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Cooking made slow & easy

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When the Rival Crock-Pot slow cooker came on the market in 1971, it was poised to take over the kitchen. Women liked coming home to a meal that had been simmering all day. The energy crunch was on, and slow cookers used less electricity than ovens or stove tops. Just about all newlyweds in the '70s could expect a wedding gift of at least one Rival Crock-Pot, or a generic knockoff, in either Harvest Gold or Avocado Green.

"When they came out, they were going to be the new thing in cooking," said Pauline Williams, a home economist with Utah State University Extension in Salt Lake County. "But a few years later the microwave came out."

And the quick-cooking microwave soon short-circuited the slow cooker's popularity.

But more than 30 years later, the slow cooker is alive and well; some folks never stopped using them. And, like fondue and hip-hugger jeans, they're making a comeback. So if yours has been stashed in the gadget graveyard of your basement, it's time to haul it out.

Williams has been teaching slow cooker classes at local cooking stores and in the Salt Lake County Extension office. Two Utahns, Stephanie Ashcraft of Provo and Janet Eyring of Heber, co-authored a new cookbook, "101 Things to Do With a Slow Cooker," published by Gibbs Smith of Layton. Eyring teaches a popular monthly cooking class, "Slow Cooker Sensations," at Macey's stores in Pleasant Grove, Orem and Provo. Ashcraft wrote "101 Things to Do With a Cake Mix" that sold over 130,000 copies since it was published in 2000. She also teaches cooking classes at Macey's.

Their book is geared toward the beginner, with a lot of what Ashcraft calls "throw-and-go" recipes. Put a few ingredients together in the morning and let the slow cooker take it from there. That's why many of the recipes rely on a can of cream-of-something soup or dry onion soup mix.

"The (creamed soups) do really welI in the slow cooker, they're fast to use and most people have it in the cupboard. That's a benefit of the book is that it uses simple ingredients, and there's not much pre-preparation. If people don't like the fat content, they can use the Healthy Request soups and the recipes will turn out fine," she said.

Besides the usual casseroles, the book includes cakes, cobblers, rolls, fondue and drinks such as hot chocolate.

"I was amazed at how much you can do," Ashcraft said. She especially likes the lasagna recipe, because you don't have to pre-cook the noodles. "The hardest part is browning the ground beef. I never make lasagna in my oven anymore."

If you've already mastered the basics, you may want to look at other books such as "The Crockery Cook" by Mable Hoffman (Fisher Books) or "Ready and Waiting," by Rick Rodgers, which offer more sophisticated fare. You can also adapt some of your favorite recipes to a slow cooker. But if you have only 15 minutes in the morning for prep time, you will want to keep it simple.

Slow cookers have become more sophisticated, with more heat levels, programmable settings and lift-out pots. But the concept is still the same — "It's basically a little tiny oven," said Williams.

Advantages of slow-cooking:

— Moist, flavorful food. It doesn't dry out because the steam rises to the dome-shaped lid, where it condenses and drips back into the food.

— You can save money by buying inexpensive, tougher cuts of meat such as pot roasts or ribs, and let the moist, gentle heat tenderize it.

— Because of its size, it's easy on electricity and you don't heat up the kitchen.

— You don't need to watch the pot. In fact, it's better if you don't peek, because lifting the lid lets the heat out and adds about 30 minutes to the cooking time, say Ashcraft and Eyring.

— It's portable. Since the crockery retains heat, it can remain unplugged for an hour. But if your travel time, plus waiting time, exceeds that, you will need to plug it in to keep the food hot enough to avoid food poisoning.

— Cooking times are flexible; your dinner isn't ruined if you're a half hour late getting home.

— The food retains nutrients and flavor. The liquid in the pot is usually made into a sauce or gravy, so even the water-soluble vitamins that leach into the liquid are consumed, said Williams.

— Easy preparation and cleanup. Because you're usually cooking in one pot, you don't have other pans to wash. The pot can go from the counter to the table, and if it's a lift-out pot, it's even easier to clean.

But slow cookers have their drawbacks. You need to plan — you can't throw together something at 5 p.m. and expect to serve it at 6. Also, rice, noodles and pasta, and fragile veggies like green peppers, tend to turn mushy with a long cooking time. Generally, it's best to add them 30-60 minutes before serving. Milk products like sour cream can curdle, so they should be added at the end of cooking time.

