FOOD

Can you cook pasta in the slow cooker? Yes, you can. Modern Slow Cooker author Alyce Alexandra shows how

Saucy vodka pasta. Picture: Loryn Babauskis
Saucy vodka pasta. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Alyce Alexandra wants us to think about the slow cooker in a completely different way. Sure it does fine curries and soups when you drag it out of the back of the cupboard as the weather starts to chill but have you ever thought about making drinks, desserts, salads and sauces in it?

"Reworking the classics has never appealed to me," says Alexandra, who runs her own cooking school in Victoria and is the author of nine cookbooks which focus on the slow cooker and thermo cookers.

"I really wanted to show all the ways you can use the slow cooker, I've done all the experimenting, I love coming up with new theories and ideas and pushing the boundaries of appliance cooking."

But why the slow cooker, surely in an age where we're all so busy, "slow" seems to go against everything we need?

"It may be 'slow' cooking, but the hands-on time is so minimal, that it actually ends up being fast ... in a roundabout way.

"Maybe the 'easy cooker' would be a better name? I totally get that people are busy, even I struggle to fit in cooking, and stick to super easy dishes 95 per cent of the time. That's why I think the slow cooker is so valuable, especially in today's busy world.

"With the idea of '30 minute meals', a meal might be on the table in 30 minutes, or not, but you're rushing, you're engaged that entire time, you're thinking, you're managing.

"With a slow cooker, you might spend 15 minutes in the morning calmly chopping ingredients, chuck them all in the slow cooker and then you're off to work, no thinking, no managing.

"When you get home, dinner is ready to be served. It's easy, it's foolproof, and it's calm. That's what I think we're all looking for these days in the kitchen, calm rather than simply quick."

Modern Slow Cooker: 85 vegetarian and vegan recipes to make your life easy, by Alyce Alexandra. Viking, $29.99.

Modern Slow Cooker: 85 vegetarian and vegan recipes to make your life easy, by Alyce Alexandra. Viking, $29.99.

Modern Slow Cooker is a vegetarian cookbook and Alexandra wants to dispel the myth that slow cookers are only good for meat.

"That's like saying a frypan is only good for steak," she says.

"People are wanting to eat less animal products, whether they are actually vegetarian or vegan or moving towards flexitarianism or cooking for someone who is.

"There's a conception that slow cooker's overcook vegetables but that's not right, people overcook vegetables. So many plant-based ingredients work well in the slow cooker - dried chickpeas, tomatoes, potatoes, lentils, pasta, pumpkin, silverbeet, sweet potato, carrot, beetroot and zucchini, I could keep going."

Alexandra has been an advocate of the slow cooker for about 12 years.

"What first attracted me to the slow cooker is that I saw how the appliance could take the hassle out of meals.

"I cook with it a lot at home but, prior to this book, I'd never made it part of my professional offering, I don't know why, I had all these recipes in my head, I needed to share them."

Is there one recipe she didn't think would work?

"The mac 'n' cheese recipes sound a little crazy, it's a serious ask cooking the sauce and the pasta in the slow cooker together, but in the pot it all goes and you'll just have to trust me that it actually works, and no soggy pasta."

  • Modern Slow Cooker: 85 vegetarian and vegan recipes to make your life easy, by Alyce Alexandra. Viking, $29.99.
Alyce Alexandra show how the slow cooker can shine. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Alyce Alexandra show how the slow cooker can shine. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Saucy vodka pasta

Now this is one recipe that's perfect for entertaining. It will have everyone talking - vodka pasta? And we're not cooking off the alcohol, so it's even got a kick. (1 standard drink per person, for anyone driving.) The sauce is your typical Italian pink or rose sauce, rich and silky, and we're using my favourite hack: cooking the pasta right in with the sauce in the slow cooker. Not only does it cut down on washing up, but the starch released as the pasta cooks adds a subtle body to the sauce. By the time you sit down for dinner, the chopping board, knife and frypan have long ago been washed, the kitchen is clean and the stage is set for a relaxing evening.

