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updated: 8/7/2012 2:45 PM

Turn to slow cookers for hot-weather meals

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  • Chickpeas, carrots and other garden vegetables make a healthy, slow-cooked sauce for pasta.

      Chickpeas, carrots and other garden vegetables make a healthy, slow-cooked sauce for pasta.
    photos Courtesy of America's Test Kitchen

 
 

Since March, my Crock-Pot has been on a shelf in the pantry where it's sat since it cooked the winter's last batch of chili.

Then the Crockin' Girls set me straight.

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"I use it more in the summer than I do in winter," says Nicole Sparks, half of the Texas duo who recently published "The Crockin' Girls Slow Cooking Companion" (Five-Star Institute). The book grew out of the popular website, crockingirls.com, and its community of recipe-sharing Crock-Pot enthusiasts.

"For us here in Texas, it's so hot," Sparks says, "I for one don't want to heat up the house with my oven."

"In the summer we're home with kids more, but our Crock-Pots allow us to make the most of our time with our kids," adds the duo's other half, Jenna Marwitz.

Marwitz points to Shredded Pork Loin Roast as a great summer recipe. It goes in the crock in the morning and cooks all day, using about the same wattage as a light bulb, allowing her to take kids to appointments and the pool without worrying about having to get home to cook dinner.

"I cook in bulk so I know I'll have leftovers," she says, adding that the recipe is also good for block parties and family reunions.

The fork-shredded pork can be served on a plate with baked beans (another slow-cooker fave), used for pulled pork sandwiches or tossed with a bit of salsa for tacos or burritos.

Sparks leans toward French dip sandwiches (another crowd-pleaser) and lasagna.

The ground beef and spinach lasagna cooks in three hours, and while you don't get the crispy edges and toasted cheese indicative of the oven-cooked version, you do get an incredibly flavorful entree with little effort.

The key to Crock-Pot cooking is building layers of flavors. Sometimes that means browning meat and vegetables before they go into the cooker.

For Garden Vegetable Sauce with Chickpeas in 2011's "Slow Cooker Revolution," the editors at America's Test Kitchen write "the point of using a slow cooker was to build a flavorful base that would only taste better after hours of slow cooking.

"We use a skillet to brown the aromatics, a combination of onion, carrots, garlic and red pepper flakes, and then we deglazed the pan with broth before we added everything to the slow cooker."

Zucchini, spinach and tomatoes go in the pot during the last bit of cooking for a rich and satisfying seasonal sauce.

Summer desserts also can be made in the slow cooker, like the Crockin' Girls' Black and Blue Cobbler or their Zucchini Bread.

So get your slow cooker out of hibernation. There are still plenty of hot August nights, and maybe some September nights, to come.

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