If you're looking for an easy way to feed your family this winter, dig out your slow-cooker crockpot and join the "set it and forget it" crowd.
That doesn't mean resorting to your mother's "dump and run" strategy. A new generation has reinvented the cooking method, adding ingredients from around the world and incorporating flavor-boosting tricks.
"You can turn out really good food, but you have to do a few things to get there," said cooking instructor Diane Phillips, author of "The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook" (Chronicle Books, 2012). "This cookbook is for people who really want to make the most of the food."
The Mediterranean region boasts a rich history of clay-pot cooking, from Morocco and Tunisia to France and Italy, where a wide range of tasty, slow-cooked dishes sdfd often left to simmer on the back of the stove all day.
"These were working people who put something on the stove in the morning, then they went out to the field to labor," Phillips said. "But they wanted something to come home to that was comforting, with a lot of flavor."
Despite their humble roots, many of these braised dishes, such as the famous Beef Bourguignon of France, have attained five-star status. Now, you can easily replicate them at home, with little fuss. Phillips, who grew up in an Italian household, has reinvented recipes for the slow cooker with her own cooking students in mind.
"The people who come to my classes don't mind doing the steps to make it taste good," she said. "But they don't want to do too many."
One of the most important steps to boost flavor is to saut?everything beforehand.
"Saut?ng gives you a base of flavor, but it also seals in any juices," she said. "You're not going to get a depth of flavor or color if you don't brown anything first. And onions and garlic have oil in them, so they need to release it."
The latest models of slow cookers now come with multiple heat settings that allow you to saut?in the same, metal insert for slow cooking.
"You can saute and turn it down," she said. "And you don't have to take it out."
However, Phillips still prefers to use her clay slow-cooker for dishes that benefit from a long, slow simmer, such as white beans with garlic or meats like brisket and short ribs, that need to be broken down through the cooking process.
In general, she recommends spending $100 to $150 on a slow-cooker because in cheaper models, the high setting tends to burn everything.
"The high setting should be 280-300 degrees, and the low should be 185," she said. "But the cheaper ones can't do that."
Even though she only cooks for herself and her husband, she favors the large, 5- to 6-quart oval, rather than the medium, 4- to 5-quart round. That way, she has plenty of leftovers for the freezer.
Whatever size you choose, make sure you fill it to the required level for safe cooking.
"The caveat is always fill them more than halfway, or you are going to burn things," she said. "And never more than two-thirds, because it could overflow if there's meat in there."
Phillips likes to marinate meat first and let it create its own liquid as it cooks, rather than adding a lot of liquid beforehand.