Like many of us, you've probably got one of those slow cookers (aka crock pots) stored somewhere in your kitchen or garage. The million-dollar question is: When did you last use yours?
Like other culinary trends, the popularity of slow cookers has gone up and down since their introduction in the 1950s. Then called crock pots, they were easy to use but hard to clean. In the 1970s, newer versions offered a removable ceramic liner, simplifying the cleaning process. These days, slow cookers are popular again and come with various features including multiple heat settings, timers, built-in thermometers -- and high-end models are even computerized.
Yet even the simplest slow cooker can produce tasty, economical meals - stews, soups, beans, casseroles, lasagna, desserts - with minimal effort. For best results with slow cookers, keep one key step in mind: Season and brown meats, sauté aromatic ingredients and parboil beans before adding to the slow cooker. Doing so will bring out the unique flavor of those ingredients in a way the slow-cook process will not.
By habit more than reason, we generally reserve stews and soup for the winter season but don't let that attitude get in your way. A slow-cooked stew can showcase the best of spring's vegetables and turn inexpensive cuts of meat into succulent pieces, yielding a delicious, tummy-warming meal for a cool springtime evening. So, pull out that slow cooker, dust it off and try one of these satisfying recipes. Slow and easy does it every time.
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Spring Lamb Stew with Mashed Potatoes (serves 6-8)
3-1/2 lb leg of lamb, cut into 2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups dry white wine
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
1 bunch radishes, trimmed
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 lb shallots, peeled
3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
4 lb russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 cups half-and-half
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1-1/2 cups peas (fresh or frozen)
1/2 lb asparagus, ends trimmed, stalks cut into 3-inch pieces and blanched for 1 minute.
1. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. In the stovetop-safe insert of a slow cooker, or in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil. Working in batches, brown the lamb on all sides, 3 to 5 minutes per batch. Transfer to a plate.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the flour. Cook, stirring, for about 1 minute. Add the wine and stock and stir well. If you used a slow-cooker insert, return the lamb to the insert and set it on the slow-cooker base. If you used a sauté pan, transfer the lamb and the wine mixture to a slow cooker. Add the carrots, radishes, garlic, shallots, thyme and bay leaves. Cover and cook on high according to the manufacturer's instructions until the lamb is tender, about 3 hours.
3. Meanwhile, put the potatoes and 1 Tbsp salt in a large saucepan, add water to cover the potatoes by 3 inches and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes. Drain well in a colander.
4. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the half-and-half, butter, salt and pepper. Heat until the butter melts and small bubbles form around the edges of the pan, 5-7 minute.
5. In a large heatproof bowl, mass the potatoes with a potato masher. Add the half-and-half mixture 1/2 cup at a time and stir until just combined. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and set over a saucepan of barely simmering water to keep warm.
6. Five minutes before serving, stir the peas and asparagus into the stew. Remove the bay leaves and discard. Divide the mashed potatoes among meal bowls, ladling the stew on top. Serve immediately.
Barbecue Pulled Chicken (serves 8)
1 8oz can reduced-sodium tomato sauce
1 4oz can chopped green chiles, drained
3 Tbsp cider vinegar
2 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp sweet or smoked paprika
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp ground chipotle
1/2 tsp salt
2-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1. Stir tomato sauce, chiles, vinegar, honey, paprika, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, ground chipotle and salt in a 6-quart slow cooker until smooth. Add chicken, onion and garlic; stir to combine.
2. Put the lid on and cook on low until the chicken can be pulled apart, about 5 hours.
3. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and shred with a fork. Return the chicken to the sauce; stir well and serve with buns, sliced jalapenos, sliced red onions and sour cream; or cover and refrigerate. Note: You can make up this dish to 3 days in advance or freeze for up to 1 month.
Slow Cooker Cioppino (serves 8)
2 large onions, chopped (2 cups)
2 medium stalks celery, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 2-1/2 tsp)
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes, undrained
1 bottle (8 oz) clam juice
1 can (6 oz) tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine or water
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
2-1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 dried bay leaf
1 lb firm-textured white fish, cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4 lb uncooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 can (61/2 oz) chopped clams with juice, undrained
1 can (6 oz) crabmeat, drained
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1. In a 5-6 qt slow cooker, mix all ingredients except fish, shrimp, clams, crabmeat and parsley. Cover and cook on high heat setting for 3-4 hours.
2. Stir in fish, shrimp, clams and crabmeat. Reduce heat setting to low. Cover and cook 30-45 minutes longer or until fish flakes easily with fork. Remove bay leaf. Stir in parsley.
Spring Veal Stew (serves 6-8)
3 lb. boneless veal shank or shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 leeks, white and pale green portions, halved, rinsed and thinly sliced
1 cup dry white wine
2 fresh thyme sprigs
1/2 lb asparagus, tough ends removed and spears coarsely chopped
6 oz button or cremini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 lb frozen peas (Note: If fresh peas are available, substitute 2 lb peas-in-the-pod for the frozen peas. Shell them and add to the stew along with the other vegetables.)
1/2 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
3 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1. Season the veal cubes with salt and pepper. In a large fry pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Working in batches if needed to avoid crowding, add the veal and cook until golden brown on all sides, 7-10 minutes total. Add the leeks and sauté until they start to soften, about 3 minutes more. Transfer the veal and leeks to a slow cooker.
2. Return the pan to medium-high heat, add the wine and deglaze the pan, stirring to scrape up the browned bits from the pan bottom. Bring the wine to a boil and pour over the veal. Add the thyme sprigs, cover and cook on high for 3 hours or on low for 6 to 6-1/2 hours.
3. Add the asparagus, mushrooms and peas to the slow cooker and stir to combine. Cover and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender, 20-30 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs and discard. Stir in the crème fraîche until it is blended with the cooking juices. Season the stew with salt and pepper.
4. Spoon the stew into shallow bowls, garnish with parsley and serve immediately.
Slow-Cooker Turkish Lamb & Vegetable Stew (8 servings)
Layers of fresh Mediterranean vegetables, seasoned with an abundance of bay, garlic and oregano, meld with tender lamb into a luscious harvest-time supper. Serve the stew with rice or warm whole-wheat pita.
Make Ahead Tip: Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Reheat on the stovetop, in a microwave or in the oven.
1-1/2 pounds lean boneless leg of lamb, trimmed and cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces
1-1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1-1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 large onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 large all-purpose potato, preferably Yukon Gold, peeled and cut into 3/8-inch-thick slices
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed
1 small eggplant, cut into 3/8-inch-thick slices
1 medium zucchini, cut into 3/8-inch-thick slices
6 bay leaves
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Season lamb with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Heat 1/2 tablespoon oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the lamb and sear, turning, until well browned, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a 4-quart slow cooker. Add another 1/2 tablespoon oil to skillet and brown remaining lamb. Add to slow cooker.
Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil to skillet and reduce heat to medium. Add onions and cook, stirring, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and oregano; cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Add tomatoes and bring to a simmer, mashing with a potato masher or fork. Remove from heat and spoon half the mixture over the lamb.
Arrange potatoes in a layer in the pot; season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Add green beans, followed by eggplant and zucchini, seasoning each layer with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Spread remaining tomato-onion mixture over vegetables. Top with bay leaves.
Cover and cook on high until lamb and vegetables are very tender, about 4 hours. Discard bay leaves. Serve hot, garnished with parsley.