Slow Cooker à la Bière Cuisine

Cooking with Beer by | Jan 2014 | Issue #84
Photo by Sean Z. Paxton

Recently, my oven broke. (I’m contemplating a kitchen redesign; my oven seems to have sensed it’s on its way out.) So, here we are in the middle of the darkest, coldest months of the year, and I can’t use my oven to braise or slow-cook any meals. Then it hit me. Way back in my cupboard, I have a slow cooker. I could use this to make the house smell just as good, create tender and flavorful meals, and a bonus: It’s actually a little easier than using the oven.

Abbey Ale-Braised Chicken Thighs with Winter Squash
The inspiration for this recipe was the subtle flavors of a Dubbel-style ale. Rich caramel flavors play up the caramelized shallots, cipollini onions and leeks, while the phenolic essences from the yeast are re-expressed by the chosen spices.

Serves: 6–8 servings

10 each chicken thighs, skin on, bone in, washed and dried (about 4 3/4 pounds)
2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tsp coriander, whole
1 tsp allspice, whole
1 tsp clove, whole, about 6 dried flowers
3/4 tsp star anise, whole, about 1 large pod
3 tbsp olive oil
10 each cipollini onions, peeled and kept whole
3 each shallots, peeled and sliced
1 each leek, washed and white/light green part sliced (about 3 cups)
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 each butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into half-inch cubes
1 each navel orange, zested and juiced
750 mL Dubbel-style ale, such as Brewery Ommegang Abbey Ale or Allagash Dubbel

Begin by washing off the chicken thighs and patting them dry with paper towels. Place the thighs into a casserole pan, and let sit while you make the spice mix. Use a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder / clean coffee grinder) to combine the salt, coriander, allspice, clove and star anise; crush and pulverize the spices to make a fine-powder spice mix. Divide the spice mix over the 10 thighs, ensuring that both sides of the poultry are covered. Next, rub the spices into the chicken, creating an even coating and working them into the meat. Cover the casserole pan with plastic wrap, and place into the refrigerator for at least 2 hours (preferably overnight) to let the flavors infuse into the meat and lightly cure the protein.

Place a large skillet over medium heat. Once it’s hot, add the oil and arrange 4–5 chicken thighs skin-side down in the pan. Cook for about 4–5 minutes, until the skin is brown; turn each piece over, and continue to cook for another minute. Transfer the browned thighs to the slow cooker and arrange them in a single layer. Repeat this process with the remaining thighs.

Once all the thighs are browned, keep the oil (and rendered chicken fat) in the pan and add the cipollini onions (or you can substitute pearl onions); lightly brown on both sides, and then add to the slow cooker. Next, add the shallots and sauté for about 4 minutes, until they become transparent. Use the hard edge of a spatula or wooden spoon to remove any tasty bits of spices or fond from the pan as the shallots cook. Add the leeks, and cook for another 5–6 minutes, until the shallots are caramelized and the leeks are tender. Sprinkle the flour evenly over the leeks and shallots, stirring to combine for another 2 minutes. Pour the shallot / leek mixture into the slow cooker, and spread evenly over the thighs.

Next, deglaze the pan with a third of the bottle of Dubbel, scraping off any bits of spices. Pour this into the slow cooker, and top off with the cubed butternut squash (or other hard winter squash, such as an acorn, kabocha, hubbard or pumpkin). Add the orange zest along with the juice from the orange, and top off with the remaining beer, leaving behind any sediment in the bottle. Cover the slow cooker with its lid and set on high for 5 hours.

To Serve:
Scoop a spoon or two of cooked Pearl Barley Pilaf (recipe below) into a wide bowl, and carefully remove a chicken thigh from the slow cooker with a pair of tongs. Arrange this atop the grain, and ladle some of the sauce and vegetables over the chicken. Make sure that each serving gets a cipollini onion on top. Serve this with a side of sautéed winter greens (such as kale, chard, collards or escarole).

Pairing: To play up the caramel and dried fruit flavors, an Old Ale or Scotch Ale would add a nice layer of complexity. Pairing a Dubbel, Grand Cru or Quadrupel would enhance all the dried fruit flavors, along with many of the different phenolic spice flavors in the dish.

Pearl Barley Pilaf
A simple rice alternative that is hearty and offers a great chewy texture, this starch is a nice complement a winter dish.

