Secret of tasty slow-cooker meals is doing the prep

Cowboy Beef and Bean Stew Jill Blanchette/The Day

I've always loved the idea of a slow cooker, but the reality often leaves much to be desired. Although I have tried many slow cooker recipes, I usually reject them once I've tasted the result.

But I think I recently discovered a counter-intuitive, yet really completely obvious truth about these gadgets: You have to do a lot of the flavor-building, which often involves quite a bit of cooking, before you even turn on the slow cooker.

I used to avoid slow cooker recipes that called for a lot of prep. I really wanted to be able to throw a bunch of raw ingredients into the thing, turn it on, go to work and come home later to a beautifully prepared meal.

Maybe that's how it will work in heaven, but until then I'm making a turn around. Just as with cooking something — a stew, a chili, a sauce — over a long period of time on the stove, with a slow cooker you've got to put in the time in advance to reap the deliciousness later.

I can say without hesitation that this recipe for Cowboy Beef and Bean Stew is the best slow cooker recipe I have tried to date. Its dark, rich, complex sauce fills in the flavor gap that tends to occur when you cook a bunch of ingredients for a long time. Rather than all blending into one, homogeneous taste, this recipe leaves room for the meatiness of the chuck and the texture of the beans to shine through.

You can control the amount of heat by regulating the amount of sauce you add from a can of chipotles in adobo. If you like your chili really hot, you can chop one or two of the chipotles and throw them in, too. But they are hot, so proceed with caution.

It's a crazy bunch of ingredients — orange juice and coffee, really? — and there's a lot of them — 17 without the garnishes. And you will have some dishes to do after you've finished the prep. But you won't mind. This chili is that good.

Enjoy!

Cowboy Beef and Bean Stew

Prep time: 45 minutes

Slow cooker time: About 7 hours

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons coarse salt, divided

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ancho chili powder (I had some but you could substitute regular chili powder)

Generous 1 pound beef chuck, cut into 1½-to-2-inch chunks (I used 1 pound and thought there was plenty of meat)

2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided (I used olive oil)

One 15½-ounce can pinto beans, rinsed and drained

One 15½-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 white or yellow onion, halved and cut into ¼-inch slices

6 whole cloves garlic

¼ cup tomato paste

1-2 tablespoons liquid from a can of chipotles in adobo sauce (I used 1 tablespoon)

One 14-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, with juice

¾ cup low-sodium chicken stock

½ cup brewed coffee

¼ cup pulp-free orange juice

2 dried bay leaves

Sour cream, finley diced red onion, shredded cheddar and chopped cilantro — and some corn chips if you're feeling decadent — for serving (optional)

In a zip-top plastic bag, mix the flour, 1 teaspoon salt, the cumin and chili powder. Add the beef cubes, zip the top of the bag closed and shake the bag to coat the pieces of meat with the flour.

Add 2 tablespoons of oil to a 10-inch, heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the beef, shaking off and reserving any excess flour. Do not crowd the pan. You may have to do this in two batches. Sauté the pieces of beef, browning each on both sides, about 8 minutes total. When they are brown, transfer the pieces of beef to the slow cooker. Pour the beans over the meat in the slow cooker.

Add the onions and garlic to the hot pan and sauté them until they are softened, about 2 minutes. If the pan is too dry, add another tablespoon of oil. Add the reserved seasoned flour, the tomato paste and the chipotle in adobo liquid and stir until the flour disappears, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, stock, coffee, orange juice, bay leaves and ½ teaspoon salt. Raise the heat to high and simmer for 4 minutes.

Pour the sauce over the bean-meat mixture in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low until the meat is tender, about 7 hours (or 4 to 4½ hours on high). Remove and discard the bay leaves.

Scoop into bowls and garnish with chopped red onion, shredded cheddar, sour cream and chopped cilantro and perhaps some corn chips.

Original recipe from "Year-Round Slow Cooker: 100 Favorite Recipes for Every Season" by Dina Cheney.

Share comments and recipes with Jill Blanchette at j.blanchette@theday.com.

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