WHEN IT'S cold outside, there's nothing like coming home to the warming aroma of a slow-cooked meal, a simmering mixture subtly blending the flavors and colors of potatoes, carrots, beans, rice, squash, tomatoes, corn, mushrooms, onions, spices . . .
But wait, where's the meat?
A fair question: After all, just about everybody who was around in the 1970s recalls that tenderizing and flavor-boosting cheap cuts of meat was a main selling point in slow cookers' original launch and rise. Less well-known is the fact that the appliance churning out those pot roasts, beef stews and chicken cacciatores was originally conceived as a bean cooker.
In the mid-60s, modeling West Bend's somewhat similar Bean Pot, Naxon Utilitieps Corp. introduced a slow cooker pitched for baked beans and chili, called the Beanery. Rival purchased Naxon in 1970 and a year later reintroduced the Beanery with a new name: Crock-Pot. Now emphasizing tenderized-meat recipes, the new appliance soon became the go-to option for one-pot meals assembled in the morning and enjoyed in the evening, especially as the rise of double-income households meant less time for supper preparations.
Its simple low/medium/high controls, general ease of use and groovy color schemes made the Crock-Pot ubiquitous in American kitchens for a while. The "fad" aspect wore off long ago, but slow cookers continue to sell.
The slow cooker's endurance is due in part to continuing improvements, such as built-in timers and a lower "keep warm" setting, that expanded the appliance's flexibility. But its attraction also lies in its ability to prepare a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan meals more easily and healthfully (very little oil is needed, for instance) than most other methods.
Two recent cookbooks attest to this: Quick and Easy Vegan Slow Cooking: More Than 150 Tasty, Nourishing Recipes That Practically Make Themselves by Carla Kelly (The Experiment, $17.95), and Robin Robertson's Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker: 200 Ultra-Convenient, Super-Tasty, Completely Animal-Free Recipes (Harvard Common Press, $16.95).
Stuck in the mush?
If you think of this cuisine as just removing the meat from an existing dish, leaving a bunch of bland, mushy vegetables, you're missing out.
First, that "bland mush" danger is yours to minimize. "Don't overcook!" advised Allyson Kramer, a popular gluten-free-food blogger in Philly who did a slow-cooker series in October. That's especially true with starchy foods like potatoes or lentils. Kramer noted that "many people have preconceived notions about slow cookers," especially when it comes to vegetable-based dishes.
The amount of liquid used also is a factor, since it doesn't evaporate away. Also, familiarizing yourself with the particulars of your unit's cooking time will yield better results.
Stews, chills, soups, curries, dal, goulash - these all fit under the "mushy" rubric, and slow cookers handle them with ease. But Robertson and Kelly show how you can also make spiced nuts, stuffing, risotto, polenta, lasagna, meatless loaf, soy sausage, seitan ribs, lentil pate, pudding, granola, quiche, chocolate peanut-butter cheesecake and pizza.
That's right, pizza.
OK, you can't fit a cookie sheet in a slow cooker, so we're not talking the thin, crispy-crust variety, but you can make an extra-large personal-pan pizza such as Robertson's deep-dish olives-and-capers Pizza Puttanesca.
Robertson's book abounds with newly adapted recipes to expand your slow-cooker repertoire, as well as good advice on the pros and cons of this technology, such as: "Hard vegetables, such as onions and carrots, added raw to soups will soften well because of the amount of liquid they are cooking in. However, if those same vegetables are added raw to a stew-type dish, they may remain hard long after the rest of the ingredients are cooked because there is not as much liquid for them to cook in."
Robertson often recommends giving harder veggies "a head start by sautéing them first for a few minutes in a little water or oil to soften them a bit."
Another tip for uniform cooking is to cut harder ingredients into smaller pieces, she said. "The smaller or thinner you cut or slice ingredients, the more quickly they will cook."
Conversely, adding certain elements near the end (e.g. fresh greens or herbs, and sometimes rice and pasta) creates textural contrast and flavor depth. And, once you become familiar with timing issues like these, you can get even more out of your device.
The sweet spot
Perhaps the most surprising thing about a slow cooker, Robertson noted, is that it can be used to make desserts. "Sure, you might expect that it makes great bread pudding or even baked apples," she said. "But you can also use it to make cobblers, cakes and even cheesecakes - all without turning on the oven. I like to see the expressions of people when I tell them the cheesecake they're enjoying not only contains no dairy, but was also 'baked' in a slow cooker."
Granted, the more creative you get with a slow cooker, the further you're getting from the "set it and forget it" ethos. But many of these excursions fit into the category of 20-minute prep in the morning plus a bit more when you get home - still a big difference from starting dinner from scratch at that point.
As Kelly notes in her book intro, the "quick and easy" part comes at "the end of the day, when you have less energy and really can't face the idea of cooking."
Slow cooking is a rewarding and forgiving method that gives good results for beginners, and it can be tweaked, with experience, to excellent effect. As Kramer put it, "Quality ingredients, herbs and spices chosen appropriately, proper vegetable preparation and a little know-how are all you need to create a wonderful meal."
V for Vow: There's still time to take part in the 2012 Vegan Pledge run by the Peace Advocacy Network. Participants pledge to eat totally plant-based for one month and, in return, get personal mentoring, speaker sessions, free food samples, cooking classes and more to make a transition to veganism more feasible. Info at panveganpledge.org.
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 12-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.