I like to think I’m the kind of person who can admit to being wrong. For instance, the perm I got in high school that made my head look like a giant Brillo pad. Wrong. Or the time I told a prospective employer I could program computers, assuming I could fake it until I actually figured it out. Really wrong. Or when I re-gifted the slow cooker someone gave my husband and me for our wedding, thinking I’d never use it. Wrong again, although it took me a long time to discover it.
Most of us who grew up in the ’70s remember our parents’ Crock-Pot, the iconic brand of slow cooker that introduced many households to the wonders of “fix it and forget it” cuisine. What could be better than plopping a handful of ingredients into a small appliance, going to work and having dinner ready when you get home? Nothing, until the ’80s came along and many of us were ditching our green and gold Crock-Pots in favor of those newfangled microwave ovens.
Like most things in life, what goes around comes around, and the slow cooker came back with a vengeance by the early 2000s, when more than 80 percent of U.S. households owned one (and a lot of manufacturers produced them). Why? Perhaps it’s because that’s when eating in became more the norm again and people still had to deal with the logistics of working and cooking. Once more, slow cookers seemed like a good solution to a challenging problem. I now find myself turning to it often when cooking for my own family.
One reason I pull out my slow cooker on a regular basis is my personal affinity for the cooking method behind the appliance. Moist-heat cooking, which includes braising and stewing, is the slow cooker’s modus operandi and it can make you look like a rock star. These techniques are typically used on meats and other types of foods that are inexpensive and not naturally tender. The heat and moisture breaks down the fibers and renders the food fork-tender and the liquid that surrounds it ultra-flavorful.
Another reason I turn to the slow cooker? I can use it while I’m at work. I can use it while I’m running errands. I can even use it while I’m asleep, and I wake up to the most incredibly fragrant house. Then I feel like I’ve been working hard all night.
Few kitchen appliances ask so little and deliver so much.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @meredithdeeds.
Slow Cooker Bolognese Sauce
Makes 6 to 7 cups.
Note: Cooking this classic Italian meat sauce in a slow cooker gives it a melt-in-your-mouth consistency that is just right for pappardelle pasta, fettuccine or layered in your favorite lasagna. Pancetta, also known as Italian bacon, can be found in the deli section of the supermarket.. From Meredith Deeds.
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 1 1/2 lb. ground beef
• 1 lb. ground pork
• 1/4 lb. pancetta, finely diced (see Note)
• 2 medium onions, finely chopped
• 2 ribs celery, finely chopped
• 2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
• 5 garlic cloves, chopped
• 1 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 3 tbsp. tomato paste
• 1 c. whole milk
• 1 c. dry white wine
• 2 (28-oz.) cans whole peeled tomatoes, drained, juices reserved
• 2 bay leaves
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add pork, beef and pancetta and brown over high heat, stirring and breaking up the meat with the back of a wooden spoon for about 10 minutes.
Add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, salt and pepper, and sauté until vegetables are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for another 5 minutes or until the paste is a rusty brown color. Add the milk and simmer until almost dry, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for another 10 minutes or until the wine evaporates. Transfer to a 6-quart slow cooker.
Add the tomatoes, crushing with your hands as you go, and the whole bay leaves. The mixture should be thick and saucy, but not dry. Add some of the reserved tomato juices if necessary.
Cover the slow cooker and cook on the low heat setting for 6 to 8 hours.
In the last half-hour of cooking, check the sauce. If it looks soupy, remove the lid to allow any excess liquid to evaporate and reduce the sauce. If it looks a little dry, stir in some of the reserved tomato juices. The finished sauce should be thick and creamy. Remove the bay leaves before serving.
Nutrition information per ½ cup serving:
Calories 280 Fat 21 g Sodium 440 mg
Carbohydrates 8 g Saturated fat 8 g Calcium 79 mg
Protein 17 g Cholesterol 65 mg Dietary fiber 3 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 2 medium-fat meat, 2 fat.
Slow Cooker Green Chile Chicken Tacos
Makes 16 tacos.
Note: If time is short, you can substitute 2 cups of store-bought salsa verde for the homemade salsa in this easy, but memorable weeknight recipe. From Meredith Deeds.
• 2 small white onions, divided
• 2 poblano chiles
• 4 medium tomatillos, husks removed
• 3 garlic cloves
• 1 c. fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, divided
• 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
• 16 warm corn tortillas
• 1/2 c. grated queso cotija or Monterey Jack cheese
• 1 avocado, sliced
• Lime wedges
For the salsa: Preheat broiler to high and adjust broiler rack to 5 to 6 inches below the heating element. Cut 1 onion in half and place on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet with the chiles and tomatillos. Broil until vegetables brown in spots, about 5 minutes. Turn vegetables over, add the garlic cloves to the pan and broil until brown in spots, about 5 more minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove peel from the peppers (don’t worry if you can’t get it all off) and remove stems and seeds. Transfer vegetables to a food processor or blender with 1/2 cup cilantro and process on high speed until smooth. Add 2 tablespoons lime juice, salt and pepper and process briefly to combine.
