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It's just like you spent all day in the kitchen

Busy, busy, busy. At this time of year everyone is busy.

But you and the family still have to eat. And it can't be takeout or pizza every night, that can get tiresome. So think ahead -- and put dinner into your slow cooker early in the morning while you still have energy. Then go about the day.

Nothing beats coming into the house after a harried day with a a good dinner just waiting for you.

Chances are you do have a slow cooker -- it's been estimated that 80 percent of U.S. households do -- and just about every appliance company makes one. They come in all shapes and sizes -- the very newest are equipped with an insert that can go on the stove top for a quick sauteeing before the cooker itself is turned on.

Let the busy Hackford family of Evans act as a role model.

Aaron Hackford, a correctional officer and member of the Lake Erie Beach Volunteer Fire Company, likes to cook -- and he's good at it, too. When the Firemen's Association of the State of New York held their annual firefighters' cookoff in Albany last month -- the theme was "anything you can put in a crockpot" -- he took first place with his recipe for Pulled Pork.

Now it turns out that the dish was a collaborative effort. "It's really my wife Shelly's recipe," he says modestly. Shelly, for her part, says the great joy of the recipe is the fact that it contains only four ingredients.

Well it's pretty hard to beat that, we agree.
But you can come pretty close, as the recipes below demonstrate. They don't call for too many unusual ingredients. A good hearty soup, for instance -- we give you two -- is a great basis for a cold weather dinner. All you need to do is toss together a quick salad and warm up some bread to make the meal complete.

The Mushroom Barley Soup is an adaptation of a recipe found in a book called "Slow Cooker Cooking" by Lora Brody (Wiliam Morrow, 2001). I think it's the best slow-cooker book there is.

If you want a more substantial meal, you might be interested in the lamb shanks recipe, another Brody idea, which is garlicky and terrific. Or, you can always do something interesting with chicken breasts like the cacciatore recipe below. That recipe is an old favorite in our house.

>Shelly's Pulled Pork

1 pork butt roast
1/2 cup honey
1 medium onion, chopped
1 jar (about 20 ounces) honey barbecue sauce

Place meat in slow cooker; add sauce and onion. Cook on low for 8 hours.

Remove meat from cooker; pull apart with two forks and put it back into the sauce to let it heat through, about an hour on low. Serve on buns.


>Boneless Chicken Cacciatore

3 boneless chicken breasts, cut in half
Olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 jars (8-ounces each) tomato basil or marinara sauce
1 teaspoons dried oregano, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 small green pepper, chopped, optional

Brown chicken in olive oil and place in slow cooker. Add remaining ingredients and cook on low for 5 to 7 hours. Serve over spaghetti. Makes 4 servings.


>Braised Lamb Shanks

1/2 cup dry red wine
2 heaping tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons coarse salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 to 6 pounds lamb shanks
6 to 10 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in slices
Grated rind of 1 lemon

Mix red wine, mustard, salt and pepper; place in slow cooker. Layer the shanks into the insert. Scatter remaining ingredients around shanks. Cover and cook on high for 6 hours. Reverse the position of the shanks in the cooker and cook for an additional 6 hours.

Transfer shanks to serving plate. Skim the fat; taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Pour the juice over the shanks and serve. Makes 6 servings.


>Onion Soup with Port and Camembert

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large onions, thinly sliced
3 cups beef broth
3 cups dry white wine
3 rounds (1 inch) Camembert cheese, rind removed
3 large eggs
1/4 cup Port

Place the butter in a medium or large slow cooker, cover and cook on high until the butter melts. Add the onions and toss to coat. Cover and cook on high until the onions are dark brown and caramelized, but not burned, about 8 to 9 hours.

Add the broth, cover and cook on high for 15 minutes. Add the wine and cheese, cover and cook another 10 to 30 minutes, or long enough to melt the cheese into the soup. Stir the soup to mix in the cheese.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and Port. While whisking, ladle about a cup of the hot soup into the egg mixture. Then, while whisking the soup in the slow cooker, pour in the egg mixture. Stir until slightly thickened.

Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Serve immediately Makes 6 servings.


>Mushroom Barley Soup

2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 ounce dried mushrooms, rinsed
1/2 pound white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and cut in 1-inch lengths
1 cup uncooked barley, rinsed and drained
4 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat butter or oil in small pan and saute the onions until they are softened. Place in slow cooker. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours. Remove the bay leaf and add additional heated broth if you wish to make a thinner soup. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Makes 8 servings.


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