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Using a slow cooker is a great way to save time and still prepare a nutritious meal. Assemble the meal in the morning, put it in the slow cooker and at the end of the day, dinner is ready — without much mess or many dishes to clean. The device requires only a small amount of electricity to do its work — compared with a standard oven — and a slow cooker uses a lot less energy, so it won’t heat up an entire kitchen the way an oven does.

Cooking with a slow cooker can also be an economically smart choice, because you can use cheaper cuts of meat. Condensation acts as a self-baster, so tougher cuts of meat become tender in a slow cooker. Just because you’re saving time and money doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing taste. Vegetables cooked in a slow cooker can absorb stocks and spices, giving them fuller flavors.

The high and low settings on the device allow you to adjust the temperature for the length of time you want the meal to cook. Today, slow cookers come in all shapes and sizes. There are manual cookers, programmable cookers with digital timers and small cookers designed solely for heating dips. Slow cookers can be either round or oval to accommodate different types of food and they can range in size from one to seven quarts.

It is common knowledge that a slow cooker is good for making soups and stews, but did you know you can make lasagna in a slow cooker?

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Mushroom Spinach Lasagna

LOW 5 hours 20 minutes

6 Servings

Ingredients

  • Olive oil cooking spray
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 oz fresh sliced mushrooms
  • 6 oz baby spinach leaves
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) Italian diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 cups tomato or marinara sauce
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (8 oz) part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 6 dried lasagna noodles, uncooked
  • 1-½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

Directions

Spray the inside of a 4-quart slow cooker with cooking spray.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add spinach; cook 3 minutes more or until the mushrooms are tender and the spinach is wilted, stirring occasionally.

Stir in undrained tomatoes, tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Combine ricotta cheese, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and pepper in small bowl; set aside.

Spread 3/4 cup sauce mixture over the bottom of the slow cooker pan. Layer 3 lasagna noodles over the sauce mixture, breaking noodles to fit.

Top with 3/4 cup sauce mixture, ricotta cheese mixture and 1 cup mozzarella cheese.

Add 3/4 cup sauce mixture and the remaining 3 lasagna noodles, breaking to fit. Spoon remaining sauce mixture over the noodles.

Cover; cook on LOW 5 hours until the noodles are tender. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese and remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese.

Cover; let stand 5 minutes before serving.

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Pork Shoulder Sugo

Called sugo, bolognese or ragu, depending on the region — or gravy among some Italian Americans — Italy’s long-simmering meat sauces are legendary. There is a practical side to a ragu, as well, because they get better a day or two after cooking, so they are ideal for dinner parties. They also freeze well for instant pasta meals during the week. Reheat the sauce, cook the pasta and make a salad. You have dinner all set.

LOW 8 hours or HIGH 4 hours

Ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped (3 cups)
  • 3 carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
  • 1 whole bulb garlic, peeled
  • 5 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
  • 3 to 4 lbs boneless pork shoulder roast, trimmed of fat
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 28 oz container Italian crushed tomatoes, undrained
  • 32 oz low sodium chicken stock
  • 6 oil-packed anchovies

Directions

In large bowl, mix onions, carrots, celery, garlic, salt, oregano and red pepper flakes. Set aside.

In a 12-inch skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Brown pork shoulder 4 minutes on the fattest side, then turn and cook 3 minutes each on the other 3 sides. Transfer to 6-quart slow cooker.

Add onion mixture to the skillet with the pork juices; cook 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown. Add red wine; cook 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until all the liquid is absorbed.

Stir in tomatoes; cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. Pour mixture over the pork in the slow cooker. Add chicken stock and anchovies; stir liquid.

Cook on Low heat setting 8 hours or High heat setting 4 hours.

Transfer pork to a cutting board; cool slightly. Cool liquid 10 minutes, then carefully puree in a blender in batches (or use an immersion blender), and return the mixture to the slow cooker.

