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Slow cookers get better with age

Fall brings hunt for good slow cooker recipes

Susan M. Selasky

Slow-cooker cooking is a rite of fall.

As cooler weather hits, folks are less inclined to use the grill and more inclined to turn to that versatile vessel that saves time and effort.

According to Jarden Corp., which owns Rival and the Crock-Pot brand, 86 percent of American households own a slow cooker.

The appliance is ideal for making soups, chilis or stews. You can even make oatmeal overnight so breakfast is ready when you wake up. And you can use the slow cooker simply to keep things warm for potlucks or buffets.

In "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook" (Harvard Common Press, $16.95), authors Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann write that a slow cooker "allows for the most basic of foods to be cooked to perfection."

The trusty slow cooker (most of us call it a Crock-Pot, which is trademarked by Rival) is 39 years old and keeps getting better with age — thanks to evolving techniques and more recipes packed with flavor or international flair.

For Jonathan John, 55, of Monroe, Mich., the slow cooker's appeal lies in its convenience and versatility. "You can get everything done in the morning and leave it all day to cook, and you've got a meal," says John.

John also likes that slow cookers can help save money. "You can use lesser or inexpensive cuts of meat, slow-cook them and it tastes just as good as the more expensive cuts," he says.

John likes to experiment, using different cuts of lamb, making Indian curries and cooking beef with his own barbecue sauce. But the English native also uses his slow cooker for familiar comfort dishes — such as John's Beef Stew with Wine, a dish that Mum used to make.

Beef Stew with Wine

1 pound bacon, cut into pieces

3 pounds boneless beef roast, cut into 1-inch cubes

½ cup flour, lightly seasoned with salt and black pepper

1 cup sliced shallots

2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 large carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

8 ounces cremini or white mushrooms, wiped clean, cut in half if large

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1½ cups full-bodied red wine or 12 oz. stout beer

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water

Cooked noodles, rice or garlic mashed potatoes, optional, for serving

In a large skillet, cook the bacon until just crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove bacon pieces, leaving the drippings in the skillet, and keep heated over medium heat. (Save bacon for another use.) Place beef cubes in a large bowl and sprinkle with seasoned flour. Toss to coat beef cubes lightly with flour.

Working in batches, brown the beef cubes on all sides in the bacon drippings. Remove to the slow cooker. In the skillet, sauté shallots, celery, carrots, mushrooms and garlic until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to slow cooker. Add wine, bay leaf, salt and pepper and stir. Cover; cook for 7 to 9 hours on low setting (or 4 hours on high setting).

The meat should be falling-apart tender. About 30 minutes before serving, if sauce needs thickening, stir in cornstarch mixture. Cover and continue cooking until thickened. Remove bay leaf and serve stew with some sauce, over noodles, rice or mashed potatoes. Serves 6.