Keep a slow profile
Forget fast food - slow is the way to go with Nicola Graimes' super-nutritious slow-cooker meals using fresh ingredients
Nurturing, restorative and nutritious, there's something really quite special about a slow-cooked meal. It's an antidote to hectic, modern life and the preoccupation with quick meals and fast food. The beauty of slow cooking is partly its simplicity, and I've tried to maintain this with recipes using readily available, nutritious, fresh ingredients and cooking them in a simple, unfussy, economic way.
Slow cookers cook food gently and evenly and it is arguable that the lower cooking temperature may actually help to preserve nutrients that can be lost when food is cooked quickly at high heat, such as in frying, grilling/broiling and boiling. Additionally, since the food is contained within a covered pot, nutrients released from the food could be contained in the slow cooker within any liquid or sauce; although, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) tend to hold up better than water-soluble ones such as vitamins B and C.
The true beauty of a slow cooker is that dishes pretty much look after themselves - there's no need to hover over the hob to produce healthful, nutritious, tasty meals loaded with superfoods.
Superfoods don't have to be exotic, expensive or found in specialist shops. Simple, everyday fresh foods have the power to support and boost our health but, for me, it's more than just about physical wellbeing - superfoods can be as good for the soul as they are for the body. Just consider a tasty, nutritious bowl of filling soup made with a nurturing bone broth and lots of veg - it ticks all the right boxes.
When you think of slow cooking, rich, hearty stews, soups and curries immediately spring to mind - basically winter comfort food - but I was surprised to discover, as you may be, while creating these recipes that my slow cooker is so much more versatile than I'd given it credit for.
Slow cookers come in many variations with features and prices to suit all needs. If you are thinking of buying a slow cooker, there are a few things to consider (see right).
Packed with good-for-you ingredients, you get a triple dose of iron and a hefty helping of antioxidants from this chilli, thanks to the addition of beetroot, pulses and raw cacao. They also add to the slightly 'meaty' texture and colour of the chilli, which is sure to win over any veggie sceptics. The raw cacao powder is stirred in towards the end of the cooking time to help retain its nutrient content.
BEETROOT, ADUKI BEAN AND CACAO CHILLI
Cooking Time: Low 7-8 hours; High 5-6 hours
150g/3/Qtr cup aduki beans, soaked overnight
50g/1/Qtr cup split red lentils, rinsed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
175 g/6 oz raw beetroot, peeled and diced
4cm/1½-in piece root ginger, grated
1 tablespoon chipotle chilli, or 1 tablespoon hot smoked paprika
½ teaspoon dried chilli flakes
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons dried oregano
400 g/14 oz can chopped tomatoes
500 ml/2 cups hot vegetable stock
2 teaspoons raw cacao powder or cocoa powder
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
Baked sweet potatoes, soured cream, rocket and lemon wedges, to serve
Put the soaked and drained aduki beans in a saucepan, cover with plenty of cold water and bring to the boil. Let the beans boil rapidly for 10 minutes then turn the heat down and simmer for another 10 minutes, drain and discard the cooking water.
Add the lentils, olive oil, onion, garlic, beetroot, ginger, carrots, chipotle or smoked paprika, chilli flakes, cumin, oregano, chopped tomatoes and stock to the pot with the beans, then stir until combined. Cover and cook on low for 7-8 hours, or high for 5-6 hours.
Towards the end of the cooking time, stir in the cacao powder or cocoa and taste, adding more chilli flakes, if you like your chilli extra hot.
Season with salt and pepper and serve on a baked sweet potato with some soured cream, rocket leaves and lemon wedges by the side.
301 kcals, 5.9g fat (1.6g saturates), 43 g carbohydrate (15.3g sugars), 11.1g fibre, 15.4g protein, 1.1g salt, 61 kcals, 30.2g fat (8.7g saturates), 9.7g carbohydrate (5.5g sugars), 2.3g fibre, 36.5g protein, 2g salt
DUCK WITH NECTARINES
It's not always necessary to brown meat and poultry before slow cooking, but here it helps to add colour to the duck as well as drain off some of the fat found in the skin. Chinese spices, ginger and fruit are classic partners with duck, particularly as they help to cut through the richness of the meat. Try to use nectarines that are ripe, but not overly, so they hold their shape during cooking.
Cooking time: Low 7-8 hours; High 4-5 hours
4 large duck legs, trimmed of any excess skin
2 teaspoons Chinese five spice
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
2½cm/1in piece root ginger, sliced
2 teaspoons reduced-salt soy sauce
70g/½ cup frozen shelled edamame beans, defrosted
2-3 just-ripe nectarines (depending on size), stone/pit removed and sliced
1 tablespoon kuzu or cornflour
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
Brown basmati rice, coriander and steamed long-stem broccoli, to serve
Season the duck legs with salt and pepper. Place two of the legs, skin-side down, in an unheated large saute pan on a medium-high heat and cook until the skin is golden and starting to crisp. Turn the duck over and brown the other side of the legs - this takes about 10 minutes in total. Transfer the browned duck legs to a plate, pour off any fat in the saute pan and repeat with the remaining two duck legs.
Mix together the five spice, ground ginger, root ginger, soy sauce and 100ml hot water in the slow cooker pot. Place the browned duck legs on top.
Cover and cook on low for 6 hours, or high for 3 hours. Tuck the edamame and nectarines around the duck, so they are submerged in the sauce, cover, and cook for another 1 hour.
