Lean and lovin' it: ATK cookbooks help slow cooker novices get into the groove
Just a few weeks ago I ventured out into unknown (to me) cooking waters and sailed through making dinner with a slow cooker. My results weren't half-bad for a first-timer and that experience showed me why some folks love their slow cooker and can't get through a week without setting it and letting it simmer-away while they're at work.
I launched my slow cooker adventure without a cookbook as a compass for guidance. To make future slow cooking forays easier I wanted a reliable cookbook that could make my slow-cooking learning path less bumpy. Turned out, Cook's Illustrated's American Test Kitchen has published two slow cooker cookbooks in the last three years.
"Slow Cooker Revolution" (2011, $26.95) contains 200 recipes along with solid advice, including which cooker editors recommend (Crock-Pot Touchscreen Slow Cooker, $79.95 to $99.95), or why cooking on low makes the best results, or how to keep ground meat tender (mixing bread and dairy into the ground beef, called a panade, before browning). There's also page-after-page of color pictures showing how each dish should look when finished.
At the end of every recipe you'll find Smart Shopping guidance, like which supermarket Balsamic Vinegar passed its taste test (Lucini Gran Riserva Balsamico, $12.99) or the best hot sauce (Frank's RedHot Sauce, $2.29/12 ounces). Along with recipes for sides, such as a No-Cook Pantry Barbecue Sauce (ketchup, molasses, cider vinegar, hot sauce and liquid smoke) for its Shredded Barbecued chicken or Easy Dinner Rolls for its Southwestern-Style Pot Roast.
You'll also find Quick Prep Tips such as how to properly cut stew meat from a full chuck roast, instead of buying "plain" stew meat or how to quickly peel fresh tomatoes or how to use dried chiles.
You'll find recipes for everything you'd expect a slow cooker to do best: soups, stews, braises, chilis and pasta sauces, to the not-so-ordinary: corned beef hash, roasted garlic or chocolate pudding cake.
America's Test Kitchen's "Slow Cooker Revolution" delivers, but sometimes at a price: time-consuming prep steps. Which is the reason for its second slow-cooking cookbook: "Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2: The Easy-Prep Edition (2013, $26.95).
This version provides the entire test results for slow cookers with the same Crock-Pot in the number one slot; adding all the other tested cookers. The slightly larger version of the All-Clad Slow Cooker with which I cooked a month ago came in No. 2.
The recipes in Volume 2 have fewer steps and easier, less time consuming preparation while still getting better-than-average results from a slow cooker. No corners were cut with the photography for Volume 2; numerous pictures will guide you and make you hungry.
There's also the useful end-of-recipe notes. Smart Shopping suggests things like how to buy oxtails (thicker pieces yield more meat), and editors recommendations for tomato purée (Hunt's, $1.50/28 ounces) and feta cheese (Mt. Vikos Traditional Feta, $15.98/pound).
You'll still find Quick Prep Tips like preparing a glazed ham for the cooker, how to easily slice onions into rings and trim and slice fennel. The On the Side section suggests and provides recipes for a Foolproof Green Salad for Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup and Easy Mashed Potatoes for Turkey Breast with Cranberry and Pear sauce.
Neither book shares nutrition information, so if you're looking to cut calories, corral fat or reduce sodium you'll be on your own. Both books will help get reliable results out of all slow cookers.
Before plunking down your hard-earned money for either book, try this recipe for Tomatillo Chicken Chili. It was a hit at my house.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.