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Gifted with a slow cooker? Get the most out of your new appliance

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, at 12 a.m.

Slow-Cooker Pulled Bacon and Bourbon Beans

Serves 4

This slow-cooker baked bean recipe transforms slab bacon into mouthwatering, shredded-pork tenderness. The beans and bacon are first parboiled to soften them somewhat, and then all the ingredients are dumped into the slow cooker and allowed to steam in a subtle and sweet bourbon-molasses sauce.

2 whole cloves

1 small onion, cut in half

8 to 10 oz. slab bacon, rind removed (available from the meat counter or butcher shop)

1 1/2 cups dried cannellini beans, rinsed, drained and picked over

1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

Pinch of salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 medium-size onion, diced

1 1/4 cups Jim Beam bourbon or your bourbon of choice

2 tsp. molasses

Stud the side of each onion half with 1 whole clove. Place the onion halves and the bacon and beans in a large saucepan. Add water to cover the beans by about 2 inches. Cover the pan and let come to a boil over medium-high heat. Then, reduce the heat as necessary and let the beans simmer, partially covered, until the bacon renders some of its fat, about 5 minutes. Transfer the slab of bacon to a plate. Let the beans continue to simmer, partially covered, until they are just barely tender, 40 to 45 minutes.

As the beans cook, use a sharp knife to score the fat side of the bacon slab in a crosshatch or diamond pattern. Combine the brown sugar, cayenne pepper, salt, and a couple of grinds of black pepper on a plate. Generously coat the bacon slab on all sides in the brown sugar and pepper mixture and set it aside.

Drain the beans, discarding the cooking liquid, onion halves and cloves (or you can save the cooking liquid for making soup or seasoning stews). Place the drained beans, the bacon, fat side up, and any remaining rub from the plate in a slow cooker. Add the diced onion, bourbon, and molasses. Cover the slow cooker and cook the beans until the bacon is very tender, 7 to 8 hours on low heat, 5 hours on high heat.

When ready to serve, shred or cube the bacon, removing and discarding its layer of fat, if desired. (Some people like finding cubes of bacon fat in the bean pot, while others want the fat removed. It’s your choice.) Stir the bacon into the beans before serving.

From“Bacon Nation: 125 Irresistible Recipes,” by Peter Kaminsky and Marie Rama (Workman, $14.95)

Sesame Chicken Wings

Serves 8

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

3 1/2 Tbsp. soy sauce

5 tsp. white sesame seeds

2 tsp. ground ginger

3 1/2 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil

4 lb. chicken wings, cut into drumlets and winglets, flappers removed and discarded

1 1/2 Tbsp. rice vinegar

1 Tbsp. ground black pepper

Mix the brown sugar, soy sauce, sesame seeds and ginger in the slow cooker until the brown sugar is partially dissolved.

Set a large skillet over medium heat for a few minutes and swirl in the sesame oil. Add as many wing parts as will fit without crowding; brown, turning once, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the slow cooker and continue browning more as necessary. (Make sure to brown thoroughly or else the wings might get gummy in the sauce.) At the end, scrape every bit of oil and juice from the skillet into the cooker as well. Toss the wings in the sauce.

Cover and cook on low for 4 1/2 hours, or until the meat is tender and cooked through, but not yet falling off the bone.

Transfer the wings to a serving platter. Skim any surface fat from the sauce in the cooker, then pour the sauce into a medium saucepan. Stir in the vinegar and pepper; bring to a full boil over high heat, stirring often. Boil until reduced to a thick glaze, between 3 and 6 minutes. Drizzle this glaze over the wings before serving.

From“The Great American Slow Cooker Book,” by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (Clarkson Potter, $25)

Slow cooker under the tree this Christmas? Maybe so, given that more slow cookers are sold during the two weeks around the so-called Black Friday start of holiday shopping than any other kitchen electrical appliance, according to figures from NPD Group, a consumer research company.

Now it’s 2014. What are you going to do with the thing? Slow cookers can offer a delicious freedom with their promise of no-hands, easy cooking. But you need to know how to use them, as the cooking method has its advantages and disadvantages.

“The tool is not designed for maximum subtlety,” said Mark Scarbrough, co-author with Bruce Weinstein of “The Great American Slow Cooker Book” (Clarkson Potter, $25). “It is much more designed for hearty complex braises and soups and stews. You can bake in it, but you can’t expect high-end results.”

“You can’t fry in it,” said the Colebrook, Conn., resident. “But you can make a really crazy-good olive oil poached salmon or a chicken confit. The oil is kept at a perfect low temperature.”

Beyond reading the appliance’s manual, or turning to the increasing number of slow cooker cookbooks, here are some tips from Scarbrough and his book:

• Make sure the recipe amount fits the slow cooker, which should be half to two-thirds full for best results. (As slow cookers come in various sizes, the authors scale each recipe to fit three sizes: 2- to 3 1/2-quart; 4- to 5 1/2-quart, 6- to 8-quart.)

• Watch the alcohol to avoid a “raw booze taste.” This is particularly crucial if you are transferring a recipe used on the stove top to the slow cooker. Use more broth or water and less alcohol than you would on the stove, Scarbrough said.

• Make sure the meats and vegetables aren’t chopped too fine. “They melt, lose texture and get gummy,” he explained.

• “Don’t lift the lid. You’ll be adding 30 minutes to the cooking time,” said Scarbrough. “Honestly, let it go and let it do its thing.” But use common sense, he added – if the food smells too strongly or is burning you do need to check.

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