave, one woman remarks that the 20-year absence did not seem to make a difference in Ms. Munro’s demo skills. “She’s a great teacher AND a great cook.”

Slow Cooker Indian Chicken Curry
Adapted for the crockpot from Uma Datta’s recipe
(Serves 6–8)

2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tsp. salt
½ cup cooking oil (canola recommended)
1½ cup chopped onion
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1½ Tbsp. minced fresh ginger root
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 Tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. garam masala
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 cup hot water or chicken broth
1 cup plain yogurt
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. cilantro (reserve one tbsp. for garnish)
salt to taste

Preparation:

  1. Quarter the chicken thighs and sprinkle with 2 tsp. salt. Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat; brown chicken in oil. Transfer the browned chicken to slow-cooker insert.
  2. Reduce the heat to medium high; add the onions, garlic, and ginger to the oil remaining in the skillet and cook, continuously stirring, until the onions wilt (about 5 minutes). Add to slow-cooker insert. Drain (do not rinse) tomatoes and add to insert — spread evenly.
  3. Mix the curry powder, cumin, turmeric, coriander, cayenne pepper, garam masala, lemon juice, and 1 cup hot water (or broth) well in a mixing cup and then add to slow cooker. Stir well for one minute.
  4. Cook on HIGH for 1 hour.
  5. Add yogurt, butter, and 1 Tbs. of chopped cilantro. Stir well, stirring the chicken until coated with the sauce, and cook on LOW for 4 hours.
  6. Garnish with 1 Tbs. chopped cilantro. Serve with basmati rice.