Jul 21, 2013

The Best way to Cook in the Summer? Not in the Kitchen

I don't like cold weather. I can, and have, dealt with it. As a child, I could tell if it was above or below zero degrees Fahrenheit by going outside and inhaling (ah, the tricks of living in northern Maine...), but I am still not a fan. Therefore, I try to not complain about hot weather, and reserve my ire for the cold. But even I have to admit that it has been hot in Boston this week. Hot enough that I've left the air conditioner on for my cats when I went to work. Hot enough that I've been drinking my morning juice in Popsicle form. And hot enough that spending time in the kitchen cooking or baking sounds like an awful plan.

Instead of eating out, going hungry, or living completely off of my CSA veggies (which, at least for this week, are not that conducive for eating raw), I broke out my crock pot. I let it do my cooking for me for the day while I was at work, and provide me with meat that can be eaten cold for the rest of the week. The other reason that I love letting my crock pot cook for me while I'm at work is that as soon as I walk in the door after work, my apartment smells amazing. 

Now, I know some people who balk at the idea of leaving the crock pot on while they are not home. I am, obviously, not one of these people. I see it as an appliance that was built for this sort of a purpose. If you feel at all reticent about leaving your crock pot on while you are not home (or question the likelihood of an electrical fire from the wiring in your home), then don't do it.

One of my favorite recipes to do in the crock pot is a recipe from Ghille Basan's Modern Moroccan. It's chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives. To quote from the book, "A tagine is a highly flavored stew, usually meat based, cooked slowly over charcoal in a special earthenware dish with a conical lid, which is also called a tagine, designed to let the food cook in its own steam." Conveniently, I have a tagine, which fits on top of my cast iron skillet and also on top of my crock pot. But, especially using the crock pot, it's not a necessity. Also, the crock pot allows me to be lazy in preparation as well. Instead of "crushing" the garlic, "grating" the onion, or "finely chopping" the cilantro, I can just do a rough chop on it all before stuffing it into the cavity of the chicken, or just throwing it all in together...

The one potential downside of making this in the crock pot as opposed to the oven is that it does lose more structural integrity. Of course, as I'm making it while I'm at work, I am cooking it a f more hours than I would otherwise. The pictures below show it just as it starts cooking, and when I get home from work.

A couple of notes on ingredients: 

You don't need saffron.  Its price far outweighs the benefits it brings to this dish. Saffron is THE most expensive spice in the world. Turmeric is just as good in this application, and much more affordable.

Don't just get the cheapest olives you can find. The olives in this dish are one of the fundamental flavors.  If the olives aren't meaty and flavorful, the entire dish will suffer. If the olives are not a good enough flavor that you would eat them on their own, get better olives.

A word on preserved lemons. It is possible to make them yourself, although they won't be ready for about 6 weeks. I have actually found them at whole foods, in the same section as the olives. You don't want to leave them out altogether. That said, I have a confession to make. The first time I tried this in the crock pot, I bought some preserved lemons, and for the olives I used a lemon garlic mix (which included chunks of lemon). It turned out a little too lemony, but the chunks of lemon that were in with the olives were rather tasty. So the next time I did it, I only used the lemon garlic olives, and skipped the preserved lemons altogether. This is how I've been doing it ever since. So if you can't find preserved lemons where you are, don't fret.

For the first night I just put it over some couscous. After that (as the meat just falls apart), it is good hot or cold, and it can be great in a sandwich, on a salad, on its own... 

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