Pros: Flavorful food; clear directions; handy info; gives appropriate pot sizes
Cons: Some recipes don’t store well at all; not sure why some recipes were included
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 10/8/2004
I love the concept of a slow cooker. I love the idea of being able to dump some ingredients in, leave it all day, and come back to a tender, delicious meal. But somehow it almost never seems to work out that way.
We’ve tried out all sorts of slow cooker recipes over the years; almost every one comes out tasting very bland. Or the flavors get jammed together and you lose the subtlety and richness you’d get out of a “normal” recipe. Or the recipe author solved the problem of lack of flavor by finding a strong ingredient or two and pouring them on, producing a dish with a very unbalanced taste. Every now and then I look through the slow cooker section in the cookbook area of a bookstore desperately searching for a worthwhile purchase, but even though I adore cookbooks, I almost never buy one of these. They don’t even look appetizing.
Eventually I bought a copy of Margaret Kaeter’s “The Everything Slow Cooker Cookbook.” The recipes looked much more interesting than usual. They weren’t just pot roasts with veggies or bland soups. There was a huge range of material, and the recipes looked to my eye like they might actually have real flavor! (gasp!)
The vast range of recipes
What makes this cookbook different? Part of it is the type of recipes provided. There are 22 chapters (more than 300 pages), ranging from the usual (soups, stews, potluck favorites), to the varied (beef, poultry, pork, fish and seafood, hot and spicy, ethnic cuisine, summer tantalizers, vegetables, kids’ favorites), to the unexpected (breads, wild game, California cuisine, desserts). You’ll find a host of interesting things in here, including:
Broccoli dip, honey-pineapple chicken wings, minted lentil and tofu stew, honey oatmeal bread, apple cider beef stew, chicken fajitas, teriyaki pork tips, salmon in white wine with dried peaches, caramel corn with peanuts, Thai shrimp and scallop soup, Southern-style barbecued pork ribs, Northwestern baked beans, chocolate peanut butter cake, venison in beer barbecue sauce, porcupine meatballs, and many more.
I’d bet that unless you use a crock-pot an awful lot, at least one of those recipes made you say, “but… but… this is a slow cooker! How could you make that?” (The bread and caramel corn made me pause for a moment.) The other part of it, however, is that the author makes a real effort to truly flavor these dishes–not with one overwhelming taste, and not with things that will fade together into one unidentifiable pseudo-flavor, but with a true mix of flavors. It’s sorcery, I’m telling you.
Crock-pot cooking can be great for people who either don’t like cooking but like home-cooked food, or don’t have the time to cook (we’ve fallen into the latter category entirely too often lately). It’s also handy when you have to make a lot of food at once–it can sit there in the background while you cook everything else.
The first chapter is all about the slow cooker–how it works, when it was introduced and why, whether you should stir things in your slow cooker while they’re cooking, how to choose the right slow cooker, how to convert oven recipes into slow cooker recipes (now that’s what I call useful information!), what you can (and shouldn’t) do with a slow cooker, for example:
There’s a reason many slow-cooker recipes call for condensed cream soups instead of ‘real’ cream or whole milk–the cooking process in canned soups stabilizes the milk so it doesn’t react to lengthy cooking times.
The author even talks about how cooking changes the characteristics of spices and aromatic vegetables, increasing the intensity of some and decreasing the flavor of others (no wonder her flavors come out so well!). That’s just the first chapter. After that there are dozens of little tips scattered throughout attached to appropriate recipes. Some of them are reminders of information from the first chapter that you may have forgotten (which is so nice!) and others are new. As far as I’ve been able to tell, anything essential is in that first chapter, so you won’t miss something important just because it got relegated to a tiny box on page 263.
Each recipe has a very handy chart-like list to the right of the title. It clearly spells out cooking and preparation times, how much attention the dish requires while cooking (in terms such as minimal, medium, and constant), the pot sizes the dish is scaled for, and how many servings it makes. Not every dish in this book is of the “plug it in and forget it” variety. Some recipes require a fair amount of attention, and some require additional cooking on the stove (such as pre-browning meats, since they won’t brown in a slow cooker).
Recipes are laid out well. Everything is clearly delineated and set apart. I might sometimes wish that there were fewer steps combined into one paragraph (it would make it easier to quickly figure out where you were and what came next), but that’s about it. Most dishes are simple enough that they only take up a single page in relatively large type. There are no photos of the food, but then there isn’t a lot to look at with most slow cooker food, so this isn’t a great loss.
The final product
I’ve never liked baked beans. I’m not a big bean fan in general, and none of the baked bean recipes I’ve tried in the past appealed to me. So of course the first recipe we made out of here was the Northwestern baked beans. I have this history of heading straight for the recipes I think I won’t like in a cookbook. I like to joke that it’s because I’m a masochist, but I think it’s because these are recipes that I keep thinking I should like based on the ingredients, but that never fulfill their promises–so I keep looking for the version that will work out “right.” And here, I found it. I don’t know what makes this recipe so different from the others, but it’s fantastic! The blend of flavors has some subtlety to it; it isn’t one big mish-mash. It also has normal flavors; it’s neither too bland nor unbalanced.
We’ve made other things, including a rice pudding, all of which came out quite well. We weren’t disappointed with the taste of anything. The one problem we did note, however, is that some of these recipes really don’t store well at all–including that rice pudding, and even some of the soups. You may well end up having to throw food out if you don’t eat the entire dish the first night. Since slow cookers often produce a significant amount of food, that’s a bit annoying. I wish there was at least a warning note on such recipes so we’d know not to make them unless we have enough guests coming to eat everything that night.
There were also a few recipes where I could not for the life of me figure out why they’d been converted to the slow cooker and included. Cookies, for instance. Why would you cook four cookies at a time in a slow cooker when you can do the job a lot faster in an oven? I guess I can think of circumstances under which you might do it (your oven dies and you absolutely have to make those cookies for the bake sale tomorrow), but it isn’t as though that’s going to be a common set of circumstances.
Other than the storage issues we’ve really enjoyed this cookbook. The flavors are very good, the recipes are straightforward, the information is comprehensive, and the variety and number of recipes is extensive. If you want the convenience of a slow cooker but don’t like typical slow cooker recipes, this is a very good cookbook to try.