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

Art of the Slow Cooker
By Andrew Schloss
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast, 2008 soft cover, $27.95; 216 pages

The operative word here is “art.” Schloss is bound and determined to undo some misconceptions about slow cookery.

He winces when someone describes this scene: Throw everything into the pot, plug it in and leave for the day. No, no, no, he cautions. You get what you put in and if the results when you come home are less than spectacular, there’s a reason.

“Slow cooking is easy, but it’s not effortless, and the more you take heed of both its strengths and its limitations, the more artful your efforts will be,” he says.

The primary advantage of a slow cooker is that it will cook your food for hours without fear of scorching or overheating. The big downside is that it will not brown or sear any of your ingredients and and by not browning first in a skillet, you lose the “brown bits”, the caramelized essence of meats and vegetables, that add such huge flavour and aroma — succulence, Schloss calls it — to the finished product.

A few more hard and fast rules from Schloss for successful slow cooking:

Use minimal liquid ingredients, unless you want soup;
Never use water because it will leach flavour. Use broth, juice, wine – anything that will add flavour;
Except for hot peppers which amplify painfully during slow cooking (add at the end, he says), season with gusto. Whole herbs and spices are better than ground because their flavour tends to cook out in the first hour, he says.

Schloss also says some foods do better in the cooker than others. He avoids slow cooking chicken breasts, beef fillets, pork chops or any other cut of meat that doesn’t have enough internal fat and connective tissue to simmer all day without falling apart. Fibrous root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots and beets do well in the cooker, while very moist vegetables such as spinach or zucchini should not be added until near the end. Schloss also said he had little success slow-cooking  whole grains such as brown rice, wheat berries and quinoa . The only exception, he says, is barley which makes a wonderful risotto, creamy, tender and yet with a nice bite to the grains.

Here’s his recipe. The finished dish, he says, is “like a savory pudding, overflowing with rich dairy textures, cheesy aromas and meaty chunks of mushrooms.” Serve it as a first course or alongside roast meat or poultry.

Mushroom-Barley Risotto

1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
8 medium white mushrooms, trimmed and cut into slices
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 cups pearl barley
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken or mushroom broth
1 tsp.kosher salt
¼ tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
½ oz. dried porcini mushrooms, crumbled (¼ cup)
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup cream or half-and-half
1 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and mushrooms and saute until tender, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and barley and saute for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add wine and stir until almost completely absorbed. Transfer to a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker. Add broth, salt, pepper, dried porcini, and rosemary to the slow cooker and stir to moisten the barley. Cover crock with a folded towel and top with lid. Cook for 3 to 4 hours on high, until barley is tender. Stir in Parmesan, cream and parsley and fluff with fork until the cheese melts and the barley is moistened. Serve immediately. Serves 6-8.

Variations: Use a combination of Romano and Parmesan instead of all Parmesan, or replace half the cream with 2 oz. of creamy fresh chevre.

– From Art of the Slow Cooker