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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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While we aren't there yet, there is going to be some incredibly hot day when you come home from work and you don't have the energy to cook, and you certainly don't want to heat up your non air-conditioned kitchen, but you're going to want a real meal. You're going to need the 1970s gadget called a Crock-Pot (generically, a slow cooker.)

This energy-efficient electric device can cook for hours without heating up your kitchen, without needing to be stirred, without overcooking or burning food, and will save you time and money as well.

Rival created the slow cooker in the early '70s and it was a smash hit. But lest you think this thing has faded in popularity, its sales are almost as high as those of blenders and hand-mixers. Partly because they're very inexpensive* (this one is stylish and inexpensive).

The slow cooker operates using technology similar to that of a rice cooker. It has a heat-conductive lining that either sits on or is surrounded by electric heating coils. These coils keep the interior temperature at a specific temperature (200 degrees at Low and 300 degrees at High). Most stay on until you turn them off. Some slow cookers will turn off after a specific temperature is reached but this can be a very expensive feature. You can save yourself some money by purchasing a timer (like you would use to turn your lights on and off while you're on vacation) and plugging it into that.

In order for the slow cooker to work, it needs to have moisture inside it. But since you won't be lifting the lid to stir things, you won't be losing steam and therefore you'll be using less liquid than you would on a stovetop. Since you won't have to worry (as much**) about food sticking, you'll also be able to eliminate or drastically reduce the amount of oil you use.

If you're going to be using your slow cooker while you're away at work, you're going to be cooking for 8-10 hours. This means that you'll be able to use those tougher, less fatty cuts of meat that are often much cheaper than the premium cuts. You're essentially braising (stay tuned) your dish so those tough cuts will be juicy and tender when you get home.

If you're a fan of soups, stews, beans, etc. this is the perfect piece of cookware for you. You'll pretty much dump in your ingredients, turn it to low, come home to stir and taste it before diving in with your big spoon.

Wanna get the taste of cooked-all-day red sauce without stirring and watching a pot? Use a slow cooker. Want to have people over for chili and watch a game, but you don't want to be home all day watching a pot? Use a slow cooker. Want to wake up to delicious Irish or Scottish oatmeal? Yep, slow cooker.

Slow-Cooked Scottish Oatmeal
4 cups of water
1 cup of whole oats (pinhead works great)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
your favorite spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, etc.

Pour everything into the slow cooker. Stir to distribute spices. Set the cooker to low and go to bed. Wake up, add some milk and some sugar, and eat a heart-healthy breakfast before going off to battle the office demons.
Makes 4 large servings

Sloppy Joes
3 pounds of lean ground beef
1 cup of chopped onion (1 large onion; can be a Vidalia or sweet onion)
3 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 6 oz. can of tomato paste
1 12 oz. can of V-8, or similar tomato juice
1 red bell pepper chopped fine
5 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
4 tablespoons of brown sugar (omit if using sweet onion)
3 tablespoons of your favorite mustard
2 tablespoons of vinegar (cider works great, but balsamic is darn tasty)
2 teaspoons of chili powder
Hamburger buns

Brown the ground beef in a large skillet. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the excess fat (or you can use 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil) and put the meat in the slow cooker. Sauté the onion and the garlic for a few minutes in the skillet and then add it to the slow cooker with the remaining ingredients (except for the hamburger buns). Turn to low and cook for at least six but up to 10 hours. Spoon onto hamburger buns, tuck a napkin into your shirt and eat.
Makes 8-10 servings

Stroganoff over Egg Noodles
1 pound of beef stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes (extra-firm tofu or seitan work well, also)
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
1/4 pound of mushrooms, any variety
1/2 small onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced (1/2 teaspoon garlic powder)
1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 cubs beef or vegetable broth
1/4 cup sherry (beer will also work)
1/2 cup of sour cream
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/8 cup of water
1/2 to 3/4 cup of cooked noodles or rice per person

Brown the beef in the oil, then drain off the fat. In the slow cooker, combine the beef, mushrooms, onion, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf. Pour in the broth and the sherry or beer. Cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours or on high for 4-5 hours. Discard bay leaf.

