The great predicament of a Savannah summer: It's too hot to cook indoors; it's too hot (and muggy on top of it) to cook outdoors; you just can't face another leaf of lettuce.
And yet, you and your family are still hungry.
You could screw up your courage, tank up on iced tea, and fire up the grill anyway, or you could just go into the kitchen and dust off the appliance that we more often associate with cooler weather - the slow cooker.
It's an obvious thing to turn to when a chill in the air makes us crave stew, pot roast, chili or a hearty, warming soup. But winter isn't the only time we need to cook with a slow simmer, and we sometimes forget that a slow cooker is perfect for the times when we need that slow simmer in warmer weather.
The bonus is that it not only generates very little heat, it cuts the time we have to spend in the kitchen down to almost nothing.
So many summer favorites from corn on the cob to pulled pork and fruit cobbler can be adapted effectively to the slow cooker. Yes, they usually take longer than they would using a more conventional method, but the time they take is mostly unattended, which means that while your dinner simmers lazily you can be somewhere else (like the pool).
My own favorite summer slow-cooker dish is one that's obvious: vegetable soup. I've included two homey versions here, one ham-based and one beef-based.
Less obvious, yet no less ideal, candidates for adapting to the slow cooker are many of the classic seafood stews and gumbos, and I've included two of those as well.
But don't stop at soups and stews: the slow cooker is also ideal for simmering fresh tomato sauces, fruit preserves, and many other summer favorites. If it needs a lazy simmer (and often even when it doesn't), the slow cooker will most likely do the job handsomely.
Adapting a conventional summer recipe to the slow cooker
If you've been regularly using your slow cooker for a long time, you probably don't need these notes, since adapting a recipe to the slow cooker isn't complicated. But if you're a slow-cooker newbie, here are a few useful tips for sure-fire success.
You'll need less liquid: cut it by half, or, for a soup by a third (unless the soup is mostly broth). Unless the result is supposed to be soupy, most of the time the natural juices already in the food are sufficient. But when the liquid is meant to add flavor (wine, fruit juice, or broth), don't omit it altogether.
You may still want to brown some meats and give some vegetables a preliminary saute: Browning in most instances adds depth to the flavors, and sauteing aromatic vegetables (onions, garlic, carrots, and celery) will help bring out their flavor. But sometimes the concentration that results from the slow simmer accomplishes almost the same thing.
Some sources advise cutting back on strong-flavored aromatics (hot pepper, spices, onions, and garlic) on the premise that the slow simmer intensifies them, but I've not noticed a significant difference in that respect. If you're sensitive to any of those, you might experiment with cutting back on them the first time.
Old-Fashioned Hambone Soup in the Slow Cooker
You'll need a 6- to 6-1/2-quart slow cooker for this recipe. The ham broth portion of the recipe makes more than you'll need for the soup, but it can be made ahead and frozen in batches, then used in a number of different dishes, as a broth base for hearty soup, or for gumbos, stews, and slow-cooked beans, or as a quick flavor boost for simmering or braising vegetables.
For the broth (makes about 3Â½ quarts):
1 whole ham bone, with some meat still attached, or 1Â½ pounds ham hocks
4 quarts water
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
1 medium carrot, trimmed peeled and sliced
1 leafy celery top
8 to 10 whole black peppercorns
1 whole pod hot pepper such as cayenne, Serrano, or jalapeÃ±o
1 large sprig parsley or 2-3 large parsley stems
2 3-inch sprigs thyme
1 large bay leaf
For the Soup:
2 quarts (8 cups) Ham Broth
3 tablespoons rendered ham drippings, bacon drippings, or unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
1 large carrot, trimmed, peeled and diced small
2 large ribs celery, washed strung, and diced small
1 small turnip, trimmed peeled and diced small
1 quart (4 cups) peeled, seeded, and chopped ripe tomatoes, with their juice
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
2 cups small fresh or frozen green butterbeans (green baby limas)
2 cup fresh-cut (about 2-3 large ears) or frozen sweet white corn kernels
2 cups diced yellow crookneck squash (about 2 medium)
2 cups diced cabbage (about Â½ small cabbage)
2 cups capped and sliced fresh okra (about 8 ounces whole pods)
1Â½-2 cups small-diced or roughly chopped cooked ham
1. To make broth: put hambone or hocks and water in slow cooker, cover, and set on high. Cook on high until water starts to boil, about 1 hour, then add remaining ingredients and cook on low 8 hours or overnight. Turn off heat. Taste and add salt if it is needed, then let cool. Strain it into a bowl, saving hambone or hocks. If you have time, refrigerate overnight until fat on top has solidified and remove fat. Otherwise, let it settle a few minutes and skim off fat with a wide, shallow spoon. Pick meat from bone or hocks and roughly chop.
2. When ready to make soup, wipe out slow cooker and add 2 quarts ham broth to it. Add onion, carrot, celery, tomatoes with juice, butterbeans, corn, squash, cabbage, and okra. Cook on high 4-5 hours or on low 8 hours. Add ham and cook on high until ham is hot through, about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust salt and pepper and simmer a moment or two longer.
