Tom Sutcliffe: Slow cookers rock – and casseroles roll

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The Independent Online

I found myself wondering what happened to slow cookers the other day, a feature of late Seventies domestic life which – though my memories are hazy – I recall being touted as a gadget that would simultaneously halve your electricity bill and quadruple your standing as a housewife and mother (it was the Seventies, remember).

Heading into a credit-crunch winter, with ululating laments about the nutrition of the nation ringing in our ears, it occurred to me that the slow cooker might have peaked a little early, vainly trying to establish a permanent place in the kitchen armamentarium at a time when the stew and the casserole were redolent of the bad old days and prawn cocktail and Arctic roll made all the running.

Now – with the ethos of slow, low-energy living back in the ascendant and peasant cookery having conclusively kicked the mud from its boots – it seemed like it might be a good time for it to have another crack at becoming a kitchen indispensable.

Looking into it a little further I discovered that this thought had already occurred to others. Three years ago this newspaper reported that sales of slow cookers were up, though the article that reported this fact noted that many readers might already own one – "a squat brown pot lurking in a forgotten corner". One big online retailer also implicitly acknowledges the device's period associations, claiming that one modern design "proves that slow cooking isn't stuck in a time warp".

But despite these straws in the wind I can't say I've come across anyone swanking about their latest slow-cooker purchase, in the way that people invariably do about a genuine consumer desideratum. Sales of slow cookers may well be up, but if you start from a low base there's only one way to go. I won't be buying one myself – being far too shallow to spearhead this kind of social revival. When they bring out the i-Cooker or persuade Philippe Starck to rebrand it as a marmite electronique I might think about it. But that doesn't mean that slow cooking is out. In fact I've become slightly obsessed with it recently – mostly because it may be the most forgiving cooking technique ever invented.

There's something genuinely magical about the way that it takes the cheaper cuts of meat and turns them into something special, while you're away doing something else entirely. And the critical element here – for our deskilled, cooking-averse times, is not what you put in to the dish but what you don't have to.

It doesn't need skill, it doesn't need precision and it doesn't need vigilance – three common stumbling blocks for novice or nervous cooks. Anyone can do it – and, given that only those already interested in cookery read the cookery columns, I'll give you a recipe so that you – not me – can prove it.

Cut braising steaks into chunks and dust them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Slice an onion and fry it in the casserole you're going to cook in. Brown the meat (don't worry about the sticky brown stuff, that's good). Add stock from a cube or wine or beer (don't worry exactly how much – just use enough to cover the meat). Bung in anything else you think might be tasty – such as chopped celery or a bit of garlic or mushrooms. Put lid on.

Set oven to just under 100 degrees centigrade. Leave it alone for eight hours or so (don't worry, if the train's late it'll wait uncomplainingly). Check seasoning and eat, marvelling that so little effort can be so unctuously rewarded. And don't worry about the word "slow", either. Counted in the minutes you actually have to work, this comes close to delivery pizza.

Barnacle Bill comes unstuck with an expert

I went to see Bill Bailey last week, chancing to go on the evening when one of his remarks bounced back off the audience and smacked him sharply in the face.

Introducing a riff about Darwin, Bailey casually asked whether any of us knew anything about barnacles. A voice from the stalls shouted yes – and after a bit of to and fro it was established that the Natural History Museum's barnacle man just happened to be in the theatre that night. He wasn't the world's leading authority, he modestly replied in response to further probing, only number three or four.

Bailey was so nonplussed by this that we never got to hear his barnacle material at all – which was a pity, since I imagine he could have introduced us to facets of these tenacious creatures that the Natural History man might have been surprised by.

Bailey's show was terrific incidentally – but I imagine he'll be a little more careful with his rhetorical questions in future.

Weighty questions about the jumbo jet set

The Supreme Court of Canada effectively ruled last week that obese passengers have the right to two seats for one fare, declining to hear an appeal from Canadian airlines against a Transportation Agency ruling insisting that carriers were obliged to provide a seat for both buttocks of their larger passengers.

Which raises the interesting (and surely litigable) question of when precisely your own personal overspill would trigger the two-for-one offer. If you only take up 1.1 seats, for example, the airline might feel you'll manage at a squeeze but the passenger next to you would have a powerful interest in you being given an extra .9 of a seat into which to spread. Who exactly decides at what point the merely overweight become the disabled?

Since what is at issue here is freightage of goods (animate and inanimate) it's perhaps time the airlines came up with a more imaginative pricing scheme, based on shipping by the kilo. I remember a New Zealand pilot once telling me that when they flew out of Samoa they were required to weigh arriving passengers as well as luggage – in order to ensure safe load distribution and take-off.

A discreet walk-on weighing scale in front of every check-in desk should do the trick – and give everyone an incentive to avoid excess baggage.

*Talking of Canadian airlines I was impressed to read that the pilot on the Air Canada plane on which the co-pilot suffered a nervous breakdown had apparently called for anyone with pilot experience.

Could there be any request which would cause greater consternation among one's passengers? "Would all passengers who ate the fish please urgently identify themselves to a member of the cabin crew," perhaps? Or "Does anyone on board have access to a functioning GPS system?"

No quicker way of getting the information he needed, I guess, but it would have been interesting to see the looks on the faces of those passengers who were awake at the time.