The modern slow cooker was developed by Rival Industries with the trademarked name Crock Pot. This name is sometimes used informally to refer to any slow cooker. Rival purchased and refined the design of a bean-pot called the Beanery from Naxon Co. of Chicago.

In the early ’70s, the Rival Company, known for its “Juice-O-Mat,” “Ice-O-Mat,” and “Can-O-Mat” convenience appliances, resurrected the idea of slow cooking. The company acquired the rights to the “Beanery,” a primitive slow cooker, and gave the appliance a much-needed makeover. The Crock-Pot slow cooker was born.

The timing couldn’t have been better. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Americans were encouraged to conserve electricity, and Crock-Pots operated at a very low wattage. In addition, many women were abandoning their traditional roles as homemakers and the Crock-Pot and its motto—”Cooks all day while the cook’s away”—fit their new lifestyle.

The slow cooker is a versatile appliance that’s just as suited to vegetarian foods as it is meat and poultry, everyday meals, and entertaining occasions. You can make hearty, healthy dishes for the whole family.  Simply add ingredients to the slow cooker, get on with your day, and come home to a kitchen filled with tempting aromas.

The slow cooker, which is essentially an electric pot with a stoneware insert, can do what no oven or stovetop burner can: cook food at consistently low and even temperatures for what might be as long as 10 or 12 hours. Dinner cooks while you’re out.

Flavor is one of the big advantages to meals you cook in the pot. You can get a deeply flavored meal at the end of an 8- or 10-hour slow simmer. Time-saving is another reason for the slow cooker’s popularity. Plus, they’re practical, since a slow cooker holds up to five quarts, you can definitely plan to have leftovers.

There is planning involved, however. The pot is perfect for cheaper cuts of meat that need long, gentle cooking to become tender: beef short ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, and lamb shanks. Fish and dairy products, however, don’t fare as well; both will break down during the cooking. Chicken can get mushy, so pay strict attention to cook times for chicken recipes.

Always put vegetables in first. Vege­tables take longer to cook than meat does, so for layering purposes, start with vegetables, then meat, and finally seasonings and small amounts of liquid. To prevent overcooking, fresh dairy products, pasta, or instant rice should be added during the last 30 minutes of cooking time, or as your recipe directs.

Judith Finlayson, author of Slow Cooker Comfort Food: 275 Soul-Satisfying Recipes and The Vegetarian Slow Cooker: Over 200 Delicious Recipes, answers some slow-cooker questions.

How do I prevent meat from drying out?

To prevent poultry from drying out, use chicken thighs—they have more fat and won’t dry out as quickly, says Finlayson. Cook thighs for about six hours and breasts for a maximum of five hours on low heat. Beef, depending on the cut, is much more forgiving, she says. For better results, use stewing beef, short ribs, or brisket as opposed to a rib steak or a sirloin.

How can I prevent flavors from becoming muddy?

“Start with a good recipe and quality ingredients and you will be a long way from having muddy flavors,” says Finlayson. For fresher flavors, add chopped herbs and vegetables with shorter cooking times about 10 minutes before the meal is ready.

How can I clean my slow cooker without lots of soaking and scrubbing?

Though the slow cooker’s insert can be heavy, cleaning shouldn’t be a problem. Slow cookers retain moisture which should prevent scorching on the bottom, says Finlayson. Difficulty cleaning may indicate a technical issue such as the heat being on too high for too long.

Can I cook frozen meats in my slow cooker?

Cooking frozen meats in the slow cooker is an absolute no, says Finlayson. Harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses, flourish in moist environments at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Using frozen meat may cause food to remain at an unsafe temperature for too long.

Is it safe to leave the slow cooker on when I’m not home?

Leaving the slow cooker on is perfectly safe. In fact, it’s comparable to leaving a light bulb on while you’re out, says Finlayson.

Why does my food get overcooked, even on the low setting?

Slow cookers are all manufactured differently and they don’t all cook at the same pace, says Finlayson: “Know your slow cooker. Use quality recipes, and if you are consistently cooking faster or slower, adjust your time accordingly.” Keep in mind: There are no precise guidelines, and it may take a bit of trial and error to fix the issue.

Can I cut a slow cooker recipe in half?

If cutting a recipe in half, you should also reduce the size of your slow cooker so that the heat distributes evenly, says Finlayson. If you only own one slow cooker, make the whole recipe and freeze the leftovers or stick to soups and stews, since the size of the slow cooker isn’t as important as it is when cooking grains.

