Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Why slow cookers are like the Mersey Tunnel. And the joy of Dumplings

From the age of 4, until I was 14, we lived on the Merseyside coast, north of Liverpool. Not quite as far as Southport, and certainly not as posh as Formby, where all the footballers live nowadays (so I hear). I remember the first time I was invited to go to the other side of the Mersey with some friends who had a cottage on Anglesey. Notwithstanding a trip away to a little cottage on my own without my parents, the real excitement was the prospect of going under the River Mersey. I was soooo excited, but a little apprehensive. Excited because I’d see all the fish swimming around – but nervous because the friends had a jeep type vehicle and I was sure that one of the features was a flap in the dashboard which opened up. What happened if the water came in?

Of course, no one had taken it upon themselves to explain that I would be going under the Mersey IN A TUNNEL. 

There I was, considering a drive that was almost beyond imagination: I could see us in their mustard yellow Diahatsu, a vehicle that must have been purchased solely for the purpose of driving across the sea bed, fearlessly traversing the sandy bottom of the Mersey over to the Wirral. Much influenced no doubt by watching ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’, I did not allow the reality of what I knew of the Mersey from frequent dog walks along the Waterloo/Crosby shoreline (where severed feet still in boots – I kid you not – , foul-smelling rotting cuttlefish, and used condoms and hypodermic needles were more likely to be washed up from the grey and murky waters) to sully the mental picture that became more and more vivid each day as the trip approached. I anticipated ‘bobbing along’ while many brightly coloured and interesting fish swam passed me; perhaps a shipwreck or two would be there to divert attention and may be even (I am fairly sure I was not quite in double figures) a mermaid…

Imagine my disappointment.

We descended into the mouth of the tunnel. I held my breath in anticipation, hardly daring to look. But where was the water? The fish? The mermaids?

Hidden behind a wall of concrete. Damn those tunnel builders who didn’t have the imagination even to make their tunnel out of reinforced glass. Still, I got over it pretty quickly - I had the 'holding your breath over the Menai Bridge' competition, and chips at Conwy castle, to look forward to...

This happens to me a lot. My imagination runs wild, and then I have to not be disappointed by reality. Take slow cookers.

We were given a slow cooker when we got married. It was one of those weird presents that we weren’t really sure about, and it looked as if it might in fact have been a ‘regifting’. Not that I mind about re-gifting, in fact, I do quite a lot of it myself these days, but we were younger then, and it was our wedding...

I didn’t use it for ages, the Husband went off on an operational tour straight after we got hitched and I stayed in London, but 6 months later, moved out into Army land with a ridiculous commute back to work, I read something about how it was the miracle kitchen gadget, reducing time and effort spent in the kitchen, meaning you could come home to a casserole or curry after a hard day at work. 

“Oh how good is that?" I thought. "I must give it a go”. 

At the time, we were eating a lot of Egg Surprise, cooked mainly by the Husband who had a much less arduous commute (when he wasn’t in a war zone), so the possibility of being a good little wife and producing a delicious dinner as well as doing a hard day’s lawyering up in ‘town’ – well, it was irresistible. 

But just as no one told me about the tunnel, no one told me that I’d still have to do all the prep. I couldn’t just chuck in onions, mushrooms, meat, a stock cube into the crock pot, flick a switch and disappear, to come back at the end of the day and find a casserole. Oh no. I still had to peel the onions; brown the meat; make up the stock...

So the slow cooker went back in the cupboard – I was already getting up at 6 to catch the train. I was damned if I was getting up even earlier to get the dinner on.

Time passes, however, and while it took me quite a long time to throw off that particular disappointment (longer than getting over not driving across the actual bottom of the Mersey) and realise the benefits of the slow cooker I am now a total fan (even if you do have to peel the onions and brown the meat first).

Less time in the kitchen means more time on the beach for him...
Even more so now that we’ve moved. There is so much lovely countryside and coast out here; so many markets and farm shops to visit. Spending 20 minutes in the morning getting the slow cooker on repays itself many times over. Yes, you have to put the effort in early on, but then you are free, free as a bird (well, sort of), for the rest of the day. Of course, having children puts paid to lazy mornings in bed, I’m no longer engaged in some dreadful commute to work, and really, to some extent, it’s all a ‘smoke and mirrors’ psychological trick, that makes you THINK it’s much less effort. But the fact that you can leave the food and it won’t burn the house down does work in it’s favour. You know what I mean.

