A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Finding the right cookbook

To make the best use of a slow cooker, you really do need a slow cooker cookbook. You may be asking: why? Well, first of all, try asking a non-crock-using friend what one can make in a slow cooker. (You may first have to explain that by "slow cooker" you mean what most people mean when they say "Crockpot" but without the copyright infringement.) Your friend may likely think of two main things: roasts and stews. And yes, both of these foods are excellent in a slow cooker. However, there are a number of other things you can make in a slow cooker that one wouldn't normally think of: roast chicken, for one; hot breakfast cereal, for another; apple cider, for a third. (But I don't have to limit the list to foods I've discussed on my blog!) How many people think of making hot wine punch in their crockpot? Or champagne chicken? Or "Thai pork with peanut sauce"? Be honest. Did you know that you could make Thai pork in a slow cooker?

I would not have thought of making any of these things, either, if I hadn't caved in and purchased a cookbook for my slow cooker. (And then another, and another, and another. . . .) My early attempts at using a slow cooker were mostly failures, even though the recipes I was trying to make were very basic. While I don't want to bash the easy classic slow cooker recipes, I hope my readers realize that slow cookers are not just for soups, stews, and roasts. They are extremely versatile, and the best way to explore that versatility is to buy one or more good slow cooker cookbooks. You can start with the books which Rival publishes for use in its trademarked Crockpot, if you like (and don't forget that they have free recipes online), but you don't have to stop there. There are a number of slow cooker books out there, some elegant, some simple.

The mother of all crockpot cookbooks is probably Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman's 500 page Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook. (The Thai pork recipe mentioned above is from this book.) This book, written by professional food writers, features hundreds of dishes. This book should be a staple in the library of serious crockery cooks. The recipes range from homely to exotic. The upside: there are whole sections on crockery favorites such as chili and beans, including some innovative dishes. In fact, the categories the book is broken down into are quite user-friendly, making it easy to find a range of workable recipes. The downside: many of these require several steps (including browning, presoaking, or other non-crockery prep cooking) or hard-to-find-ingredients. This is, after all, not your mother's cookbook. So what if what you really want is the kind of meal your grandmother used to make? Are you just lost in the modern forest of culinary relativism, forced to search your pathetic IGA for ingredients like hoisin and crimini mushrooms?

Be not afraid! There are plenty of books which still include a lot of "down home" type recipes. Wendy Louise's The Complete Crockpot Cookbook is an excellent starter cookbook for someone who doesn't necessarily need"fancy-schmancy" meals or exotic foods for his or her family dinner. Many of the recipes in this book are quite simple, but there are also some more elegant dishes suitable for entertaining. The cornish game hen recipe in this book is alone worth the cost. Who would have guessed that chicken went so well with currant jelly? Upside: the simplicity of most of the recipes makes this a good starter book, while it still includes a wide range of foods, including multiple pot roast and stew recipes. Downside: It simply doesn't have as many recipes as some of the large books; it has about 170 at my count. More importantly, the organization is, in my opinion, inferior to that of the Not Your Mother's book. Louise has tried to divide the entrees not into classic categories such as "beef," "poultry" "fish" and so on, but into the kind of meal which is made or the kind of recipe. While a section called "Dinner is Served: Fancier Entrees" may be of use if your question is "what can I make for our next dinner party?" it is not so useful if your question is "what can I do with all this chicken in the freezer?"

Finally, the daring cook may get a kick out of Rebecca Jager's How to Make Love and Dinner at the Same Time. The main selling pointd of this book are its "cooking and sex are similar" conceit and the girl-to-girl style "Crocktalk" comments which Jager includes in the margins of many of the recipes. Upside: This book is really funny. However, since most people don't buy cookbooks based solely on the humor value, I ought to say something about the recipes, oughtn't I? This book probably falls in between Louise's and the Hensperger-Kaufman book. There are a number of "exotic" (i.e. not country-style Americana) recipes included, but most of the recipes are simple and easy to make. The final section includes a number of hot alcoholic punches, which is something you don't find in every cookbook. Her organization system is an improvement on Louise's book. Downside: This is a smaller book, with only 200 recipes, and you may reasonably ask whether it is worth it, given that there is some overlap between these recipes and those in other books.

My suggestion is that those who want to start small consider either the Jager book or the Louise book. Which you prefer will depend on what you want to make. If you want homecooking, with a few more elegant recipes, try Louise's book. If you want simple but unusual recipes, try Jager's. Jager's book would also, it seems to me, lend itself well as a wedding gift to a couple who is also receiving a slow cooker.

There are, of course, many, many slow cooker cookbooks out there which I haven't tried. For now, I'm trying to restrain myself from buying more, but if I finally cave in and get another cookbook or two, you can expect further reviews.


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