Slow cooking: A boon for a fast-paced lifestyle

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 13 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Karen Petersen dishes up food at her home in Woods Cross. Petersen is the author of the blog 365 Days of Slow Cooking.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

With the holidays behind us, it's time to get back to basics: healthful, hearty meals.

So it's time to haul out your slow cooker. Throw in a few ingredients, then let the pot do the work.

The moist, gentle heat can tenderize tough, inexpensive cuts of meat. The liquid in the pot usually turns into a sauce or gravy, retaining any water-soluble vitamins that leach into the liquid.

Back in 1971, the Rival Co. launched a small "slow cooker" appliance, trademarking the name Crock-Pot. It was a huge hit — until the microwave came along a few years later and short-circuited its popularity.

But some folks never stopped using their Harvest Gold pots from the '70s. And today's slow cookers are enjoying a renaissance as people are trying to stretch their budgets.

Karen Petersen of Woods Cross is part of a new generation that has embraced slow cooking. She's just two weeks away from her goal of making a slow-cooked meal every day for a year (she began on Jan. 27, 2009). Petersen recorded her recipes on a blog, 365 Days of Slow Cooking at www.365daysofcrockpot.blogspot.com. Petersen has done it all using just a three-quart cooker and a six-quart pot that was a wedding gift.

"I cook because I have to," said Petersen. "But it's been interesting and fun, and I've learned a lot. Now I'll have a lot of recipes that are easy, with simple ingredients."

Petersen's experience sounds similar to the recent movie "Julie and Julia," where blogger Julie Powell spent a year cooking all of Julia Child's recipes from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

Peterson said she started her slow-cooking project before learning of Julie Powell's blog or book. She was also unaware that another blogger in the San Francisco area, Stephanie O'Dea, did A Year of Slow Cooking in 2008, at crockpot365.blogspot.com. O'Dea's resulting cookbook, "Make It Fast, Cook It Slow," came out in October 2009. Petersen is also planning to publish a cookbook or her favorite slow-cooker recipes.

"I had no idea that this other lady did it until one day I was online looking for recipes and found her blog," Petersen said.

She contacted O'Dea, and O'Dea did a guest post on Petersen's blog.

Both Petersen and O'Dea found that it's a misconception that slow-cooker dishes are all bland and boring.

It's true that many typical recipes call for a can of cream-of-something soup. That's partly because dairy products tend to separate during the long cooking process, so soup was used as a sauce base.

But Petersen has slow-cooked a variety of ethnic cuisines, including Thai, Mexican, Chinese and Italian. She was also made dips, breads, breakfast dishes and desserts, such as Caramel Chocolate Cake.

But not every type of food lends itself to long, low temperatures.

"Tender cuts of meat don't really work," she said. 'The whole point is to be economical and use tough cuts of meat that will tenderize over time."

Likewise, "there are better ways to eat fish. It cooks so quickly."

She finds that bone-in chicken and thighs do better than boneless breasts.

Generally, rice, pasta and tender vegetables should be cooked separately or added near the end of the cooking time to keep them from turning mushy.

"But I did some lasagna using uncooked noodles that turned out great," she said.

Broccoli should be added near the end, "because it gets too pungent after awhile, and it flavors the whole meal that way."

Red peppers retain their color, but green peppers turn gray. Stir in dairy products like cream, milk or sour cream at the end, to avoid curdling.