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TORONTO -- Food spooned out of a slow cooker that is crunchy, colourful and flavourful may seem like an impossibility, but Sally Vaughan-Johnston says she has some tricks to achieve just that.
While testing the 200 recipes that make up the Best of Bridge Slow Cooker Cookbook, the newest member of the Best of Bridge Ladies publishing phenomenon discovered that adding certain finishing touches can elevate a dish from mushy and unappealing to delicious.
In the last 15 minutes or so of cooking, stir in the vegetables that only need enough time to heat through, such as corn, peas, edamame beans, sugar snap peas, spinach and red bell peppers, items that you want to retain crunch or texture, and crank the heat up to high.
"They heat right through, but they've still got that lovely crunch and colour," Vaughan-Johnston said.
She also adds other last-minute pick-me-ups, such as fresh herbs, or something acidic such as balsamic vinegar or lime or lemon juice, or a bit of extra heat such as jalapeno pepper.
"People think the longer you cook it, the more flavourful it becomes," Vaughan-Johston said. "Actually that's not necessarily true when you're using any kind of moist heat such as a slow cooker or braising.
"The longer you cook it, the flavours can become faded, in fact, which is why people often think with slow cooker food that everything tastes the same."
"Sally has mastered crunchy, and crunchy and slow cookers are not synonymous," said Mary Halpen, one of the original Best of Bridge Ladies.
Best of Bridge Publishing was founded more than 35 years ago, when the original eight women came up with an idea to compile the recipes they enjoyed after their bridge games into a cookbook. They haven't looked back, despite a warning from the bank manager who approved their first loan that they wouldn't remain friends if they also worked together.
The women proved him wrong and went on to publish 12 popular books. A recent decision to hang up their aprons was re-evaluated after Robert Rose Publishing Inc. put together a proposal to continue their legacy and Vaughan-Johnston, a former Edmonton Sun food editor who was just wrapping up her chef training, was accepted as a Best of Bridge Lady.
"Sally gets us," said Halpen, who was in Toronto on her last promotion tour.
"I have that same kind of irreverent approach to life and I'm definitely down to earth and that's them," Vaughan-Johnston said when the two dropped by The Canadian Press offices. "There's no airs and graces about Best of Bridge recipes and there's no airs and graces about me.
"I love food and I love good food and I sometimes have to distance myself from the chef part of it because I don't want to come across as cheffy-weffy. First and foremost, I'm a mom who loves to cook too. I know what it's like to be a busy working mom and want to get food on the table."
This is the first time they've done a book on an appliance or a single subject.
"Half of the recipes in the book are Best of Bridge recipes that Sally has reconfigured to work in a slow cooker and the other half are all new recipes developed by Sally," said Halpen, who lives in Calgary. The other Bridge Ladies appraise and critique them.
There are a lot of recipes in the book outside the sphere of soups, stews and casseroles.
There's a chapter on desserts. "That surprises a lot of people," she added. "You can make, in the slow cooker, a lot of those old-fashioned desserts, such as fruit cobblers and upside-down fruit puddings, rice pudding, fruit crisps even, and they just do really well in the slow cooker because it's a moist heat. They kind of resemble the steamed puddings that grandma used to make."
A trick to prevent sogginess "is to lay a tea towel over top of the slow cooker before you put the lid on because that traps the moisture that would normally collect on the underside of the lid and fall on top."
She said the gentle heat of slow cooking makes the appliance a natural for baked pasta dishes like lasagna and cannelloni.
"How many times have you made a lasagna in the oven and it's come out all crunchy on top and dried out in the middle? That doesn't happen in the slow cooker."
You can make delicious caramelized onions in four to six hours in the slow cooker. At the stove you have to be constantly stirring and watching them. They can be used in dips and French onion soup and on top of flatbread, pizza and brie.
Vaughan-Johnston offers tips in the chapter Slow Cooker 101, including how to buy the appliances and the bonus of preparation.
People often say they just want to throw food in the slow cooker before heading out in the morning. You can do that, but it won't be as good as it could be, Vaughan-Johnston cautioned.
