After a busy day who has time to make their own dinner? An orange Crock Pot™ was a familiar presence in my kitchen in the 70s and 80s, a parental wedding present displaced by the microwave as the decade progressed. I had no idea the slow cooker was back until my youngest sister handed me a lightweight modern version on my last visit home. "You'll use it all the time, trust me," she said, already on her way out the door to her next engagement.
The slow cooker is back, buoyed by the real food movement and busy working people who want a home-cooked meal after a long day. Food made from scratch can be healthier because it doesn't contain the extra fat and salt and/or chemical additives added to most restaurant and processed meals. The Library has kept up with this trend admirably, and I've been trying out the available slow cooker books.
There are a lot. And they all start with a primer on slow cooker safety. Although today's slow cookers get much hotter than your mother's did, you still must beware of the ominous "danger zone," the lower temperatures where bacteria can breed, especially if you try to thaw a whole chicken in there. These scared me so much that I started with The Vegan Slow Cooker by Kathy Hester, as plant based foods seemed safer for a beginner. This book also appealed to me as I am trying to eat more plants. My favorite recipe was a simple garlicky squash soup that, along with a loaf of crusty bread, empowered me to have my girlfriends over for dinner on a Thursday night without taking the day off from work. Hester also has a recipe for tea smoked tofu using the device and some tinfoil that I haven't attempted yet. A quirky ingredient that several of the recipes called for was liquid smoke.
The classic slow cooker source is the Fix-it and Forget-it series. These books are compiled with recipes sent in by readers, and they vary wildly in quality and content. Many rely heavily on canned or processed foods, and ground and otherwise-processed meat — so they didn't fit my health criteria, although reading them brought back many happy memories of potluck dinners in my small hometown. These ladies are convinced they can make anything in the slow cooker. I tried the fudge cake, which is basically a steamed cake on a bed of chocolate sauce. It tasted not unpleasantly like the Boston brown bread my mother would bake in a coffee can, but it was not very flavorful.
Of course, the clever folks over at America's Test Kitchen have chimed in with their own volume on the subject, humbly entitled Slow Cooker Revolution. Their rigorous wall of slow cookers has optimized the flavor and method of many recipes for the slow cooker. Unfortunately, they tell you things that you don't want to know, for instance that the steel cut oatmeal every other cook book has said you can cook over night and eat for a healthy breakfast, is in fact "blown out and flavorless." Instead, you can set your alarm for 3 a.m. to turn on that slow cooker for the optimal four to six hours before you are ready to eat it.
I've compiled a starter list of cookbooks over at BiblioCommons. Please share any recipe advice in the comments. Happy last month of winter, fellow slow cookers!