Now that the new year is here, resolve to make better use of your electric slow cooker. No appliance is more useful for turning out a soothing hot dish while the cold winds blow.
All manner of food cooks well in a slow cooker. Soups, stews, pot roasts bubble quietly away while you are out and about at the office or supermarket.
No wonder slow cookers -- sometimes called "Crock Pots," which is actually a term trademarked by the Rival Company -- continue to be so popular. Almost every appliance company sells them, and they range in price starting at about $17 and going way up from there.
Slow cookers are so ubiquitous now that you can even buy throwaway liners for them to speed cleanup (totally unnecessary as they may be).
The appliances themselves have even gone upscale. This year, Williams-Sonoma is marketing for the first time a deluxe stainless steel slow-cook pot with a cast aluminum insert with a seven-quart capacity, selling for just under $250.
That might be great for entertaining but might be just a tad oversize for people with small storage room or for the many one- and two-person families who don't want to keep eating the same thing for a week.
That's where a new cookbook just might come in handy. "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Recipes for Two," by Beth Hensperger (Harvard Common Press, $12.95 in paperback).
No need to tell Hensperger about the advantages of slow cooking. A food journalist, she writes a column called "Baking by the Season" for the San Jose Mercury News and has written some 17 cookbooks, including "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook."
"I wrote the new book because people kept asking me to. They said that in my first book the recipes were too big for them," she said on the phone the other day. "I live alone myself, so I know how that could happen."
Hensperger tested her new recipes in small (1 1/2 - to 3-quart) oval slow cookers because she thinks the shape makes them more versatile but she says round ones can certainly be used if you prefer. It's the size that's important.
Small recipes cook best in small slow cookers, she said. For optimum cooking, a cooker should be about two-thirds full. But the book is usable for anyone. People who have larger cookers may double or triple the recipes.
"For some reason it's more reliable to do that than to cut a larger recipe in half," she said.
Testing for the new book was fun, she said. "I got so that I started cooking better for myself."
Hensperger has several rules for slow cooking that pertain no matter how large the recipe. One is: "If you are leaving the slow cooker unattended all day or night, it is best to cook on the low setting."
Another: "Get in the habit of spraying the inside of the crock with nonstick cooking spray before every recipe to prevent sticking and to facilitate easy washing of the crock," is another.
And here's an important axiom: "Unless noted in the recipe, thaw frozen foods before placing them in the slow cooker so that the food temperature can reach a safe 140-degrees as soon as possible. Frozen foods can slow the heating of the cook and leave your stew or braise at too low a temperature for too long a time to be safe to eat."
Here are a few recipes from the book. Remember, if you are using a larger (3 1/2 - to 5-quart) appliance, the recipe should be doubled or even tripled for best results.
>Winter Split Pea Soup
1 2/3 cups green split peas, rinsed and picked over
5 cups chicken broth
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 medium size carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 bay leaf
1 smoked pork chop (or leftover bone from a small ham)
1/2 cup frozen petit green peas, thawed
Salt to taste
For a 3-quart cooker. Place the split peas in the slow cooker; add the broth, onion, carrot, celery and bay leaf. Stir to combine. Nestle the pork chop into the center of the crock. Cover and cook on low for 7 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours until the split peas are completely tender.
Remove and discard the bay leaf. Remove the pork chop and shred the meat off the bone; discard the bone and set aside the meat. Using an immersion blender or transferring to a food processor blender, puree the soup if you like a smooth soup. You can leave it chunky if you prefer.
Return the meat to the soup; add the petit peas and cook for another 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and serve hot. Makes 2 servings.
Many cooks swear that the meatloaf that emerges from the slow cooker is better than any that comes out of a traditional oven. "I agree," writes Hensperger. "It is so moist and easy to slice." Here's a recipe that feeds two and provides for leftovers the next day.
>Old Fashioned Meatloaf
1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
2/3 cup quick cooling rolled oats
1 egg, beaten
1/3 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 small onion, minced
3 tablespoons grated carrot
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup ketchup or chili sauce for topping
For either a 1 1/2 or 3-quart cooker. Combine ground meat, oats and egg in a mixing bowl. Add 1/3 -cup ketchup, Worcestershire, onion, carrot, salt and pepper. Mix gently, being careful not to compact the meat. Shape the meat into a mounded oval or round loaf, depending on the shape of the cooker.
Make a foil "cradle" to help you remove the meatloaf from the cooker when it is done. Tear off a sheet of heavy duty foil that is about 14 inches long. Fold in half lengthwise, then in half again lengthwise to make a strip about 3 inches wide. Place the foil strip into the small cooker lengthwise, pushing into opposite sides to secure. The edges of the foil strip will come up the sides of the crock but they don't need to come out the top.
Center the meatloaf in the crock on top of the strip, spread the half-cup of ketchup on top. Cover and cook on high for 3 to 4 hours or until a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the meatloaf reads 160 to 165 degrees.
To serve, grasp the foil handles and lift the meatloaf up and out of the crock onto the serving plate. Push the meatloaf off the foil and discard the foil. Serve the meatloaf hot or refrigerate and serve cold the next day. Makes 2 very generous servings.
In this recipe, the evaporated milk and egg replace flour as the thickening agent, writes Hensperger.
"Do not attempt this without the canned milk, as it stabilizes the sauce and prevents it from curdling, which all fresh milk sauces do in the slow cooker environment. "
>Slow Baked Macaroni and Cheese
1 1/2 cups milk
1 can (12-ounce) evaporated milk (must be evaporated)
3 large eggs
1/4 cup (half a stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups shredded Fontina cheese or cheese of your choice
1/2 pound elbow macaroni, parcooked and drained
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
For a 3-quart slow cooker. Spray the bottom and sides of the inside of the small slow cooker with nonstick vegetable spray. Combine the milk, evaporated milk, eggs, butter and salt in the slow cooker and whisk until smooth, using an immersion blender if you wish. Add the fontina cheese and the macaroni, then grind plenty of pepper over all; gently stir with a rubber spatula to coat evenly. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese on top. Cover and cook on high for 30 minutes.
Reduce the temperature to low and cook for 2 to 2 1/2 hours until the custard is set in the center and the pasta is tender. The macaroni and cheese may sit in the cooker on the keep warm setting for 30 minutes before serving. Makes 2 generous servings.
>OVERNIGHT OATMEAL WITH RAISINS
3/4 cup steel-cut (Irish or Scottish) oats
1/4 cup raisins, dried cherries, blueberries or cranberries
Grated zest of 1 orange or tangerine
1 pinch of ground mace or nutmeg
3 cups water
For a 1-to 3-quart cooker. Combine oats, raisins, zest, mace and water in a small slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 8 to 9 hours or high for 3 to 4 hours or until thick and creamy. Stir well and put in serving bowls. Serve warm. Makes 2 servings.