Serves: 6 people

1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 each yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 cups pearl barley
1 tsp thyme, dried
12 oz Brown Ale, such as Big Sky Brewing Moose Drool or Surly Brewing Co. Bender
1 tsp kosher salt
3 cups stock (vegetable, chicken or turkey)

In a 6-quart pot with a lid, placed over medium heat, add the butter and oil. Once the butter is melted, add the onions and sauté for 5–6 minutes, until they start to become light brown in color. Add the pearl barley and thyme, stir to combine, and toast the barley for another 3–4 minutes, stirring frequently. Deglaze the pan with the Brown Ale, then add the salt and stock. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low and cover with a lid. Cook the pearl barley for 35–40 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the barley is cooked. Turn off the heat, fluff with a fork and serve.

Smashed Potatoes Simmered with Brown Ale, Vegetables, and Sausage
I love how a Brown Ale plays with a tomato. The toasty, malty, melanoidin-rich brew mixes with the acid of the tomato, and the flavors of both are intensified. Add to this some fennel, potatoes and sausage, and you have a meal that brings all the flavors together, bite after bite.

Serves: 4–6 people

10 each potatoes, such as German Butterball or Yukon Gold, size B
3 lb. roma tomatoes, fresh if available or one 28-ounce can of San Marzano
3 tbsp olive oil
2 each yellow onions, peeled and sliced medium thick
1 each fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and sliced
4 each carrots, peeled and cut into a large dice
1 tsp thyme, dried
4–8 each sausages, mild or hot Italian (or other favorite type)
1 bunch oregano, fresh
1 each bay leaf, fresh
24 oz Brown Ale, such as Anchor Brekle’s Brown or Dogfish Head Indian Brown
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Place the washed and dried potatoes in a single layer on the bottom of the insert. Top the potatoes with the chopped tomatoes and spread out evenly. In a large sauté pan, over medium-high heat, add the oil and sauté the onions, fennel and carrots for 10–12 minutes, until they are caramelized. About halfway through the cooking process, add the thyme, and season the mixture with kosher salt. Pour this vegetable mixture over the tomato layer in the slow cooker. Cook one or two sausages per person, and nestle the sausages into the onion / fennel / carrot mixture. Top off the slow cooker with the oregano leaves and bay leaf. Pour two 12-ounce bottles of Brown Ale over everything; the level of the beer should be between half and two-thirds of the way up the sides of the insert. Seal the slow cooker with its lid, and set to 6 hours on high.

Note: The onions, fennel and carrots can be made several days in advance and stored (once cool) in a Ziploc-style bag with all the other ingredients in the refrigerator. This bag can also be frozen (removing as much air as possible to prevent freezer burn) and used at a later date—just thaw the bag overnight in the refrigerator.

To Serve:
Once the timer has gone off on the slow cooker, using tongs, carefully dig to the bottom of the insert, remove all the potatoes and place them in a bowl. Using a potato masher, smash the potatoes lightly, seasoning with kosher salt and pepper, and 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Lightly smash again, and divide among the number of wide-rimmed bowls needed. Next, fish out the sausages and sauté quickly in oil, just to brown the casing of the sausage, and divide accordingly among the dishes. Using a ladle, scoop out the remaining vegetables and beer, pouring over the smashed potatoes. To garnish, lightly season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and a few fresh oregano leaves.

Variations: If you like a thicker sauce, strain the liquid into a separate pot, leaving the vegetables behind, and place over medium heat. Reduce the liquid by half, and pour this over the sausages, vegetables and smashed potatoes.

Tips & tricks for a better slow-cooker experience
Raw and chopped ingredients can easily be put in the slow cooker and left to later. However, the final dish will lack some of the flavor that can be achieved by sautéing the vegetables and browning the protein before cooking. As proteins and vegetable starches are cooked, the Maillard reaction enhances what melanoidin malt has, and increases this malty richness for the beer to play off as it slow cooks.
Resist the temptation to remove the lid of your slow cooker. Each time the lid is removed, it takes between 20–45 minutes of additional cooking to reheat the cooker.
Never add frozen food to a slow cooker—only use thawed food. Otherwise there’s plenty of time for bacteria to propagate and make your meal unsafe to eat.
Setting the time for a recipe can be altered using the basic guidelines: 4–6 hours on high = 8–12 hours on low;  3–4 hours on high = 6–8 hours on low;  1–2 hours on high = 4–6 hours on low.
Always make sure that when the timer goes off on your slow cooker that the temperature is at least 165°F, for food safety.
If your slow cooker has an insert, make sure it is heat safe if you plan on browning or sautéing any food directly in it verses using a sauté pan or skillet.
When filling your slow cooker, items that take longer to cook should be placed on the bottom of the cooker.