Once again, slow cookers are hot

The frenetic holiday season is over. You've watered your newest Chia Pet, suffered through another "A Very Brady Christmas" for (one can only hope) the last time, and now you're left with only one dilemma: what to do with the Salad Shooter that someone anonymously smuggled into your stocking.

Cheer up, there's still time to exchange it for a slow cooker, or crockpot. They're a hot item again, and infinitely more useful than that cumbersome, electric salad chopper.

But which one? Crockpot or slow cooker? Which is best? What's the difference? "Oh, a slow cooker. They're really 'in' right now," a friend recently exclaimed. "Crockpots are old hat."

Actually. they're pretty much one and the same. Crock-Pot is the registered copyright name of the Rival company's product and is sold under that name exclusively. "Slow cooker" is the generic name for all the clones. Before you run out to purchase one, look around. You may find one tucked away in the attic or cellar, next to a fondue pot or that Chia Pet you got last year, and the one you got the year before, and....

These cookers, by whatever name, are the quintessential "set it, and forget it" appliance, ideal for today's soccer-mom schedules.

I recently resurrected a Rival Crock-Pot that I picked up at Goodwill for a few bucks more than a decade ago. As it no longer had the original box, operating instructions, or recipe booklet, I was left to my own devices to put it to the test. Fortunately, many recipes are easily adapted to crockpot cooking. If your slow cooker is new, you're all set. If it isn't, you can go online and find more recipes than you can shake a ham bone at.

The following stews are simple, tried and true, and delicious. (See boxes for full recipes.)

Brunswick Stew is a classic southern dish that dates back to pre-Civil War days. It was traditionally made with just onions and squirrel. But wait: Before you turn the page, note that feathers have replaced fur, and chicken is the main ingredient today. And unless you're planning a soiree for the Beverly Hillbillies, chances are you won't hear any complaints.

Certainly Jed and Granny Clampett would approve of the critter in the following lamb dish, though curry may be new to their palates. Based on a familiar Indian staple, this stew can be kicked up by adding more curry, if you prefer. Like all stews, many ingredients and spices are a personal choice. Feel free to embellish either dish to suit your taste.

With a little imagination, patience, and practice you'll find most stews, soups, and chilies are easily adaptable to a slow cooker. That should leave you adequate time to care for your growing Chia Pet menagerie.

Old-Fashioned Southern Brunswick Stew

4 pounds of bone-in chicken parts, such as thighs or drumsticks, skin removed
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups chicken stock or broth
1 can (14 ounces) tomatoes, including liquid
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 package (10 ounces) frozen lima beans
1 package (10 ounces) frozen corn kernels
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced
Dash or two of Tabasco or hot sauce.
Chopped parsley or toasted breadcrumbs (optional)

Have ready a three-quart or larger slow cooker. Rinse chicken parts under cold water; pat dry. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper and set aside.

Add all vegetables to slow cooker. Place chicken on top of vegetables and add the broth. Add hot sauce.

Cover and cook on low temperature for 8 hours, or until potatoes are tender.

Serve topped with parsley or breadcrumbs. Serves 6 to 8.

Curried Coconut Lamb Stew

Though this recipe calls for lamb, you may substitute beef if you prefer. Wear rubber gloves when seeding and chopping hot peppers, or wash hands thoroughly afterward.

4 tablespoons cooking oil
2 pounds boneless lamb, trimmed of fat and cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup chicken or beef broth
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 or 2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 or 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped
2 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, unpeeled, cored, and chopped
2 tablespoons curry powder
10 thin slices fresh ginger
2 two-inch strips orange skin
1/2 cup raisins
1 can (14 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
Chopped cashew nuts (optional)

Have ready a 3-quart or larger slow cooker. Heat oil in large skillet on medium heat. While oil is heating, place lamb, flour, and salt and pepper in a plastic bag and shake to dredge. Shake excess flour from lamb and brown in skillet on all sides.

Add broth to slow cooker, then vegetables, lamb, and remaining ingredients, except for cashews. Set temperature to low, cover, and cook for 8 hours.

Sprinkle each serving with chopped nuts, and serve over hot rice.

Serves 6.

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