A Slow Turnaround Going to a pot: The slow-cooker is making a welcome comeback to kitchen counters.

March 20, 1996|By CAROLINE GRANNAN | CAROLINE GRANNAN,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

The Crock-Pot: a lowbrow gadget that helps kitchen novices produce overcooked concoctions involving bouillon cubes and condensed soups.

Its natural habitat: a laminate counter top next to a harvest-gold refrigerator or the rear table at the neighborhood garage sale.

The simmering stock pot: a revered standby of skilled cooks, from Great-Grandma to superstar chefs. Its natural habitat: the massive Wedgwood stove in a fragrant, gingham-curtained kitchen, or maybe a sleek culinary production center glistening with appliances by Sub-Zero and Viking.

There's just one problem here: They're really the same thing. The stock pot infuses ingredients with flavor during long, gentle cooking. The maligned Crock-Pot does the same thing and lets the busy cook leave it safely untended, too.

Somewhere in the snobbish '80s, the Crock-Pot fell out of favor. And in the down-to-earth '90s, it's creeping back in.

The humble appliance may have offended the status-conscious with its disco-era look, your choice of burnt orange or avocado green, which clashed with minimalist kitchens of a designer decade.

Maybe it was a 1977 cookbook that published an untested recipe involving a Crock-Pot and an unopened can of condensed milk, which proved to have explosive results (the cookbook was recalled).

Maybe it was the cuisine it became associated with. A 1987 slow-cooker recipe in the San Jose Mercury News called for chicken, canned pineapple, canned chow mein noodles, maraschino cherries, coconut, tomato, jack cheese and cream of mushroom, cream of chicken and cream of celery soups.

There's a minor terminology problem with Crock-Pots, a registered trademark of the Rival Co., which first marketed the gadget in 1971 (its previous big success was the 1932 Juice-O-Mat). Rival issues reminders that all other models should be called "slow-cookers."

But by any name, it's a ceramic pot with an electric heating element, designed to sit on the counter all day full of simmering ingredients. Plenty of cooks admit sometimes in lowered tones to being frequent users, and it's rumored to be the most popular wedding gift in the country.

With the resurgence in slow-cooker use, the author of "Mable Hoffman's Crockery Cookery" (HP Books, $14) has just updated and reissued her 1975 cookbook. "The craze from 20 years ago had died down a bit," Ms. Hoffman says, "but a whole new generation with jobs and children are finding that this very handy appliance can have dinner ready when you come home from work."

The Crock-Pot didn't need to make a comeback with Stephanie Wright. She still uses the one she bought in 1975.

"One of the things we like is that you come in from work and you smell dinner cooking," says Ms. Wright, 56, a receptionist. She uses the pot for a variety of recipes, many from the faded Rival booklet that came with the appliance: "chicken in a pot," chicken cacciatore, ham hocks with beans. She makes extra turkey stuffing in it for holidays.

She appreciates slow-cookers for their ease: "They're almost like having someone at home cooking while I'm off working."

But it's more than just a convenience to her. "It's a very old-world style of cooking," she says. "In many cultures they keep a pot on the stove all the time and just add to it."

She uses the slow-cooker for stocks and soups, and for comfort foods of her own. One favorite combines two onions, half a head of cabbage, chicken stock, sliced potatoes, peppercorns, bay leaf and paprika, topped at serving time with sour cream. "You put the ingredients in and walk away."

Judith Ets-Hokin points out that the slow-cooker incorporates sound cooking principles in a different guise. "Philosophically it's a braising pot," she says. "Anything that can be braised will do well in your Crock-Pot." Ms. Ets Hokin, owner and founder of HomeChef cooking schools in California, suggests braising leeks, carrots, mushrooms, turnips, onions, cauliflower or potatoes.

So why did Crock-Pots fall out of favor with the cutting edge? "Because they paint them that green," Ets-Hokin says, laughing. "It's that ugly green thing in your kitchen." (In fact, Rival's various models now come in several motifs on white but no more avocado green.)

Tastes have changed, says Ms. Hoffman. Her updated "Crockery Cookery" recipes use less fat; she's switched to such ingredients as non-fat sour cream. There are ethnic recipes such as Thai chicken, and more recipes to be served over pasta. But some things never change, and it wouldn't be a crockery cookbook without old-fashioned beef stew and the standby pot roast with creamy mushroom sauce.

Food writer Lou Seibert Pappas' "Extra-Special Crockery Pot Recipes" (Nitty Gritty Cookbooks, $8.95), first published in 1975, has received a parallel update, with some fattening desserts removed and a more '90s feel added.

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