October 8, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Most people of a certain age have tucked-away memories of crockpot cuisine. Usually, that involves a bright orange appliance—maybe avocado green or harvest gold—with a border decoration of cartoonish vegetables. Mom deposited a symphony of canned goods, placed the glass lid on top, and six to eight hours later the components had synthesized into dinner.

Somewhere along the way, the handy-dandy crockpot gained a gauche stigma (Here’s looking at you, condensed Cream of Mushroom soup.) But children of the 20th century should make new memories this millennium, because the crockpot is back. Nowadays the look is sleeker, the term “slow cooker” preferred, but they’re ever the effective kitchen tool and can elevate your home cooking.

Just ask Joel Mahr, head chef at Lot 2 in Benson, and mastermind behind the restaurant’s outstanding fare, which is at once fine dining and comfort food, laidback and sophisticated, local and global.

“I use one about twice a month,” he says, going on to describe his favorite crockpot meal.

“In the morning we’ll put a roast in…come home to potatoes, carrots, celery, onion—a really nice meal,” says Mahr. Sometimes he’ll defat the liquid and reduce it with red wine to create a sauce, but beyond that, just add baguette, maybe a salad, and you’re set, he says.

“It’s perfect,” he adds. “I love it.”

Mahr’s wife, Jill, is from an Iowa farm where family gatherings often mean an infantry of slow cookers and roasters. At the couple’s wedding, they subbed crockpots for expensive chafing dishes and had an awesome spread, including a whole hog, shrimp boil (with potatoes, kielbasa, and carrots), beans, cheesy potatoes, and more. Mahr says it was delicious and easy.

 “A lot of people think, ‘I don’t know how this thing works,’ or it’s taboo for some reason,” he says. “But it’s great. You start the meal in the morning, then when you come home, it’s done. It’s vintage, but it’s vintage cool,” Mahr continues. “Everything comes full circle.”

Mahr says crockpots are great for making stocks, tenderizing trimming cuts, and making kids or vegetable-phobes eat their veggies—they’ll love the simmered-to-perfection mirepoix. They’re also your go-to appliance for beans, Indian dishes, oatmeal, soups, breads, desserts, and mulled wine—they do it all. And cleanup is easy.

“Especially in the fall,” Mahr says, “they’re great for those comforting, homey meals; football game food, that kind of thing.”

Mahr, who’s also worked at V. Mertz, Dario’s, and The French Café, is no stranger to gourmet grub, and says crockpots can create wonderful levels of flavor. It just takes a little more time.

“You can develop a richer flavor by taking your time with a meal, and crockpots [let you] develop really great flavor, just by walking away from it,” he says, joking about the old “set it and forget it” tagline.

Mahr says that even though it’s “still that thing that grandma would dust off,” people might be surprised by the modern wonder of the crockpot.

“In our fast-paced society,” Mahr says, “something simple like this can bring your family together around the table.”

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