Set the slow cooker to the Warm heat setting. Shred pork, discarding any pieces of fat. Add pork to the liquid in the slow cooker and stir to combine.

Leave on warm until you cook the pasta. Dress the pasta with some of the sauce.

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Tuscan Chicken and Beans

6 servings

HIGH for 6 hours or LOW for 8 hours

Ingredients

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 pounds bone-in chicken thighs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 can (15 oz) diced Italian tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup pitted oil cured Italian olives
  • 1 can (15 oz) Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves
  • 3 cups cooked orzo pasta
  • Lemon slices, for garnish

Directions

Coat the bowl of a slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. Place onion and garlic in the bottom of the slow cooker.

Season chicken on both sides with Italian seasoning, thyme and black pepper and arrange the chicken in the bottom of the slow cooker.

Drizzle lemon juice over the chicken and evenly spoon tomatoes and olives on top.

Cover and cook on HIGH for 6 hours or LOW for 8 hours. During the last 30 minutes of cooking time, stir in the beans and oregano.

Serve chicken and sauce over cooked orzo. Garnish with lemon slices.

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Italian Steak and Peppers

4 servings

HIGH for 6 hours or LOW for 8 hours

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless round steak, cut into 4 equal pieces
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 Cubanelle peppers (Italian long peppers), seeds removed, sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, sliced
  • 1 sweet (Vidalia/Walla Walla) onion, sliced
  • 8-10 oz white mushrooms, quartered
  • 1/2 cup beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • Fresh basil leaves
  • Purchased polenta that comes in a tube shape, sliced into rounds and grilled or broiled
  • Olive oil cooking spray

Directions

Coat bowl of slow cooker with cooking spray.

Season both sides of the steaks with Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Place in the slow cooker. Scatter Cubanelle peppers, red pepper, onion and mushrooms over the top of the meat.

In a small bowl, combine broth, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and brown sugar. Pour over peppers, onions and mushrooms.

Cover and cook on HIGH for 6 hours or LOW for 8 hours.

Place grilled polenta rounds on the dinner plates. Add the steaks and some of the peppers, onions, mushrooms and spoon some of the sauce over the top of each steak. Garnish with basil leaves.

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Italian Sausage and Farro Stuffed Peppers

4 servings

LOW for 4 hours 40 minutes

Ingredients

  • 4 large red, orange or yellow bell peppers (7 to 8 oz each)
  • 12 oz sweet Italian pork or turkey sausage links, casings removed 
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper (chili) flakes
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 small zucchini, grated (1 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups fresh baby spinach
  • ¾ cup uncooked pearled farro
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
  • ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Cut a 1/2 inch off the top stem end of each bell pepper. Remove the seeds and membranes; rinse the peppers. Remove the stems from the pepper tops and chop the pepper tops; set aside.

Combine the two cheeses and set aside.

In a 10-inch skillet, cook sausage and crushed red pepper over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until no longer pink; drain. Remove to large bowl; set aside.

In same skillet over medium heat, add onion and garlic; cook and stir about 3 minutes. Add chopped bell pepper tops; cook 2 minutes. Add zucchini; cook and stir 2 minutes.

Stir in tomato paste, pepper and salt. Stir in spinach and cook until wilted. Remove from the heat.

Add farro to the sausage in the bowl and mix to combine. Add onion mixture; mix well. Gently stir in 2 tablespoons of the basil, the oregano and 1/2 cup of the shredded cheese.

Divide this  mixture evenly among the peppers.

Pour 1/3 cup water into a 5- to 6-quart oval slow cooker. Place stuffed peppers upright in the slow cooker, leaning against each other and the slow cooker sides to prevent them from falling over.

Cover; cook on Low heat setting 4 to 5 hours or until the peppers and farro are tender. Sprinkle remaining cheese evenly over the tops of the peppers.

Cover; let stand 3 to 4 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Using tongs and a slotted spoon, remove the peppers to serving plates and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon basil.

'Whatever's the most durable. This is the fifth year it's been regifted.'

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