Thursday, January 6, 2011
Food for Thought: Slow Cookers
I've been using my slow cooker a lot lately. Lately in this case means the past 6 months. Kyle and I registered for a lovely 3.5 quart stainless steel version from Cuisinart, my favorite cookware manufacturer, and Kyle's mother gave it to us at a shower last summer.
For years I've wanted one of these things, the same way that home cooks always yearn for a new (to them) gadget for their increasingly crowded kitchens. Once I finally got it, I couldn't wait to take advantage of the convenience. And who doesn't love the way a slow cooker creates that falling-off-the bone effect on any meat you place within it? Who doesn't agree that chili tastes better the longer it's cooked? With a slow cooker, there's no need to chain yourself to house while you (impatiently, in my case) wait for your meal. Today's slow cookers are designed to cook anywhere from 30 minutes up to 20 hours, and models like mine have a two hour "warm" setting that automatically switches on once the pre-set time has elapsed. You can't beat my Cuisinart in terms of ease of operation. You choose the cook level (high, low or simmer), set the timer and press on - that's it.
The first thing I did upon receiving my slow cooker was buy a cookbook specific to slow cooker cooking. I opted for "Crock Pot: The Original Slow Cooker - Best-Loved Slow Cooker Recipes" (on sale right now on barnesandnoble.com for $5.99). This cookbook contains all the old standards you'll remember from decades ago - beef stew, chili, queso dip etc. There are several sections on dinners that favor noodles or rice topped with a bubbling concoction - none of them seem super exciting. However, there's a great chapter called Beyond Basic Soups, with gems like Chicken Fiesta and Chicken and Tofu Hot Pot (beware the Chipotle Black Bean unless you want to burn out your esophagus). We've been especially pleased with a Teriyaki Chicken Wings appetizer and a Honey Chicken main-course dinner that's lip smacking good. Nearly every recipe in this cookbook can be thrown together in the pot within 5-10 minutes at night, after which you can put the pot in the fridge and set it to cook in the morning before you leave for work. This is, of course, the major draw of the Crock Pot - you can come home after a long day and have dinner ready to serve and enjoy.
Pretty soon I plan to graduate to a new recipe source, the cheekily titled "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook" by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann (paperback is $11.47 on B&N's website). Or maybe "Fix-It and Forget-It" by Phyllis Pellman Good (paperback $11.75). This is actually a series, and includes one that might appeal to those New Year's resolutioners: "Fix-It and Forget-It Lightly: Healthy Low-Fat Recipes for Your Slow Cooker". Quick AND healthy? You gotta love it.
The authors of "Not Your Mother's" state that 80% of American households contain a slow cooker. If you're not in that majority, you should be. Slow cookers are a great investment, not only because of their ability to make hearty, delicious meals that won't overheat your house (like the oven in my former apartment, which would easily raise the inside temp 10 degrees), but also for all the time you'll save in the kitchen. I love cooking a complicated, multi-course dinner, but the fact is that most modern cooks don't have time for that every single day.
If you do have a slow cooker and it's been packed away in your storage closet gathering dust, unearth that thing and get one of the cookbooks mentioned above. You'll quickly remember why you bought it in the first place.