Pros: Handy information; versatile recipes; wide variety of recipes; helpful tips
Cons: No recipe photos; one or two missing details; not the approach that some folks will be looking for
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Who can resist the lure of a quick, easy, delicious dinner? It’s why so many people fall prey to the siren call of fast food. Many people pick up a slow cooker, or crockpot, with the hope of achieving easy dinners at home, but all too often these devices are left to gather dust on a shelf. In some ways it really is as easy as plugging it in, filling it up, turning it on, and leaving it, but it takes more than that to make a truly good slow cooker dish. It’s that latter part that often makes the experience of using a slow cooker less amazing than the dream of using one.
Ellen Brown’s The Complete Guide to Slow Cooker Cooking, Second Edition, might just be the book you need to get that appliance off the shelf and back into the kitchen—but it depends a little bit on the kind of cooking you like to do. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Due to the slow, moist, enclosed, long-term cooking method the slow cooker uses, recipes turn out a bit differently than they do on the stove. Flavors can blend together in odd ways, and spices & herbs in particular can come out tasting differently. Many foods don’t taste as good if you can’t separate out the flavors a bit; you have to have the right recipes to truly enjoy slow cooker food.
Author Ellen Brown succeeds at this in two ways. First, she knows how to get just the right combination of flavors. Second, she knows how to combine the slow-cooked contents of the crockpot with other ingredients so that many of her recipes contain the varied flavors of non-crockpot cooking.
There’s only one potential problem with this, and it goes back to that cooking style issue I mentioned earlier. Many of her recipes use the crockpot simply as one tool in the process of making a dish. On the one hand this is great—the fact that she isn’t trying to achieve everything in that one appliance is what keeps many of these recipes so vibrant and delicious. On the other hand, if your entire reason for wanting to use the crockpot is the ability to toss stuff in and forget about it until dinner time, then have only the one item to clean, this can kind of defeat the purpose.
Personally I agree with her approach to slow cooker cooking. Most of these recipes are still easier and less attention-intensive than their regular counterparts, and her take on things is what makes these recipes more delicious than many other slow-cooker recipes.
A few examples
Perhaps a few examples would help. One of the first recipes we made from this cookbook was a beef & barley recipe. You stir bean sprouts in at the last minute (which gives it a nifty bit of texture and fresh taste) and serve the mix wrapped in lettuce leaves. It might be one or two steps more than you’re expecting, but it takes the recipe from simply being a delicious beef & barley dish to being something your average guest won’t guess was a simple, cook-and-forget slow cooker recipe.
One of my favorites in this book is a curried chicken with dried currant recipe, also called ‘Country Captain.’ Before you even touch the slow cooker you must brown the meat and sautee the vegetables, spices, etc. It’s well worth it, though. This dish has a ton of flavor and is absolutely delightful. (Note that our ‘before’ photo of this dish in the slideshow below looks a little different than yours would; I tend to substitute bell pepper for onion in most dishes due to an intense dislike of onion.)
Finally, a refried beans recipe illustrates the extreme of this spectrum. The only part of the dish that you cook in the slow cooker at all is the beans themselves; the rest of the dish is done on the stove. If you prefer to use canned beans you’d be making this dish without the slow cooker at all. On the one hand this might seem a little silly, but on the other hand, if you want to make the beans for your dishes from scratch, it makes perfect sense to take advantage of the slow cooker so you can run errands and such while the beans cook (not to mention not have to worry about them burning onto the bottom of the pot—with a good slow cooker, this isn’t a worry). Oh, and yes, this too was delicious!
The contents, explored
There’s plenty of how-to information in here. For example, you’ll find out which meats you can substitute straight-out for each other in a slow cooker recipe, and which ones might require some adjustments (and what those adjustments are). There are tables of cooking amounts and times for staple items such as rice and beans. However, I couldn’t help noting that the cooking temp (low vs. high) seemed to be missing on the beans table (mind you, it doesn’t take much experience with the book to look at the cooking times and realize she means high).
An extremely wide range of recipes is included, from starters (small crockpots are excellent for dips, fondues, etc.) to soups, stews, main dishes, sides, and yes, even desserts. You can make cakes in your slow cooker, or bread puddings, roasts, stocks, bean salads, bisques, jams and sauces, and all sorts of other dishes. Those recipes we tried all came out quite well, and there are plenty more I can’t wait to play with (in fact, I’m caught between spoon bread and polenta for tonight).
As is usually the case with CIG cookbooks, there are no photos, but then, with a slow cooker cookbook they really aren’t needed. There are plenty of helpful tips, however, alongside the recipes. Most recipes are sized for a ‘medium’ slow cooker (3.5-4 qt), but are easily adaptable.
The photos below aren’t my best; slow cooker cooking doesn’t really lend itself well to food photography, I think. Still, it’ll give you some idea of how things came out. We used a 6-quart slow cooker and adapted as necessary.