With so many people sniffling, blowing, coughing and sneezing, the Rx most touted is soup. If you're trying to adapt a regular soup recipe to your slow cooker or to improve one you've already made, keep these key tips in mind and you can't go wrong. A slow-cooker is a tool like any other, and you'll get better at cooking with it the more you use it.
Some ingredients stand up to -- and benefit from -- longer cooking times better than others. All of these can be added at the very start of cooking.
Robust vegetables: Onions, root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots, winter squashes, tomatoes, celery, cauliflower and broccoli
Meats: Lean cuts from the shoulder and rump of beef, lamb, goat, pork, whole chickens, chicken thighs and chicken legs
Spices: Most spices can and should be added at the beginning of cooking. One exception is rosemary, which can become bitter over the longest cooking times and is best added last.
2. ADD THESE INGREDIENTS AT THE END
These are quicker-cooking ingredients that won't hold up over hours of cooking but they give fresh flavor to a slow-cooked dish. Add all of the following ingredients in the last 30 to 45 minutes of cooking.
Softer vegetables such as peas, corn, bell peppers and spinach
Meat, such as chicken breast, fish and other seafood Check the chicken breast for doneness at the end of cooking, and give it a little more time if it's still pink in the middle.
Pantry Items Rice, noodles and other grains. You can add these already cooked, although uncooked grains are helpful for soaking up excess liquid and it makes them more flavorful. Beans can go either way -- at the end so they retain some firmness, or at the beginning, if that's easier.
Dairy products Milk, yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese. Coconut milk also is best added at the end.
3. CUT ALL INGREDIENTS TO THE SAME SIZE
This helps all the ingredients cook more or less at the same rate.
It's always tempting -- and sometimes necessary -- to just dump all the ingredients into the slow-cooker and press "go." This is perfectly fine and will give you a nice, warm dinner to come home to. But, if you have a few extra minutes and want to take that soup up to the next level, brown the veggies and sear the meat before putting them in the slow cooker. You'll be rewarded with richer, more intense flavors in your soup.
5. USE LESS LIQUID
There is very little evaporation in a slow cooker. If you're adapting a regular soup recipe, it's likely you won't need to use all the liquid called for. Put all the ingredients into the slow cooker, then pour broth over the top. It should cover the vegetables by about half an inch. If you have excess liquid at the end of cooking, remove the lid for the last 30 minutes to let some evaporate.
6. PLACE LONGER-COOKING INGREDIENTS ON THE BOTTOM
Meats and root vegetables will take longer to become tender than, say, cauliflower. Nestle those items around the bottom and sides of the slow-cooker, where they will have more direct contact with the slow-cooker's heating element.
7. CHOOSE THE RIGHT COOKING TIME
Recipes with meat, such as chili and pork shoulder, are best when cooked for at least six hours and up to 10 hours. Vegetarian recipes are best cooked for around four hours, but can do a minimum of two hours or maximum of six hours (after which the vegetables start to get mushy).
IN A SLOW COOKER: MALAYSIAN CHICKEN SOUP
1 (3-pound) whole free-range chicken
1 onion, quartered
1 (2-inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
6 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Splash of soy sauce
Splash of fish sauce (nam pla)
1 cup hot vegetable stock (optional)
Bunch of scallions, finely sliced, for garnish
1. Preheat the slow cooker, if required. Put the chicken, upside-down, into the slow cooker, and add the onion, ginger and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Pour in enough water to cover the chicken. Cover with the lid and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or on high for 3 to 4 hours.
3. Remove chicken from the broth. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
4. Remove the skin from the chicken and discard, then remove all the meat from the bones.
5. Strain the broth from the slow cooker into a clean, heavy-based pot. Add the chicken and stir in soy sauce and fish sauce.
6. Add some or all of the vegetable stock, then simmer gently to warm through. Taste and season. Ladle into warmed soup bowls and garnish with scallions.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
From Heather Whinney's "The Slow Cook Book" (DK Publishing, $25).
ON THE STOVETOP: CHICKEN SOUP
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 ribs celery, diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 to 3 teaspoons salt, divided
1 to 3 cloves garlic, to taste
1 1/2 pounds (about 6) chicken thighs, preferably bone-in
1 bay leaf
2 quarts chicken stock, divided
1/2 pound noodles of your choice
1. Warm a teaspoon of oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or soup pot. Add the diced onions, celery and carrots with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables just start to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Clear a space in the middle of the pot and add the garlic. Cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds, then stir the garlic into the vegetables.
2. Remove the skin from the chicken thighs, but leave the bone in. (Boneless chicken thighs also work fine in this recipe, but the bones add richness to the broth.) Move the vegetables to the edges of the pot and warm the remaining teaspoon of oil in the middle of the pot. When oil is hot, add the chicken thighs in a single layer. Cook without moving for about 3 minutes, until the undersides are golden. Flip the thighs and sear the other sides until golden.
3. Add the bay leaf and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the pot. Pour in 1 quart of broth, reserving the remaining quart for later. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 30 minutes.
4. Move the pot from heat and, using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to a plate. Use two forks to pull the meat into shreds (or chop into cubes with a knife). Remove and discard any bones.
5. Cook noodles until barely al dente, then drain (or add the second quart of stock to the soup, bring to a simmer and cook the pasta in the broth itself).
6. Put shredded chicken in the soup and bring to a simmer. Add the cooked noodles. If a thinner broth is desired, add more chicken stock. Remove the bay leaf. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.