"Just to make sure that you're not a starving student, I'm giving you a slow cooker to use in your dorm room," said Mom as she handed it through the window of my vintage Volkswagen Beetle. Little did I realize that her gift would continue to be a reliable cooking solution for a hectic life more than 20 years later. I quickly discovered that many of the classic dishes Mom taught me to make on the stovetop and in the oven are easily re-created in an electric slow cooker with just a few adjustments.
Comfort food classics like Moroccan-style tagines and Hungarian goulash were developed long ago by people who could only afford meager amounts of tough meat. In order to feed large families, they increased the number of servings with inexpensive, hearty vegetables and fruit. The cooking method of choice became braising, which renders tough meats and fibrous vegetables succulent and tender by cooking them in a tightly sealed, low-heat, moist environment for long periods of time. As the food cooks, pressure builds in a sealed pot to produce a gentle simmer. Traditionally, cooks needed to mind the pot and stir the contents occasionally.
The Rival company changed that in 1971, when it introduced the first electric slow cookers. These countertop appliances featured heat-absorbing stoneware pots nestled in a base equipped with electrical coils that surrounded the pot with even heat for cooking at gentle, safe temperatures from 200 to 300 degrees.
Such low, even heat means timing is not crucial. An extra hour of cooking caused by a traffic jam, late meeting, or tardy guests will not make much of a difference to recipes prepared in a slow cooker. And you can't beat a slow cooker for make-ahead meals. Just combine the ingredients in the removable pot up to 24 hours in advance, and store it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, put the pot into the heating unit, and set the temperature. A pot you don't have to watch during cooking and that's easy to clean afterward-slow cooking is a recipe for dinner on busy days.