Who doesn’t love a good taco? Personally, I think tacos are among the most fun foods to eat. I love getting to choose my own toppings and that you can pack so many fresh flavors into a small, handheld package. We have taco nights fairly frequently in our home, so I’m always brainstorming tasty and seasonal taco filling ideas to keep things interesting.
Chicken tacos might sound a bit dry and boring, but not this one! This chicken taco filling is tender and packed with flavor, thanks to a dose of homemade roasted salsa and the low-and-slow magic of the Paderno 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker. I always spring for chicken thighs as they’re generally quite economical, not to mention a flavorful and forgiving cut. They only need a few hours in the slow cooker to turn tender and shreddable; and leftovers don’t dry out in the fridge.
While you could use a storebought salsa for this recipe, I definitely recommend trying this roasted version. Roasting the vegetables adds sweetness and smokiness to the salsa, and this recipe makes enough for both the chicken cooking liquid and for topping your tacos (and probably a bit left over to go with your favorite tortilla chips!).
Serve these tacos with your favorite toppings — I particularly like avocado slices, shredded cabbage, extra salsa and cilantro, and a touch of sour cream.
Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos
For the roasted tomato salsa:
3 lbs fresh tomatoes (~10-12 medium)
1 medium red onion, skin removed
1 medium white onion, skin removed
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded
1 head of garlic
1 bell pepper
1 large handful of cilantro, chopped (both leaves and stems)
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1-2 tsp apple cider vinegar
Freshly squeezed lime juice (1-2 Tbsp), salt, and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450F with a rack in the upper third. Cut a deep “x” into the tops of the tomatoes and onions. Cut the jalapenos in half and deseed. Cut bell pepper into quarters and deseed. Peel and separate garlic cloves.
Arrange vegetables in a single layer in a large roasting pan or baking sheet (I used the Paderno Stainless Steel Multi-Roaster). Drizzle with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.
Roast for 10 minutes. Switch oven to broil. Broil for ~2 minutes or until vegetables are lightly charred. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
While vegetables are cooling, generously season both sides of chicken with salt and pepper. Working in batches, sear on both sides over medium-high heat until browned. Set aside.
When vegetables are cool enough to handle, pulse in batches, along with dried oregano and cilantro, in a food processor or blender until desired consistency (I like to leave it a bit chunky). Taste and adjust seasoning with apple cider vinegar, lime juice, salt, and pepper.
Spread sliced onion, jalapeno, and garlic on the bottom of the Paderno 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker. Arrange seared chicken thighs in a single layer on top. Add enough roasted tomato salsa so that chicken pieces are just barely poking through the top. Reserve and refrigerate remaining salsa.
Cover and cook on low for 4-6 hours, or until chicken is fork-tender. Remove and shred chicken, then stir back into the cooking liquid.
To assemble tacos: Warm tortillas in a dry skillet or in the microwave. Spread a layer of shredded chicken on the bottom of each tortilla and top with your favorite accompaniments. Enjoy!
Shepherd’s pie is a favorite meal in our house. Typically a casserole of meat, vegetables, and gravy topped with mashed potatoes, it’s comfort food at its finest. It’s also a dish that can take on any number of variations, depending on your mood and what’s in the fridge. For this version, I decided to go decadent by replacing the typical ground meat filling with a beef rib stew simmered in the Paderno 6-quart Slow Cooker.
Part of the magic of a slow cooker is its ability to transform inexpensive but tough cuts of meat into melt-in-your-mouth meals. Here we take full advantage of low-and-slow cooking by simmering beef ribs overnight until the meat literally falls off the bone. The simmering liquid is reduced to a luscious gravy, and the whole stew is topped off with a thick layer of Yukon Gold mash. Delicious!
A few notes:
You can easily make the stew portion several days in advance. After slow-cooking the meat, simply cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate until needed. When you’re ready to assemble the shepherd’s pie, skim the fat solids off the top and rewarm in the slow cooker on low for 1-2 hours before proceeding.
Since the stew is quite rich, I opted to make the mashed potatoes a little leaner by using the potato cooking water instead of a dairy product. If you prefer a more decadent mash, feel free to substitute milk/cream/sour cream.
Customize the stew with whatever vegetables you like or have on hand! Mushrooms and peas would be great additions (I’d add them in the last hour of cooking, or during the reheat if you make the stew ahead of time). You can also sub the apple juice for red wine or beer for a different flavor.
Beef Rib Shepherd’s Pie
For the slow cooker beef ribs:
5 lbs bone-in beef ribs, cut into single-bone portions
1 large onion, diced
Half a head of garlic, peeled and minced
2 carrots, shredded
1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes (or substitute fresh tomatoes)
3 dried bay leaves
2 tsp dried thyme
2 Tbsp dijon mustard
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 c apple juice
Salt and pepper
75g (1/3 c) unsalted butter
40g (1/3 c) all purpose flour
For the mashed potatoes:
2 lbs yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 in. pieces
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped chives or scallion greens
For the slow cooker short ribs:
Season beef ribs generously with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or overnight.
Grill or sear beef ribs on all sides. Meanwhile, in a large pot, sweat onion, garlic, and carrots in olive oil over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Add salt, pepper, bay leaf, and thyme for the last couple of minutes.
Deglaze pan with apple juice. Add tomatoes, dijon, and worcestershire sauce. Stir to combine, and bring to a low simmer. Once simmering, remove from heat and set aside.
