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Tracy Frank, Published July 24 2012

Let summer simmer: Slow cooker can be your salvation during season’s heat

FARGO - Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean you can’t break out your slow cooker.

In fact, crock pot connoisseur Karen Bellessa Peterson, author of “365 Days of Slow-Cooking,” encourages it.

“Don’t put the slow cooker away just because the weather is heating up,” Bellessa Peterson writes on her website. “In fact, use it more since it won’t heat up your house and you can spend all afternoon in the pool and come home to dinner already done.”

Bellessa Peterson is a stay-at-home mom who, in January 2009, decided to see if she could cook 365 different slow cooker recipes for the year. She made everything from main dishes to side dishes, to desserts and breads.

She compiled the results of her work into a cookbook and website (www.365daysofcrockpot.com), which she regularly updates. The cookbook sells for $25.99 on BN.com or Amazon.com.

“The slow cooker is a wonderful appliance that can give you the freedom to cook dinner at any time but dinner time, which is often the most busy and crazy time of the day,” Bellessa Peterson writes. “It frees your mind so you don’t have to think, ‘What am I going to make for dinner?’ all day long.”

Since I pretty much use my crock pot for roast (and occasionally meatballs or little smokies on New Year’s Eve), it was fun to try making soup and even peach crisp in the slow cooker.

I made the Zuppa Toscana featured on Bellessa Peterson’s website and was impressed, not only with how it turned out, but also with how easy it was to make.

The recipe calls for bulk Italian sausage, which after a quick Google search, I found out was basically seasoned ground pork. Since we don’t eat a lot of pork, I used ground turkey instead and flavored it with Italian seasoning while it browned.

On her website, Bellessa Peterson also offers tips on using your crock pot to cook frozen ground meat, so instead of waiting for the frozen turkey to thaw and then standing over the stove while it browned, I tossed it in the crock pot while I took care of some other chores around the house, and a few hours later it was done.

To cook frozen, ground meat in a crock pot, Bellessa Petersosn advises putting it in the slow cooker, covering and cooking it on low for two to five hours, stirring to break up the meat, and draining off any grease.

The recipe also calls for a ¼ cup chopped onion, but instead of putting it into the soup raw, I sautéed it in olive oil first.

I put the meat, chicken broth, garlic, potatoes and onion in the crock pot the night before and left it in my fridge until it was time to start cooking.

It was wonderful to come home to a mostly made meal. All I had to do was add the cream, kale and bacon once the potatoes were soft.

The creamy, savory Italian soup was a big hit with my family.

For dessert we had Peach Crisp cooked in a second crock pot. Since this recipe didn’t take as long to cook, I threw the ingredients together before dinner and it was ready after we ate our meal and went for a quick walk.

The flavors were great and my family loved it, but it was a little mushy. I think it would have been a bit crisper had I cooked it in the oven, but if you don’t have an oven or just don’t want to turn one on, slow cooking your crisp is a good option.

With the ease, convenience and delicious results, the slow cooker produces, I will definitely be using this cooking method again and am excited to try out some new crock pot recipes.