There is something to be said for letting your mind wander. Even in the kitchen. Even when you have a rather sharp kitchen tool in your hand. Even when you’re cooking meat that is notorious for turning dry and flavorless if you’re not careful. I have often aspired to take part in the disciplined mind-wandering of meditation or to be lulled into a peaceful mental vacation on a yoga mat. But in my busy life this is unlikely. More often than not, my mind enters the blissful state of thinking about absolutely nothing when I am in less zen-like places. Like in front of the kitchen sink. It happened the other day when I was peeling a carrot. I kept peeling and peeling, my hands focused on the task but my mind …well, I don’t know exactly where my mind was. But before I knew it I had peeled the entire carrot instead of chopping it into rounds like I had intended. But this is the beauty of letting your mind wander. Sometimes it leads you to an interesting place; a place you never would’ve gotten to had you been following an exact recipe. The carrot had turned into a beautiful swirl of thin ribbons that I sautéed quickly with fennel and red pepper flakes. The carrot was still a carrot, but changing its shape and texture made it taste like an entirely new vegetable, one that I hadn’t already eaten thousands of times during my life.
This tendency for my mind to wander while in the kitchen also explains why I like using a slow-cooker so much. A slow-cooker (or crock pot , as it’s also called) is the ultimate appliance for cooks who have trouble focusing on specific recipes and techniques. You can throw almost any combination of meat and/or vegetables into a slow cooker, add a cup or so of liquid, and it will cook itself into a meal. I regularly walk away from my slow-cooker, completely abandoning the food for most of the day. I don’t give dinner a second thought until I return home to the warm, rich aroma of meals like Cinnamon Pork With Parsnips. I do this year round, not just in the winter when slow-cooked meals are especially popular. I do this without feeling the least bit like a 1950s housewife. Crock pots are for everyone now: hip young cooks, macho cooks, single cooks, inexperienced cooks, and professionally trained cooks like myself who can’t help but let their minds wander away from the kitchen from time to time.
Carrot Ribbons With Fennel
4 medium carrots
1 fennel bulb
2 tsp olive oil
Dash of red pepper flakes
Discard stalks from the fennel bulb and the first outer layer of the bulb. Slice fennel as thin as you can.
Warm olive oil in a pan over medium heat for 20 seconds. Add red pepper flakes, carrot ribbons and fennel.
Saute for 10-15 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Slow-Cooked Cinnamon Pork Loin With Parsnips
4 large parsnips, peeled
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 1/3 to 1 1/2 lb. pork loin
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 cups water
Cut parsnips into even rounds.
Mix together cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ground ginger, black pepper, garlic and salt.
Cut excess fat off the loin.
Rub meat with 1 Tbsp olive oil then vigorously massage spice rub all over the loin.
Turn heat on high under a sauté pan and add 1 Tbsp olive oil. Sear sides of the loin until browned, about 3-5 minutes each side. Put pork in the slow cooker with parsnips. With heat still on, add water to the sauté pan and use a spoon to scrape up browned bits. Add the water to the slow-cooker. Turn the temp to high and cook 3 1/2 hours or low and cook 5-6 hours.
- Carrots aren’t the only vegetables you can peel into ribbons. Try celery, cucumber, squash and kohlrabi.
- Meat doesn’t have to be seared before going into a slow-cooker but browning the meat will intensify the flavor. This isn’t because searing meat seals in flavor and moisture (Food scientist Harold McGee  has proven this is a myth). Rather, searing meat caramelizes the surface of the meat, enhancing its meaty flavor.
- To save time, use 1 1/2 tsp Chinese Five Spice + 1/2 tsp kosher salt instead of making your own spice rub.
- Experiment with different spices to create a variety of rubs. Or, just season the meat with salt and surround it with fresh herbs.
Garnish finished dishes with minced herbs.