Cheryl Alters Jamison will make chili fans into slow cooker converts, and vice versa.
The author of “Texas Slow Cooker” (Harvard Common Press, $22.99) features seven chili variations in her recently released cookbook, which offers 125 robust recipes that are rooted in Lone Star State traditions but neatly transcend culinary geography.
Alters Jamison knows her stuff, and then some. With her late husband, Bill Jamison, she has written more than a dozen influential cookbooks. Four have won James Beard awards, and many (“The Border Cook,” “Texas Home Cooking,” “Tasting New Mexico”) dive deep into the Southwest’s distinctive flavors.
In Alters Jamison’s expert hands, bowls of venison chili, chicken chorizo chili, pork chili verde, turkey-black bean chili, chili with tomatoes and a batch of classic “Texas Red” can serve as Super Bowl party anchors. Even better, her slow cooker versions come together with ease.
She was feeding her seven chickens (“my girls,” she said with a laugh) when she spoke from her Santa Fe., N.M., home, and took a few moments to talk chili-making secrets, slow-cooker buying tips and the joys of preparing brownies in a Crock-Pot.
Q: Slow cookers seem as if they are tailor-made instruments for chili-making. Yes?
A: Chilis and stews, they’re still at the heart of dishes that are best in slow cookers. Unfortunately, so much of what comes out of those slow cookers is too mushy, and everything ends up tasting the same. I spent months trying ideas that might be enhanced by slow, moist cooking processes. Part of that was experimenting with times and temperatures, as opposed to cooking everything on high for 12 hours. By refining the process, dishes can actually have the color, taste and texture that were otherwise missing.
Q: Your Chili with Tomatoes recipe is delicious, but I’m curious: tomatoes, in a Texas chili? Isn’t that a sin?
A: It’s true, Texas chili is typically thought not to include tomatoes or beans. There’s a lot of argument about that. But this recipe came to me via Tom and Lisa Perini, who have an iconic Texas restaurant called the Perini Ranch Steakhouse, outside of Abilene in Buffalo Gap. And I figured that if Tom Perini, a quintessential Texas cowboy cook, says that it’s OK to use tomatoes, then I can, too. So that’s how that evolved. It’s one of several cases where I took a recipe that I already liked, then translated it from a conventional cooking format so that it worked in a slow cooker. That often meant looking at it in terms of cutting down the amount of liquid, and adding greater quantities of onions, garlic and spices.
Q: Why a slow cooker cookbook?
A: When the publisher proposed the idea, I didn’t even own a slow cooker. We once had one — a college graduation gift — but I’m pretty sure I got rid of it around 1990. I remember thinking, “I can just braise things on the stove, why do I need this burnt orange contraption?”
It was something my stepdaughter Heather said to me, that getting a family to sit around the table together is important, and using a slow cooker is one important way to do that. People like the fact that the slow cooker cooks all day, by itself. Then I was really taken by the number of people who were interested in the subject, ranging from really good cooks to people who might barely know how to take a slow cooker out of the box.
Q: How many slow cookers are now in your possession?
A: At the moment, three. I have two Crock-Pots. One is a very inexpensive version, I think it was $17 at Target. It looks nice because it has a stainless steel-style wrapper on the outside. Its only real feature is a dial that turns from low to high to off. The other one is more of a midrange version, I think it was closer to $60, and it’s a little more sophisticated, it has a digital readout that can switch to a warm holding temperature when the cooking time finishes. Then I have a higher-end All-Clad version, which I very much like, except for the price. But it’s well priced for all that it does. Also, its insert is nonstick metal rather than breakable ceramic.
Q: What features should first-time “slowpokes” look for when purchasing a slow cooker?
A: If people like the idea of taking them to tailgating events or potlucks — and there are so many good recipes for those purposes — it’s nice to have a lid that will close and clamp down. Another feature that I look for — because my kitchen isn’t really all that big — is a lid that raises up, so you don’t have to find a place for it on the counter. An oval shape makes cooking some roasts and other meats easier than the original round pots. Digital timers give you more flexibility with cooking times if you are out of the house. Now you can even hook some models up to Wi-Fi. A built-in searing plate can be useful, but to me it’s not as practical as it sounds. If you want to sear something and you’re doing a stew, there’s usually not a big enough space in the slow cooker to do it all at once. You end up doing half, dumping it out and then doing the other half. Why not just use your cast-iron skillet on the stovetop?
Q: What discoveries did you make during your recipe development phase?
