LONDON, Ont. -- One misconception about slow cookers is they are time-savers, says Judith Finlayson, author of about a dozen slow cooker cookbooks, including The 163 Best Paleo Slow Cooker Recipes, released this month.
Another is that slow cookers are only good for what Finlayson calls "dump-and-stir" food -- combinations of canned goods, soups and other things to create meals low in fresh ingredients and taste but high in sodium and other additives.
But slow cookers excel, she says, as "very effective time managers. They allow you to do the work you need to do anyway, but at times that work best for your schedule. And they save you the time of attention while things are cooking."
Finlayson wrote her first cookbook, 150 Best Slow Cooker Recipes, in 2001, when her husband, Robert Dees, president of the cookbook publishing firm Robert Rose Inc., was rejected by seven cookbook authors he approached about doing a project on slow cookers.
So he turned to his wife, a journalist with a passion for food, some experience in recipe development and a lot of experience cooking fine food in her slow cooker at home. The book, revised in 2011, has sold about half a million copies.
When she was working on that book, she says, food writers were "aghast" that her recommendations included browning meat and softening vegetables before putting them into the slow cooker. It didn't fit with the cooker's dump-and-stir reputation.
"Now everybody does that," she says.
The advantages of slow cookers haven't changed. Many of the ingredients can be prepared ahead and stored in the refrigerator until assembly with other ingredients in crock. They are safe to leave unattended all day -- supper is ready when you get home.
It is important to control the liquid in slow cooking because it does not reduce but forms as steam on the lid and drops back in, so you can start with a little less liquid, Finlayson says. Another trick she uses is to fold a tea towel over the top of the cooker, under the lid. This will absorb a lot of the liquid.
Finlayson says dried thyme and oregano and whole-leaf, stemmed herbs such as fresh thyme and rosemary can be added at the beginning; they release their flavours slowly. Finely chopped fresh herbs should not be added until the last 30 minutes because their flavour will disappear over six or eight hours of cooking.
She doesn't add salt until the end because she doesn't want it to draw the juices out of the meat. Peas, corn or greens also get added last. Peppers get bitter if cooked a long time.
The marketplace is exploding with slow cookers of varying sizes and shapes, with hinged lids, temperature probes and one kind that sits on a heat-producing griddle.
Finlayson has three slow cookers -- small, medium and large -- for various uses. She prefers those with a removable crock for ease of cleaning and a timer to send the machine into "warm" mode after a specified time.
She also likes traditional slow cookers in which the heating elements are in the walls of the casing, rather than on the bottom, reducing the risk of scorching.
The usual warning signs of chipping, cracking or frayed cords all indicate a slow cooker should be replaced, she says. But the user should also ensure the pot heats up and cooks quickly enough to keep the food out of the "danger zone" in which bacteria can grow. For this reason, she says, it's worth investing in a good-quality machine.
One of Bruce Hunter's three slow cookers is 40 years old, but the ways he uses them has changed greatly.
"For years it was just for stews or chili," says the home cook from Watford in southwestern Ontario. Now he uses it to finish soups, for baked beans, macaroni and cheese, lasagna and even desserts.
But he uses it most often to cook a beef roast. He usually uses a cheaper cut marinated for several hours in Worcestershire and soy sauces. He applies non-stick cooking spray to the crock and scrunches foil into a circle to put in the bottom to keep the meat out of the liquid. After putting in the meat, he pours about 175 ml (3/4 cup) of beef bouillon over it and seasons to taste with salt and pepper and a little more Worcestershire or maybe garlic powder, onion rings or even barbecue sauce.
He turns it on high until the liquid is bubbling, then reduces the heat to low. He periodically checks the liquid level to keep it below the bottom of the meat and tests doneness with a meat thermometer. The result is tender, flavourful and moist meat.
Hunter and his partner also use slow cookers when they entertain to keep turkey stuffing, gravy and vegetables, such as squash, turnip and potatoes, warm until the rest of the dinner is ready.
"They keep the food fresh, free up the stove and allow us to get some cleanup done before dinner."
-- The Canadian Press
Here are some slow cooker recipes that go above and beyond the traditional stews and soups people prepare in the appliances.
This Cajun-inspired dish packs a hint of heat and yields a great sense of freshness. It works best in a medium (about 3.5-l/3 1/2-qt) slow cooker.
