Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Secrets of Slow Cooking - Tapioca?!

Now that fall is here and I'm craving comfort cuisine, the slow cooker is getting a workout!  One of my frustrations with the slow cooker is having a thin, watery broth-like sauce when the food is done cooking.  It takes extra work to add corn starch or other thickener and then boil it down.  I recently purchased a slow cooker cookbook at Half Price Books that really had some great recipes.  The book, from the editors of Prevention Magazine, was focused on healthy cooking.  While some of the hints don't work for me (IMHO, better to use butter as it's a natural product with good flavor than chemically produced margarine), there is a great variety of recipes and inspiration within.

Today, I was inspired to try a variation on a chicken and mushroom dish that seemed intriguing.  Using very little liquid, the chicken and mushrooms would roast more than braise and the sauce would self-thicken using... tapioca starch!!  As a bonus, if you're allergic to wheat, tapioca is gluten free!  Adding just 2 Tbsp of instant pearl tapioca (NOT the large pearls used for bubble tea) when I began my cooking yielded a thickened sauce 7 scant low-and-slow cooking hours later!  Another hint used in this recipe was reduced fat cream cheese to help thicken and enrich the sauce.

Tapioca is actually the recommended starch if you're going to freeze something, so if you make mass quantities of a dish and plan to freeze it, use tapioca starch in place of corn starch.  I got curious about tapioca since I had never cooked with this product.  I checked out www.foodsubs.com and found the following:
instant tapioca = quick-cooking tapioca = quick tapioca = granulated tapioca = tapioca granules = instant pearl tapioca    Notes:   These small, starchy granules are used to make tapioca pudding and to thicken pie fillings.  The grains don't dissolve completely when cooked, so puddings and pies thickened with them end up studded with tiny gelatinous balls.  If you don't mind the balls, you can also use instant tapioca to thicken soups, gravies, and stews.  If the balls are a problem, just pulverize the instant tapioca in a coffee grinder or blender, or buy tapioca starch, which is already finely ground.  Instant tapioca tolerates prolonged cooking and freezing, and gives the fillings an attractive glossy sheen.   To use it in a pie filling, mix it with the other ingredients, then let it sit for at least five minutes so that the tapioca can absorb some of the liquid.  Don't confuse instant tapioca with regular tapioca, which has larger beads, or with the even larger tapioca pearls sold in Asian markets.  Minute® tapioca is a well-known brand.  Substitutes:    regular tapioca (Use twice as much.  Puddings made with this will have larger gelatinous balls in it.) OR tapioca starch (This is also used to thicken pie fillings.) OR tapioca pearls (Pulverize these first with a blender, coffee grinder, or food processor) OR cornstarch (Use half as much.  Cornstarch breaks down if it's mixed with acidic ingredients, cooked for a long time, or frozen and thawed.) OR arrowroot (more expensive) OR flour (Use a little more.)
The result?  Good overall.  The chicken breasts came out a little dry.  Can solve that with 1) skin-on chicken breasts, 2) larger pieces of chicken, or 3) chicken thighs, which stay moister longer.  The sauce was a revelation - thick, tasty, and WAY easier than having to add a corn starch slurry (corn starch & cold water mixed together) at the end and boiling to thicken.  I used 2 Tbsp tapioca pearls to 3/4 cup liquid.  Why it works so well is that it can thicken at low temperatures, perfect for the low setting on a slow cooker.  This is a great weekday or Sunday supper served with a loaf of crusty bread and some steamed or sautéed broccoli.  Happy eating!

Slow Cooker Chicken with Mushrooms and New Potatoes

2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken thighs
1 lb mushrooms, sliced (can use a mixture of cremini, baby bella, shitake, etc.)
2 lbs new potatoes, halved if large
3/4 cup white wine or chicken broth
2 Tbsp instant tapioca (small pearls)
Salt and pepper
3 - 4 oz reduced fat cream cheese

Trim chicken and cut in half, if large.  Slice mushrooms and potatoes.  In 5-qt or larger slow cooker, add wine or broth and tapioca.  Stir to mix.  Add chicken breasts, mushrooms, and potatoes.  Salt and pepper, then cover and cook on low for 6 hours.  Stir and cook 1 more hour.  Add cream cheese to sauce and stir to blend (I recommend moving the chicken and vegetables to the side and stirring into sauce, then combining together).  Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.