Take It Slow

Today's cookers are upscale and sophisticated -- and so are the dishes they make.

February 16, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

Like many a foodie, Lynn Alley first warmed to the slow cooker out of necessity.

Researching a biography, Alley found herself staying for months in a place with a questionable oven, few kitchen implements and a slow cooker. Putting beans in the cooker in the morning and finishing them with salt and fresh herbs from the garden in the evening became the simplest and best way to eat.

When she returned to her San Diego home, Alley began experimenting with her slow cooker, making more elaborate dishes from countries from Mexico to Greece. She became such a fan of the appliance -- invented three decades ago to help a time-pressed new generation of working women -- that she turned the recipes into The Gourmet Slow Cooker: Simple and Sophisticated Meals From Around the World (Ten Speed Press, 2003, $18.95).

"I think there are so many successful dishes to do," said Alley, who is at work on a second book of slow-cooker recipes. "I don't mind putting in prep time if I can then put [ingredients] in the slow cooker and walk away from them."

After regaining popularity over the past several years, slow cookers are being put to gourmet use, with more complicated recipes.

The first slow cooker was a modest, round model called the Beanery, introduced in 1970. Rival acquired the manufacturer and gave the cooker the trademarked Crock-Pot name. But the craze waned, and the cookers became a garage-sale staple.

Their resurgence is born of an oxymoron -- producing meals that are both quick and healthful sometimes means going slowly. Because slow-cooker dishes can take six to eight hours to make, they can be prepared in the morning and left for high-school students returning from sports practice and, later, harried parents home from a long day at work.

Sales of Rival Crock-Pot slow cookers have grown 30 percent in the past three years, said Mona Dolgov, director of marketing for the brand at the Holmes Group, which manufactures the appliances. The company estimates that 80 percent of Americans own a slow cooker and that 20 percent to 30 percent use it at least once a week.

"What's nice about the slow cooking is you can go easy or you can go complex," Dolgov said.

The appliances are getting bigger - up to 7 quarts - and more fashionable, with sleek white and stainless steel replacing the bright colors and now-kitschy patterns on older models.

The Rival slow cooker now comes in "smart," programmable models that include digital timers. For commuters whose work hours stretch longer than even a slow-cooker recipe, they switch to a "warm" setting when cooking is done. High-end kitchenware makers like All-Clad and Cuisinart have gotten into the act with slow cookers of their own.

The latest Crock-Pot design, called VersaWare, includes a removable stoneware pot that can be used to brown the meat (often an essential step), cook the food and store the leftovers.

Cookbook authors are going beyond the standard soups, stews and chilis to develop slow-cooker recipes for every meal, from breakfast casseroles to desserts. Alley has made chocolate-chip cookies and biscotti. The new book Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2005, $16.95), by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann, has a chapter on homemade slow-cooker sauces and jams, including pumpkin butter and confit of green tomato.

At the same time, convenience-food purveyors like Banquet have seized on the slow-cooker trend, introducing frozen kits that go straight from bag to slow cooker to evening meal. General Mills sells a Slow Cooker Helper, similar to its Hamburger Helper.

Some professional chefs still aren't wild about the idea of using slow cookers. Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant in Federal Hill, where tender, braised meats are frequently on the menu, says cooks can achieve the same timesaving and mouthwatering results in an oven at low temperature or with a large pot on the stove. "The only thing the crockpot offers is it frees up a burner," he said.

But Sonny Sweetman, chef and owner of Abacrombie Fine Food and Accommodations on Biddle Street, became a fan of the slow cooker for cooking at home after he had to quickly create a meal for in-laws coming into town.

He pulled a cooker, a neglected wedding present from the year before, from the shelf and filled it with country-style pork ribs and sauerkraut.

"It's almost like magic," said Sweetman, who now uses the cooker frequently for simple dishes so he and his wife can spend more time with their 1 1/2 -year-old daughter, Alisa. "They have an amazing ability not to overcook vegetables even while it's making the meat very tender."

And slow cooking can be economical: Tougher, less expensive cuts of meat stand up best to those long cooking times.

But slow cookers also have their limitations and quirks.

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