500 g (1 lb) shrimp, peeled and deveined, shells reserved
30 ml (2 tbsp) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 ml (1/4 tsp) cayenne pepper
250 ml (1 cup) dry white wine
250 ml (1 cup) water
30 ml (2 tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, peeled and diced
5 ml (1 tsp) cracked black peppercorns
2 ml (1/2 tsp) sea salt
2 ml (1/2 tsp) dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 can (398 ml/14 oz) diced tomatoes with juice
500 ml (2 cups) thinly sliced okra (see tips)
250 ml (1 cup) corn kernels
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded and diced
30 ml (2 tbsp) clarified butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
In a small bowl, combine shrimp, lemon juice and cayenne. Stir well, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
To make shrimp stock, combine shrimp shells, white wine and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain, pushing shells against sieve to extract as much flavour as possible. Measure 250 ml (1 cup) and set aside. Freeze excess.
In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add peppercorns, salt, thyme and bay leaves and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add tomatoes with juice and bring to a boil. (Make ahead: Cover and refrigerate shrimp, shrimp stock and vegetable mixture separately overnight. When you're ready to cook, continue with recipe.)
Transfer to slow cooker stoneware. Stir in shrimp stock. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours or on high for 3 hours. Stir in okra, corn and bell pepper. Cover and cook on high for 20 minutes, until okra is tender. Remove and discard bay leaves.
When you are ready to serve, heat 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the clarified butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Increase heat to medium-high. Using a slotted spoon, immediately add reserved shrimp, in batches, and cook, stirring, until they turn pink, adding remaining butter as necessary. Transfer to slow cooker as completed. Add marinade juices to pan and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add to slow cooker, stir well and serve.
Okra, a tropical vegetable, has a great flavour, but it becomes unpleasantly sticky when overcooked. Choose young okra pods, 5 to 10 cm (2 to 4 inches) long, that don't feel sticky to the touch. (If sticky, they are too ripe.) Gently scrub pods and cut off the top and tail before slicing.
If you are halving this recipe, use a small (1.5 to 3-l/1 1/2- to 3-qt) slow cooker.
Makes 4 servings.
Source: The 163 Best Paleo Slow Cooker Recipes by Judith Finlayson (Robert Rose Inc.).
Spicy Tamari Almonds
These tasty tidbits are great pre-dinner nibbles with a glass of cold white wine. Use a small (2- to 3-l/2- to 3 1/2-qt) slow cooker or smaller if you are halving the recipe.
500 ml (2 cups) unblanched whole raw almonds
1 ml (1/4 tsp) cayenne pepper
30 ml (2 tbsp) gluten-free tamari sauce or coconut aminos
15 ml (1 tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt, to taste
In slow cooker stoneware, combine almonds and cayenne. Place a clean tea towel, folded in half (so you will have 2 layers), over top of stoneware to absorb moisture. Cover and cook on high for 45 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine tamari and olive oil. Add to hot almonds and stir thoroughly to combine. Replace tea towel. Cover and cook on high for 1 1/2 hours, until nuts are hot and fragrant, stirring every 30 minutes and replacing towel each time. Sprinkle with salt. Store in an airtight container.
Makes about 500 ml (2 cups).
Source: The 163 Best Paleo Slow Cooker Recipes by Judith Finlayson (Robert Rose Inc., 2013).
Slow Cooker Lemon Sponge Pudding
This delicious dessert is light and fluffy. If you want more pudding and less cake, add a little more water to the slow cooker.
250 ml (1 cup) white sugar
50 ml (1/4 cup) all-purpose flour
1 ml (1/4 tsp) salt
50 ml (1/4 cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice
15 ml (1 tbsp) lemon zest
4 eggs, separated
15 ml (1 tbsp) melted butter
250 ml (1 cup) milk
In a bowl, combine sugar, flour and salt. Stir in lemon juice, then lemon zest, egg yolks, butter and milk.
In a stainless-steel bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold gently into lemon mixture.
Pour into a lightly greased oven-safe bowl that fits into the slow cooker without touching the sides. Cover bowl with foil secured with an elastic band or string. Place bowl into slow cooker and pour in enough hot water to come up about 2.5 cm (1 inch) on the outside of the oven-safe bowl.
Cover and cook on high for 2 to 3 hours or until the top is firm to the touch
Makes 4 servings.
Source: Bruce Hunter of Watford, Ont.
-- The Canadian Press