Ingredients

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 brown onion, thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, diced

1 kg ripe tomatoes, diced, or tinned diced tomatoes

2 chicken-style stock cubes or 1 tablespoon faux-chicken style stock powder

3 tsp fine salt

2 cups water

500g penne pasta

1/2 cup double cream or plant-based butter

1/2 cup vodka

FIRST

1. Heat oil in a large frypan over medium heat. Once hot, add onion and sauté for five to 10 minutes or until soft. Add garlic and continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Transfer to slow cooker.

2. Add tomatoes, stock cubes or stock powder, salt and water. Cover and cook for four hours on high or eight hours on low.

LATER

3. Give everything a really good stir. Add pasta, pushing down with the back of a spatula if necessary, ensuring that pasta is fully submerged. Cover and cook for 30 minutes on high (this is one of those times you need to be exact with time or you'll overcook the pasta).

4. Add cream and vodka and give the pasta another really good stir. Cover and cook for a further 10 minutes on high.

5. Test pasta for doneness - it should be cooked al dente, but if not, cover and cook for a further 10 minutes on high.

Serve your pasta straight away - don't leave in the slow cooker on the keep warm setting or you'll overcook it. Delicious as is, but my favourite way to serve it is piled high with fresh rocket and a generous drizzle of my chilli and fennel seed infused oil.

Serves 4.

Thick and saucy veg bolognese. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Thick and saucy veg bolognese. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Thick and saucy veg bolognese

This sauce is such a favourite of mine because it's rich, hearty and satisfying, while also being a big dose of veggies. And it couldn't be further from a watery sauce - in fact it's so thick and luscious we had to water it down to make lasagne. Make this recipe throughout spring, summer and autumn when these veggies are plentiful, cheap and at their best, loading up the freezer to get you through winter or whenever you need a quick meal. Heat up a container, cook some pasta and you've got the ultimate bowl food, faster than you could order Uber Eats.

Ingredients

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 brown onions, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, diced

2 carrots, finely diced

2 celery sticks, finely diced

1 eggplant, diced

400g swiss brown mushrooms, diced

200g pitted kalamata olives, diced

500g ripe tomatoes, diced

1/4 cup red miso paste*

2 tbsp maple syrup

2 chicken-style stock cubes or 1 tablespoon faux-chicken stock powder

3 tsp ground sweet paprika

700g passata

1 potato, peeled and grated

FIRST

1. Heat oil in a large frypan over medium heat. Once hot, add onion and sauté for five to 10 minutes or until soft. Add garlic and continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Transfer to slow cooker.

2. In this order, add carrot, celery, eggplant, mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, miso paste, maple syrup, stock cubes or stock powder, paprika and passata to slow cooker. Cover and cook for four hours on high or eight hours on low.

LATER

3. Add grated potato, fold through, incorporating well. Cover and cook for a further 30 minutes on high.

And your bolognese is ready to serve. My favourite option is to ladle the sauce over penne or rigatoni and garnish with a sprinkling of cheese and fresh greens. This sauce is also great as a shepherd's pie base, a pie filling, pasta bake sauce, served over creamy polenta, stuffed in capsicums or inside a jacket potato.

If avoiding gluten and soy, ensure miso paste is gluten and soy free - soy-free miso is hard to find but it can be done.

Serves 6.

Smoky pulled 'pork'. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Smoky pulled 'pork'. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Smoky pulled 'pork'

It's very rare I try to imitate meat in a recipe, but this one just turned out so meaty it was impossible not to call it pulled "pork". In tacos with my BBQ sauce and pineapple salsa, it's seriously impressive, fooling even the most dedicated carnivore. Test it out yourself. The meaty secret lies in two special ingredients: jackfruit and liquid smoke. After a few hours cooking, the jackfruit shreds to the stringy texture of pulled meat, while the liquid smoke makes it taste like it's been cooked low and slow over hot coals for days. The hardest part about this recipe is finding those two ingredients - the actual method couldn't be any simpler if you tried. If you're planning your Mexican banquet in advance, the easiest place to get those ingredients is online.

