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HAIL TO THE HUMBLE CROCK POT
PRIME TIME FOR SLOW COOKING HAS ARRIVED

You'll find it in the back of the most inconvenient cabinet in your kitchen, the one where you put the bread machine, your ice cream maker and your juicer.

Like those other specialty appliances, it tends to get a bad rap that goes something like this: Sounds like a great addition to the kitchen. So you buy one, only to realize a year later that you've used it twice, both times in the first month you owned it.

So it gets stuffed behind the bread machine, ice cream maker and juicer, only to surface in one of those junk purges most households periodically go through.

Next time the neighborhood has its yard sale, get rid of the bread machine, get rid of the ice cream maker and get rid of the juicer if you must ... but hold on to that slow cooker. In fact, walk around the block and see if you can pick up another one cheap I've seen them in block sales for under $5.

Yeah, I know. You're already ticking off the reasons why the one you have should go:

* It's not versatile, a feeling fueled by the cries of "chili ... again?" from those you're feeding.

* It doesn't yield memorable results, a feeling fueled by too many frozen vegetable-laden, improperly spiced meals that leave those dining vaguely unfulfilled.

* It takes too long to prepare it in the morning, a feeling fueled by your being late for work when the 15 minutes of preparation time listed in the recipe turns into a solid half hour.

Pish, I say.

With prime slow cooker time straight ahead of us, I've volunteered to do a little public relations for this often overlooked device. I have received no money or other compensation from Rival, manufacturers of the famous Crock-Pot, West Bend, Cuisinart or any of the other slow cooker manufacturers.

I did, however, get The News to spring $35 for one of the latest models, a 6-quart beauty that came with its own carry bag and a so-so addition to my collection of slow cooker recipe books. This model allows you to set the time and heat level; once the meal is cooked, it automatically switches to a keep-warm mode. That's a great feature for the times when you're running late and virtually eliminates the possibility of overcooking your food.

In a giddy mood, I then spent $100 of my own money on two more recipe books and food for the listed recipes, so I'm not sure who got the better of the deal, but this is mostly a labor of love anyway.

You see, I own two make that three slow cookers. I don't use them much in the summer, but they are one of my favorite things about living in a place where winter normally runs long and deep.

Picture this: It's 5:30 on a mid-January afternoon. The sun set a half-hour ago, although that's only what the almanac says, because you haven't seen the sun in several weeks. You get into your crinkly cold car at work, slide through gray wakes of street slush to your home, and trundle through the afternoon dusting to your front door. You walk in and the smell induces immediate decompression from the day's pressures.

What is that smell?

How about your favorite barbecue sauce imbued with the sweetness of swine? Maybe it's the distinctive odor of mellowed onions surrounding a green bean casserole. It could be that all-time favorite combination of apples and cinnamon.

Whatever it is, the greeting comes in second only to the one a toddler bestows on a returning parent. That one is for the heart. The crockpot's speaks to the stomach, saying, "Calm down, dinner is just ahead."

I've listed some of the arguments against the crockpot earlier. Now let me give the biggest reason to buy one, the main reason why Rival says it has sold 80 million Crock-Pots since it first introduced them in 1971.

It is incredibly convenient. Schedules are even more hectic now than they were when Rival released the Crock-Pot. With a little bit of preparation time in the morning, dinner can cook itself while you're out doing all the things you do during the day.

There are several crockpot cookbooks that deal strictly with 3-, 4- and 5-ingredient recipes, designed to keep things simple by using common spices and grocery items like soups and spaghetti sauce. One of my favorites is barbecue ribs, and all you need is Montreal seasoning, your favorite barbecue sauce, red onion and the ribs.

Of course, chili and beef stew are perfect for the crockpot and, depending on how fancy you want to get, fairly easy to put together. But if you want something a little more exotic, try the pumpkin pie pork stew. The dried fruit make this one sweet stew.

I own perhaps 10 make that a dozen slow cooker cookbooks, and while there is some duplication, there is also an incredible variety of recipes. I'll admit I've tried some and, disappointed with the results, never made them again.

But I've also found some that were beyond expectations, like the chocolate peanut butter cake/pudding. Spooned over ice cream, this is a truly decadent way to end a meal.

There were at least 20 cookbooks devoted to the slow cooker at the local bookstore. Browse through just about any one, and you'll see slow cooking isn't just about beef stew and chili anymore.

Or do some surfing on the Internet. Almost all of the major cooking Web sites have slow cooker sections, and there are several dedicated sites, including crockery-kitchen.com and crockpot.com.

Pick out a recipe that looks intriguing, then pull out the slow cooker you almost forgot you had. Pretty soon, it could find its way into the "A" list of your appliances, not buried in the back, but perched proudly on the countertop.

Pumpkin pie pork stew

This recipe is for a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker, and feeds seven to eight people. If using a 3- to 4-quart cooker, cut amounts in half.

3 pounds pork shoulder roast

4 tablespoons cooking oil

3 pounds pie pumpkin, seeded, peeled and cut into

1-inch cubes

1 cup sliced onion

1 package (7 ounces) dried fruit medley (or mix your own from raisins, apples, peaches, plums, apricots, cherries)

5 tablespoons instant flour

2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1/2 teaspoon salt

28 ounces chicken broth

2 tablespoons steak sauce

1. Trim excess fat from pork, and cut into 1-inch cubes.

2. In a large skillet, heat oil and brown pork cubes in batches. Drain pork and reserve.

3. Combine pumpkin, onion, dried fruits and place in crockpot.

4. Place pork on top and sprinkle with flour, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice and salt.

5. Combine chicken broth and steak sauce, then pour over pork.

6. Cover and cook 7 to 8 hours on low, or 3 1/2 to 4 hours on high. Stir before serving.

Chocolate peanut butter cake with pudding

This one is for all the peanut butter cup lovers. A pudding simmers under the cake. Serve alone, or spoon over ice cream.

Cake

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup milk

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pudding

3/4 cup peanut butter pieces

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 cups boiling water

1/2 cup chunky peanut butter

2 tablespoons chopped unsalted dry roasted peanuts

1. In a mixing bowl, stir together flour, 1/2 -cup sugar, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder and baking powder. Add milk, oil and vanilla, and stir until batter is smooth. Stir in peanut butter pieces and spread batter over the bottom of a 3 1/2 - to 4-quart greased slow cooker.

2. In another bowl, combine 3/4 -cup sugar and 1/4 -cup cocoa powder. Stir together boiling water and peanut butter, and stir into cocoa mixture. Pour evenly over the batter in the slow cooker. Cover, cook on high for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until toothpick inserted in center of the cake comes out clean. Let stand uncovered for 30 minutes to cool slightly.

Easy crockpot ribs

This is a simple recipe, whose only real preparation time involves rubbing and browning the ribs and slicing the onions. The amount of ribs you buy depends on how many you need to feed, and how big your slow cooker is. Browning the ribs is crucial; it gives them some

crispness.

Montreal steak seasoning, or some other commercial prepared rib rub.

Baby back ribs

2 medium onions

A bottle of your favorite

barbecue sauce

1. Rinse ribs and dry with paper towel. Rub the ribs generously with the seasoning.

2. Slice onion into 1/2 -inch slices.

3. Broil ribs for 5 to 7 minutes per side.

4. Cut rib sections so they fit into your slow cooker. Start with a layer of ribs, pour enough barbecue sauce to cover top of ribs, then top with a slice of onion. Alternate layers of ribs, sauce and onion until the pot is full. Pour any remaining sauce into the pot.

5. Cook on slow for 7 to 8 hours.

John F. Bonfatti frequently writes about food for First Sunday and The News.

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