Slow cookers: They're getting better with time

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It’s almost that time of year again – prime slow cooker season – so I thought I’d share a story I wrote that was published in National Post a few years ago because it lends a perspective on how much the crock-pot world has progressed in the past decade or so. Stay tuned for future blogs in which we’ll be looking at new appliances and related products, best cookbooks, and fab recipes. In the meantime – crock on!

My hands trembled with excitement as I wrestled the appliance out of its box. Although it’s been more than 10 years since my slow cooker cookbook, How to Make Love and Dinner at the Same Time, came out, I still get weak in the knees every time a new model hits the shelves. The Ninja Cooking System, an all-in-one device featuring stovetop, oven, steam oven and slow cooker settings, may be to many, a dream machine. It allows users to sear food right in the unit before switching to the slow cooker mode, thereby enabling those prone to pre-browning ingredients before tossing them into the slow cooker the ability to do so -- without messing up a frying pan.

To be fair, in recent years, other slow cookers have been introduced with removable inserts that can be placed on the stove and then, after searing, returned to the unit. And while this feature is progressive, a device with a built-in stovetop setting is nothing short of brilliant. And, it’s only one of many recent innovations that have brought slow cookers into the mainstream.

A bit of perspective: It wasn’t that long ago, back in 90s to be specific, when I was raising a family in the burbs. In my circle of friends, I was one of the few who used a slow cooker regularly. Whenever I tried to sing the appliance’s praises -- it’s set-it-and-forget-it feature, say -- many of my gal pals poo-pooed my claims. One neighbour went so far as to clucking, “Honestly, Rebecca, you don’t strike me as a crockpot lady” – a backhanded compliment, if ever I heard one. You see, although slow cookers have enjoyed a loyal following since the original brand, the Crock-Pot, was launched in the 70s, the appliance has been widely but wrongly perceived as a lowly cooking devise used by lazy and/or lousy home cooks.

Set the timer ahead to today, and this stigma no longer exists. Even celebrity chefs have entered the fray -- would you like to buy the Gord Ramsay Everyday Digital Slow Cooker or the high-tech model endorsed by Emeril Lagasse?

How did this level of acceptance of slow cookers come to be? For one, manufacturers, especially during the past decade, have worked hard to come up with designs that suit almost any kitchen. Beyond the standard black, white and stainless steels models, today, there are polka-dot patterns for the whimsical; damask for the ornate.

If you have a U.S. shipping address, amazon.com will deliver NFL-logo-plastered slow cooker right to your man-cave’s door. Here in Canada, NHL Crock-Pots are available too! And if you like to entertain, duo and trio-style models feature multiple crocks nestled in a base so pretty it’s worthy of any buffet.

Then there’s the influx of slow cooker-related products that have made the easiest method of cooking even easier. Disposable slow cooker liners (no mess!); slow cooker spice mixes (no measuring); and frozen slow cooker meals (no brainer!). Wandering through a Metro recently, I noticed freshly made slow cooker kits. Comprised of a fresh cut of meat, raw chopped veggies, and a packet of spices , the kits are available at 147 of its stores across Canada. Bring one home and all you have to do is add water.

If you prefer to be more involved in the preparation of your meal, ideas for what to make abound. Entire magazines are devoted to slow cookers. If you Google “slow cooker recipes” expect to wade through more than 41 million results. And a simple amazon.ca search will conjure up hundreds of slow cooker cookbooks including those dedicated to specific cuisines such as Mediterranean, Mexican, Indian, and Kosher as well as specialty diet fare including vegetarian, vegan, diabetes, low cal, low carb, and gluten-free. And then of course, a new category of food writer has evolved over the past decade: Bloggers such as Internet sensation, Stephanie O’Dea.

In 2008, this stay-at-home-mom made a New Year’s Resolution to use her slow cooker every day and write about it in her blog. Crockpot365.blogspot.com has since become among the most popular culinary sites in America, drawing millions of hungry visitors. Shortly after her latest book, 365 Slow Cooker Suppers, was released, I had the chance to chat with her on the phone.

Although she agrees that progressive products and the proliferation of tasty recipes have catapulted slow cookers into the mainstream, so too have tightened pocketbooks and health concerns.

“When the economy fell apart, families had to cut back and they still continue to keep an eye on their budget today,” she explains. “Slow cookers are a convenient way to cook at home and save money. But also, a lot of families want to live a more healthy lifestyle, and some have special dietary needs. They want or need to know what they’re eating.”

What’s the new stereotype of slow cooker user?

“Busy, modern, urban families who want to spend time together at the table and eat well.” 

Of all the new products entering the market, perhaps nothing signifies how mainstream slow cookers have become than the Crock-Pot Lunch Crock Food Warmer, available in 20 to 24 oz. sizes in the $20 to $35 price range. This device looks like a Crock-Pot’s baby. Unable to perform the big job of actually cooking food raw, instead it takes the tiny step of warming leftovers. It’s being marketed as a must-have appliance you plug it in at your desk in the morning so that last night’s supper will be heated by lunchtime. 

Clearly, the slow cookers’ dark days of being shoved in the back of a cupboard are over. Not only are they in kitchens across the continent, their offspring are showing up at work.

Beef Brandy Stew with Squash and Cranberries

Photo credit: © Tara Donne

Photo credit: © Tara Donne

Serves 6

  • 3 pounds beef short ribs
  • 1 (2-pound) butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 1 onion, sliced into thin rings
  • 1⁄2 cup sweetened dried cranberries
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 orange, juiced
  • 4 cups beef broth
  • 1⁄4 cup brandy or apple juice

 

 

 

Use a 6-quart slow cooker. Place the meat into the insert, and add the squash, onion, and cranberries. Add the cocoa powder, garlic powder, ginger, and salt. Add the orange juice, and pour in the broth and brandy. Stir well to distribute the ingredients. Cover, and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours, or until the meat has begun to lose its shape and can shred easily with a fork.

Excerpted from 365 SLOW COOKER SUPPERS, © 2013 by Stephanie O'Dea. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

More samples of Stephanie’s recipes are available at stephanieodea.com