The slow cooker may be retro, but it can still get the job done.
Even on days when your family eats in shifts because of a zigzagging schedule of school activities and night meetings, you can offer something warm, comforting and ready to eat whenever they are.
Introduced in 1971, Rival’s Crock-Pot was the top-selling appliance of its era. With women heading into the workforce in record numbers, 5 o’clock meals a la June Cleaver were disappearing from dinner tables. Desperate for a helping hand in the kitchen, women relied on an arsenal of stay-at-home slow cookers.
The appliance continues to be sold in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors, although the old avocado and harvest gold models available at yard sales everywhere work just as well as the more fashionable, programmable chrome models of today.
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So what has really changed in the last three decades?
Cooks are using fresher ingredients. My guess is few modern families would be OK with some of the odder ingredients once used in ’70s-style slow cookery, such as lemonade concentrate in the “lemon” chicken recipe or onion soup mix and cream of mushroom soup in the stew.
“While today most electric cookery cookers are gathering dust on the back of kitchen shelves, they can still be useful gadgets for anything that needs long, slow, untended cooking,” writes Sylvia Lovegren in “Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads” (University of Chicago Press, 2005, paperback). “Bean dishes and stews can be wonderful and wonderfully easy made in these cookers. But as with any other appliance, the resulting dish is only as good as the ingredients that go into it.”
The Star’s Slow Cooker Rice Pilaf came about as a way to get kids to eat yellow squash. Thanks to the long, slow cooking time, the squash seems to “blend” right into the rice. Unable to pick out the offending chunks with a fork, our testers were willing to eat it. We also mixed in some brown rice for added whole grain goodness.
Shopping tip: This recipe calls for two pinches of saffron, the world’s most expensive spice. Saffron is the yellow-orange stigma from the purple crocus. Each flower must be hand harvested, yielding just three stigma per flower. It takes 14,000 stigmas to make up an ounce of saffron, according to “The New Food Lover’s Companion” (Barron’s, 2001) by Sharon Tyler Herbst. If you make bouillabaisse, risotto Milanese or paella, you may already have saffron on hand. If not, omit the spice.
If you keep saffron as a regular part of your spice cabinet, consider buying it at an Indian grocery where the turnover is good and the price is usually much less expensive than those found in gourmet stores or the supermarket spice aisle.
Slow cooker rice pilaf
Makes 8 servings
1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 medium yellow squash, cubed
2/3 cup long grain rice
1/2 cup brown rice
2 (14.5 ounce) cans low-sodium chicken broth
2 pinches saffron
Chopped parsley, for garnish
Heat oil in medium skillet. Add onion, squash, white and brown rice.
Saute until onion is tender and rice is lightly browned. Place in a slow cooker and add chicken broth and saffron; stir well.
Cover and cook on low setting 4 to 5 hours, or until water is absorbed.
Sprinkle with parsley just before serving.
Per serving: 143 calories (14 percent from fat), 2 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 24 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 214 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber
Recipes developed for The Star by home economists Kathryn Moore and Roxanne Wyss.