Winter Warmers

Hannah Wong spent the last few weeks creating family meal plans designed to fend off the cold, and learning to use a slow cooker her mum passed on to her.

Slow cooker

Morphy Richards have given me some slow cookers like this one to give away to users this month (they're a bit more up to date than the one I've been experimenting with!)

I've just added 7 new family meal plans to the site that use really hearty recipes like stews, casseroles and bakes.

Writing some of the recipes and testing them has been an education, because mum gave me her old slow cooker a while ago, and I’ve been experimenting with that.

It’s an old Morphy Richards ‘health cooker’ and though it’s getting on a bit and slightly lower wattage than modern slow cookers, it still renders cheap cuts of meat down to mouth-watering, tender mouthfuls after a few hours: something I haven’t enjoyed since I left the family home and headed off to university.

“Mum swears by the convenience of adding all the ingredients to the pot before she starts a shift, knowing that dinner will be ready when she’s done”

Mum’s always had a couple, and used them to cook stews, soups and congee. She still works long hours (cooking!) and she swears by the convenience of adding all the ingredients to the pot before she starts a shift, knowing that dinner will be ready when she’s done. She’s actually been trying to give me one ever since I got married a few years ago, but I’ve declined till now, because I’m not much of a gadget person (though as it turns out, it’s no more complicated to use than a kettle!)

Now that I am a busy mum with a tight budget and time’s scarce, I’ve been slowly coming round to the idea of using a slow cooker, but actually using one these last few weeks has turned me into a total enthusiast.

I've been given some slow cookers to give away to users!

I actually contacted Morphy Richards to tell them that we were going to feature slow cooking on the site and see if they’d be willing to provide a couple of slow cookers to give away to our users. I’m thrilled to say that Jenna and Pete, who look after the slow cooker side of things in the UK, have given me two top of the range slow cookers (this one, reviewed by users here, and this one) to give away to users who enter the competition below or create Resourceful Cook shopping lists this month.

Sorry this competition is now closed.

They’re also going to post the recipes we’ve created over the past few weeks in their recipe blog at ‘Home of the House-Proud’, a really useful community site they’ve built for users of their products (there are plenty of other slow cooker recipes there too, so if you do become a slow cooking convert, and want to expand your repertoire beyond our meal plans, it’s the obvious place to start

Surfing their site has suggested a few other ‘resourceful’ approaches to cooking I want to investigate this winter: home bread making being one, and pressure-cooking being the other (my mother-in-law has promised me her pressure-cooker to experiment with). Watch this space.

Great new meal plans for winter.

So, back to the meal plans... like I say, they’re all built using wholesome, substantial meals that should provide you and your family with plenty of fuel to fend against the cold over the winter. There are four ‘winter warmer’ meal plans (two of them involve a little bit of slow cooking, but you can swap those meals out if you don’t have a slow cooker).

Starting with the conventionally cooked meal plans, if you’re on a budget, Winter Warmers 4 is a brilliant meal plan that feeds the family for £5 a night and includes some fantastic meals like Tartiflette, a favourite of mine – a savoury, Savoyen bake made of potatoes, cheese, cream and bacon that I’ll be blogging about – and braised chicken and beans. Winter Warmers 2 is also great value for money (roughly £6.50 a night). It’s full of family favourites like shepherd’s pie, meatballs and toad in the hole.

Winter warmers 1 and winter warmers 3 only include a couple of slow cooked meals – so, like I say, if you don’t have a slow cooker, just swap in alternative recipes that don’t require slow cooking.

Slow cooking and slow cooker meal plans

Now to the slow cooker focused meal plans: Slow easy week..., Slow food and Slowly does it. As I mentioned, I’ve been experimenting with the slow cooker my mum gave me, and I think the results have been brilliant – though my judgement is probably a bit coloured by nostalgia, thanks to fond memories of all the slow-cooked family meals my mum served up years ago.

If you haven’t encountered them before, slow cookers are an energy efficient way to cook meals gently over long periods of time.

The one I’ve been using only requires the same power as a tungsten lightbulb when operating at high temperature, so from the point of view of a resourceful cook, it’s a no brainer.

I calculate that cooking a casserole for 2 hours in an A rated oven would requires about 3 times as much energy as slow cooking it for 6 hours in my slow cooker.

The energy heats the base of an aluminium vessel with a stoneware casserole sitting in it.

The casserole warms gently and then simmers its content slowly for as long as is needed.

So, they’re great from an energy efficiency angle, but the main plus points from my point of view are convenience and flavour. On the flavour front, slow, gentle cooking gives inexpensive cuts of meat a really tender, melt in the mouth consistency (my pork and apple casserole is a brilliant showcase for this) and the long cooking time gets the flavours mingling, so that straight-forward dishes like a beef, potato and parsnip stew become really aromatic and the flavours surprising complex.

“Getting away from the kitchen for eight hours at a time, but returning to a meal that tastes better than it might have done if I’d been around to interfere with it is very appealing”

The convenience is a result of slow cooked meals requiring so little preparation and not needing to be attended to in the same way that a meal cooked on a hob does. You basically, clean/peel/cut your ingredients, sometimes sealing them or sautéing them in hot oil too, and then place them in the slow cooker and set it to the desired temperature, leaving it to work its magic while you get on with other things. With a bit of experimentation, I’ve found I can extend cooking times (by adjusting the temperature that I cook at) to match my plans. You can imagine how appealing it is to be away from the kitchen for eight hours at a time, but return to a perfect meal that probably tastes better than it would have done if I’d been around to interfere with it!

Two other factors make slow cooking even more convenient: slow cookers work at moderate temperatures, which make it pretty much impossible to overcook your food and ruin your meal; and cooking in one pot saves on washing up!

From the point of view of a resourceful cook they have another benefit: they make the most of local, seasonal produce, especially during the winter months. Winter root vegetables, less expensive cuts of meat and dried pulses and grains all come into their own when slow cooked. Making the most of ingredients like these reduces the temptation to buy unseasonal green vegetables flown in from Africa and South America or wasteful prime cuts of meat, saving on expense and resources.

Slow cooker highlights.

Finally, a rundown of the highlights of my new meal plans:

Pork & Apple Casserole – this is how I expect a good stew to taste, it’s full of flavour and tastes really wholesome. I had seconds, despite feeling pretty full after my first plateful (bad girl!). It’s a perfect meal for a chilly autumn night-in.

Beef & Ale stew – the ale gives this dish an interesting, aromatic flavour which is quite mellow and subtle thanks to the long cooking time. The beef, despite being cheap supermarket stewing steak, was incredibly tender and succulent.

Leek & mushroom risotto – this was a bit of an experiment with a meal I’ve always believed needs careful, continuous attention, so I really didn’t expect a low maintenance version to taste so good. Slow cooked risotto is creamier than stove top risotto, with a slightly more even consistency. Purists who like plenty of ‘bite’ to their risotto may not be too keen, but given the convenience, I was delighted by the results.

Beef, potato & parsnip stew – being a slow cooking novice, I really didn’t know what to expect from this very inexpensive dish (£1.49 a serving) which is the type of recipe that’s meant to come into its own when slow cooked. I was surprised to see that the potatoes and parsnips kept their shape and consistency, unlike stews cooked at fiercer temperatures on the hob. The real highlight of the dish was the gravy though – cooked slowly for several hours, it had a much more complex taste than I anticipated.

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