t's time for a new look at an old friend, the crockery cooker.
For over 20 years, these slow-but-steady appliances have helped busy people get dinner on the table.
But if you aren't venturing beyond pot roast and beef stew, it's time to try a few new recipes.
"Most cooks get stuck preparing the same recipes over and over again and that's a shame because slow cookers can do so much more," says Mable Hoffman. Her new cookbook, "Crockery Favorites" (Fisher Books, 1991) has recipes for everything from Slow-Poke Jambalaya, using chicken, sausage and shrimp, to Tortilla Stack, which combines ground beef, tortillas and Cheddar cheese soup for a south-of-the-border flavor.
This is a far cry from Mrs. Hoffman's 1975 cookbook, "Crockery Cooking," which focused on hearty beef dishes. Sales for that book have continued strong -- it's remained in print and over 5 million copies have been sold so far.
Still times have changed.
"Twenty years ago ethnic cooking was almost unheard of, very few people even knew how to cook with herbs," she says. There were also very few recipes for turkey or chicken.
Crockery cookers are probably best known as Crock-Pots, a name trademarked by the Rival Manufacturing Co. of Kansas City, Mo. Rival introduced the first Crock-Pot in 1971. Crockery cookers are now made by dozens of manufacturers and have many devoted fans.
"The major advantage of a crockery cooker is the ease of preparation. Ingredients can be prepared the night before and stored in the refrigerator," says Linda Henry, senior food editor for Better Homes and Garden Books.
In the morning, pop the ingredients into the crockery cooker, turn it on and dinner can be ready by the time you pull into the driveway.
"This is the easiest method of cooking I have ever come across," says Joan D. Cornish of Federal Hill. She got her first slow cooker shortly after they came on the market and now owns four. She says she frequently runs three or four slow cookers at the same time because she likes to cook in bulk -- turkey rice soup is a favorite -- and freeze for later use.
Mrs. Cornish frequently makes up her own recipes. When she couldn't find a chicken recipe she liked she created this one: Brown four boneless, skinless chicken breasts and place in bottom of slow cooker. Cover with thinly sliced onions, 1 can cream of chicken soup mixed with 3/4 cup milk, and 3 or 4 carrots grated over top. Mrs. Cornish also adds lots of herbs and spices, including garlic powder, dried thyme and poultry seasoning.
On high, this recipe will be ready in about 1 1/2 hours, she says. Chicken is done when juices run clear.
Most crockery cookers now come with removable liners which can be filled and stored in the refrigerator. There have been other changes, too. It used to be that if you wanted a thick sauce or gravy you had to wait until the pot roast or other dish was done, strain the juices and boil them on the stove to reduce, or add flour or cornstarch to thicken. Not any more. Stir 3 to 4 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca into 2 cups liquid before adding liquid to pot. This makes a thick gravy while the dish cooks, saving you a step.
Ms. Henry -- who has an hour commute each way to work -- says she uses her slow cooker "all the time." The Hot-and-Spicy Sloppy Joe recipe from her cookbook, "New Crockery Cooker Cook Book" (Better Homes and Gardens Books; 1987) is a favorite of her husband and son.
It's very important that ground beef be browned and well drained before adding to the crockery cooker. Never add fat to a slow cooker unless the recipe says so -- you will end up with a pot of grease.
Crockery cookers can also be quite economical because tougher cuts of meat, such as chuck roast and flank steak, become very tender during the long, slow cooking. For extra flavor, marinate the meat overnight in a reduced-calorie Italian-style olive oil and vinegar dressing, says Mrs. Cornish.
Past-their-prime vegetables, including wilted carrots and celery, get a new lease on life if prepared in a crockery cooker. Make sure you cut vegetables the same size so they cook evenly. Always place vegetables such as potatoes and onions on the bottom of the container; they take longer to cook than most meats.
Finally, don't peek. Every time you lift the lid the temperature drops by about 25 degrees and lengthens cooking time.
Crockery cookers come in all sizes. Our recipes are for average-size appliances, 3 1/2 to 4 quarts. Check manufacturer's instructions for specific information on how your crockery cooker works.
This recipe is from "Crockery Favorites."
Flank steak pinwheels
1 1/2 pounds beef flank steak
2 tablespoons chutney
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
cooked rice or noodles