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

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.

Also, cooking times vary with the different slow cookers, Petersen said.

"The older pots took so much longer to cook than new newer ones. And if it's a bigger pot, it will cook faster," said Petersen. "So get to know your own slow cooker."

Petersen, a stay-at-home mom, usually assembles her recipe at lunch time and it's ready for dinner. But, some recipes can be cooked for 8-10 hours for those who want to fill their slow cooker in the morning and then go to work for the day.

According to Rival Crock-Pot Web site, a cook time of 3-4 hours on the high setting will take 7-8 hours on the low setting.

For easier cleanup, you can spray the pot with nonstick cooking spray, or use one of the plastic liner bags made by Reynolds for slow cookers.

e-mail: vphillips@desnews.com

Pulled Pork Stuffed Biscuits

1 pound pork picnic roast

1 cup plain barbecue sauce

1 container large butter-flavored refrigerated biscuits (8 biscuits)

Dipping Sauce:

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Place pork roast in slow cooker. Fill slow cooker with 1 inch of water. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, or until meat is very tender.

Drain liquid. Shred the meat using 2 forks. Pour barbecue sauce on the pork and mix. Refrigerate, if making a day ahead. If not, cut each biscuit in half with a serrated knife. Spoon 1 tablespoon of pork in center of bottom of biscuit. Cover with the top of the biscuit, gather edges around filling and press to seal.

Generously spray a 2-quart baking dish (that fits inside your large slow cooker) with non-stick cooking spray.

Arrange all filled biscuits in a single layer, overlapping slightly if necessary. If all 8 biscuits don't fit in a single layer, spray a piece of foil with nonstick cooking spray on both sides. Place foil lightly on top of layer of biscuits and place the rest of the biscuits on top of the foil.

When finished, cover the dish with another piece of buttered foil, buttered side down.

Place small rack in bottom of slow cooker (if you don't have a rack, use balled up pieces of foil).

Add 1 inch of water (water should not come to top of rack). Place baking dish on rack. Cover; cook on high for 2 hours. Meanwhile, prepare dipping sauce by combining the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and oil in small bowl. Stir until sugar dissolves.

Serve biscuits with dipping sauce. Serves 8.

— Karen Petersen, www.365daysofcrockpot.blogspot.com

Thai Chicken and Noodles

1 1/2 lb chicken cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1 red bell pepper, cut into short thin strips

1 1/4 cups chicken broth, divided

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 tablespoon cornstarch

3 green onions, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1/3 cup creamy or chunky peanut butter

12 oz hot cooked vermicelli pasta

3/4 cup peanuts or cashews chopped

3/4 cup cilantro chopped

Place chicken, bell pepper, 1 cup of broth, soy sauce, garlic and red pepper flakes in slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 3 hours.

Mix cornstarch with remaining 1/4 cup broth in small bowl until smooth. Turn slow cooker on high. Stir in green onions, peanut butter and cornstarch mixture.

Cover and cook 30 minutes or until sauce is thickened and chicken is no longer pink. Stir well.

Serve over vermicelli or rice. Sprinkle with peanuts or cashews and cilantro.

Options: Stir a little lime juice into the peanut butter mixture. You can also add more red bell peppers.

— Karen Petersen, www.365daysofcrockpot.blogspot.com

Caramel Chocolate Cake

3 ounces cream cheese, cubed

1/2 cup milk

1 cup sour cream

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 egg

2 (8.2-ounce) packages chocolate chip muffin mix

Nonstick baking spray containing flour

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup caramel ice cream topping

1/2 cup water

In small microwave safe bowl, combine cream cheese and milk. Microwave on 50 percent power for 1 minute; remove and stir. Continue microwaving for 30 second intervals until cream cheese melts; stir with wire whisk to blend.

Place in large bowl; stir in sour cream, cocoa powder and egg. Mix well. Add both packages muffin mix and stir just until combined.

Spray a 3 1/2-quart slow cooker with nonstick baking spray. Spread batter evenly in slow cooker.

In small saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, ice cream topping and water; heat to boiling, stirring until blended. Carefully pour over batter in slow cooker.

Cook on high for 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until cake springs back when lightly touched. Uncover, turn off slow cooker, top loosely with foil and let stand for 30 minutes.

Gently run a sharp knife around the edges of the cake and invert over serving plate until cake drops out. If any sauce remains in slow cooker, spoon over cake. Cool for 30-45 minutes before serving. Serve with ice cream.

— Karen Petersen, www.365daysofcrockpot.blogspot.com

Mashed Potatoes with Skins

5 medium potatoes

1 teaspoon garlic salt

2 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup sour cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Cut up potatoes (with the skins on) into little cubes. Place in slow cooker, along with the cream cheese and garlic salt. Stir to coat.

Cover and cook on low for 7 hours, or until very soft. Use a hand mixer to cream the potatoes. Blend in milk and sour cream. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with or without gravy.

Serves 5-7.

— Karen Petersen, www.365daysofcrockpot.blogspot.com

Slow-Cooked Peppers

4 large sweet red peppers

1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded pepper Jack cheese (or plain Jack cheese if desired)

¾ cup salsa

1 small onion, chopped (or ¼ cup dried minced onion)

½ cup frozen corn

1/3 cup uncooked converted long grain rice

½ teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Reduced fat sour cream, optional

Cilantro, optional

Cut tops off peppers and remove seeds; set aside. In a large bowl, combine beans, cheese, salsa, onion, corn, rice, chili powder and cumin; spoon into peppers. Place in a 5-quart slow cooker, coated with cooking spray.

Cover and cook on low for 3-4 hours or until peppers are tender and filling is heated through. Serve with sour cream if desired.

Nutritional information: 1 stuffed pepper, without sour cream, equals 317 calories, 10 grams fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 565 mg sodium, 43 mg carbohydrate, 8 grams fiber, 15 grams protein.

—Adapted from Taste of Home Healthy Cooking magazine, January 2010

Italian Vegetable Bean Soup

2 cups sliced celery

2 cups sliced carrots (about half of a one-pound bag of baby carrots)

3 cups diced ham

1 can pinto or red beans, drained and rinsed

4 cups frozen diced hash browns O'Brien

1 can chicken broth

2 cups water

1 tablespoon onion flakes or powder

1 teaspoon thyme

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon rosemary

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon pepper

Salt and pepper to taste

2 14-ounce cans petite diced tomatoes

Cook on low 8 hours or until beans and other vegetables are tender. Stir seasonings and tomatoes. Cook an additional 15 minutes. Taste and add more seasonings if desired.

Serves 8-10.

Options: You can substitute 1/2 cup dried beans for canned. Soak overnight, drain the water, add fresh water and boil for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse before adding to the slow cooker.

— Valerie Phillips


4 slices smoked bacon (or ½ cup jarred real bacon pieces)

1 pound turkey breast cutlets, cut into ½-inch pieces

1 medium baking potato, peeled and cut into cubes

2 medium carrots, peeled and cubed

1 onion, chopped

1-2 celery stalks, sliced

2 cans low-fat condensed cream of mushroom soup

2 cups fat-free chicken broth

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon dried sage

Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, 3-4 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels, cool; then chop.

In a slow cooker, place bacon, turkey, potato, carrots, onion, celery, soup, broth, thyme and sage. Stir well to combine. Cover and cook on low until the soup is thick and the turkey and vegetables are tender, about 8 hours.

Taste; add salt and pepper as needed. Serves 6.

Nutritional information per 11/2-cup serving: 236 calories, 5 grams fat, 57 mg cholesterol, 956 mg sodium, 23 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 23 grams protein, 49 mg calcium. Weight Watcher points value: 5.

— Adapted from "Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook," (Wiley, $29.95)