TRAVERSE CITY — Amy Hanten still can recall her family’s “harvest gold” Crock-Pot and the day the lid broke.
“It was tragic,” said Hanten, who grew up in Petoskey. “You couldn’t get a replacement lid back then and Crock-Pots were expensive.”
Now the busy mom, TV cooking show host, cookbook author and food blogger can’t imagine life without her own slow cooker.
“If I can just get up five minutes earlier in the morning to throw a few ingredients in the slow cooker, I can handle whatever the day brings,” said Hanten, of Harbor Springs and Green Bay, Wis. “No matter how crazy it gets, or how late those after-school activities go, I just keep smiling. I know the house will smell amazing when we walk in the door and a delicious dinner will be waiting for us.
“I also love the fact that I didn’t have to hit a fast-food restaurant on the way home from my daughter’s game.”
Slow cooking is making a comeback, thanks to a growing interest in local foods, coupled with busier lives. But today’s foodies with families don’t have to settle for bland, unimaginative one-pot meals like the ones their mothers made. Instead they can dine on everything from “Nawlins”-style venison gumbo to Crock-Pot cheesecake.
“You can be more creative than the typical throw-the-meatballs-in-the-Crock-Pot, without spending a fortune, especially with entertaining friends who come up to ski,” said Perry Harmon, manager and chef at Grand Traverse Distillery and a former chef and cooking instructor at Chateau Chantal. “There’s so much with our food economy, all our wineries and different kinds of beer. We’re members of a CSA and we just got our winter share with a lot of root vegetables, which lend themselves to slow cooking. There’s more you can do and still not spend a lot of money.”
Harmon’s favorite slow cooking recipes include Boatman’s Stew, which features mild whitefish, white wine and roasted red peppers; and Chili Roja, which uses red ingredients like red beans and smoked paprika. One of his newer dishes, cabbage soup with fire-roasted tomatoes, recently made a convert of his cabbage-hating daughter.
Slow cooking is one of Chef Eric Patterson’s favorite methods for the home cook, especially when it comes to beef and pork.
“For meat, I think Crock-Pots are damn good,” said Patterson, co-owner and -chef at The Cooks’ House. “Think about it. You stick it on a low temperature. It’s just braising, which is what we do in the oven. I think you get a better flavor. The lower the heat, the better.”
Make sure you properly sear the meat first for color and richness, and don’t use too much liquid, said Patterson, who recommends covering the meat by half. While slow cooking creates its own stock, starting out with chicken stock instead of water will give many dishes a tasty yet neutral base.
The key to slow cooking flavor is in the braising liquid, said Hanten, who uses everything from wine and beer — the latter best for steak, chili and pot roast — to ginger ale and root beer. Even juices and the ubiquitous Campbell’s soups have their place.
“People give me a hard time about using Campbell’s cream of celery or mushroom soup, but if you throw some wine in there, they really work well, especially if you want more of a gravy stock,” she said.
Thinking outside the box has helped earn Hanten legions of fans, including viewers of her Green Bay cooking show, “Living With Amy,” and readers of her recipes and blogs on her popular website, email@example.com. Two of her more unusual slow-cooked dishes are for breakfast (oatmeal with apples and cinnamon) and dessert (triple chocolate “mess”).
Though she’s appeared on the “Dr. Oz” show and in The New York Times, Hanten considers herself a “working mom in the trenches,” trying to save time and money without sacrificing taste. That’s why both of her cookbooks include full chapters on slow cooking.
“I think now people are so crazy busy,” she said. “That’s one of my passions, is to try to get families back together around the dinner table, eating home-cooked meals. I’m trying to take those old slow cooker recipes we all grew up with and that were okay and taking them to the next level. These are company-worthy dishes and you can pair them with wine and salad and bread and call it a day.”
Today’s slow cookers sell for less than $25 for a single unit with removable stoneware insert you can refrigerate leftovers in to more than $100 for a three-piece Crock-Pot Hook Up Connectable Entertaining System. Hanten recommends a 4.5- to 7-quart model from one of the well-known brands. Optional liners, available at grocery stores in the plastic wrap and aluminum foil aisle, make cleanup a snap.
If you don’t use a liner, Hanten suggests spraying your slow cooker well with cooking spray each time you use it.
Additional tips include using chicken breasts rather than bone-in chicken for neater, faster “slow” cooking; waiting until the last hour or two to add veggies like potatoes, carrots and celery to roasts, to avoid overcooking; and browning meat in a skillet with a little oil for two or three minutes per side before putting it in the slow cooker, to boost flavor.
Cheaper cuts of meat like pork butt roasts and beef chuck and rump roasts are especially suitable for the slow cooker, Hanten said. Cooking them low and slow will ensure that they get tender.
Hanten offers the following recipes, the first adapted from an oven-cooked dish popular at her grandmother’s Walloon Lake dinner parties, the second a favorite at her daughter’s slumber parties:
Just Leave It Beef and Wine
3-4 lbs. chuck roast or stew meat, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 can (10.75 ounces) cream of mushroom soup
1 can (10.75 ounces) cream of celery soup
1 can (10.75 ounces) cream of chicken soup
1 c. dry red wine
1 packet (1 oz.) dry onion soup mix
2 T. Worcestershire sauce
Add all the ingredients to a slow cooker. Stir well to mix. Cook on low for six to eight hours or until beef is tender. Serve over warm noodles or mashed potatoes. You can also bake, covered in a large casserole in a preheated 300 degree oven for three to four hours until beef is tender. You can add eight ounces of sliced or whole button mushrooms the last half hour of cooking or serve with the dish with sautéed mushrooms. Use a slow cooker liner or spray slow cooker with cooking spray for easy cleanup.
Triple Chocolate Mess
1 box (18.25 oz.) chocolate cake mix
1 pt. sour cream
1 small package (3.5 oz.) instant chocolate pudding
2 c. chocolate chips
3/4 c. oil
1 c. water
Vanilla ice cream
Spray slow cooker with cooking spray. Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Spoon it into the slow cooker. Cook on low for one to two hours. It should be a little soupy. Do not overcook. Serve it warm in bowls with vanilla ice cream.