This Thanksgiving was the first time I cooked the holiday dinner in my own kitchen. Our menu for two went something like this: turkey, gravy, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, buttered corn, rolls, cranberries, and green beans and ham. For two.
Planning for this feast meant a few hours of identifying appropriate ingredients, shopping for them, and deciding what needed to be cooked at what time. If you have personally cooked Thanksgiving before, you know the feeling. We plan so hard to avoid what is inevitable: the mashed potatoes can only be made right before you eat, the gravy can only be made after the turkey has cooked, and dishes that need to be baked must be baked before or after the turkey, but likely not during, unless you have some kind of Mondo oven.
There is no better time or place for a slow cooker than Thanksgiving.
My personal preference is to cook everything low and slow on the stove or in the oven, but that is not always a feasible option. I have to ask myself – does this dish require constant stirring? Does the meat need to be browned before hand? Does it need to be cooking while I sleep? If not, then there is no need to use up one very valuable burner and dutch oven when you can set the temperature and leave something in a slow cooker for long periods of time.
I’ve boiled green beans in water, sautéed them in a skillet, roasted them in the oven and blanched them and baked them for a casserole. But slow cooking is by far my favorite method. Just like how slow cooking tough cuts of meat breaks down the collagen and muscle fibers, turning a rump roast into tender slices of melt-in-your-mouth beef, the same science can be applied to how prolonged exposure to heat can break down the chemical structure of vegetables.
But when do you stop cooking? How long is TOO long? The Soft Approach: In Praise of Soft-Cooked Vegetables shares one man’s quest to cook pasta al dente, discussing why many believe a crisp, lightly cooked vegetable that when bitten into sends a crunch across all of your senses is the perfectly cooked vegetable and how there is a difference between restaurant food and what he preferred at home: the slow cooked vegetable. To quote:
“I phoned Dr. Keith Harris, assistant professor of food science at North Carolina State University, to see if he could shed light on that elusive vegetal sweetness that comes with long cooking. ‘It’s true that when vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables, are cooked, the damage to the plant’s tissue brings about reactions between compounds that are usually kept separate,’ he said—hence the sulfuric aroma. But, he emphasized, if you continue to cook these foods, ‘at a certain point the aroma will dissipate, and you’ll end up with the flavor compounds left in the plant, including its sugars—especially if it’s cooked and served in a way that the sugars aren’t poured out with the cooking water.‘” Which explains why nobody wants cabbage that has sat around in water for too long.
When the 12-hour timer is up, your ham hocks (or pig tails, you could use those, too, or the bone from your holiday baked ham) will offer strings of meat that falls right off the bone.
Aside from two pounds of green beans and two ham hocks, all you need is chicken stock and water.I prefer the mix of the two instead of only chicken stock. It lets the flavor of the green beans and ham shine through without being washed over by chicken broth and salt. Oh yes, salt, it is possibly even more important in this dish than the green beans and ham. Begin my salting with just a few teaspoons, then add later when the 12-hour timer is up and you can taste the food appropriately. I cannot tell you exactly how much salt to use because it will depend on your chicken stock. Store bought stock will require less, homemade will require more. As always, with any recipe, salt is a prerequisite course you must understand before anything else makes sense. Salt often and appropriately.
Trim the ends off of 2 pounds of fresh green beans. Cut the long ones in half. Place them in a slow cooker with 2 small yellow onions, diced. Add two ham hocks, 4 cups of water and 4 cups of chicken broth. Stir in 2 teaspoons of salt. Cook on low for 12 hours. The scent permeating your house is an added bonus. After 12 hours, remove the ham hocks and once cool to the touch, separate meat from fat and bone. Stir the meat back into the green beans. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if necessary. Drain the liquid before serving.