Williams advises against cooking ground meat in slow cookers because it should be cooked quickly to avoid the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. So when making chili, lasagna, etc., brown the ground meat first in a frying pan, then add it to the pot.

To cook meats and poultry safely, the pot's temperature should be up to 140 degrees within 1 1/2 hours, said Williams. That's why many recipes start out on the high setting for an hour, then switch to low. To check your slow-cooker's heat, put water in it, set it on low, and check it with a thermometer after one hour. It should reach 140 degrees.

Also, small chunks of meat will cook faster than large chunks. "With a roast, as long as you get the outside cooked in 1 1/2 hours, you're OK," she said.

Williams said it's risky to use frozen meats, although some recipes in "101 Things to Do With a Slow Cooker" call for frozen chicken breasts.

"That's mainly so you don't have to touch the raw meat, because I hate touching raw meat," said Ashcraft. "I just add more time onto the cooking. It ends up getting thoroughly cooked."

She said raw poultry or beef should cook at least three hours on high heat. Combinations of raw meat and fresh vegetables should cook at least four hours on high heat.

The stoneware can crack with sudden temperature changes, so don't take it from the refrigerator and place it on a hot electrical base (or take the hot crock and place it in your freezer or refrigerator).


SALSA CHICKEN SOUP

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder, optional

1 49-ounce can chicken broth (or 6 cups water with 6 chicken bouillon cubes)

1 16-ounce jar mild or medium chunky salsa

1 15-ounce can corn, drained

1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 bag baked tortilla chips

Shredded cheddar cheese or sour cream for garnish

2 corn tortillas, cut in 1/4-inch strips and fried until crispy, optional

Dice chicken breasts into 1-inch cubes (this is easier to do when chicken is partially frozen). Add chicken, garlic, cumin, chile powder, chicken broth, salsa, corn, black beans and half of the cilantro to the crock pot. Cook on high 3-4 hours, or on low 5-7 hours. To serve, put a few chips in each bowl and then ladle soup into bowl. Sprinkle on remaining cilantro, sour cream, cheddar cheese and tortilla strips if desired. Serves 8-10. — Valerie Phillips


SAVORY PEPPER STEAK

1 1/2 pounds beef round steak, about 1/2-inch thick

1/4 cup flour

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small clove garlic, minced

2 large green or red peppers, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch strips

1 14 1/2-ounce can whole tomatoes

1 tablespoon beef flavored granules

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

6 cups cooked rice

Cut steak into strips about 1/4-inch thick. Combine 1/4 cup flour and pepper; toss with steak strips to coat thoroughly. Add to slow cooker with onion, garlic and half of green pepper strips. Stir. Combine tomatoes with beef granules, light soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Pour into slow cooker, moistening meat. Cover and cook on low 8-10 hours.

One hour before serving, turn to high and stir in remaining green pepper strips. If thickened gravy is desired, make a smooth paste of 3 tablespoons flour and 3 tablespoons water; stir into slow cooker. Cover and cook until thickened. Serve over hot fluffy rice. Serves 6.

Nutritional information per serving: 474 calories; 8 grams total fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 72 milligrams cholesterol; 64 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams dietary fiber; 33 grams protein, 454 mg. sodium.

Variation: Make Beef Stroganoff by preparing Savory Pepper Steak, omitting green peppers and soy sauce. Add 1 1/2 cups fresh sliced mushrooms 1 hour before end of cooking time. Stir in 1 cup no-fat (or low-fat) sour cream just before serving. Serve over cooked noodles. — Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service


PINEAPPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

1 box yellow cake mix

1/4 cup melted butter

1/8 cup brown sugar

1 15-ounce can crushed pineapple, with liquid

8 to 12 maraschino cherries, halved

In a 2-quart mixing bowl, make cake batter according to the directions on back of box. In a greased 3 1/2- to 5-quart slow cooker, layer melted butter, brown sugar, pineapple with juice and cherries. Pour cake batter over the top. Cover and cook on low heat 4-5 hours or until cake is firm in the center. Makes 8-10 servings. — "101 Things to Do With a Slow Cooker" by Stephanie Ashcraft and Janet Eyring


E-MAIL: vphillips@desnews.com