Crock-pots and other slow cookers are once again popular




The convenience of a slow cooker can't be denied. In the morning, toss a cheap cut of meat into the cooker, add a few more ingredients, turn it on and you're set. Whenever you return your dinner will be waiting. Or you can throw something together in the evening and let it cook while you sleep.

My daughter and her family, like many young families, have a hectic schedule. A conversation with her goes something like this: "Zack has a baseball game and Ashley has a softball game. Both games are at 6 p.m. at different fields. Mom, can you hold on? It's my boss. ... OK, where was I? Anyway, Jeff won't be home from work until 6 p.m. I was wondering if you could take Ashley and I'll take Zach. I won't have time to make dinner but we'll order a pizza when we get home. Thanks, Mom."

Then there's laundry, yard work, meetings and doctor appointments. So what do you do about dinner? Rather than ordering or eating out every night, it's a slow cooker to the rescue.

Slow cooker conversion guide

If you have a braised dish or soup and stew recipes that you want to convert for use in your slow cooker, follow these guidelines from "Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever" by Diane Phillips (Chronicle, 2009). I made a copy of this guide to keep in a kitchen drawer.

-- Arlene Burnett

Conventional oven or stovetop: 1/2 hour = Slow cooker: 1-1/2 hours high or 3 hours low

Conventional oven or stovetop: 1 hour = Slow cooker: 3-1/2 hours high/6 to 7 hours low

Conventional oven or stovetop: 2 hours = Slow cooker: 4-1/2 hours high or 9 to 10 hours low

Conventional oven or stovetop: 3 hours = Slow cooker: 5-1/2 hours high/10 to 11 hours low

Slow cookers are for anyone who doesn't have the time to cook but still wants to prepare good tasty meals. And slow cookers are ideal for people who feel a little shaky about their cooking abilities.

I started using a slow cooker when I was a single, working mom more than 25 years ago. The slow cooker was cooking that night's dinner while I was at work and the kids were in school. I made roast beef, soups and other tasty home-cooked meals when I wasn't even home.

For many years, my one slow cooker served me well. When my husband and I married 12 years ago, our combined families began using our house as their picnic and holiday headquarters. One slow cooker wasn't enough. I now have eight -- different sizes and shapes -- and I use all of them. Not all at once but I have used as many as four at the same time.

For example, for Thanksgiving I make my mashed russet potatoes about two hours before dinner and then place them in a buttered slow cooker on low. About an hour before dinner, I stir and add milk if needed and raise to high. In another slow cooker, I keep my sweet potatoes hot. I remove the stuffing and place it in another slow cooker. And in the fourth goes the gravy. When it's time to serve I turn all of the cookers to warm.

For picnics, I use slow cookers for pulled pork, baked beans, barbecued brisket and whatever potato dish I decide to make. I also use my slow cookers for parties.

I love the tantalizing aroma that floats through the house when I'm making a roast in my slow cooker. Beef (even a cheap cut), pork or chicken turns out tender, juicy and flavorful.

What's better? Meat that is roasted in the oven or meat cooked in a slow cooker? If you've ever tasted a piece of beef made in the slow cooker then you know the answer -- it's simply delicious. Soups, stews and chili always seem to taste better when prepared in a slow cooker, which holds in all the juices.

I'm not crazy about making cakes in the slow cooker. Most of the recipes call for placing the batter in a cake pan, then placing the pan in the slow cooker -- if you have a slow cooker large enough for the cake pan. It's just as easy to bake the cake in the oven. But I've tried corn puddings, cobblers and other fruit desserts and they're wonderful.

Tips

• Always follow the recipe.

• Don't peek. When the lid is removed the heat escapes and lengthens the cooking time. If a recipe calls for stirring, stir quickly and replace the lid quickly.

• Use dried herbs and spices; they hold up better than fresh. I sometimes add fresh at the very end.

Slow cookers have come a long way since the 1970s. Today you have many choices from programmable cookers to cookers with non-stick inserts, even inserts that can go on the stovetop. Sizes range from 11/2 quarts to 8 quarts. I own a variety -- from 2 quarts to 8 quarts. Because I normally cook for at least three I use the larger slow cookers more often than the smaller ones. That allows me to freeze leftovers for a future meal. I think the smaller cookers are great for single meals and dips. A final note: Slow cookers make great gifts.

CHICKEN PARMESAN HEROES

PG tested

The finishing touch to these hearty heroes is the mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The grandkids gobbled these down in minutes. The adults loved them, too. Beer and wine for the adults and juice boxes for the kids and we were all set. I used a 41/2-quart oval slow cooker.

-- Arlene Burnett

  • 4 cups tomato sauce (store-bought or homemade)
  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 8 ounces mozzarella, cut into 6 slices
  • 6 fresh basil leaves
  • 6 hero or hoagie rolls

Pour the tomato sauce into the slow cooker. Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Place the pieces, overlapping slightly in the sauce. Cover and cook on low for 3 hours.

Sprinkle the chicken with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and top each piece with a slice of mozzarella and a basil leaf. Cover and cook 15 minutes more, or until the cheese is melted.

Cut rolls partially open and fill each with a cheese-covered chicken breast and sauce. Cut sandwiches in half. Serve hot.

Serves 6.

-- "The Italian Slow Cooker" by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, $22)."

NEW POTATOES WITH FRESH LEMON HERB-BUTTER

PG tested

Please don't substitute dried herbs for fresh in this dish. It's the key to an elegant presentation as well as the flavor. And the butter is also a must.

