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The lowly crock pot makes a simmering comeback

Once shunned by food snobs, slow cookers have a whole new cred

By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

7:17 AM EST, March 6, 2012

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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.

"Now it's a push to use more whole ingredients in the slow cooking," she says. "There's definitely sort of a gourmet slow cooker thing going on."

She's made brisket tacos with green sauce, Maryland crab soup and pomegranate pulled pork, and figures she cooks with a slow cooker several times a month.

Among her stable of crock pots, Rappaport's favorite is the one that comes with interchangeable pots, so she can choose between a two-, four- or six-quart size.

Crock-Pot, the company that holds claim to original slow cooker, still offers a version that costs less that $20 — as well as pricier models tricked out with touch screens and decorator crockery with polka dots or toile.

Crate and Barrel carries Calphalon's $225 version as well as digital model by Cuisinart. And amid the high-brow culinary tools at Williams-Sonoma, the store offers a number of slow cookers, including one made by All-Clad that retails for $400. Among its mainly glowing reviews (418 of them at last count), is someone who used the device to prepare the Barefoot Contessa's pot roast.

Would Ina Garten approve?

These days, chances are.

Not long ago Paul Sevigny, who lives in Lutherville, won a crock pot cook-off organized by local food enthusiasts. He entered his goat curry and still proudly displays the winner's certificate in his kitchen.

The accountant describes himself as a foodie — someone who lived for a stint in Asia and enjoys seeking out unusual ingredients to try to replicate the dishes experienced there. He also works long hours, particularly during tax time.

Sevigny's trusty slow cooker allows him to work late and still come home to the likes of clay pot chicken, Singapore style. He's also scored points with his girlfriend, who's invited her book club over for Sevigny's soups, built with his aromatic slow cooker stocks.

Sure, he's gotten a smirk or two when he mentions the crock pot among food snobs. And yeah, there's been a lot of surprise when his guests are eating something delicious and find out how it was prepared.

But, anymore, not all that often.

"I think it's gaining respect," he says.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Quick tips on slow cooking

Beth Hensperger, author of a number of the "Not Your Mother's" slow cooker books, has a few suggestions for people considering cooking with a slow cooker:

1. Don't put cold food into the cooker. It takes too long to start the heating.

2. Never fill the pot more than two-thirds to three-quarters of the way. Food expands. (Hensperger says she learned that lesson the hard, messy way.)

3. Resist the urge: Don't open the lid. If you do, you let the cooking heat out and will probably have to add another half-hour to an hour to your cooking time.

4. If you're making something for a pot luck, plug it in on the serving table. Especially with a 7-quart machine, they can get heavy, and with the outside of the machine hot, moving it can be difficult, dangerous and awkward.

5. If you own one of the avocado or gold machines from the 1970s, get rid of it. The new models run hotter and safer.

6. When shopping for a slow cooker, Hensperger says, "real gourmands" should go to Williams-Sonoma and spring for a Cuisinart with all the bells and whistles. But a novice who just wants to experiment with slow cooking would do fine, she says, with something along the lines of a Hamilton Beach

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