Whether you are a young mother who holds a full-time job, a soccer mom who's always in her car, or a single person looking for a good meal, cooking dinner at the end of the day is a challenge.
I always tell people, "You can't cook if you're not home." But there is an exception: the slow cooker.
Busy lifestyles today make it almost impossible to have the time to cook big pieces of meat that take hours to roast in the oven or simmer on the stovetop.
But a slow cooker can make the difference. Just add the ingredients, set the time and temperature, and let it cook while you go about the day's business. There's no peeking or stirring.
Slow cookers, popular two decades ago, faded away for a number of years, but now they're back.
"The revival of slow cookers brings together a couple of trends," says Judith Finlayson, author of The 150 Best Slow Cooker Recipes (Robert Rose, $22.95). "Post 9/11 there is interest in comfort foods. The trend was under way, but September 11 was a catalyst. Second, people are tired of quick foods and processed foods.
"Many women are in the work force. Most are raising children. They want to produce nourishing, soul-satisfying food. With a slow cooker, you can use natural ingredients. You control what goes in [the cooker]. You come home, and it's basically ready."
Slow cooking is the ideal way to cook less-tender cuts of meat such as beef chuck and round, pork shoulder for pulled pork, and country-style pork ribs. Many of these cuts are more economical.
This is also a good method for cooking cubes of lamb, pork, veal, or beef for stews and chicken pieces for shredded chicken. Slow cooking ensures fork-tender, moist, and flavorful dishes
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association recommends that you save quick-cooking ground beef and tender roasts for other meals and cooking methods. Do not use frozen beef or other meats in the slow cooker; they should be defrosted in the refrigerator, never at room temperature.
As The 150 Best Slow Cooker Recipes shows, the appliance's usefulness in preparing ethnic recipes opens a whole world of weeknight possibilities. The author includes recipes for Cuban Picadillo with Pimento-Stuffed Olives, Portuguese Pork with Clams, and a variation on lamb tangine - Orange-Flavored Moroccan Lamb with Prunes (the prunes thicken the sauce).
"I usually brown meat for two reasons," says Ms. Finlayson. "Browning increases flavor of food by starting the process of caramelization, resulting in a more flavorful sauce or stew. The second is I find that the little bit of fat I use for browning - I don't use much - really emulsifies the spices to improve the flavor of sauce. Otherwise, the herbs just float on the sauce."
She does this with Old South Pulled Pork on a Bun, a make-ahead dish that can be partially prepared the night before it is cooked.
Pulled pork is a slow-cooked specialty from North Carolina. The term "pulled" is another word for shredded; the idea is that pulling, rather than slicing, allows the meat to hold sauce better.
With Shredded Chicken, the author simply places the chicken and other ingredients in the slow cooker. Shredded chicken is the basis for chicken tacos, enchiladas, even some paprikash recipes.
More slow-cooking advice comes from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in its Slow Cooker Beef Meals brochure. When making a pot roast using a chuck roast, English cut, or round roast, vegetables can be cooked at the same time. Meat tends to cook faster than vegetables in the slow cooker, so place the veggies in the bottom and along the sides of the cooker and put the beef on top of the vegetables.
Mediterranean Beef Pot Roast & Vegetables is a complete meal. The boneless beef pot roast slow-cooks with garlic, rosemary, red wine, potatoes, and carrots. The cooking liquid can become a gravy.
Two-Way Shredded Beef made with beef chuck shoulder, garlic, and water simmers until the beef is fork-tender. Then the cooked beef is shredded and divided for two meals.
With the addition of prepared salsa, the beef is a zesty filling for a tortilla served with homemade tomato, corn, and cilantro salsa.
For a second sandwich, add barbecue sauce or honey mustard barbecue sauce and spoon onto hamburger buns. These are 20-minute-meal miracles.
Note that soups, chili, and stews can be prepared in a slow cooker. Vegetable dishes can also be kept warm, especially if your oven and stovetop are filled with other dishes cooking. Even old-fashioned desserts, such as cobblers, crisps, and custards can be made in a slow cooker.
For a free copy of "Slow Cooker Beef Meals," send a self-addressed, stamped business-size envelope to: National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Dept. FC-SCBM, P.O. Box 670, Bloomington, IL 60108-0670.