I bought my first slow cooker last winter and loaded it up for the first time one dark December morning. When early evening rolled around with nothing left for me to do before supper, I smugly read the paper. The slow-cooked stew we had that evening was OK, if a bit soupy. Soon, I’d learn to value the flavor-boosting techniques crucial to good slow-cooker food: limiting liquids, seasoning aggressively, browning meats before putting them into the pot.
Some of these tips are in “The French Slow Cooker,’’ a volume from Michele Scicolone, prolific author of “The Italian Slow Cooker,’’ and a host of other easy-entry cookbooks. Her slow-cooker approach isn’t limited to the standard winter stew. For Scicolone, the device is a versatile source of low heat capable of producing unexpected results, like quiches and custards, in addition to its hallmark braise.
When it comes to meat, Scicolone’s preferred method is to use the cooker’s “low’’ setting, which guarantees a tender texture if you can wait six or eight hours. (If rushed, don’t make the mistake of using the “high’’ setting, as it will only shred meat.) Chicken with tarragon, mustard, and cream comes out cooked to a delicate consistency. You need to gingerly pour out the extra juices, reduce them, which can take another half hour, and add cream. It’s worth it for the velvety consistency of the sauce, but the flavors remain subtle.
In a pork stew, a generous complement of slow-steeped sliced button mushrooms lend their earthy flavor to a mix enriched with cream. In the end, these palatable stews make satisfying weeknight fare, but fall short of making people clamor for more. If I were to improve them, I’d at least double the existing quantity of aromatics and maybe add some whole spices to drive home the point.
Provencal spinach meatballs carry bolder seasoning and hold together just till you nudge them with a fork, at which point they fall apart rather seductively. It may be difficult to think of a turkey meatball as French, but still, it tastes just fine.
Scicolone’s vegetable-based dishes yield easy, better-than-average results. Granted, it’s hard to ruin a butternut bisque with only five ingredients. Still, proportions are just right, resulting in a soup that neither takes a thousand watery sips to finish, nor makes you wonder, as some bisques do, if you should maybe chew each spoonful.
Beans a la francaise are creamy and scented, with the plump form and delicate but intact skins that only come from hours spent well below the boil. “Roasted’’ root vegetables will disappoint you if what you’re after in a roasted vegetable is some caramelized crunch - no Maillard reactions in a steamy, closed environment! - but they do have the enviable tenderness and sweetness we all know and love from oven-roasting.
And a slow-cooker creme caramel is every bit as good, if not better, than the oven-baked original. The cooker makes a very effective and airtight bain marie, and its low heat allows greater timing tolerances than a regular oven. It’s a fine way to finesse any custard and worth further experimentation.
There are a few reasons to turn to Scicolone’s book rather than to the many other slow-cooker technique books on the market. It’s well-designed, accessible, and the recipes work. If you like the convenience of slow cookers and have a penchant for a rustic-French spectrum of flavors, it’s a good choice. On the other hand, if you want a book that’ll make you swear off stove-top cooking forever, keep looking. I’ll let you know if I find one.