Root vegetables take longer than meat to cook in a slow cooker, so cut them into 2.5-centimetre (one-inch) pieces.
The night before, chop onions and sauté them or cook them in the microwave for three or four minutes. Slice meat and refrigerate it separately from the onions. Measure out liquids and open the can of tomatoes.
"Then just pop it all in there in the morning and be on your merry way," Vaughan-Johnston said.
-- The Canadian Press
Sweet potato cannelloni
If you haven’t used your slow cooker for baked pasta dishes, you’ll find they turn out well due to the slow gentle heat. Use oven-ready cannelloni for this recipe. It stands up better to the long, moist cooking than fresh or regular dried pasta.
750 ml (3 cups) tomato sauce
250 ml (1 cup) evaporated milk
2 ml (½ tsp) salt
1 ml (¼ tsp) ground nutmeg
.5 ml (1/8 tsp) pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
300 ml (1 ¼ cups) ricotta cheese
50 ml (¼ cup) grated Parmesan cheese
300 ml (1¼ cups) grated, peeled sweet potato
250 ml (1 cup) packed baby spinach, chopped
12 oven-ready cannelloni shells
250 ml (1 cup) shredded mozzarella cheese
Grease insert of a 3½- to 4-quart slow cooker.
In a bowl, whisk together tomato sauce and milk. Spread 250 ml (1 cup) of the sauce mixture in bottom of slow cooker.
In another bowl, whisk together salt, nutmeg, pepper, egg, ricotta and Parmesan. Stir in sweet potato and spinach. Using fingers, fill cannelloni shells with ricotta mixture. Place filled shells side by side in slow cooker, making 2 layers if necessary. Pour remaining sauce over shells.
Cover and cook on low for about 6 hours or on high for about 3 hours, until bubbling. Sprinkle with mozzarella. Cover and cook on high for about 15 minutes or until mozzarella is melted.
Makes 4 servings.
Vegetable polenta passerole
Your slow cooker can prepare part of a recipe.
Here the appliance is used for polenta, a versatile Italian grain dish made by cooking cornmeal in broth or water, which is then transformed into a hearty vegetarian entrée.
Start the meal with a salad.
250 ml (1 cup) cornmeal
2 ml (½ tsp) salt
.5 ml (1/8 tsp) pepper
750 ml (3 cups) boiling water
125 g (4 oz) cream cheese, cubed and softened
250 ml (1 cup) shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
125 ml (½ cup) grated Parmesan cheese, divided
15 ml (1 tbsp) vegetable oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
750 ml (3 cups) sliced mushrooms
500 ml (2 cups) tomato-based pasta sauce
Grease insert of a 3½- to 4-quart slow cooker. Grease a 33-by-23-cm (13-by-9-inch) baking dish.
Place cornmeal, salt and pepper in prepared slow cooker. Gradually add boiling water, whisking constantly until blended.
Cover and cook on low for 1 ½ to 3 hours, until liquid is absorbed and cornmeal is tender.
Transfer slow cooker insert to a heatresistant surface. Stir in cream cheese, 175 ml (¾ cup) mozzarella and 50 ml (¼ cup) Parmesan. Spread two-thirds of the polenta in prepared baking dish; set aside.
Meanwhile, heat oven to 200 C (400 F).
In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat.
Add onions, red pepper, garlic and mushrooms; cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Stir in pasta sauce. Spread over polenta in baking dish. Drop remaining polenta by spoonfuls over top. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake, uncovered, for about 25 minutes, until heated through and browned.
Makes 6 servings.
Make Ahead: Prepare polenta base and spread in baking dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Place remaining polenta in another container, cover and refrigerate.
Prepare vegetable mixture and transfer to a separate container. Let cool, cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, assemble casserole and proceed with the recipe.
Source: Best of Bridge Slow Cooker Cookbook by Sally Vaughan-Johnston & The Best of Bridge Publishing Ltd. (Robert Rose, www.robertrose.ca, 2012).