A: One surprising phenomenon was learning that vegetables cook slower than meat. If you’re cooking big chunks of vegetables, place them on the bottom and sides of the slow cooker, because that’s where the heating elements are placed.
In some ways, beef is indestructible — you can cook it on high, or low, or leave it on warm for some time. But chicken or turkey are so much better when they’re cooked on low rather than on high.
It was also important to me to work with real ingredients. So much of slow cooker cooking is a can of cream-of-something soup, or a jar of Cheez Whiz. Although, this is Texas cooking, where people use canned Ro-Tel chilies for queso and such. I use them here, but it’s usually not something that I choose to do for myself.
Q: You devote a chapter to desserts, and many are sweets that I wouldn’t have thought to prepare in a slow cooker. Where did that idea originate?
A: It came out of the notion of flan. You know, what’s good that’s cooked low and slow in a water bath? From those results, I started to ask myself, ‘What else is good that’s cooked that way?’ Things like cheesecake, and brownies. With brownies, I want a little goo to them. With the chocolate sheet cake, what was amazing to me is that I could use less butter and sugar, because the moisture is retained in the cooking process.
Q: Any other tips?
A: Right now I’m so sick of the word “umami.” But soy sauce, tomato paste or other ingredients that can deepen a flavor, they become important with slow cookers. That’s because flavors tend to disappear in this long cooking process. I like to add a bit of contrasting brightness or texture to many dishes right at the end, perhaps citrus zest, some fresh herbs, a splash of wine, or maybe some toasted breadcrumbs or croutons.
Chili With Tomatoes
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: From “Texas Slow Cooker” by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
• Vegetable oil spray
• 2 lb. coarsely ground beef
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 tsp. crumbled dried oregano or marjoram
• 3/4 tsp. ground cumin
• 2 tbsp. chili powder
• 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt or coarse sea salt, or more to taste
• 1 to 2 fresh jalapeño chiles, minced
• 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
• 2 medium red bell peppers, cored, seeded and chopped
• 1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
• 1 (15-oz.) can diced tomatoes, with juice
• 1 c. low-sodium beef broth
Generously spray the inside of the slow cooker with vegetable oil spray.
In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté the beef until it loses its raw color. Add onion and sauté briefly, until softened. Mix in garlic, oregano (or marjoram), cumin, chili powder, salt and jalapeños and sauté another minute or 2, until the mixture is fragrant. Scrape the mixture into the prepared slow cooker. Return the skillet to the cooktop. Pour in vegetable oil and warm it over medium heat. Stir in red bell peppers and green bell peppers and cook until tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Scrape bell pepper mixture into the slow cooker.
Pour the tomatoes and beef broth into the slow cooker. Cover it. Cook the chili on the low heat setting for 6 to 7 hours, until the beef is extremely tender and the vegetables have melded together.
Serve the chili immediately, or cool, refrigerate overnight, and reheat. Serve steaming hot in bowls.
Turkey-Black Bean Chili
Note: “If I’m not opting for a beefy chili, this is my personal fallback favorite,” writes “Texas Slow Cooker” author Cheryl Alters Jamison.
• 2 tbsp. vegetable oil, divided
• 1 large onion, chopped (about 1 c.)
• 1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
• 4 plump garlic cloves, minced
• 1 1/2 lbs. coarsely ground turkey thighs or other dark meat
• 2 tbsp. chili powder
• 2 tsp. ground dried chipotle chile, or more to taste
• 2 tsp. ground cumin
• 2 tsp. kosher salt or coarse sea salt
• 1 bay leaf
• 3 (15-oz.) cans black beans, drained and rinsed
• 1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
• Approximately 3 c. low-sodium chicken broth
• Sour cream for garnish, optional
Generously grease the inside of the slow cooker with 1 teaspoon of the vegetable oil.
Warm the remaining 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion and sauté until limp, about 3 minutes. Mix in the bell pepper and the garlic and sauté until tender, 5 to 8 more minutes. Add the turkey, and sauté it just until it loses its raw color. Scrape the mixture into the prepared slow cooker.
Add the chili powder, chipotle chile, cumin, salt and bay leaf. Add the black beans and the tomato sauce and stir together. Pour in just enough broth to cover the beans and meat mixture. Cover and cook on the low heat setting for 5 to 6 hours. Discard the bay leaf.
Serve the chili immediately, or cool, refrigerate overnight and reheat. Serve steaming hot in bowls, with sour cream, if you wish.