Mix the kuzu or cornflour with a little water and set aside. Using a slotted spoon, remove the duck legs, root ginger, nectarines and edamame from the pot. Discard the ginger. Scoop off any fat on the surface of the sauce. Stir the kuzu or cornflour mixture into the sauce with another 150ml hot water. Turn the slow cooker to high if on low, cover and cook for 10 minutes until the sauce has thickened to a smooth gravy-like consistency. Stir well.
Return the duck, nectarines and edamame to the slow cooker to warm through. Serve with the sauce, rice, coriander/cilantro and steamed long-stem broccoli.
461 kcals, 30.2g fat (8.7 g saturates), 9.7g carbohydrate (5.5g sugars), 2.3g fibre, 36.5g protein, 2g salt
chose the right model
Make sure your cooker is at least half full when cooking meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Joints of meat should take up no more than two-thirds of the space. Always leave some headroom and never fill the pot right to the top.
Spices feature prominently in my cooking as does garlic, as you can see from this protein-rich chicken and lentil curry. High status in superfood terms, garlic has numerous impressive health properties and has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, lowered levels of harmful blood cholesterol and improved circulation. Serves 4
Cooking Time: Low 7-8 hours; High 4-5 hours
2 onions, roughly chopped
4cm/1½ -in piece root ginger, roughly chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1 medium-sized red chilli, deseeded and cut in half
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons panch phoran
1 tablespoon ghee or coconut oil
½ cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon chilli flakes
125g/two thirds cup split red lentils, rinsed
500ml/2 cups hot chicken stock
2 tablespoons tomato puree/paste
3 tomatoes, deseeded and diced
280g/10 oz butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and diced
1 tablespoon tamarind paste or lemon juice
6 skinless chicken thighs on the bone
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
Brown basmati rice and coriander leaves, to serve
Put the onions, ginger, garlic and chilli in a food processor and blitz to a coarse paste. Grind the coriander seeds, cumin seeds and panch phoran in a pestle and mortar.
Heat the ghee or coconut oil in a large frying pan, add the onion mixture and fry for 5 minutes, then stir in the ground spices.
Tip the onion mixture into the slow cooker pot and add the cinnamon stick, turmeric, chilli flakes, lentils, stock, tomato puree/paste, tomatoes, squash and tamarind paste or lemon juice.
Stir well until combined, then press the chicken thighs into the lentil mixture.
Cover and cook on low for 7-8 hours, or high for 4-5 hours, until the lentils are tender and the chicken is cooked through. Lift the thighs out of the sauce onto a plate and, using two forks, pull the chicken away from the bones in chunks. Discard the bones and pick out the cinnamon stick from the lentil sauce. Return the chicken to the pot, adding more hot stock or water, if needed.
Taste the dhansak and add more chilli flakes, if needed, and season with salt and pepper. Serve the dhansak with rice, scattered with coriander.
446 kcals, 11.2g fat (4.6g saturates), 34.7g carbohydrate (14.4g sugars), 6.9g fibre, 48g protein, 1.6g salt
Winter beef and prune pot roast
No bells and whistles… just sustaining, hearty, feel-good food that's cooked simply. For the best flavour, buy good-quality grass-fed organic beef and ensure the joint is an even cylindrical shape and not tapered at the ends so it cooks evenly without drying out. The prunes lend a touch of sweetness as well as a healthy dose of fibre and minerals.
Cooking Time: Low 7-9 hours, High 5-6 hours
1kg/2lb 4oz grass-reared silverside or topside beef joint/top round/bottom round, any external fat removed, tied with twine
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 carrots, quartered lengthways and sliced
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 celery stick, thinly sliced
2 turnips, cut into small bite-sized pieces
3 bay leaves
4 long thyme sprigs, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
3 garlic cloves, crushed
500ml/2 cups hot 12-hour Bone Broth, or good-quality fresh beef stock
100g/½ cup dried pitted prunes
1 rounded tablespoon kuzu or cornflour
15g/1 tablespoon butter or ghee
Sea salt cracked black pepper
Season the beef with salt and pepper. Heat half the oil in a large deep saute pan and sear the beef, turning it occasionally, until browned all over - this will take about 10 minutes.
Remove the beef from the pan, add the remaining oil and saute the carrots, onion, celery and turnips for 5 minutes until starting to soften.
Add the bay leaves, thyme, garlic and stock and stir to loosen any bits that have stuck to the base of the pan.
Place the vegetable mixture in the slow cooker pot.
Add the beef and prunes to the pot and spoon over the gravy. Cover and cook on low for 7-9 hours, or high for 5-6 hours, until the beef is tender. Turn the beef over halfway through the cooking time to prevent the top drying out.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the beef, vegetables and prunes to a dish and cover with foil to keep warm.
To thicken the gravy, mix the kuzu or cornflour with a little cold water and stir it into the slow cooker pot. Cook, uncovered, on the high setting for another 10 minutes until thickened, stirring regularly.
Alternatively, pour the juices into a small pan. Add the kuzu or cornflour mixture and simmer, stirring, over a medium heat until thickened. Finally, stir the butter or ghee into the gravy until melted.
Snip off the twine around the beef and carve into slices. Serve the beef with the prunes, vegetables and gravy.
434 kcals, 17.9g fat (5.6g saturates), 19.9g carbohydrate (16.3g sugars), 5.1g fibre, 44.7g protein, 0.7g salt