-- Arlene Burnett

  • 3 to 3 1/3 pounds small new potatoes
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place potatoes and water in a large round or oval slow cooker. Cover and cook on high until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, 3 to 31/2 hours.

In a small saucepan on the stovetop or in a small bowl in the microwave, heat the butter with parsley, lemon juice, chives and dill; you are not cooking this, just melting the butter and warming the herbs. Pour the butter mixture over the hot potatoes in the slow cooker; toss to coat evenly. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Serves 10 to 12.

-- "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker: Recipes for Entertaining" by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann (Harvard Common, 2007).

PUTTANESCA CHICKEN

PG tested

This calls for a 26-ounce (or so) jar of pasta sauce with olives. I used about 4 cups of homemade sauce plus a small can of sliced black olives.

-- Arlene Burnett

  • 2 1/2 to 3 pounds meaty chicken pieces (breast halves, thighs and drumsticks), skinned
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 26-ounce jar pasta sauce with olives
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 3 cups hot cooked orzo pasta or your favorite pasta

Place chicken pieces in a 31/3- to 4-quart slow cooker. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. In a medium bowl stir together pasta sauce, capers and lemon peel. Pour over chicken.

Cover and cook on low setting 6 to 7 hours or on high 3 to 31/2 hours. Serve chicken and sauce over hot cooked orzo.

Serves 6.

-- "Better Than Mom's Slow Cooker Recipes" from Better Homes and Gardens (Meredith, $14.95).

SPICY BLACK BEANS AND RICE

PG tested

This was a snap to make and most of the prep work can be done the night before. Place the beans in a large pot with enough water to cover them; put the lid on the pot. Chop the vegetables. Place all the veggies in a storage bag in the refrigerator. Measure spices and place in a bowl or plastic container with a lid. The next day, strain the beans. Place vegetables and spices in the slow cooker. Add beans and broth. Set the slow cooker time and you're done. This is a tasty dish but when I make it again I'll add more onion, celery and carrots, about 1/2 cup each. My husband, who has destroyed his taste buds with hot sauce, spreads ketchup over the hot beans and rice.

To make a thicker broth, puree some of the beans with the broth in a blender and return to slow cooker -- cook another 15 minutes on high.

-- Arlene Burnett

  • 2 cups dry black beans (about 13 ounces)
  • 1 cup chopped onion (medium-large onion)
  • 1 cup celery, chopped (1 to 2 ribs)
  • 1 cup chopped carrot (2 medium)
  • 3/4 cup yellow or green sweet pepper (1 medium)
  • 2 jalapeno chile peppers, chopped (or hot peppers of your choice)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • 4 cups hot cooked rice

Soak beans in cold water overnight in a covered pan. Drain. Place all ingredients (except beans and broth) in a 31/3- to 5-quart slow cooker and stir. Stir in beans and broth.

Cover and cook on low 8 to 10 hours or high 4 to 5 hours. Discard bay leaves. Serve with hot cooked rice.

-- "Better Than Mom's Slow Cooker Recipes" from Better Homes and Gardens (Meredith Publishing, 2007)

SLOW COOKER BARBECUED PULLED PORK

PG tested

You can use store-bought barbecue sauce or use your own recipe if you prefer. The cookbook has a recipe for barbecue sauce but it makes only 11/2 cups so it would have to be quadrupled. I went with store-bought; it's a lot easier.

-- Arlene Burnett

  • 6- to 7-pound Boston butt, cut in half
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 to 7 cups barbecue sauce
  • Cider vinegar, Tabasco sauce, salt and pepper, to taste

Season pork with salt and pepper and place in the slow cooker. Pour the barbecue sauce over the pork, cover and cook, high (7 to 8 hours) or low (10 to 11 hours) or until the pork is fork-tender and falling apart.

Transfer the meat to a large bowl and cool. Let the cooking liquid settle for 5 minutes, then use a wide spoon to skim the fat off the surface. Season the sauce with vinegar, Tabasco and salt and pepper. When the meat is cool enough to handle, shred it using your fingers, discarding excess fat and gristle.

Toss the shredded meat with 1 cup of the cooking sauce, adding more as needed to keep moist. Serve on rolls, with pickles, extra hot sauce and the remaining sauce.

Serves 8 to 10.

-- "The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook" from The America's Test Kitchen Editors (2008).

MILK-BRAISED PORK LOIN

PG tested

This recipe sounded a little strange but, after I read the author Michele Scicolone's description. I couldn't wait to try it: "The milk bubbles away and leaves just a small amount of thick, creamy sauce speckled with little bits of carrot, onion, and celery surrounding the tender, flavorful pork." She was right; we loved it.

-- Arlene Burnett

  • 3 pounds boneless pork loin, rolled and tied
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium celery rib, finely chopped
  • 2 cups whole milk

Pat meat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle it with salt and pepper to taste.

In a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the oil. Brown the meat on one side. Turn it over and scatter the vegetables around the meat. Cook until the vegetables are golden.

Transfer the meat to the slow cooker. Add the milk to the skillet with the vegetables and bring it to a simmer. Pour the contents of the skillet over the meat. Cover and cook on low for 3 to 4 hours, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the meat measures 160 degrees.

If the sauce is too thin pour it into a saucepan and reduce it over medium heat. Remove the twine. Slice the meat and arrange the slices, overlapping, slightly, on a platter. Spoon the sauce down the center and serve hot.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- "The Italian Slow Cooker" by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, $22).


Arlene Burnett can be reached at aburnett@post-gazette.com . First Published February 18, 2010 5:00 AM




Advertisement


Hot Topic