Once finished grilling/searing ribs, transfer ribs to slow cooker, assembling in an even layer. Pour vegetable and liquid mixture over ribs. Add water so the liquid level falls just below the top of the beef.
Cook on low for 8-10 hours, or until the meat is fork-tender and falls off the bones easily. (At this point you can refrigerate the stew for several days if needed; skim the fat and reheat on low for 1-2 hours when ready to proceed.)
When ready to assemble and bake the shepherd’s pie, remove the bones and bay leaves from the slow cooker and discard. Strain the liquid into a large glass measuring cup. Transfer stew solids to an oven safe pan (I used the Paderno Classic Non-Stick Fry Pan) or casserole dish. Use two forks to shred any large pieces of meat.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk to combine. Gradually add the reserved liquid, whisking constantly. Once all the liquid is added, raise heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Continue cooking, whisking occasionally, until the gravy is thickened and reduced by about 1/3 (about 10-15 minutes). Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Add enough gravy to nearly cover the meat and vegetables (reserve the rest of the gravy for serving).
For the mashed potatoes:
Place the potato pieces in a large pot and add cold water to cover by about an inch. Add several generous pinches of salt.
Bring to a simmer, uncovered, over medium heat. Once the water is simmering, turn heat down to medium low and continue simmering until the potatoes are fork-tender (10-15 minutes).
Drain the potatoes, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water.
Return the potatoes to the pot over low heat. Add the butter. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes, adding the reserved water as needed to reach desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 425F with a rack in the middle.
Spread the mashed potatoes on top of the filling and score with the tines of a fork for texture, if desired.
Place pan on a sheet pan to catch any drips and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the potatoes are lightly browned and the edges of the filling are bubbling. Garnish with chopped chives or scallions, if desired. Serve with reserved gravy.
Have you ever tried making cheese? If not, ricotta is a great place to start — it’s one of the simplest cheeses you can make at home and honestly tastes so much better from what you find in the supermarket. And all you need is some milk and an acid!
Although you can make ricotta on the stovetop, this time I used the Paderno 6-quart Programmable Slow Cooker. Using a slow cooker offers a couple advantages. First, it allows for a more gentle heating of the milk (which you can stretch to a few hours if you are busy with other things). Second, it helps maintain a constant temperature once the acid is added.
While most ricotta recipes instruct you to let the acidified milk sit for 5-10 minutes before straining, I learned from a Serious Eats article that the yield and taste of homemade ricotta is vastly improved if you keep the mixture at a higher temperature for 20 minutes. On the stovetop, this means constant heat adjustments and pan babysitting. But thanks to the heat retention of the enamel crock and the precise temperature settings of the slow cooker, this part of the ricotta-making process is simple. Just hit a button and let the slow cooker do the work for you!
My favorite way to enjoy fresh ricotta is on fresh bread; and for these toasts, I baked a loaf of sourdough bread in the Paderno Dutch Oven. Baking bread in a dutch oven is a simple way to mimic the steam ovens commercial bakeries use. The thick walls and tight cover of the dutch oven seal in moisture and heat, allowing the loaf rise to its potential and develop a shiny, crackly crust!
Sometimes I top ricotta toasts with a drizzle of honey or swirl of jam. But during the summer (aka tomato season) you can’t beat blistered cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. I could honestly eat this any meal of the day — simple perfection!
A few notes:
This ricotta recipe is easily doubled; just note that it may take a bit more time initially for the milk to reach temperature.
To bake a loaf of bread in a dutch oven, put the dutch oven (with the cover) in the oven while the oven is preheating. Turn your unbaked bread dough onto a piece of parchment and score as desired. Carefully remove the preheated dutch oven and take off the lid. Transfer the dough, still on the parchment, to the dutch oven and replace the lid. Return the dutch oven to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes (or roughly half the baking time); then remove the lid and continue baking the bread until finished.
Homemade ricotta and blistered cherry tomato toasts
For the homemade ricotta:
4 c whole milk (substitute up to 1/2 c heavy cream if desired)
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp (20 ml) distilled white vinegar
Pinch of fine sea salt (to taste)
For the blistered cherry tomatoes:
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 thick slices sourdough or country-style bread, homemade or store-bought
Extra virgin olive oil
Flaky salt and freshly ground pepper
For the homemade ricotta: Pour the milk into the slow cooker. Heat, partially covered, until a digital thermometer reaches 185F. This can be done over a few hours on the low or medium setting, or in 30-60 minutes on the high setting. Stir occasionally to keep the milk from scorching on the sides.
Once the milk reaches 185F, turn off the slow cooker. Add the vinegar and gently stir for about 10 seconds to distribute. Turn the slow cooker back on to the low setting and maintain a temperature of 175-190F for twenty minutes without stirring. Meanwhile, line a strainer with cheesecloth and suspend over a large measuring glass or bowl.
After twenty minutes, use a slotted spoon to transfer the curds to the lined strainer. Allow to stand until the excess liquid has liquid has drained off, or until you reach desired texture (less time for a softer ricotta and more for drier). Add salt to the curds and gently stir to distribute. Use immediately or store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days.
For the blistered cherry tomatoes: In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the tomatoes and saute until blistered, about two minutes. Transfer to a bowl and season to taste.
Assemble the toasts: toast bread if desired. Spread on ricotta and top with blistered tomatoes. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, flaky salt and a few turns of freshly ground pepper, and fresh basil leaves.