Ingredients

600g jackfruit in water or brine, drained*

1/4 cup tomato paste

1/4 cup golden syrup

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce**

1 1/2 tbsp Mexican spice mix

3 tsp fine salt

4 garlic cloves, diced

1 1/4 tsp liquid smoke***

FIRST

1. Place jackfruit, tomato paste, golden syrup, Worcestershire sauce, Mexican spice mix, salt and garlic in slow cooker. Stir to combine. Cover and cook for two hours on high or four hours on low.

LATER

2. Add liquid smoke, stir to combine. Use two forks to shred jackfruit as you would meat.

Your pulled "pork" is ready. It looks pretty meaty, don't you think? Serve in tacos, burritos, toasted cheese sandwiches, spring rolls or sliders.

*You'll find jackfruit in cans or cryovac packages from health food stores or online. As it becomes more and more popular, I've also recently seen it popping up in supermarkets. Make sure it's in water or brine, not syrup.

**For this recipe to be vegetarian and vegan, look for an anchovy-free Worcestershire sauce, or better yet, make your own.

***Liquid smoke is essential for this recipe - find it in specialist food stores or online. A 250 ml bottle will last you a lifetime because a little goes a long way. My favourite is hickory-flavoured liquid smoke.

Note: This is a great recipe when entertaining a lot of people - set up a DIY taco station with this pulled 'pork' as the base and plenty of fresh and flavoursome toppings. You can make up to four times this recipe in a large slow cooker - scale up the ingredients accordingly and follow exactly the same method and cooking time.

Serves 4.

Sticky date pudding for everyone. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Sticky date pudding for everyone. Picture: Loryn Babauskis

Sticky date pudding for everyone

This is for everyone. Because firstly, it's so moreish and delicious everyone will want a slice, and secondly, it's free of dairy, eggs, soy and nuts (also making it vegan), and you can happily sub in gluten-free flour. It's one of those desserts you can make no matter who you're feeding, and without any compromise on texture or flavour - promise. This recipe might look on the longer side, but I promise it's really quick and easy..

Ingredients

2 cups pitted dates

1 cup boiling water

1 tbsp flaxseed meal*

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/2 cup (110 g) brown sugar

2 tbsp light tasting olive oil + extra for greasing

1 1/2 tsp mixed spice

1 cup plain flour**

2 tsp baking powder

Extras:

2 litre pudding basin or small casserole dish (preferably with lid) that fits inside slow cooker

FIRST

1. Place dates, water, flaxseed meal and bicarbonate of soda in a high-powered blender or food processor, stir to combine. Stand for five minutes.

2. Add sugar, oil and spice. Process until well combined and dates are chopped but still a little chunky, five to 10 seconds.

3. Add flour and baking powder, process on low speed until just combined. Fold any leftover flour in with a spatula.

4. Grease a two litre pudding basin with olive oil using a pastry brush. Pour in date mixture. Give it a couple of bangs on the bench to release any air bubbles. Cover pudding with lid or foil, sealing tightly.

5. Place inside slow cooker, then add water until pudding basin is two-thirds submerged. Cover and cook for five hours on high.

LATER

6. Check a skewer inserted in the pudding comes out more or less clean - not covered in raw mixture. If needed, cover and cook for a further 30 minutes on high.

7. Once cooked, remove pudding basin from slow cooker and allow to stand for 10 minutes then turn out onto a serving plate.

It's warm and ready to serve. Cut thick slices and serve with cream, gooey caramel sauce, poached pears, ice cream or fresh strawberries, or a combination. Just as good served cold, so don't stress if you're struggling to get the timing exactly right - you can make it up to three days in advance and store in an airtight container in the fridge.

Tips: Flaxseed meal is simply flaxseeds (also known as linseeds) milled down to a fine powder. You can buy it pre-milled, but honestly, it's often not fresh and frankly not very nice - it's best to mill your own as needed, or mill a couple of tablespoons at a time and store in the fridge or freezer. Use a high-powered blender or coffee grinder, and remember one tablespoon of whole flaxseeds will come out as less than one tablespoon of flaxseed meal.

Use gluten-free flour for a gluten-free option.

Serves 8.

This story A fresh, modern - and meat-free - take on the versatile slow cooker first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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