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Bringing the slow cooker into the 21st century

By Annmarie Timmins
For The Associated Press
If you’ve been slow to warm up to slow cookers, it probably wasn’t the incredible convenience that turned you off.
The abundance of recipes relying on processed cheese and canned cream-of-whatever soup, on the other hand…
But what if your slow cooker greeted you at day’s end with dinner fit for company, perhaps corn and sweet potato chowder or chicken curry? Or cod over potatoes and summer squash steeped in rosemary?
“I frequently say, ‘Don’t knock it until you try it,’ ” says Ellen Brown, who wasn’t a fan until she wrote “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Slow Cooker Cooking,” and filled the book with recipes loaded with fresh vegetables, beans and herbs.
“Now my slow cooker lives on my counter,” she says.
Slow cookers have been around since 1971, when Rival introduced its Crock-Pot. Today, about 6 million are sold each year, many sporting numerous high-tech improvements, including automated settings and easy-clean bowls.
Grocers now even sell special slow cooker liners to make cleanup almost instant. But it seems that if slow cookers themselves have embraced the 21st century, surely the recipes that use them can, too.
After all, our tastes may have grown beyond canned soup casseroles, but our lives certainly could still benefit from the convenience of slow cooking.
“One of the losses in our lives is that it’s so hard to sit down at the dinner table night after night and have parents and kids eating together,” says Phyllis Pellman Good, author of “Fix-It and Forget-It Big Cookbook.”
“With this, you can prepare food early and bring everyone together at the table,” she says. “It helps immensely.”
The secret to successful ó and tasteful ó slow cooking, is to know what slow cookers do well, and what they don’t.
So here are some tips from the experts.
n The slow, moist heat of a slow cooker is ideal for stews, sauce-based dishes and for tenderizing inexpensive cuts of meat. It will bake beans evenly and produce fall-off the bone pulled pork. It also turns out a mean chicken stock.
n Slow cookers will not produce crispy chicken, and nicer cuts of meat, such as pork tenderloin or filet mignon, will be ruined. Pastas can be tricky (they can turn mushy), and delicate cream sauces and white fish require careful timing.
n Slow cookers come in various sizes; pick the one that best for you. When deciding, know that slow cookers work best when two-thirds full, says Good. Also, for roasts and whole chickens an oval cooker may be better than a round one.
n When preparing vegetables for a slow cooker, cut them in consistent sizes. Depending on the recipe, vegetables that take longer to cook, such as potatoes, should be cut smaller than faster cooking produce, such as celery.
n Follow the recipe’s advice on how to arrange the vegetables in the slow cooker. If they’ll take longer to cook than the meat, they usually go on the bottom.
n Don’t add more liquid than the recipe calls for, even if it looks like you’ll need it, says Brown. Slow cookers retain their liquid, so you’ll need less than you would in traditional cooking.
n If the recipe suggests it, take the time to brown your meat before it goes into the slow cooker. This can be done either in a skillet on the stove or, as Brown does, under the broiler. The slow cooker alone won’t get hot enough to brown.
n Save yourself time in the morning by prepping your ingredients ahead of time. But for food safety reasons, Brown cautions against combining everything, especially partially cooked meat and other items, until you start the slow cooker.
n Don’t program the cooker to turn several hours after you leave the house; you risk contaminated food. If you’ll be gone longer than the cooking time, start the slow cooker when you leave and let it switch to warm for the last hour or so.
n Slow cookers can do more than cook beef stew in the cold months. It cooks at around 200 degrees, which means using it also can help keep you kitchen cooler in summer. It also can turn out appetizers and desserts as easily as main courses.
n Don’t peek. When you lift the lid, the temperature drops significantly and your cooking time will be off, says Amy Golino, a culinary analyst for Jarden Consumer Solutions, the Rye, N.Y.-based maker of Crock-Pot.n Let your slow cooker save you money. Golino suggests buying chicken breast in bulk and cooking enough at once for two or three meals. It might be chicken salad one night and chicken enchiladas the next.
n Use your slow cooker to get your kids in the kitchen. Good says the slow cookers’ low heat and forgiving cooking times make it a safe way for children to start cooking.

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