Chef Hugh Acheson takes on the slow cooker

Hugh Acheson

Hugh Acheson

Both a tad campy and solidly useful, "The Chef and the Slow Cooker" (Clarkson Potter, $29.99) by James Beard Award-winning chef and cookbook author Hugh Acheson, is a surprise in many ways.

Acheson is known around these parts as the driving force behind Athens and Atlanta fine dining restaurants 5&10, The National, and Empire State South.

Plus there are the Spiller Park Coffee shops, and First & Third Hot Dog and Sausage Shack at SunTrust Park, where his newest full-service restaurant, Achie's, is set to open in the Omni Hotel.

But even with all that going on, Acheson is probably much better known nationally for his wry presence on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” and ongoing starring role as a judge on “Top Chef.”

Of course, that begs the question, Why a slow-cooker book? The answer, revealed in a recent conversation was, more or less, Why not?

“It was actually a matter of my editor Francis Lam pitching it to me,” Acheson said. “He sort of saw the writing on the wall that the slow-cooker was going to be pertinent, again. I’d been using them for years to make chicken stock at home.

“And then there’s the ubiquitous pot roast and stuff like that. It got me thinking about how you could take something that pretty much everybody already has, but they rarely use, and make it a gateway to cooking from scratch, again.”

Acheson’s solution was to bring the slow cooker conversation into the present tense. To that end, he created 100 recipes for dishes that represent his unique point of view as a chef while offering convenient options for home cooks.

"To me, it just meant that you need to do food that is exciting and contemporary with the archaic technology of a slow cooker," he said. "It's not an Instant Pot. It's not a steamer. It's just a simple slow cooker.

“But you can do pretty much anything in it. It’s easy to use. Easy to clean. It’s there, and you’re not using it. And using a slow cooker on a regular basis is a call to use lesser cuts of meat that are a really good value.”

“The Chef and The Slow Cooker” begins with a primer on stocks and broths, which become the foundation for building many of the other recipes in the book.

“Using a slow cooker for stocks is ideal,” Acheson said. “Because of the even temperature, it produces really clear stocks. Then freezing stocks in wide-mouth jars with a little space for expansion is great.

“You can open up the freezer and have a dark chicken stock or a shrimp stock or a pho broth, and all these things make a larder. Having a larder is really the way that we expand our culinary horizons.”

There are sections on beans, soups, vegetables, seafood, poultry, beef, pork, lamb and goat, and even recipes for slow cooker jams, butters and chutneys. Beyond that, the variety of cuisines touched on is impressive.

Braised Shiitake Mushrooms with Tofu, Thai Basil and Chilies is vegan-friendly, complex and flavorful, even if Acheson describes it as “a recipe for your virtuous meatless Monday.”

“It’s really, really good, really clean, and it turned out really well,” he said. “I think it came from a dish I had in a Chinese restaurant in New York that I decided was the perfect combination of healthy and meaty in a vegetable presentation.”

For those more interested in a meaty meat dish, there’s Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder with Fennel, Pecans and Figs.

“The key to that recipe is pork shoulder as opposed to using pork loin,” Acheson said. “The structure of the shoulder is going to keep it beautifully moist during the braising process. So it’s another really, really good one.

“And it’s really easy. The milk breaks down into curds and whey for a stunning dish that makes rustic look beautiful. To me me, this is very much a fall dish. It’s a right now dish.”

These recipes and notes from “The Chef and the Slow Cooker” (Clarkson Potter, $29.99) by James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson will breathe new life into your old crock pot.

I’ve always loved vegetables, but I was anti–vegetable stock for a long time. I fought a noble fight against dank, watery eau-de-overcooked-vegetables. But I am getting older, more mature in my ways, and more accepting of things. I can now see the other side: With the growing number of vegetarians who visit my tables, I have found that a really good vegetable stock gives me an option to make soups, vegetable stews, sauces, and pasta dishes that will make everyone happy. And so I created a vegetable stock that even I can love. Just don’t go mauling it with vegetables that are beyond their prime. Make it with love and respect and it’ll love and respect you back.

This is a recipe for your virtuous meatless Monday. You will be laughing at all the suckers eating dry, lifeless veggie burgers while you dig into the meaty deliciousness of braised shiitakes. Mushrooms braise into delectable morsels with near-meat consistency, and they really could become a staple protein replacement at your table. This is a simple recipe, yet it yields stunning results and makes a nice supper when served with rice.

Tofu has a lot of water in it, so it’s often pressed to expel some, leaving you with a denser, chewier, more flavorful bite. At home I just place a big colander in the sink and then find a plate that nestles in it tightly. Cut the tofu into large 1-inch-thick rectangles, arrange them in a single layer in the colander, and place the plate over them. Weight the plate down with a brick or with cans of beans or whatever. An hour later, you have pressed tofu. You can also press the tofu between two heavy plates in the fridge overnight. This ain’t rocket science.

I love milk-braised pork. It is moist and succulent and really gives you a glimpse into the reality that Italians do not eat pasta at every meal and don’t all have Ferraris. The diversity of the Italian food map is wonderful, and if you look at it you will see that braised dishes like this are a beautiful staple in the north. And they will often serve them up with some polenta.

Pork, milk, nuts, figs … this is such a deliciously savory poem.