Several years ago, I spent a few months on an isolated farm near Davis, California, working on a writing project. The farmhouse kitchen was empty of equipment except for a vintage slow cooker. Like most people I knew, I associated slow cookers with unappealing dishes like chicken sauced with canned cream of mushroom soup. But that was what I had to work with, so I went to the local co-op and bought every kind of dried bean they had. Each day, I'd choose a bean, wash it, put it in the slow cooker to simmer while I worked, and then I'd eat the warm, fragrant beans in their cooking broth with nothing but some good salt and a handful of chopped herbs picked outside the farmhouse.
Those were quiet days, and I had a lot of time to get to know that old slow cooker, to savor the simple meals I prepared with it, and to reflect on how nurturing and deeply satisfying food cooked this way was. I left the slow cooker behind when I left the farm and returned to my regular life. But to my surprise, I found that the slow cooker had transformed the way I thought about food.
Since the invention of pottery nearly 10,000 years ago, human beings have been gathering ingredients into one pot and cooking them for hours, sometimes over an open fire, sometimes in a communal oven, all the while melding the flavors, aromas, and textures of the ingredients in a way that roasting over an open flame could never do. Today, the slow cooker gives us an opportunity to use the same principles of flavor development that our ancestors did, without having to dig pits or fire up communal ovens. While in my modern life as a writer and yoga teacher I might not have time to tend to a dish for hours, I can plug in my slow cooker and experience simple, rustic cooking.
I began to think of classic, comforting one-pot meals from cultures around the world, dishes like hearty winter soups, risottos, and curries, in a new way—in terms of how they could be adapted to the technology of the slow cooker. Meat, of course, stands up well to long hours of cooking at low temperatures, but I was gradually making a transition to a meatless diet. While I knew that vegetables couldn't take the same treatment—eight hours in a slow cooker would reduce most vegetables to a soggy mash—I began experimenting with grains and root vegetables, which could hold up under longer cooking times, adding more fragile vegetables later or near the end of the cooking time. The results combined the subtle flavors of slow-cooked beans and grains with the vibrant colors, textures, and flavors of tender vegetables and herbs.
Ready When You Are
The same flexibility that makes the slow cooker well suited to vegetarian meals also makes it an ideal tool for supporting my yoga practice, helping me fit home-cooked meals into a busy and not always predictable schedule of personal practice, writing, and teaching. Breakfast is a great example: I need to eat something substantial a few hours before I practice in the morning. In the evening before I go to bed, I put oatmeal or cracked wheat berries in the slow cooker and let it cook on the lowest setting all night long. When I get up in the chilly dawn, I'll stir in cinnamon and milk and sit down to a warm, filling meal. For variety, I sometimes cook khavits, an Armenian whole-grain dish topped with feta cheese, pistachios, and honey.
Rarely do I feel like cooking after an evening yoga class, and there are nights when even steaming a vegetable feels like too much trouble. But on those nights especially, it's wonderful to come home to the smells of a simmering vegetable soup or stew. When I have an evening yoga class, I might put something that doesn't take long to cook, like tofu with a sauce of miso, sesame oil, and tamari, in the slow cooker before I head out the door. When I get home, I stir in some spinach, and 10 minutes later, dinner is ready. If I'll be out for a larger portion of the day, I might choose something like cubed butternut squash, and stir in a green curry sauce when I get home. And if I'll be away all day, I might put red beans on to cook in the morning, and add tomatoes, onions, and spices that evening. I'll let them simmer for another hour or so, filling the house with a savory smell as I unwind.
One recent afternoon, one of my neighbors invited me to a potluck that evening. I scrubbed some small potatoes and put them in the slow cooker with a little water, olive oil, and sea salt. The potatoes simmered for a few hours, at which point I added some chopped red chard and sliced mushrooms. In 20 minutes, they were ready for some freshly ground pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. And in the meantime, I had time to do a few stretches and get ready for the party.
Lynn Alley is the author of five cookbooks, including The Gourmet Vegetarian Slow Cooker. She teaches vinyasa flow and restorative yoga classes in Southern California.