Quick, easy tips to crock pot cooking

"I think that the resurgence of this is a time saver and an energy saver, and it's delicious," said author and Chef Denise Vivaldo.

Vivaldo actually created Suzanne Sommers' /*Crockpot*/ recipe book back in the day, perfecting slow cooked meals that are cheap but tasty.

"You can take inexpensive cuts of meat, throw it in the slow cooker, [and] develop all the flavors," said Vivaldo.

Denise suggests stuffing a chicken with lemon and rosemary, and seasoning it with a flavorful spice like paprika, which also gives it a little color. Then place the chicken in the crock pot and pour in a bit of water, broth or wine. Cook on high for six hours. The /*slow cooker*/ does the lion's share of the work, and you get a tasty roasted chicken.

Chef Cindie Flannigan made an equally easy fruit cobbler in the crock pot using mixed frozen berries topped with just milk, egg, a bit of sugar and vanilla combined with pound cake; although she says angel food cake, Grape Nut cereal, even stale leftover bread could be used.

"This is a great way to use up any half bags of fruit that you have because most fruits go together," said Chef Flannigan.

/*Steel-cut oatmeal*/ can take about 30 minutes of stirring at the stove to cook, but with the crock pot, you put the oats in and in the morning your oatmeal is done. Simply put oats, water, and optional raisins in right before bed. Cook for eight hours on low for a great morning wake-up call.

Other quick tips to cook slow:

Browning meat prior to cooking is optional, but you'll find the meal looks and tastes better if you do.

Dairy will curdle if cooked too long, so add it near the end of cooking.

Put dried spices in early, but fresh spices in at nearly the end of cooking time.

If using dried beans, Vivaldo says microwave them covered in water for three to five minutes before adding them to the slow cooker to soften. This is a must; otherwise you need to soak them for about eight hours.

If you're using a recipe that wasn't intended for a slow cooker, experts suggest decreasing the amount of liquid normally used in the dish by about half.

The tougher the cut of meat the slower you'll want to cook it. So go slow and set it on low for best results. Using a bit of acid like lemon, vinegar or tomato product helps breakdown the toughness of the meat.

Sturdy vegetables like root veggies: onions, potatoes, etc., work well for the entire cook time, but more fragile produce, like spinach, should be added towards the end of cooking.

Refrain from lifting the lid as you'll lose steam or liquid, and increase cook time.

While frozen fruit or vegetables can go directly into a crock pot for cooking, experts do not recommend using frozen meat due to food safety issues.

Finally, don't be afraid to get some help as this trend's in full swing.

Some recipes and resources:

Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann, $12.89 at Amazon.com
/*The $7 a Meal Slow Cooker Cookbook*/, by Linda Larsen, $9.95



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