If Phyllis Pellman Good could do it all over again, she would rethink the fish soup recipe.
As the author of a half-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:
1. Put everything in the cooker.
2. Set the timer for six or eight or 10 hours.
Her fish chowder is more complicated. Theres 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, Id add the fish at the end. Good and her husband, Merle, own Good Books Publishing in Intercourse, Pa. Her Fix it and Forget It series of slow-cooker books has sold more than 11 million copies.
Fish in the slow cooker seems counterintuitive. Fillets cook quickly, with a narrow window between done and dry, especially when they are baked. The most common reaction to my kitchen experiments with fish has been: Whats the point?
But 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 Binns book for Williams-Sonoma. She sets salmon in a tarragon-and-white-wine-based broth that has already heated for 30 minutes.
The texture is amazing, she says. The low-and-slow method of cooking fish, she adds, kind of approaches sous vide, the method of slowly controlling a cooking temperature to create meat with a sublimely silky texture.
Since the publication of Binns cookbook in 2010, one of her most frequent reader inquiries has been about fish.
Todays 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. That allows more variety in both cooking methods and ingredients.
Technique has evolved, as well.
You cant just dump and go, says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor at Americas Test Kitchen, which publishes Cooks Illustrated and a raft of cookbooks. The more hands-on approach is what most slow-cooker fish recipes require. Davison worked on both Slow Cooker Revolution (2011) and Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2: The Easy-Prep Edition, which comes out in September.
Davison had an aha moment while experimenting with fish: Not only is it incredibly easy in the slow cooker, but its good.
For one thing, she points out, theres more of a window to catch the fish at the correct doneness. And 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.
ATKs 2011 book offered no fish recipes except one with anchovies. The newer edition has six, including chowders, stews and poached salmon.
Adding fish dishes meant shifting the slow-cooker mind-set to the idea of cooking in stages, says Davison.
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.
One of my fish experiments mussels with garlic, white wine and stewed tomatoes was a failure: The shells opened too quickly and the mussels overcooked.
My third fish experiment was more successful. I started with red Thai rice and cubes of sweet potato. In went stewed tomatoes, 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 submerged four tilapia fillets in the stew. It took about 20 minutes for the fish to reach an opaque flakiness.
The tilapia was difficult 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:
Its more important to taste good than to be pretty.
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