Dina Cheney is a Connecticut-based food writer and author of Year-Round Slow Cooker, published in 2013 by The Taunton Press. I recently chatted with her about her latest book, what makes Connecticut a special place for dining out, and her inspiration for fellow food writers.
As a CT resident, what do you think makes CT a special place for food and dining culture? I love living in Connecticut! We moved from Manhattan nearly 10 years ago, and I haven't felt at all deprived from a culinary perspective. Being on the coast, the seafood is terrific! I also think CT residents are educated and discerning, so the restaurants and shops that cater to them are top-notch, many quite sophisticated.
As a mother of two, what are some of your favorite family-friendly places to eat out? So many! We love City Limits and Coromandel. This sounds strange, but—being part Syrian—I love exposing them to Middle Eastern food. So, we enjoy taking them to Safita in Fairfield (plus Shiraz in Elmsford, which is in Westchester County). Other Connecticut favorites are SoNo Baking in South Norwalk for breakfast and The Bedford Post Inn in Bedford (also for breakfast) and ReNapoli Pizza in Old Greenwich.
How did you get interested in food writing? How did you get your start? I've wanted to be a writer since five years old and a food writer specifically since age 14. Since I have a background in writing and painting, food writing allows me to "paint" with flavor and combine my two loves. I got my start by working as an editorial assistant for the husband and wife writing team, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, and then by attending cooking school in New York City.
What was the inspiration for your new book, Slow Cooker? My publisher was looking to publish a slow cooker book and wanted a new angle on the subject. I came up with Year-Round Slow Cooker because I thought such an approach had been missing from the slow cooker space. Most slow cooker recipes are loaded with processed ingredients, such as onion soup mix, and don't star fresh, seasonal produce. I wanted to update and modernize slow cooker fare.
For those of us just starting out with a slow cooker, what is a recipe you would recommend? A really easy recipe is to coat bone-in, skinless chicken thighs with a rub (try chili powder, brown sugar, mustard, and salt) and then submerge them in a terrific, thick, flavorful barbecue sauce. Cover the slow cooker and cook the chicken on low until tender and cooked through, about four hours (no more than six hours). Other terrific dishes in the slow cooker: pork shoulder, beef brisket, chuck roast, and dried beans.
Favorite recipe in the book? It's way too difficult to pick!!! If I had to pick only two, I might choose the Brisket with Pomegranate, Caramelized Onions, and Red Wine and the Strawberry and Rhubarb Cobbler.
Any recipe testing/tasting disasters or memorable moments during this book process? It was a challenge, since many recipes take about 8-10 hours on low to cook. So, some nights, it would be 11 pm and I'd be up degreasing a finished sauce and tasting it (and I have two kids who wake up early!) There were lots of late nights! Some days, I'd have three or four recipes going and—since I had two young boys running around the house at the time—had to place the slow cookers in out-of-the-way places. One recipe cooked in a slow cooker placed on my bathroom counter!
For any of our readers interested in writing/editing a cook book, what is some advice you could provide for them? Come up with a unique concept that you are very passionate and knowledgeable about and well-qualified to explore—and, ideally, it should be something many people would be interested in. Don't discount self-publishing: the industry has changed a lot, and it's definitely a great way to approach such a project. Any other words of wisdom or thoughts you'd like to share? I can't think of anything…In terms of career, you choose to be a food writer for the love, not for the money. For me, it is what I am most passionate about—I can't imagine doing something different.
RECIPE: Brisket with Pomegranate, Red Wine and Caramelized Onions from Slow Cooker by Dina Cheney
■ Prep time: About 1 hour ■ Slow cooker time: About 8 hours
1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon coarse salt
8 grinds black pepper
One 3-pound beef brisket
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 red onions, halved and cut into 1⁄2-inch-thick rings
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup red wine, such as Zinfandel
One 14-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, with juices
1⁄2 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1⁄4 cup fresh-squeezed, strained orange juice
2 tablespoons honey
3⁄4 cup pomegranate seeds, at room temperature, for garnish
Pomegranate molasses and seeds add seasonal flair and a fresh, sweet-tart taste to this brisket, ideal for the Jewish holidays and other special occasions. Prepare this dish a day or two in advance to allow the flavors to meld and the meat to become more tender and flavorful.
Pomegranate molasses is available at many gourmet grocers and at Mideastern markets.
1. Put 1⁄4 cup of the pomegranate molasses, the mustard, garlic, coriander, salt, and pepper in the slow cooker and use a wooden spoon to mix well. Add the meat and turn to coat with the mixture (use your fingers to smear the mixture all over the meat).
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a 10-inch, heavy sauté pan over medium heat. When hot, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, limp, and sweet, about 20 minutes (discard any strips of red onion skin that separate from the flesh). Pour the onions on top of the meat.
3. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil, plus the tomato paste and flour to the pan. Stir until no white flour is visible, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully add the wine; return the pan to the heat, raise the heat to high, and simmer for about 2 minutes, whisking into a smooth, thick sauce. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, the tomatoes with juices, stock, orange juice, and honey, and use a potato masher to gently mash the tomatoes. Boil until smooth and relatively thick, about 4 minutes, then pour over the meat-onion mixture.
4. Cover and cook on low until tender, about 8 hours. Carefully transfer the meat to a cutting board, and let rest for about 10 minutes. With a large shallow spoon or ladle, skim the fat off the top of the cooking juices. Cut the meat against the grain into roughly 1⁄3-inch-thick slices, mix it back into the sauce, and serve, garnished with the pomegranate seeds.
Spotlight on Pomegranates
Pomegranates are large, hard, pink or red round fruits. You only eat their arils, pulp-encased seeds that resemble rubies and boast a sweet-tart berry flavor.
To remove the arils, halve the pomegranate horizontally, place it in a large water-filled bowl, and pull the arils out from the bitter white membranes. You can also thwack the backside of each half with your fist to knock out some arils; these will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days. Or purchase already-removed arils, which I find to be worth the extra price. Follow the use-by date on the package for freshness.
If you buy whole pomegranates, look for heavy, firm, brightly colored fruits. Store them in the fridge for up to 2 months or in a cool, dark place for up to 1 month.