The Warmth of the Season: Crock-Pots allow busy cooks to savor ethnic cuisines

The cool breath of autumn often conjures up warmth in kitchens across America. People begin pulling out their slow cookers from deep inside their cupboards to concoct time-tested chili recipes and traditional pot roasts for Sunday dinners.

Slow cookers offer the freedom of adding all the ingredients at one time and letting them emerge hours later as a hearty meal that will greet you with inviting aromas after a long day of work. Unfortunately, sometimes Mom’s trusty old Crock-Pot may have produced bland or boring stews that left the palate looking for more. Current culinary trends in America have home cooks venturing out into ethnic cuisines, and many recipes that St. Louisans enjoy at their favorite Indian restaurants or Caribbean cafés are also easily adaptable to a slow cooker.

On the Eastern hemisphere, Indian and Pakistani cuisines offer dishes that would warm up any house when winter starts. At Indian Food in University City, Zahid Khan and his family prepare their food in a method similar to that of slow cooking, which means that several dishes can be recreated in a Crock-Pot at home.

A popular Indian Food dish, chicken vindaloo, has many Crock-Pot recipes available on the Internet; Indian Food also has a Pakistani entrée, nihari, that can be prepared in a Crock-Pot as well. Kahn’s son, Zack Khan, said that that the restaurant’s nihari was a popular item with take-out and catering customers. “We use beef shank for our nihari. [It] has lots of flavor, and it takes a long time to cook. No other restaurant in St. Louis makes it,” he said.

Caribbean cuisine also shares close ties to slow-cooking methods. Curried chicken and curried goat, both common Jamaican entrées, benefit from long cooking that develops their deeply rich, aromatic flavors. Caribbean Sun in University City offers both dishes on its dinner menu, as well as other widespread Jamaican favorites such as jerk chicken and oxtail stew.

“In our oxtail stew, we use beef tail, butter beans, celery, baby carrots, potatoes and I season it with bay leaves, spices and fresh herbs. I usually cook it for five hours,” said chef and co-owner Prince Phillip. The stew can be adjusted to have either thinner or thicker gravy depending on how many starchy vegetables are added, like potatoes, beans or even dumplings. It’s also convenient. “You can leave, go to work and come back, and it’s ready,” added manager and co-owner Shambrai Romano.

Chili lovers who want to spice up their autumn slow-cooker rituals may want to try exploring authentic Mexican cooking styles. Mole, a Mexican specialty served primarily with poultry, is a thick brown sauce made from dried chiles, nuts, spices and unsweetened chocolate. It makes an excellent base for a chili by combining new elements, like chocolate and chipotles in adobo sauce, and tying them to the rich flavors of traditional chili spices; it creates a hybrid of Southwestern and
Mexican flavors.

Other appetizing chili hybrids may come from simply exploring different spices, vegetables or meats; lamb, venison and turkey all work well in chili. Picadillo, a mixture of ground meats with olives, vinegar and raisins, can give chili certain Cuban characteristics while still focusing on classic ingredients like tomatoes and garlic. It’s all about gradually marrying flavors together.

Ethnic foods have never been easier to prepare at home. With specialty markets popping up all over St. Louis, ingredients are easy to find. After the prep work, cooks can forget about the delicious meal that’s waiting for them in their slow cookers until it’s time to dish up.

When preparing meals in a slow cooker, cooks should pay close attention to the amount of liquid added to the pot. Most foods, including meat and vegetables, have a certain quantity of water in them already, and that moisture tends to cook out and add more liquid to the recipe because it has no chance to evaporate.

Another key to slow-cooking success lies in the way the spices are added. Whole spices, like cinnamon sticks, peppercorns and bay leaves, hold up in the cooker, while ground spices tend to lose their flavor after several hours. It’s best to add ground spices, as well as any dairy products, in the last hour of cooking to keep their flavor and to avoid any curdling.