Summer Vegetable Beef Soup
You'll need a 6- to 6-1/2-quart slow cooker for this recipe. This is more or less my grandmother's vegetable soup, so it's traditionally Southern. If you want it to be a bit less so, omit the salt pork and okra.
Serves 8 To 10 (About 6 Quarts)
4 ounces salt pork in 1 slice
2 pounds meaty beef shanks or bone-in chuck
2 quarts water
2-1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes
2 cups (about 2 medium) peeled, chopped onions
1 cup (about 3 ribs) diced celery
1 cup (about 3 medium) peeled, sliced carrots
2 cups fresh or frozen butterbeans, preferably speckled
1 pound potatoes, peeled and diced (about 2 cups)
2 cups (tightly packed) thinly sliced green cabbage
1/2 pound (about 1 cup) trimmed, strung, and sliced pole beans or other sturdy green beans
3 cups thinly sliced okra (about 1 1/2 pounds)
3/4 pound turnips, peeled and diced (about 2 cups)
3/4 pound yellow summer squash, washed and diced (about 2 cups)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups corn kernels freshly cut from the cob (3 to 6 ears) or 2 cups good-quality frozen shoepeg corn
1. Put salt pork in a heavy-bottomed deep skillet over medium heat. Cook, turning often until well browned and most of fat is rendered. Transfer to slow cooker and add beef to skillet. Brown well on all sides and turn off heat. Transfer to slow cooker. Add water, cover, and cook on high until simmering. Reduce to low and simmer 6-8 hours or overnight. (This can be done 2 to 3 days ahead. Cook, cover, and refrigerate broth until ready to finish soup.)
2. Meanwhile, bring large pot water to boil. Cut an 'x' in the bottom of the tomatoes and slip into boiling water 1 minute. Drain, core, peel and seed over sieve set in bowl to catch juices. Chop and add to collected juices.
3. Remove beef from slow cooker. Raise heat to high and add onion, carrot, tomatoes, butterbeans, potatoes, cabbage, pole beans, okra, turnips, squash, and corn. Cook on high until beginning to boil, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, remove bone and fat from beef, roughly chop, and add it back to soup. Season with salt, pepper, and small pinch sugar. Cook until beginning to boil, reduce the heat to low, and cook 6-8 hours.
Slow Cooker Seafood Stew
You'll need a 6- to 6-1/2-quart slow cooker for this recipe. Feel free to change or reduce the amount of seafood as your budget requires.
2 pounds ripe tomatoes or 1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes in juice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups shellfish broth or clam juice
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 large ribs celery, strung and chopped
2 large russet potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks, or 1 1/2 pounds small new potatoes, quartered
1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dried whole thyme leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crush red pepper flakes (to taste)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
2 pounds firm white fish fillet such as cod, grouper, or halibut
1/2 pound (1 cup) lump crabmeat
1/2 pound large shrimp
1/2 pound scallops
2 dozen small littleneck clams
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
1. If using canned tomatoes, skip to step 2. Bring large pot water to boil. Cut an 'x' in the bottom of the tomatoes and slip into boiling water 1 minute. Drain, core, peel and seed over sieve set in bowl to catch juices. Chop and add to collected juices. Should be about 4 cups. Transfer to slow cooker and set heat on high.
2. If using canned tomatoes, drain, reserving juices. Core and seed tomatoes over sieve set over bowl with reserved juices. Roughly chop and transfer with collected juices to slow cooker and set heat on high.
3. Add tomato paste, broth, wine, garlic, onion, celery, herbs, and hot pepper flakes to slow cooker. Season with salt and pepper, stir, then add fish fillets. Cover, and cook on high until fish is cooked through and potatoes and onions are tender, about 2-3 hours, or cook 1 hour on high, then on low 4-6 hours.
4. If previously cooking on low, raise heat to high. Stir in crabmeat and add shrimp, scallops, and clams. Cook 10-20 minutes or until clams open and shrimp and scallops are cooked, about 5-10 minutes longer. Serve in deep bowls sprinkled with parsley.
Slow Cooker Buridda (Ligurian Fish Stew)
This is a simpler variation of the previous seafood stew. Similar ones can be found all around the Mediterranean; Buridda is the name of the one that is a specialty of the Italian Riviera. Adapted from a traditional Buridda given by Fred Plotkin in his classic book, "Recipes from Paradise" (Little, Brown/1997).
1/4 cup best quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound ripe plum tomatoes, halved, seeded, and diced (not peeled)
1 heaped tablespoon chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, plus more for garnish
1 heaped tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
3 pounds firm white-fleshed fish fillets such as cod or grouper cut into 2-inch chunks
1/2 pound squid, cleaned and cut into thick rings, with tentacles left whole
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1/2 cup dry white wine or extra-dry white vermouth
1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled
1. Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil over bottom of slow cooker. Add half of onions and sprinkle with half of garlic, tomatoes, and herbs. Add fish and squid and season with salt and pepper. Top with remaining onions, garlic, tomatoes, and herbs. Season with more salt and pepper and pour in wine. Drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons oil.
2. Cover and cook on high 4 hours or low 6-8 hours, until fish flakes easily and onions and calamari are tender. Add shrimp, cover, and cook on high until shrimp are curled and pink, about 10-20 minutes longer. Serve in deep bowls sprinkled with chopped parsley.