Chicken Cacciatore

Makes: 6 servings

Cook: 6 hrs to 7 hrs (low) or 3 to 3 1/2 hours (high)

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 to4 pounds of meaty chicken pieces (breast halves, thighs, and drumsticks), skinned
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups thinly sliced fresh cremini and/or button mushrooms
  • 1- 14 1/2 ounce can low sodium diced tomatoes
  • 1 1/4 cups chopped green bell pepper (1 large)
  • 1 cup chopped onion (1 large)
  • 1 cup chopped carrots (2 medium)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons snipped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons snipped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • Pasta, cooked, optional

Directions

Place flour in a plastic bag. Add chicken pieces, a few at a time, shaking to coat. In an extra-large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Cook chicken, half at a time if necessary, in hot oil about 12 minutes or until browned, turning occasionally. Transfer chicken to a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker.

Add mushrooms to skillet; cook and stir over medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to cooker. Add drained tomatoes, bell pepper, onion, carrots, wine, salt and pepper to mixture in cooker.

Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 6 to 7 hours or on high-heat setting for 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Before serving, stir in basil, parsley and thyme.
Serve over pasta with salad on the side or skip the pasta and serve with Italian bread.
       

spinach-ricatta-lasagna_300                                                           

Slow-Cooker Spinach and Ricotta Lasagna With Romaine Salad  

Serves 6

Total Time: 4hr 15m

Ingredients

  • 2-10-ounce packages chopped frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove excess moisture
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmesan (3 ounces)
  • 3 cups marinara sauce, see post: http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/04/19/hello-world/
  • 6 regular lasagna noodles (not no-boil)
  • 1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella (6 ounces)

Salad

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 small head romaine lettuce, cut into strips (about 8 cups)
  • 1 cucumber, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced

Directions

In a bowl, mix together the spinach, ricotta, and ½ cup of the Parmesan. In a second bowl, mix together the marinara sauce and 1/2 cup water.

Spread 3/4 cup of the marinara mixture in the bottom of a 4- to 6-quart slow cooker.

Top with 2 noodles (breaking to fit), 3/4 cup of the remaining marinara mixture, half the spinach mixture, and 1/2 cup of the mozzarella; repeat.

Top with the remaining noodles, marinara mixture, mozzarella, and Parmesan.

Cover and cook on low until the noodles are tender, 3 ½ to 4 hours.

In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add the lettuce, cucumber, and onion. Toss to combine and serve with the lasagna.

Tip:  If your slow-cooker insert is broiler-safe, broil the cooked lasagna until the cheese is golden, 3 to 5 minutes.

Italian Meatball Stew                                                                                                                                                              

Total Time: 5 hrs 10 mins

Servings: 6

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lbs extra lean ground beef or turkey
  • 1/2 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
  • 2 cups low sodium beef broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon seasoning salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano, crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry basil, crushed
  • 1 (16 ounce) package frozen Italian style vegetables, defrosted

Directions

In a large bowl combine beef, bread crumbs, eggs, milk, cheese, salt, pepper and garlic. Form into 2 inch balls. Place meatballs in bottom of crock pot.

Combine tomato paste, broth, seasoned salt, oregano and basil.  Pour mixture over meat. Cover.

Cook on low 4 1/2 to 5 hours. Stir in vegetables. Cover and cook on high 10-15 mins until mixture is hot.

Slow-Cooker Bean and Barley Soup                                                                                                                        Hearty Bean and Barley Soup Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried Great Northern beans, picked over and rinsed
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 (14-ounce) can no salt added diced tomatoes
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus additional for seasoning
  • 2 teaspoons dried Italian herb blend
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 ounce dried Porcini mushrooms, optional
  • 3 cups baby spinach leaves (about 3 ounces)
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Directions

Put beans, water, tomatoes and their juices, garlic, celery, carrots, onion, barley, bay leaf, 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, herb blend, pepper, and Porcini mushrooms (if using) in a slow cooker; cover and cook on LOW until the beans are quite tender and the soup is thick, about 8 hours.

Stir in the spinach, cheese, and vinegar, cover, and let the soup cook until the spinach wilts, about 5 minutes. Taste and season with salt and black pepper, to taste.

Ladle the soup into warmed bowls and drizzle each serving with olive oil.

Italian Smothered Steak

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 lb. boneless beef round steak
  • 1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 1 jar (26 oz) tomato pasta sauce or homemade marinara sauce, see post: http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/04/19/hello-world/
  • 1 package (9 oz) refrigerated cheese-filled tortellini
  • 1 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise in half, then cut crosswise into slices (about 1 cup)

Directions

Cut beef into 6 serving-size pieces; sprinkle with salt and pepper. In 3- to 4-quart slow cooker, layer beef and onion. Pour pasta sauce over top.

Cover and cook on Low heat setting 8 to 9 hours.

About 20 minutes before serving, stir in tortellini and zucchini. Increase heat setting to High. Cover and cook 15 to 20 minutes or until tortellini are tender.

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