If you're like me, you own a slow cooker, but it sits in the back of a cabinet and doesn't get used for much more than the occasional stew or soup. Truthfully, I usually have to wash the crock before I use it because it's dusty from sitting so long. So, this past month I decided to conquer my slow cooker and I was pleasantly surprised to learn what a work horse it can be.
Slow cookers are made of three basic components: a heating element, ceramic dish, and glass lid. Yet not all slow cookers are created equal. My mom's circa 1973 harvest gold crock pot had three settings -- high, low and off -- while modern models likely include a timer and multiple heat settings, including warm to prevent over cooking. Hers was an all-in-one unit, while mine has a ceramic crock that can be removed for cleaning. Some models even come with locking lids and insulated carrying cases to make it easy to transport your slow-cooked creations.
As I began my crock pot conquest I picked up the new "Southern Living Big Book of Slow Cooking" and appreciated the chapter Slow Cooker School that included helpful bits like:
• don't give into the temptation to lift the lid and stir ingredients as this results in a great deal of heat loss.
• one hour of cooking on HIGH equals two hours on the LOW setting.
• make sure the ingredients are completely defrosted before adding them to a recipe in order for food to reach a safe internal temperature quickly.
• attach heavy-duty rubber bands around the handles and lid then wrap the entire appliance in towels or newspaper to ensure a spill-proof journey (for those of us without the aforementioned locking lid and insulated case).
Sweet 'n' Spicy Braised Pork Tacos, perfect for feeding a Super Bowl crowd, is among Southern Living's tempting recipes. It's a perfect example of how taking the time to brown meat before adding it to a slow cooker pays you back in full-flavored recipes.
And who knew you could also make Carrot Cake, Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cheesecake, Lemon Curd and Sweet Potato and Mushroom Risotto in a slow cooker?! Even potatoes can be "baked" in a slow cooker. Rinse, dry and prick baking potatoes, rub lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Cook on high 4½ hours or on low setting 7½ to 8. The result is a crisp "jacket" and moist, fluffy inside. If you prefer a more tender skin, wrap the potatoes in foil prior to cooking.
During my slow cooker recipe testing I found great success with overnight steel cut oatmeal with apples and cinnamon, great for a cold morning, and creamy rice pudding. I also made what my family affectionately refers to as "Sloppy Lasagna" -- layers of broken uncooked lasagna noodles, cheese and meat sauce with enough liquid added to cook the noodles right in the crock. It is quick and easy with the full flavor of traditional lasagna without all the work. Pears poached in red wine and spices proved an elegant, delicious combination, as the pears cook gently reducing the likelihood of overcooking.
I have discovered a new level of respect for my slow cooker its multifaceted uses as an oven, steamer and braiser.
In addition to these newfound techniques, I will continue to use my slow cooker to heat mulled apple cider and barbecued meatballs for parties. Nope, my slow cooker will no longer gather dust.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, was the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Year.