Fish in the slow cooker goes swimmingly

By Martha Thomas, Published: March 12


If Phyllis Pellman Good could do it all over again, she would certainly rethink the fish soup recipe. As the author of half a dozen books packed with dishes for the slow cooker — that minivan of kitchen appliances — Good develops recipes with multiple ingredients and mostly just two steps: 

Her fish chowder is more complicated. There’s a third step, sauteing an onion, and another calls that for adding half-and-half during the last hour of cooking.

But if she were writing the recipe today, says Good, who with her husband, Merle, owns Good Books Publishing based in Intercourse, Pa., “I’d add the fish at the end.” Good’s “Fix it and Forget It” series of slow-cooker books has sold more than 11 million copies.

Fish in the slow cooker seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Fillets cook quickly — albeit with a narrow window between done and dry, especially when they are baked. The most common reaction to my recent kitchen experiments has been: What’s the point?

In our house, fish is often an afterthought. My fussy teenage daughter won’t eat the stuff, but my partner, Dan, doesn’t eat terrestrials. So if the menu I’m preparing for my kid has meat, he’ll coat a hunk of fish with packaged breading and slap it in a frying pan a few minutes before dinnertime, leaving a crusty surface and a lingering odor.

In the meantime, I’ve fallen hard for my slow cooker. Around Christmas, wooed partly by the surge of special recipes that kept wandering into my inbox and by the beautiful cookbooks displayed at tony kitchen stores, I gave away the old white model that had been moldering in the basement and treated my kitchen to a new stainless-steel slow cooker.

Preparing meals just seemed too easy. A chicken thrown into the pot before I head out for the day is fall-off-the-bone succulent several hours later; lamb stew simmers all day. I even made a lasagna that emerged with its layers intact. The cooker uses little energy and doesn’t require anyone to stand over it. I was so enchanted, I wanted to share the love with Dan.

My first attempt at slow-cooker fish was alarmingly successful: a drizzle of oil in the ceramic insert, some coarsely chopped shallots and smashed garlic, a hunk of farm-raised salmon. I squeezed lemon juice over the fish and set the cooker to low. An hour later, a creamy, kind-of-poached salmon emerged. With a smattering of chopped fresh dill, it was dinner.

A similar preparation appears in “The New Slow Cooker,” Brigit Binn’s book for Williams-Sonoma. She sets her salmon in a tarragon-and-white-wine-based broth that has already heated for 30 minutes. Yet the results are the same: “The texture is amazing,” she says. The low-and-slow method of cooking fish, she adds, “kind of approaches sous vide.”

Since the publication of Binn’s cookbook in 2010, one of her most frequent reader inquiries has been about fish. (She says another is, “Does it matter which crockpot I have?”)

Today’s slow cookers are more sophisticated than their forebears, with removable inserts for easy cleaning and serving, plus digital timers that shift to “warm” when the cook period ends. Some even boast of stove-top-safe inner receptacles, for browning meat or sauteing an onion in the same pot. (Such savers of dirty pans, alas, are not recommended, as the awkwardly shaped inserts don’t do the job a good old fry pan can do.)

Technique has evolved, as well. “You can’t just dump and go,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor at America’s Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook’s Illustrated and a raft of cookbooks. The more hands-on approach is what most slow-cooker fish recipes call for.

“To me, slow cookers were a gimmicky appliance,” Davison says. But after working on both “Slow Cooker Revolution” (2011) and “Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2: The Easy-Prep Edition,” coming out in September, she has changed her opinion: “With the right recipe, you can produce a well-crafted meal.”

Davison says she had an “aha” moment while experimenting with fish: “Not only is it incredibly easy in the slow cooker, but it’s good.” For one thing, she points out, “there’s more of a window to catch the fish at the correct doneness.” And further, slowly bringing up the temperature of a protein retains moisture, so the result is more delicate. “In the end, it has a silky texture and is tender and moist,” she says.

Even so, ATK’s 2011 book offers no fish recipes (one does contain anchovies). The newer edition has six, including old standbys such asYou chowders, stews and poached salmon.

“We’re a little behind the curve on this,” Davison admits.

Adding fish to the anthology means shifting the slow-cooker mind-set to the idea of cooking in stages.

For example, she gave me an early look at a recipe for garlicky shrimp that appears in the upcoming ATK book. “You start by poaching garlic in oil and pepper for 30 minutes,” so flavors are infused, Davison says. Then the shrimp is added to cook on high for another 20 minutes.

I shared with her my failed experiment with mussels. I had put two pounds of them in the slow cooker, along with garlic, white wine and stewed tomatoes. After half an hour on high, the shells had opened, but their innards were still glossy wet. I waited a while more, checking occasionally, until they looked done. But the cooked meat was rubbery and tasteless.

Davison, whose thoughtful analysis reflects the scientific approach that is an ATK hallmark, wondered whether the acid from the tomatoes might have affected the outcome. My theory was that the mussels spent too much of their cooking time exposed to the air in the slow cooker instead of nestled in their moist little shells. Davison, who has tested hundreds of recipes in dozens of cookers, says she has never tried mussels or clams.

My third fish experiment was more successful. I started with red Thai rice and cubes of sweet potato. In went stewed tomatoes (I have lots of jars from a summer canning binge), plenty of garlic and enough water to cover. Once the rice was nearly cooked and the sweet potatoes became fork-tender, I added coconut milk and dollops of Thai curry paste. When it had heated through, I carefully submerged four tilapia fillets in the stew. It took about 20 minutes for the fish to reach an opaque flakiness. The tilapia was tough to remove intact, so the dish became a kind of Thai curry hash, which I finished with ribbons of fresh basil. That, of course, affirmed another truth about slow-cooker food: Don’t expect it to be pretty.

At least, that’s the way it has always been. When Andrew Schloss began work on his book “Art of the Slow Cooker” (Chronicle, 2008), he says, “I started out by cooking recipes from other books. It was all mush.” He developed dishes with staggered cooking times, and tricks like suspending fish in an aluminum-foil sling to moderate their cooking. His bouillabaisse recipe calls for cooking the base mixture for several hours, then adding the fish.

Like Binn’s book for Williams-Sonoma, Schloss’s slow-cooker book is lush with photography of beautiful plated meals topped with fresh herbs, drizzled with sauces or sprinkled with gremolatas. And, as you can imagine, most of the recipes have more than two steps.

Thomas is a Baltimore freelance writer and editor. Got slow-cooker questions? She and Julia Collin Davison will join today’s Free Range chat at noon:

Courtesy: The Washington Post