For the chicken: Place the chicken in a 6-quart slow cooker. Add the salsa and stir to combine. Cook for 4 hours on the high heat setting or 6 to 8 hours on the low heat setting, until the chicken is tender and easily shreds.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, shred the chicken with 2 forks.
Pour cooking liquid into another container. Add the chicken back to the slow cooker. Add just enough cooking liquid to moisten the chicken. Cook for another 10 to 20 minutes on the high heat setting to rewarm.
Mince 1 onion and add to 1/2 cup cilantro in a bowl. Serve chicken with warm tortillas, onion and cilantro mixture, cheese, avocado and lime wedges.
Nutrition information per taco:
Calories 164 Fat 6 g Sodium 260 mg
Carbohydrates 14 g Saturated fat 2 g Calcium 58 mg
Protein 14 g Cholesterol 58 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 bread/starch, 2 lean meat.
Slow Cooker Short Ribs with Horseradish Cream
Note: Extremely flavorful, thick slabs of beef hold onto short, stout bones that are easily removed after a long bath in red wine and tomatoes has rendered the meat “fall-apart tender.” Taking the time to thoroughly brown ribs before adding them to the slow cooker is the key to success. Serve simply, over mashed potatoes or noodles, or, better yet, over crispy potato cakes. From Meredith Deeds.
• 4 lb. beef short ribs, cut into 1-rib pieces
• 1 tsp. salt, divided
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, divided
• 1 tbsp. olive oil
• 2 onions, thinly sliced
• 2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-in. slices on the diagonal
• 4 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 c. dry red wine
• 1 (28 oz.) can whole tomatoes, drained, liquid reserved
• 1 c. sour cream
• 2 tbsp. prepared horseradish
• 2 tbsp. finely chopped chives
Pat short ribs dry and season with half of the salt and pepper. In a large skillet, heat oil over moderately high heat. Working in 2 batches, brown the ribs on all sides, about 10 minutes a batch.
Lower the heat to medium and add the onions with the remaining salt and pepper. Sauté until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add carrots and garlic and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a 6-quart slow cooker with the ribs, wine, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook on the high heat setting for 4 hours or the low heat setting for 6 to 8 hours or until the meat is completely tender. Taste and season with more salt, pepper if necessary.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the sour cream and horseradish. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, divide the short ribs among heated serving plates and place a dollop of horseradish sour cream on top. Garnish with a sprinkling of chives.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 290 Fat 20 g Sodium 420 mg Saturated fat 8 g
Carbohydrates 9 g Calcium 93 mg
Protein 17 g Cholesterol 73 mg Dietary fiber 3 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: ½ bread/starch, 2 medium-fat meat, 2 fat.
Slow Cooker Moroccan Chickpea Stew
Note: Fragrant spices will permeate your home as this hearty North African stew cooks away in your slow cooker. Serve over couscous with harissa, a paste made from hot chile peppers, found in the ethnic foods aisle of many grocery stores, or your favorite hot sauce on the side. From Meredith Deeds.
• 1 lb. dried chickpeas
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 2 tsp. paprika
• 1 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
• 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
• 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
• 1/4 tsp. cayenne
• 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
• 2 small cinnamon sticks
• 5 c. vegetable stock or broth
• 1 lb. butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-in. chunks
• 1 small zucchini, cut into 2-in. rounds
• 3 small turnips, peeled and quartered
• 2 large carrots, trimmed and peeled and cut into 2-in. chunks
• 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
• 1 c. canned whole peeled tomatoes, chopped, reserving juice
• 3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
• 1 tbsp. peeled, chopped, fresh ginger
• 1/4 tsp. baking soda
• 1 tsp. salt
Rinse chickpeas and pick out any stones. Soak chickpeas overnight in cold water.
Drain chickpeas and place in a 6-quart slow cooker.
In a small skillet, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the paprika, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne and cloves and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, or until the spices are just fragrant. Be careful not to burn.
Add the spice mixture to slow cooker, along with the cinnamon sticks, stock, squash, zucchini, turnips, carrots, onion, tomatoes and juice, garlic, ginger and baking soda. Cook on high heat setting for 4 hours or 6 to 8 hours on the low heat setting or until the chickpeas are just tender. Add the salt and continue to cook for 20 to 30 minutes more, until the chickpeas are tender, but not mushy.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 380 Fat 9 g Sodium 665 mg Saturated fat 1 g
Carbohydrates 61 g Calcium 160 mg
Protein 16 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 17 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 4 bread/starch, ½ lean meat, 1 ½ fat.