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Tips for Slow Cooking

Cook dinner while you sleep! Cook dinner while you're away at work! Cook dinner while you run errands, schlep the kids, plow the back 40 and recaulk your bathtub!

It's the siren song of the slow cooker. About 83 percent of American kitchens contain a slow cooker, according to the 2008 Kitchen Audit by market research firm NPD Group, meaning cookers are as common as coffeemakers, says NPD's Peter Goldman.

It makes sense. Slow cookers are a multitasker's dream, burbling away on the counter while you're off doing - whatever. Who wouldn't want to come home at the end of a tough day to a house full of mouthwatering aromas and dinner ready to serve? Slow cookers were introduced in 1971 by Rival, which dubbed its squat little appliance the Crock-Pot. Since then, a host of other companies have begun making slow cookers at prices that range from about $20 for a simple model to $280 for a top-of-the-line unit from All-Clad.

SOME TIPS

1 It's easy to convert traditional recipes to slow-cooker versions. Just follow this simple rule from Betty Byrne, test kitchen manager at Hamilton Beach: For every 30 minutes of cooking time in a traditional recipe, cook one hour on high or two hours on low in the slow cooker.

2 Because of food safety concerns, slow cookers today heat up faster and cook at higher temperatures than ones bought a decade or more ago. Andrew Schloss, author of "Art of the Slow Cooker" (Chronicle, 2008), found that low settings on newer cookers reach 185 to 200 degrees, while the high setting heats at 250 to 300 degrees. Settings on older machines generally are 15 to 20 degrees lower, and the machines heat up more slowly. If you have an older slow cooker cookbook and a new machine (or vice versa), you will have to adjust the timing in your recipes.

3 Yes, you can peek (once). Don't do it while the cooker is heating up (it will slow the process), but it won't hurt to uncover for a quick stir midway.

4 About the dump/don't dump debate: It's tempting to just dump the raw meat and the rest of the ingredients into the slow cooker, turn it on and leave, but don't. It's worth taking 10 minutes or so to brown the meat and saute some of the vegetables before adding them to the cooker. It enhances flavor and appearance.

5 Remember food safety. Frozen meat doesn't heat quickly enough to offset bacteria growth. Always thaw meat or poultry first.

CHIPOTLE BLACK-BEAN VEGETABLE SOUP

This recipe can be made in a 5-quart slow cooker.

Adapted from Beth Hensperger's "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Recipes for Two" (Harvard Common Press, 2006).

3 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained

1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

2 small carrots, coarsely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 rib celery, diced (about 1/4 cup)

1/3 cup minced red bell pepper

1 chipotle chile pepper in adobo, cut into small pieces

4 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (may substitute low-sodium chicken broth if making a nonvegetarian version)

1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram

1/4 teaspoon pure chili powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese, sour cream and lime wedges, for garnish

1. Combine the drained black beans, onion, carrots, celery, red bell pepper, chipotle chile pepper, broth, marjoram, chili powder and cumin in a 5-quart slow cooker; stir to combine. Cover and cook on high for 3 1/2 hours, stirring once or twice during that time. The soup will thicken slightly as it cooks.

2. Working in batches, puree the soup in a food processor until smooth; or use an immersion (stick) blender. Taste and add salt as needed.

3. Top with grated cheese and a dollop of sour cream, and lime wedges on the side. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH, COCONUT AND LAMB STEW

Adapted from the upcoming "Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen" (Simon & Schuster, April 2009) by Monica Bhide.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 pounds boneless leg of lamb, trimmed of excess fat, then cut into bite-size chunks

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons minced ginger root (from 1-inch piece peeled ginger root)

1 small (1 to 2 pounds) butternut squash, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces (may substitute 2 cups precut butternut squash pieces)

1 medium (4 to 6 ounces) turnip, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks

1 tablespoon ground coriander

2 teaspoons mild or hot curry

powder

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 1/4 cups coconut milk (do not use low-fat)

1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the lamb pieces and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring to make sure the pieces are lightly browned on all sides.

2. Add the garlic and ginger; cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

3. Transfer the mixture to a 5-quart slow cooker.

4. Add squash, turnip, coriander, curry powder, turmeric, cayenne and salt, stirring to mix well, then add the coconut milk and broth; stir to combine.

5. Cook on low for 6 hours, or until the lamb is falling-apart tender, stirring once or twice during cooking. Taste and add salt as needed. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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