Slow cookers and new recipes win back cooks favor

By MOLLY GORDY For AP Weekly Features Published:

NEW YORK (AP) Often, you can tell how many years a couple has been married by asking them which wedding gift they got in multiples.

In the 1950s, it was the pressure cooker, emblem of an era when brides measured their status in kitchen convenience (although so many had trouble with the settings that it was nicknamed the pressure overcooker).

During the Swinging Sixties, the advent of cheap airfares boosted the fondue pot to pride of place, as young couples invited dinner guests over to see slides of their European honeymoon and dunk hunks of bread in melted cheese.

The wok gained most-favored wedding gift status during the 1970s after President Nixons visit to China. It lost the No. 1 spot to the Crock-Pot during the 1980s, as increasing numbers of brides stayed in the work force after marrying.

More suited to American dining habits than the wok or the fondue pot, and more versatile and easy to use than the pressure cooker, this slow cooker was designed to have staying power. And at first, its future looked bright. Its original manufacturer, the Rival Corp., pretty much promised that you could dump a bunch of ingredients into the pot, plug it in and leave for work, secure in the knowledge that a tasty one-dish meal would be waiting for you when you got home.

It didnt quite work that way. Rival says its research indicates that 80 percent of all U.S. households have a slow cooker now made by other companies as well, including Hamilton Beach, West Bend and Cuisinart, without the trademark Crock-Pot name. But, in reality, the appliance is used only rarely compared to its modern competition, the toaster-oven and the microwave oven.

One reason is cultural. In a society that values instant gratification, microwave cooking using natural ingredients has become a valid successor to the instant puddings and packaged soups of yesteryear.

But the slow cooker also carried the seeds of its popular demise in its initial design. Most of the recipes called for browning meat or poultry before placing it in the pot, which smelled up the kitchen and left you with a dish and utensils to wash before leaving for work. And because the heating unit was contained in the pot itself, it had to be washed by hand, creating still more work for when you got home.

Compounding the problem was a dearth of sophisticated recipes designed for the pot. Most seemed to depend heavily on sauces based on dried onion soup or cans of condensed cream of mushroom. When nouvelle cuisine and low-fat cooking swept the country into the 1990s, the Crock-Pot and its competitors fell into disuse.

But all was not lost. In 1983, a chef named Tom Valenti, tired of cooking nouvelle cuisine at three-star restaurants, opened a homey little restaurant in Lower Manhattan called Alisons on Dominick with his friend Alison Price, a professional maitre dhotel.

I looked back on all the fabulous stuff I had learned, and realized I still yearned for my grandmothers cooking, Valenti told The AP, at a recent interview at his current restaurant, Ouest, on Manhattans Upper West Side. It had to do with taste memory rather than technique food to satisfy a craving.

What Valenti craved was the kind of slow-cooked, one-pot meal that used to simmer on his grannys stove all day long when he was a child in Ithaca, NY.

So, over the objections of his staff and partner, he created a menu around humble dishes like lamb shanks. It was like an olfactory drug, he said. You could smell it all the way out to the street.

Valenti had no grander ambition than to fill his tiny restaurant with customers. But after several restaurant critics raved about them in print, the chefs lamb shanks became the rage of New York.

By a happy coincidence, California restaurateur Alice Waters was simultaneously launching a slow-cooked foods movement out of her Chez Panisse. However unwittingly, the two ignited a trend that renewed interest in the electric slow cooker just as welcome new technology was hitting the market.

The average slow cooker today features a dishwasher-proof stoneware pot that can be detached from the heating unit for browning meats on the stove, making this at last a vehicle for a truly one-dish meal.

It is more energy efficient the low setting uses the same approximate wattage as a light bulb and safer, with better insulation and thicker, detachable cords and plugs.

There are even several models coming on the market that automatically regulate the internal temperature of your meal and switch the heat setting from HIGH to LOW, WARM or OFF when it has finished cooking. This latest feature catapults the slow cooker for the first time into the realm of an everyday cooking appliance.

Cookbook publishers have scrambled to keep pace with these advances with a flurry of new recipes designed for the more sophisticated cook. Titles including Gourmet Slow Cooking, The Healthy Slow Cooker and Not Your Mothers Slow Cooker Cookbook aim to expand the pots reach beyond cold-weather dinners.

