I have two issues with slow cookers, and both are deal breakers.
First, I resent the fact that if I want my meat browned — and therefore flavourful — I must sear it in another pan before adding it to the slow cooker. And yes, I know that a small number of (typically very expensive) slow cookers do have the ability to sear meat. But the reality is, most of us don't own those. To me, much of the convenience of a slow cooker is the ability to do everything in one pot. If I can't, it's a lot less convenient.
Second, I distrust how evenly they heat. While there are some dishes for which uneven heating — and even a bit of overheating — isn't a major deal (I'm talking to you, chili), most meals aren't that forgiving. I have rendered far too many recipes inedible by misjudging how intense (or not) my slow cooker would cook. I much prefer the precision of my stovetop, which I can tweak to perfection.
It's for these reasons I've recently become enamoured with one of the original slow cookers — the tagine.
At heart, these conical cooking pots from Morocco are similar to a Dutch oven, at least in terms of how they are intended to be used. The base is shallow, similar to a saute pan. This is topped with a cone-shaped lid. The base is heated directly on the stove, giving the cook not only the ability to sear meat, but also to finely tune the temperature. Many tagines are ceramic, but some are cast iron.
Once the ingredients are seared and liquid is added, the lid is placed on the base, the heat is adjusted to maintain a simmer and the cook can walk away. The shape of the lid is designed to allow steam to gather and condense at the top, then drip back down into the food. The result is near flawless slow cooking that results in moist, tender meats.
I usually start by browning onions and garlic in oil, then adding meat and searing that. I dump in the rest of my ingredients, then pop on the lid, lower the heat and walk away for several hours.
So to help usher in spring, I used my tagine to create this recipe for lamb with chickpeas, tomatoes and rosemary. Hugely flavourful and tremendously easy. I keep it lean by trimming away as much fat from the lamb as possible. Don't have a tagine? Use a heavy duty Dutch oven.
ROSEMARY LAMB TAGINE WITH CHICKPEAS AND TOMATOES
Start to finish: 2 1/2 hours (15 minutes active)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 head garlic, minced
2 pounds lamb leg or stew meat, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
15-ounce can chopped or diced tomatoes
15-ounce can chickpeas, drained
3/4 cup chicken broth
Salt and ground black pepper
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Chopped fresh parsley, to garnish
Plain Greek yogurt, to serve
In the base of a tagine or large Dutch oven over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the onion and garlic, then saute until tender and lightly browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the lamb and brown on all sides, about 15 minutes.
Stir in the rosemary, tomatoes, chickpeas and broth, then bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer and let cook for 2 hours, or until the lamb is fork tender.
Season with salt and pepper, then divide between serving plates. Squeeze 1 or 2 lemon wedges over each serving, then top with parsley and a dollop of yogurt.
Nutrition information per serving: 300 calories; 110 calories from fat (37 per cent of total calories); 12 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 75 mg cholesterol; 21 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 28 g protein; 510 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch