Crock pot cooking

Crock pot brisket tacos with green sauce, made and styled by Julie Rothman. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / March 1, 2012)

A number of years ago a serious chef, baker and food writer named Beth Hensperger got an assignment from her publisher: A slow-cooker cookbook.

She declined. More than once. Vehemently.

"I was like, 'Oh my God … It doesn't fit in with my style of living,'" says the woman with her James Beard award and California cooking pedigree. "It was not an easy match for me."

But Hensperger eventually did it, releasing, "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook," followed with five sequels.

It took time — like any decent crock pot creation — but the skeptic turned believer. She and thousands like her.

"They were wedding gifts that people didn't use … now they're newly cool," she says. "Who could have predicted?"

Wasn't it just yesterday that the crock pot shared the same culinary street cred as the microwave, the bread machine and corn-on-the cob holders — gadgetry no foodie worth his sea salt would be caught with?

Weren't these the machines reliably found at any yard sale, sitting forlornly on the grass next to the electric can opener?

No more. Now you'll find them at high-end kitchen stores — and foodies are all too happy to brag about their exploits in countertop cooking.

On the website Pinterest, there are hundreds upon hundreds of boards dedicated to slow cooker recipes. Sure, plenty of them are for chili and beef stew. Old school. But there's also gyros, pho, ribollita — even granola and candy.

Real Simple magazine has a Pinterest board devoted to slow-cooker recipes — orange honey tilapia, spiced coconut and almond rice pudding, chicken tikka masala, you name it. More than 45,000 people follow that board.

The crock pot has been around 40-some years, debuting in the 1970s as a bean cooker that eventually became Rival's trademarked Crock-Pot.

Its debut coincided with the debut of Hamburger Helper and the popularity of canned vegetables, cake mixes and soup packets. Crock pot pioneers happily dumped store-bought creamed soup, cans of vegetables and cuts of meat into their slow cooker, went off to work, and then came home to find dinner waiting — a very mushy, gloppy dinner.

Over the years, the slow cooker's popularity ebbed and flowed. It was quite out in the '90s — until a confluence of events primed the pump for a comeback. First, America's interest in home cooking surged after 9/11. Then came the economic downturn. And finally the new desire to eat locally and organically.

People were looking for healthy, affordable food that they could make at home. Yet they didn't have any more time to make it.

"The slow cooker," Hensperger says, "just fit in there."

The other day, Rachel Rappaport, the Baltimore cook known for her Coconut & Lime blog and 2010's "The Everything Healthy Slow Cooker Cookbook," had a pulled chicken dish simmering in one of her eight slow cookers.

She had flavored the meat with chili sauce, ginger, cayenne and her own grapefruit jam, and planned to serve it six to eight hours later on rolls for dinner.

Rappaport is proud to say that none of her slow cookers have ever met a can of cream of mushroom soup.