Cos Cob resident and food writer Dina Cheney's editor at The Taunton Press was looking for a fresh approach to slow cookers -- those electric pots that sit in your cabinet eight months of the year. Traditionally, slow cooker recipes called for mediocre ingredients and produced mediocre meals.
"I came up with the idea of modernizing/updating/improving slow cooker fare by incorporating fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. My basic concept: fresh ingredients meet the slow cooker! " says Cheney, who has authored several cookbooks, developed recipes and written articles for some 20 publications, including "Cooking Light," and "Bon Appetit."
The end result is her latest cookbook, "Year-Round Slow Cooker: 100 Recipes for Every Season," just published this year by Taunton.
But, why the slow cooker? "With so many people working," says Cheney, who lives with her husband, Koby, and two young sons: Max, 5 and Abe, 3 1/2, "the slow cooker makes preparing meals incredibly convenient. Set everything up, turn on the appliance, and leave home for several hours. As a working mother myself, answering the proverbial question of how to get dinner on the table easily and quickly was definitely of interest to me!"
Greenwich Citizen spoke with Cheney about her new cookbook, her recipes and the art of slow cooking.
What is a slow cooker and how does it work?
A slow cooker is a small electrical appliance. The food is cooked in a crock insert -- usually ceramic (though some newer ones are nonstick), which is covered by a lid (usually glass). The crock sits in a base that includes a heating element and a cord that plugs into an electrical outlet.
What are some of the common misconceptions about slow cooking?
Many believe that slow cookers should only be used during the winter, should only be used for meat and are only used to prepare dishes made with lots of convenience ingredients (such as onion soup mix). Many also believe that the results are always mediocre: bland brown slop, à la Oliver Twist.
What are the advantages of using a slow cooker?
There are many! The slow cooker cooks while you aren't in the house, so it easily fits into your lifestyle. You're not stuck at home while your food cooks. It also cooks low and slow, turning out tender, moist meals. It turns cheap ingredients (short ribs, chuck roast, dried beans) into gold, worthy of restaurants. It also requires very little electricity, so it is great for the environment and is wonderful on hot days, as -- unlike an oven -- it won't heat up your house.
When you think of slow cooking, you typically think of hearty stews, roasts, etc. and cold weather food. Does using a slow cooker translate into other seasons?
Yes! That is exactly what I am trying to show with this book. You can use slow cookers throughout the year. What I love to do in the warmer months is cook meat in the slow cooker and use it as sandwich fillings and load dishes with lots of fresh produce, such as beans or peas. Any time you would like a tender dish, you can reach for your slow cooker.
Does your book feature or suggest healthy cooking dishes with a slow cooker?
Absolutely! Since every dish includes fresh, seasonal produce, the food is healthy. I also use less sugar and salt than the amounts most slow cooker recipes call for, since I stay away from processed, convenience ingredients. Some examples: braised Greek beans with bell peppers and Greek yogurt, slow-cooked ratatouille over goat cheese polenta, chicken and white bean chili with tomatillo-radish pico de gallo, and chicken salad with Meyer lemon, tarragon and chives.
What differentiates the recipes in your book from typical slow cooker recipes?
For one, my book is organized by season. Two, each recipe incorporates fresh, seasonal produce. Three, the results are dishes with lots of flavor, color, and texture.
So, you'll find exciting food, the exact opposite of the undifferentiated bland mush characteristic of so many slow cooker cookbooks. In addition to seasonal produce, I use a lot of intense, highly flavorful ingredients, such as honey, tomato paste, spices and fresh herb garnishes. So, the dishes are restaurant quality.
Can you share some of your favorite recipes?
Yes! I make the brisket with pomegranate, red wine and caramelized onions all the time. I've made the lemony strawberry-rhubarb cobbler close to 10 times. I also love the lamb stew with fava beans, which is pictured on the cover of the cookbook. Other favorites include the apricot chicken with carrots, cardamom-rosewater rice pudding with raspberry-rose coulis and toasted pistachios, and chicken with chive dumplings with asparagus.
It's difficult to choose!
For some of Cheney's recipes, visit greenwichcitizen.com. To learn more about Cheney and read her blog, visit www.dinacheney.com.