There are recipes for breakfast dishes, summer picnics, vegetarian buffets and desserts. Many borrow from foreign cuisines, in recipes like Thai chicken in peanut sauce, Welsh cockaleekie, and Greek moussaka and Malaysian sweet potato coconut curry with shrimp.

How successful you think they are depends on your personal tastes, your entertaining habits and your degree of willingness to fuss over a dish.

If you dont eat millet under any circumstances, or think seafood turns to rubber unless its flash-cooked, those dishes wont catch your fancy.

And if you dont want to have to check on the pot more than 30 minutes before serving, some of the more innovative recipes wont work for you.

On the other hand, its nice to know that you can make an appealing brunch strata or a peach upside-down cake in the slow cooker while concentrating on other tasks. Or that with only five minutes of preparation, a tiny apartment kitchen and a single pot, you can leave for the office and come home eight hours later to a savory meal of lamb shanks.

After 13 years, Valenti still puts lamb shanks on the menu along with other slow-cooked dishes like braised rabbit and short ribs.

Ill change the seasonings from time to time to keep things fresh over the years, he says, but I can never take them off the menu entirely, or customers get mad.

All the following recipes call for a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker. If you do not have a removable stoneware top on your cooker, simply do the browning phase of the recipe in a large frying pan or Dutch oven and then transfer the contents to the cooker.

This version of Tom Valentis signature dish gets its robust flavor from distilled white vinegar and anchovy. The former lightens up the overall character of the dish; the latter punches up the other flavors including that of the lamb itself. I have adapted the original cooking instructions for use in a slow cooker.

Moroccan-Spice-Braised

Lamb Shanks

6 lamb foreshanks (about 11/4 pounds each)

Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped

1 large Spanish onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste

3 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped

3 sprigs marjoram

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon green peppercorns, packed in brine, rinsed and drained

1 anchovy fillet, rinsed and patted dry

3 whole heads garlic, cut in half crosswise

2 cups dry white wine

1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

5 cups store-bought, reduced-sodium chicken broth or homemade chicken stock

2 cups water

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Set the slow cookers heating element to LOW.

Season the lamb shanks liberally with salt and pepper. With a sharp knife, aiming about 1 inch from the bottom (narrow end) of the shank bones, cut through the meat and tendon, down to the bone and all the way around; this will help the meat plump up attractively when cooked. Set aside.

Put the olive oil in the removable pot and place on the stove over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the shanks and brown them all over, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from the pot.

Add the celery, carrot, onion, tomato paste, marjoram, bay leaves, peppercorns, anchovy and garlic, stirring well to coat the vegetables, and cook for 2 minutes.

Return the shanks to the pot, cover with the remaining ingredients (tomatoes, white wine, vinegar, sugar, chicken broth, water, coriander, paprika, cumin, cayenne and cinnamon.

Place the pot on the heating element, cover tightly, and cook for 8 hours.

Remove the shanks from the braising liquid and set aside on a plate, covered with aluminum foil to keep them warm. Strain the liquid into a bowl and let it rest for a few minutes. Use a large spoon to skim off any fat that rises to the surface.

To serve, place a shank on each of 6 warm dinner plates or wide, shallow bowls and spoon some braising liquid on top. Serve over couscous or millet, with harissa (a fiery Tunisian condiment made from hot peppers and tomatoes).

Makes 6 servings.

(Adapted from Tom Valentis Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals: 125 Home Recipes from the Chef-Owner of New York Citys Ouest and Cesca, Scribner, 2003, $30)

I took everything I liked best out of all the bean soup recipes Ive tried over the years to come up with the following sophisticated and surprisingly spring-like dish. It tastes lighter than youd expect, and can be adapted for vegetarians with no loss of flavor. It is also incredibly easy to prepare, because you dont have to presoak the legumes or saute the vegetables.

Mollys Tuscan Bean Soup

2 cups dried white beans, rinsed (preferably cannellini, but navy also are good)

1 carrot, chopped coarsely.

1 bulb fennel, cut in half crosswise then sliced thin

1/2 white onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1 sprig of fresh sage

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 tablespoons Pernod, anisette or other licorice-flavored liqueur (optional)

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Optional garnishes:

Thin slivers of prosciutto di Parma

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Chopped fresh sage leaves

Place all the ingredients in the slow cooker. Cover, turn on LOW, and cook for 10 hours. Adjust seasonings. Serve in bowls sprinkled with prosciutto, chopped fresh sage leaves and parmesan, if desired.

