Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever With More than 400 Easy-to-Make Recipes
By Diane Phillips
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2009, soft cover $29.95, 544 pages).

Hard to believe that Christmas is only six weeks away, when it seems like only yesterday we were marvelling at this most amazing of summers we were having.

At our house, we’re still eating heritage tomatoes from the garden, though admittedly they’ve had to be ripened in paper bags because an early frost threatened to make short work of their spectacular promise. The colder weather has also re-ignited the soup and stew gene and our freezer is once again bursting with a variety of soups and soup bases.

One of them is a traditional beef and barley soup made with a little twist — a splash of hearty red wine, an addition that adds a ton of flavour. The recipe I used is from this, the 14th cookbook Phillips has written.

The best cookbook ever? Well, that’s arguable, but her book does have plenty of pickings for anyone looking to set up the slow cooker with a welcoming main course, side dish, party specialty or dessert. It had me at soups, the first of 12 chapters. Who wouldn’t be seduced, reading recipes for the following:

Creamy Loaded Baked-Potato Soup: No baked potatoes here. Instead, “This smooth soup is made flavorful by cooking the potatoes in chicken broth, then embellishing it with green onions, bacon and sharp cheddar.” Not to mention leeks and sour cream.

White Bean and Rosemary Soup: “Creamy, tender white beans, chunks of spicy Capicola or other ham, and rosemary combine for a hearty soup.”

Chicken and Spinach Soup: “Vibrantly colored spinach gives this beautiful soup its color, while garlic and ginger add to its personality.”

Saigon Chicken Rice Soup: “This simple soup with a complex character is . . .flavored with ginger and chili garlic sauce (and) is filled with shredded chicken, rice, and delicate ribbons of carrot, green onion, and Napa cabbage.”

Pacific Rim Pork and Noodle Soup: “This. . .is one of my favorites with its ginger-flavored broth, red cooked pork, noodles, and vegetables.”

And that’s just the first half of THAT chapter, which also includes yummy sounding variations on chilis, chowders, stews and minestrones.

Other chapters take equally interesting turns on casseroles (yes, you can make tuna noodle casserole in the crockpot), as well as poultry, beef, pork, lamb and vegetarian dishes. Even seafood gets a turn to shine in such intriguing slow-cooked options as poached miso salmon, garlic crab claws and olive-oil poached fresh tuna (similar to duck confit, the author says). As well, Phillips shows how to use the slow cooker to make gravies, sauces (sweet and savoury), chutneys, compotes, jams and marmalades. And there’s a whole chapter on desserts, too, from “perfect” crème brûlée to coconut jasmine rice pudding to brandied peaches, plus a final volley on the many ways to put the cookers to use at parties, for example, to keep mulled drinks warm, to serve up appetizers and dips, and to hold the many dishes in a big multi-course meal at optimum serving temperatures.

And why not? Although the inventors of the first slow cookers probably had a soup and stew fixation similar to my own, Phillips has figured out numerous other ways to use this deceptively simple appliance. Here’s a taste of what’s in the book, one a traditional recipe and the other, not so.

OLD-FASHIONED BEEF AND BARLEY SOUP

Barley thickens this hearty soup, and the aromas of the thyme, red wine and meaty broth are a nice welcome-home after a long day. Serving this soup in hollowed-out bread bowls is a great idea for serving a crowd – there is minimal cleanup because you eat the bowl.

2½ to 3 lbs. beef chuck, round or sirloin, cut into ½ inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsps. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
8 oz. fresh white mushrooms, quartered
1½ tsps. dried thyme
4 medium carrots, coarsely chopped
3 stalks celery with leaves, coarsely chopped
3 tbsps. tomato paste
1 cup medium to full-bodied red wine, such as Merlot, Chianti, Barolo or Cabernet
6 cups beef broth
½ cup pearl barley

Sprinkle beef evenly with 2 tsps. salt and 1 tsp. pepper. Heat oil in large skillet over high heat. Add meat a few pieces at a time and brown on all sides. Transfer browned meat to the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker.

Add garlic, onions, mushrooms and thyme to the same skillet over medium-high heat and sauté until liquid from mushrooms is evaporated.

Transfer contents of skillet to slow cooker. Add carrots and celery to cooker and stir to combine. Deglaze skillet with tomato paste and wine and allow wine to reduce by about ¼ cup, stirring up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Transfer tomato mixture to slow cooker and add broth and barley. Cover slow cooker and cook on low for 6 to 7 hours, until beef and barley are tender. Season with salt and pepper before serving. Serves 8.

POACHED MISO SALMON

Gorgeous pink salmon glazed with miso and flavored with ginger and a bit of honey is a simple dish to serve for dinner on a bed of stir-fried Napa cabbage or vegetables. Halibut or sea bass make equally delicious substitutions if salmon is not available.

3 lbs. salmon fillets
3 tbsps. white Miso
3 tbsps. honey
¼ cup rice wine (mirin) or dry sherry
2 tsps. freshly grated ginger

Place salmon in the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker.

Combine miso, honey, rice wine and ginger in a mixing bowl and stir.

Pour sauce over salmon in slow cooker. Cover and cook on high for 1½ hours, or until the salmon is cooked through and registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer inserted in the centre of a thick fillet.

Carefully remove salmon from slow-cooker insert with a large spatula. Remove skin from underside (if necessary) and arrange salmon on serving platter.

Strain sauce through fine-mesh sieve in saucepan. Bring sauce to a boil and reduce to a syrupy consistency to serve with the salmon. Serves 8.

– Recipes from Slow Cooker