Good Enough to Read: The Italian Slow Cooker

Veteran food writer Irene Sax tells us about The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone, and shares healthy and delicious recipes from the cookbook.
Italian Slow CookerGood Enough to Read

Michele Scicolone swore she'd never use a slow cooker. "Friends who had them said the food was bland and watery." But one day, Scicolone, a writer of Italian cookbooks, had an idea. What if she used fresh, wholesome ingredients in the slow cooker? What if she made dishes in the Italian tradition?

The result is The Italian Slow Cooker, and it's clear that Scicolone has done what she set out to do. She makes Italian staples like polenta, risotto and beans. She recreates classic dishes like stuffed artichokes and peppers, osso buco and braciole. And she does all this in a pot that lets her get dinner ready in the morning and then go out and about her business for the rest of the day.

While convenience is, of course, the main reason to use a slow cooker, another is that it promotes healthy eating, she says. Many of the recipes in the book don't require any fat at all. You just put the ingredients in the pot, plug it in and let it go for hours. You get to use cheaper cuts of meat that turn tender and voluptuous in the long, gradual heat.

For Scicolone, however, the biggest plus is knowing that she can always have a home-cooked meal. "Even though there are just two of us, I often make a big pot of sauce or stew. We eat it that night, and I freeze the rest in meal-size portions. When I defrost one, all I have to do is make a salad, and dinner is ready."

But none of this would count if the results weren't so delicious. As someone who has eaten food from the book, I can tell you that the process of slow gentle cooking creates beautifully complex relationships between the ingredients in dishes like chicken cacciatore and Sicilian swordfish ragu. It even works in preparations like creamy golden frittatas (or Italian omelets) and a dense, moist ricotta cheesecake with an amaretti crust. And if yours is not one of the 83 percent of American households that has a slow cooker, you can use the book anyway, just cooking the dishes for less time at a higher temperature. (Slow cookers are set between 180ºF and 300º F.) That's what I did with the chickpea stew, and it was delicious.

No-apologies vegetarian stew
Gently seasoned, this hearty stew can be a side or the center of the meal. Serve it with garlicky broccoli or green beans and, if you want more zing, add a pinch of hot pepper flakes to the pot.

Chickpea Stew

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • Three 16-oz cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 5 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped fresh or canned tomatoes with their juice
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth, canned chicken or vegetable broth, or water
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a large slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, or until the vegetables are tender. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Notes from Michele Scicolone

  • Canned chickpeas, potatoes, tomatoes and onion flavored with rosemary cook into a chunky vegetarian main-dish stew. This also makes a great side dish for pork or lamb.

Easily improved seafood sauce
Meaty swordfish breaks down as it simmers slowly in a tangy sauce. You can make it a super-healthy meal by tossing it with whole-grain pasta. If you can't find cavatelli, use another short chewy shape such as orecchiette or fusilli.

Sicilian Swordfish Ragu

Makes 8 cups

Ingredients

  • 3 medium celery ribs, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Two 28-oz cans chopped peeled Italian tomatoes with their juice
  • Salt
  • 1 lb swordfish, skin removed
  • 1/2 cup pitted and chopped Sicilian green olives
  • 1/4 cup rinsed, drained and chopped capers
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper

Instructions

  1. In a large skillet, cook the celery, carrots, garlic and parsley in the oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally until golden. Scrape the vegetables into the slow cooker. Add the tomatoes and salt to taste. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 hours, or until thick.
  2. Cut the fish into half-inch pieces. Add the swordfish, olives, capers, oregano and crushed red pepper to the slow cooker and stir well. Cover and cook for 1 hour more, until the fish is tender.

Notes from Michele Scicolone

  • Sicilians cook swordfish in dozens of ways. In this ragu, it is simmered in a tasty tomato sauce, much as you would cook ground meat. Serve with cavatelli pasta.


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