Makes 8 servings.

Mary Bergfeld of Eugene, Ore., won the national grand prize in the 2006 Crock-Pot Slow Cooker Recipe Contest with this dish. I have eliminated the butter, reduced the amount of cream and replaced the canned tomatoes with tomato paste to lower the fat content and thicken the broth.

Beggars Chowder

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon garlic salt

1 tablespoon coarsely ground pepper

1 tablespoon dried thyme (or 2 sprigs fresh)

1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika

2 tablespoons tomato paste

4 skinless, bone-in turkey thighs, trimmed of visible fat (or 6 chicken thighs)

Two 14.75-ounce cans creamed-style sweet corn

10.5-ounce can condensed chicken broth, undiluted

11/2 cups diced yellow onion

1 pound cleaned, stemmed white mushrooms, halved or quartered

1 cup diced red bell pepper

1 cup diced green bell pepper

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

1/2 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

Combine flour, garlic salt, pepper, thyme, paprika and tomato paste in small (1 quart) mixing bowl. Using the back of a wooden spoon, work the mixture to form a smooth paste. Rub the paste onto all sides of the turkey thighs.

Spray the stoneware insert with nonstick spray. Lay the turkey thighs on the bottom, and cover with the diced red and green peppers, the onion, the creamed corn and the undiluted chicken broth. Cook on HIGH for 4 hours, or on LOW for 8 hours, until the turkey is fork-tender.

Remove the turkey from the pot and set aside until cool enough to handle. While the turkey cools add the mushrooms and the drained diced tomatoes to the liquid in the pot; cover and continue to cook for 30 minutes more.

While the mushrooms are cooking, remove the turkey meat from the bones and cut into bite-sized pieces. When the mushrooms are tender, return the turkey to the chowder, add the whipping cream and the cilantro or parsley and cook until just heated through, about 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings if necessary, and serve.

Variations:

Add a half-cup of Marsala wine.

Add a fresh jalapeno pepper, or two teaspoons of cayenne.

Makes 8 servings.

This recipe, adapted from Slow Cooker Recipe Book can also be made with chicken, by substituting 8 drumsticks or thighs for the pork and using chicken stock instead of vegetable broth.

Jamaican Jerk Pork

1 tablespoon cooking oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 pound pork loin, cut into 4 steaks

1 bunch spring onions (scallions)

2 garlic cloves

1 hot red chili pepper, halved, seeded and finely chopped

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 stick cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 teaspoons demerara (or light brown) sugar

1 tablespoon flour

11/4 cups vegetable broth

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lime juice

2 teaspoons tomato paste

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat the butter and oil over medium heat in the stoneware pot on the stove (or use a frying pan). Add the meat and brown, about 2 minutes per side. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate.

Using the same butter and oil, saute the scallions, garlic and chili, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, until they are soft, but not brown.

Stir in the allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme and sugar. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to mix. Gradually add the broth, stirring until the mixture bubbles and thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

Stir in the vinegar, lime juice and tomato paste. Salt and pepper to taste. Pour the sauce over the pork (or chicken pieces), cover with a lid, and cook on HIGH for 4 hours or LOW for 8 hours, until cooked and tender. Serve on salad leaves or rice, garnish with fresh pineapple.

Makes 8 servings.

(Adapted from Slow Cooker Recipe Book: Over 60 Mouthwatering Meals Cooked with Minimum Effort but Maximum Flavor, by Catherine Atkinson, Southwater, 2005, $15.99).

I used to fuss for hours over my much-admired brisket recipe, until I hit upon this cheaters method that requires only 5 minutes prep and tastes exactly the same. Its a working parents dream.

Mollys BBQ Brisket

Nonstick cooking spray

6-pound brisket, preferably first cut

1 cup of your favorite Mexican-style red salsa

1 cup dark beer

1 cup of your favorite tomato-based barbecue sauce

Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

Spray the stoneware insert with the cooking spray, place on the stove over medium heat, add the brisket and sear, about 1 minute on each side (or use a frying pan, and then transfer the meat to the pot).

Pour the salsa, the beer and the BBQ sauce over the meat. Cover, place on the heating unit, and cook on LOW for 8 hours.

Remove the brisket, slice and serve on a platter with the sauce over it or served on the side. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro leaves. Serve with mashed potatoes, or potato pancakes, or on potato-flour sandwich buns.

Makes 10 servings.

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