Slow cookers move into the fast lane

Check your attic; you probably got one as a wedding gift

For people with full schedules and little time to cook, a crock pot is a time-saving producer of soups, stews, and chilies.

Slow-cooker recipes often involve a slab of meat, potatoes, onions, and a can of "cream of something" soup. Simply drop them into the pot in the morning before work, set the cooker on "low," and dinner should be ready when you get home.

Meals made in the cooker - popularized and trademarked by the Rival Co. as the Crock-Pot in 1971, don't carry a lot of glamour, but Lora Brody hopes to change that.

Her new book, "Slow Cooker Cooking" (HarperCollins, $14.95), includes a more-elegant array of recipes with titles such as "Braised Rabbit With Mustard and Cream Sauce," "Moroccan Chicken With Prunes and Couscous," and "Lamb-Stuffed Cabbage Rolls With Yogurt-Dill Sauce."

Such offerings, Ms. Brody hopes, will move the slow cooker out of the pantry and into the center of the kitchen. No longer, she says, should people be concerned about the cooker's "blue collar" image.

"People whisper: 'Yeah I use a slow cooker, but don't tell anybody.' So I'm trying to upgrade that to: 'Yeah I use one, and I'm proud of it,' " she says.

Brody's book is designed for home cooks who can afford to spend more time in the kitchen than at the office. Many of the recipes include more than a dozen ingredients, and preparation time can take up to an hour before you turn on the pot.

For those who lack free time, she recommends simpler recipes like the one for caramelized onions, which only requires onions and butter. "That's the first thing that I make for the nonbelievers. What happens is strangers start to ring your [door]bell. The smell is unbelievable, irresistible, it's incredibly seductive," she says.

The slow cooker has been around since 1970. It consists of a metal housing with an electric heating coil, a ceramic pot or "insert," and a lid made of glass or plastic. Pots range in size from two to six quarts. Rival, the leading maker of slow cookers based in Kansas City, Mo., claims to have sold more than 80 million Crock-Pots since their inception. Slow cookers remain primarily a North American phenomenon. More than two-thirds of American households now own them, making them the second-most popular small kitchen appliance, after toasters.

Like many people, Brody got her first slow cooker as a wedding present in the 1970s. Back then, she says, "I couldn't cook. I could make fish sticks that were frozen on the inside and burnt on the outside. But I knew if I threw certain ingredients in, and I followed the recipe, I could make something other people would eat. So it was really a lifesaver for a new bride."

Brody, who has now written 23 cookbooks, including three on bread machines, points out that slow cookers offer more advantages than just a simple way to cook. "It saves electricity. It conserves on heat, it doesn't heat up your kitchen, and once it's done, you can allow it to keep cooking and nothing bad happens, so you don't have to rush home like if you had a cake in the oven."

For now, Brody is encouraging readers of her book to send in e-mails, letting her know how well her recipes work. "They're experimenting. They're being bold and going where no slow cooker has gone before."

Quick tips on slow cookers

When used properly, slow cookers are great time savers, and can produce tasty tender meals. Cooking aficionado Lora Brody offers the following tips for those interested in the art of using slow cookers.

Make sure lid fits tight. An over-filled pot dramatically affects cooking time.

Leave lid on once you start cooking. Peeking and stirring allow heat to escape and prolongs the wait.

Cooking on low generally takes twice as long as cooking on high.

At high altitudes, allow an additional 30 minutes for each hour of cooking time.

Drain off excess liquids, and add seasoning after cooking to intensify taste.

Lift lid straight up rather than tilting to prevent condensation from falling on food.

Don't put heated ceramic insert on cold surfaces; it may crack.

Honey-Glazed Spareribs

Just like potato chips, we couldn't eat just one. Gnaw these sweet ribs right on the bone, or use a fork. The meat is so tender you won't need a knife. You will need a large, 5- to 6-quart slow cooker for this recipe.

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1-1/2 cups honey

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons Tabasco

6 pounds spareribs

In a medium, nonreactive saucepan, slowly heat the brown sugar, honey, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add garlic, salt, ginger, and Tabasco. Stir until completely combined. Let cool to room temperature.

Divide spareribs between 2 jumbo (2-gallon) heavy-duty resealable plastic bags. Pour half the marinade into each bag, press out the air; seal bags.

Place bags in a large roasting pan and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. Turn the bags over 2 to 3 times during marination so the ribs season evenly.

Transfer the ribs and the marinade to the insert of the slow cooker; marinade will not cover all the ribs. Cover and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours.

About halfway through the cooking time, carefully reverse the ribs so that they all cook part of the time in the liquid. The meat is done when it is tender and falling off the bone.

Spoon fat from sauce and pour in gravy boat before serving.

Serves 6 to 8.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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