If you're using the low setting, turn it to high now. Mix together the sour cream, flour and water. Stir 1 cup of the hot liquid into the sour cream mix and blend until smooth. Pour this mixture into the slow cooker while stirring. Cover and cook for an additional 30 minutes or until it has thickened and is bubbly. Serve over the noodles or rice.
Makes 4 generous servings

Beer and Cheese Soup
2 or 3 slices of pumpernickel rye bread
1 can of chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup of beer
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely or minced
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
6 ounces of American cheese, shredded or diced (Ementhaler also works)
4 to 6 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon parika (Hungarian, preferably)

Toast the bread slices and slice into 1/2 inch cubes. Set aside for garnish. Combine all the ingredients except for the cheese and milk in the slow cooker and cook on low for at least 4 hours. Turn it to high, stir in the milk and cheeses and cook for 45-60 minutes, or until the soup is hot and the cheeses have melted. Top bowls of soup with with the toasted bread cubes.
Serves 4 as appetizer, or 2 as main course

Pesto Rice and Beans
1 15 oz. can of Great Northern beans, drained
1 14 oz. can of chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup uncooked long-grain white rice (or brown)
1 1/2 cups frozen green beans (thawed and drained)
1/2 cup prepared pesto sauce
Parmesan cheese (optional)

Combine the beans, chicken broth and rice in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 2 hours. Stir in the green beans, cover and cook for another hour, or until the rice is done. Turn off the slow cooker and stir in the pesto sauce and cheese. Serve.
Makes 8 side dishes, or 3-4 main courses

Poached Pears with Raspberry Sauce
4 cups cran-raspberry juice
2 cups of semi-dry or sweet white wine
1/4 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
4 or 5 Bosc or Anjou pears, peeled
fresh raspberries or raspberry syrup

Combine the juice, wine, sugar, and cinnamon sticks in the slow cooker. Submerge the pears into the mixture. Cover and cook on low for at least 3-1/2 to 4 hours, or until the pears are tender. Remove the cinnamon stick. Put on plate and garnish with fresh berries or syrup.

To make your own syrup, remove pears from slow cooker and cover them to keep them warm. Pour the liquid into a sauce pan, boil on medium high without a lid and stir frequently until the sauce reduces and thickens. Drizzle sauce over pears.

With a little bit of experimentation, almost any recipe can be converted for use with a slow-cooker. There are several books available to give you ideas. This is basic and easy cooking, and should be unintimidating for a beginner.

* If you see a crock-pot at a thrift store or yard sale, here are some things to look for before plunking down your dollar or three. Make sure the cord isn't frayed or chewed. Make sure the lid isn't broken or chipped (a glass lid is preferable to a plastic lid.) Make sure the ceramic or glass interior isn't cracked or chipped. See if you can plug it in to make sure it heats. If taken care of decently, these things are pretty indestructible.

** While the food itself won't stick, you'll get a ring around the top of the liquid level that can be hard to remove. The easiest way to get this off is to soak it over night with a little bit of dishsoap in the water. But don't let the water sit there too long, or it will mold and that is even harder to get out of your cooker's interior.

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anne / April 13, 2004 10:12 AM

I have a long-standing agreement with a friend that we'll try to swap his slow-cooker for my food processor on a regular basis, but we've never done it. Now I'm all ready to make my jump into the wonderful world of cool summer cooking that isn't limited to pb+j's. Thanks!

lacey / April 14, 2004 10:03 AM

I have a crock pot and while I don't use it often, I *love* it when I do. SO easy & perfect for those of us with energy in the morning but not in the evening. I'm curious if there's anyone out there who has made more desserty-type things in the crock pot (besides the pears, which sound delicious). I might try something like that soon...

Also, if you like chili, the crock pot's the way to go!

lena / April 15, 2004 7:22 PM

I LOVE THE CROCKPOT! seriously, this is the best cookbook.

Jeff / April 16, 2004 9:45 AM

I'd forgotten all about the old trusty crockpot. I'll have to look into getting one of those.

dave / April 17, 2004 6:55 AM

I know I should just try this instead of asking but, has anyone tasted any difference between slow cooked oatmeal and regular-speed stove top?

Cinnamon / April 19, 2004 10:32 AM

Taste, not so much. Texture is different though. It's creamier and smoother.


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