As the cooler weather hits, folks are less inclined to use the grill and more inclined to turn to that versatile vessel that saves time and effort.
According to Jarden Corp., which owns Rival and the Crock-Pot brand, 86 percent of American households own a slow cooker.
The appliance is ideal for making soups, chilies or stews. You can even make oatmeal overnight so breakfast is ready when you wake up.
And you can use the slow cooker simply to keep things warm - ideal for potlucks or buffets.
In "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook" (Harvard Common Press, $16.95), authors Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann write that a slow cooker "allows for the most basic of foods to be cooked to perfection." The trusty slow cooker (most of us call it a Crock-Pot, which is a trademarked name from Rival ) is 39 years old and keeps getting better with age - thanks to evolving techniques and more recipes packed with flavor or international flair.
For Jonathan John, 55, of Monroe, Mich., the slow cooker's appeal lies in its convenience and versatility.
"You can get everything done in the morning and leave it all day to cook, and you've got a meal," says John. "In my opinion, the longer you leave it the better it gets." John also likes that slow cookers offer affordable ways to make a meal, especially with meats.
"You can use lesser or inexpensive cuts of meat, slow-cook them and it tastes just as good as the more expensive cuts," he says.
John likes to experiment with his slow cooker, using different cuts of lamb, making a lot of Indian curries and cooking beef with his own barbecue sauce.
But the England native also uses his slow cooker for familiar comfort dishes - such as John's Beef Stew with Wine, a dish that Mum used to make.
"My mother used to make it with Guinness Stout, but I like the wine," says John. "You can serve this over noodles or rice or garlic mashed spuds." A key to John's beef stew is to brown the beef in bacon fat to sear it.
"Nicely browned beef means you keep more moisture in the beef," says John. "And the more moisture while it's cooking, the better." It's those tricks - like browning the meat or chicken or pork, sauteing vegetables or adding them at the right time - that make slow-cooker meals more appealing and flavorful.
BEEF AND WINE STEW
Serves: 6 / Preparation time: 25 minutes / Total time: 7 to 9 hours on slow cooker low setting
1 pound bacon, cut into pieces
3 pounds boneless beef roast, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup flour, lightly seasoned with salt and black pepper
1 cup sliced shallots
2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
8 ounces cremini or white mushrooms, wiped clean, cut in half if large
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
1 1/2 cups full-bodied red wine or 12 ounces stout beer
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
Cooked noodles or rice or garlic mashed potatoes, optional for serving
In a large skillet, cook the bacon until just crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon pieces, leaving the drippings in the skillet and keep heated over medium heat. Reserve the bacon pieces for another use. Place the beef cubes in a large bowl and sprinkle with the seasoned flour. Toss to coat the beef cubes lightly with the flour.
Working in batches, brown the beef cubes on all sides in the bacon drippings. Remove to the slow cooker. In the same skillet, saute the shallots, celery, carrots, mushrooms and garlic until just lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the slow cooker. Add the wine, bay leaf, salt and pepper and stir. Cover and cook for 7 to 9 hours on the low setting (or 4 hours on the high setting).
The meat should be falling-apart tender. About 30 minutes before serving, if the sauce needs thickening, stir in the cornstarch mixture. Cover and continue cooking until thickened. Remove the bay leaf and serve the stew with some sauce, over cooked noodles, cooked rice or mashed potatoes.
From Jonathan John, Monroe., Tested by Susan M. Selasky in the Free Press Test Kitchen.
494 calories (40 percent from fat ), 22 grams fat (7 grams sat. fat ), 10 grams carbohydrates, 53 grams protein, 325 mg sodium, 167 mg cholesterol, 1 grams fiber .
SLOW COOKER CHICKEN CHILI
Serves: 8 / Preparation time: 20 minutes / Total time: 6 to 8 hours on slow cooker low setting
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless, chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
3 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons cumin, divided 3 tablespoons favorite chili powder plus 3 teaspoons, divided
1 medium poblano pepper, seeded, diced
1 can (15.5 ounces) kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15.5 ounces) white beans, drained and rinsed
3 cans (15.5 ounces each) diced tomatoes with green chilis
2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
3 tablespoons instant tapioca
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
1/2 to 3/4 cup lager-style beer, optional
TOPPINGS, OPTIONAL: Sour cream, shredded Cheddar or Jack cheese, chopped green onions and chopped pickled jalapenos
In a large skillet, heat the oil. Place the chicken pieces in a bowl and sprinkle with the flour, 1 teaspoon cumin and 1 teaspoon chili powder. Toss to coat the pieces with the flour mixture. Add the chicken to the skillet and brown on each side. Transfer to the slow cooker. Add the diced poblano pepper to the skillet and saute 3 minutes. Transfer to the slow cooker. Add all the remaining ingredients, including 1 teaspoon cumin and 3 tablespoons chili powder, except the beer to the slow cooker and stir. Cover and cook on low setting for 6 to 8 hours or until the chicken is fall-apart tender.
About 30 minutes before serving, stir in the beer if using.
Just before serving, stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons chili powder, taste and adjust seasonings with more salt and pepper to taste.
Divide the chili among warm bowls. Serve with the topping of your choice.
Adapted from Food Network Kitchens. Tested by Susan M. Selasky in the Free Press Test Kitchen.
345 calories (26 percent from fat), 10 grams fat (2 grams sat. fat), 29 grams carbohydrates, 35 grams protein, 942 mg sodium, 115 mg cholesterol, 6 grams fiber.
AFRICAN-STYLE BRAISED CHICKEN IN PEANUT SAUCE
Serves: 6 / Preparation time: 15 minutes / Total time: 4 hours (with slow cooker on high)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 pounds chicken pieces, washed, patted dry; skin-on breast, skinless legs and thighs
2 onions, peeled, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
1/2 to 1 long red or green chile pepper, minced
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
1/2 cup condensed chicken broth, undiluted
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons sherry or lemon juice
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
Hot cooked rice (about 3/4 cup per serving)
In a nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the chicken pieces and brown on all sides. Transfer to the slow cooker.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions to the skillet and cook, stirring until softened. Add the garlic, chile pepper, curry powder, oregano, salt and peppercorns. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Stir in the chicken broth, tomato sauce and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Pour the mixture over the chicken pieces in the slow cooker.
Cover and cook on low for 6 hours or on high for 3 hours, until the chicken is tender and the juices run clear when pierced with a fork.
In a bowl, combine the peanut butter and sherry. Add a little cooking liquid and stir to blend. Add to slow cooker along with the red bell pepper. Cover and cook on high for 20 minutes, until the pepper is tender.
Discard the bay leaf and serve the chicken over hot white rice.
From "Delicious & Dependable Slow Cooker Recipes created for America's Kitchens" by Judith Finlayson (Robert Rose, $22.95). Tested by Susan M. Selasky in the Free Press Test Kitchen.
623 calories (36 percent from fat ), 25 grams fat (6 grams sat. fat ), 53 grams carbohydrates, 46 grams protein, 865 mg sodium, 108 mg cholesterol, 5 grams fiber.