The versatility of the slow cooker has become more apparent to me too since we moved. Not just main courses, but I made a delicious gammon ‘chowder’ the other day for lunch, and in something more akin to the witchcraft I was originally anticipating, the Husband has, in recent weeks, produced a steamed pudding of much gloriousness – sticky glazed banana gingerbread no less – from the humble depths of the of the crock pot. I cannot tell you how good it was.

Versatility aside, my main thing to cook recently in the slow cooker has been beef casserole. Do the prep, chuck it all in early, spend the day walking the coast path, throwing stones in the sea for the dog or mooch round a market, before returning home, dinner done. And in the quest for easy carbohydrate, I have discovered that 45 minutes before you want to eat, you can knock up some dumpling dough, pop the dumplings in the top of the crock pot, and leave them to cook and bingo. 

Easy Slow Cooker Beef Casserole & Dumplings

Serves 4

Plain flour

Salt & freshly ground pepper

A bunch of fresh thyme, leaves only

400g stewing steak

Rapeseed oil

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 rashers of bacon (not essential, but a tasty addition), de-rinded and chopped

2 medium-large carrots, peeled if necessary and diced

½ a swede (use your judgment – you’re looking for about the same quantity as of carrots) peeled and diced

150g chestnut mushrooms, quartered

100ml of Guiness or a glass of red wine if you have

350-500 ml beef stock

½ tbsp cornflour

150g self raising flour

75g vegetable suet

2 tsp Dijon mustard

Some fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped if necessary

Salt & freshly ground pepper

5-7 tbsp water

Heat your slow cooker on the low setting.

Put about 4 tbsp plain flour into a bowl and add some salt & pepper and the thyme leaves. Stir together, then add the cubed meat, coating in the flour.

Gently sweat the onion and garlic in a  frying pan, in a tablespoon of oil for 10 mins or so, then scrape into the slow cooker. 

Add a little more oil if necessary to the frying pan and gently fry the bacon for a couple of minutes till starting to colour, then add in the carrots and swede and cook for 5 minutes before adding to the crockpot, then cooking the mushrooms in the same way.

Brown the meat in batches in the frying pan, using a little more oil if necessary and adding to the crockpot as you go.

If using Guiness or red wine, tip this into the frying pan and scrape up any crusty bits, add in the stock and bring everything up to the boil before tipping in to the crock pot till the meat and veg is just covered.

Put the lid on and go off to enjoy your day…

45 minutes before you want to eat, flick the slow cooker setting to high.

Mix the cornflour with the same amount of cold water till smooth, then stir into the casserole. Replace the lid while you make the dumplings.

Mix together the flour, suet, mustard, thyme and salt & pepper, then add the water slowly to combine to a soft (but not sticky) dough.

Divide the dough into 8 and shape into balls.

Take the lid off again and pop the dumplings on top of the casserole, before replacing the lid and leaving to cook for 45 minutes. 

The real genius of this of course is that there’s so much veg in the casserole that with the dumplings to provide carbohydrate you need to no more (although I won't complain if you add in some steamed PSB as a flourish at the end). So the only disappointment is that if the slow cooker has already got the casserole in it, where’s the steamed pudding going to come from?


  1. I am also a slow cooker convert. Its the perfect way to have a meal cooked ready and waiting for us after a rugby day. I love the way the house smells as you walk in the door. Hope move went well. Elinor x

  2. This recipe looks so good :-)
    Our slow cooker died in Portugal in December. I rarely used it at home but it was fantastic here in our caravan. Like you say, put in a little effort early on then simply return home to a delicious dinner. However, the Portuguese and Spanish don't seem to use slow cookers so I've got to wait until we're back in the UK to replace it.
    It made a fantastic Chicken & Chorizo Casserole and Lamb Rogan Josh. I'm feeling quite nostalgic!

  3. I haven't had dumplings like this for years. I love my slow cooker though so soemthing like this is definitely something I'd like to have a go at. It sounds lovely and warming. I love your story about the Mersey tuneel too.

  4. I started using our slow cooker when we moved abroad. Honestly wouldn't be without it now.... And those dumplings!! :D

  5. I'm a big fan of slow cookers and that's my kind of casserole. You can't beat a dumpling. Given the sinking problems of the Wacker Quacker last year I think that your notion of driving across the bottom of the Mersey may have been prophetic.


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