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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.

"Short ribs and pork shoulder will give you so much liquid," she said. "Just put a layer of onions on the bottom, so nothing sticks."

After the meat releases its liquid, you can add a soup base, such as "Better Than Bouillon," or demi-glace, to intensify the flavor.

Of course, you always have to add plenty of liquid to simmering soups, such as her classic Vegetable Soup Provencal.

"It's great to come home to, because it cooks for two hours on high, or four hours on low," she said. "So you could make it after work."

If you're cooking a stew, she suggests adding the vegetables toward the end. Otherwise, they tend to melt away into nothing.

"If you lift the lid, you lose 20 minutes of cooking time, but I don't care," she said. "Usually, it's going to be on all day anyway."

Make sure you buy a crockpot that switches to warm when the food is done. Those will safely hold your food for 24 hours, she said.

Seafood requires a close eye so that it doesn't overcook. For that reason, Phillips recommends using sea bass in her Moroccan Seafood Stew.

"You basically can't overcook it," she said. "So it's a good one for people who are just starting out."

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"This colorful soup has the aroma of an herb garden when you lift the lid on teh slow cooker," she writes. "It's the perfect soup to serve for lunch, wtih a wedge of quich or a salade nicoise. Natives of Provence add a pestolike garnish, which they call pistou. Fragrant with the scent of basil, it gives the soup a delicious flavor."

<strong>Vegetable Soup Provencal</strong>

<em> Makes 8 servings</em>

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus ? cup

3 leeks (white and tender green parts), halved lengthwise, cleaned, and cut cross-wise into ?-inch half-moons

3 ribs celery, coarsely chopped

3 medium carrots, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons herbes de Provence

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 14 1/2- to 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with their juice

8 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 medium zucchini, ends trimmed, and cut into ?-inch chunks

2 cups fresh shelled peas or frozen peas, defroted

1 head escarole, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 14 1/2- 15-ounce cans small white beans, rinsed and drained

2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves

6 garlic cloves, peeled

— Salt

— Freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat and saut?the leeks, celery, carrots and herbs de Provence for 3 minutes, or until the carrots begin to soften. Add the wine, and cook to allow the wine to evaporate a bit. Transfer the contents of the skillet to the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker. Add the tomatoes, broth, zucchini, peas, escarole and beans and stir to blend. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours, or on low for 4 hours.

In a blender or food processor, combine the basil and garlic and pulse on and off to break them up. With the machine running, add 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Scrape down the sides of the blender and taste. Add salt and pepper, if necessary. If the pistou is very thick, add more olive oil, 1 to 2 teaspoons at a time. The pistou should hold together, and not be runny. Transfer the pistou to an airtight container, and float the remaining oil on the top to prevent the basil from discoloring.

When ready to serve, taste the soup for seasoning and correct by adding salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls, and dollope 1 to 2 tablespoons of pistou in the center of each serving.

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"Sea bass is bathed in a tomato sauce fragrant wiht saffron, orange and garlic; a bit of hot paprika gives it some kick," she writes. "This seafood stew makes a great main course any time of the year and is delicious with couscous or rice on the side."

<strong>Moroccan Seafood Stew</strong>

<em> Makes 8 servings</em>

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 medium red bell pepper, cored and cut into ?-inch strips

1 medium yellow bell pepper, cored and cut into ?-inch strips

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed in the palm of your hand

1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1/4 teaspoon hot paprika (optional)

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 14 1/2- to 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes with their juice

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

2 pounds sea bass filets

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro

— Salt

— Freshly ground black pepper

1 navel orange, thinly sliced for garnish

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, and saute the onion, bell peppers, garlic, saffron, sweet paprika, hot paprika and ginger for 3 minutes, or until onion begins to soften. Add the tomatoes and saute for another 2 minutes, to blend the flavors. Transfer the mixture to the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker and stir in the orange juice. Place the sea bass on top of the tomato mixture, and spoon some of the mixture over the fish. Cover and cook for 2 hours on high, or 3 to 4 hours on low. At the end of the cooking time, the sea bass should be opaque in the center.

Using a fish spatula, carefully lift the fish out of the slow cooker, transfer to a serving platter, and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Skim off any excess fat from the sauce, stir in the parsley and cilantro, and season with salt and pepper. Spoon some of the sauce over the fish, and garnish the platter with the orange slices. Serve immediately, passing the remaining sauce on the side.

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"A tagine is a vessel with a conical top that is traditionally used in Morocco to slow-cook meat and spices into succulent bits," she writes. "A dish produced in this cooking vessel is also called a tagine and typically contians preserved lemons, which are cured with salt. They can be found in MIddle Eastern markets, paced in brine, or you can make your own."

<strong>Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives</strong>

<em> Makes 6 servings</em>

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed in the palm of your hand

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

4 drops Tabasco (or your favorite hot sauce)

4 pounds bone-in chicken pickes, skin removed

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 cups pitted picholine or other green olives

1/2 cup finely chopped preserved lemon rind

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro

— Salt

— Freshly ground black pepper

— Cooked rice or couscous, for serving

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and saute the onions, saffron, paprika, coriander and ginger for 3 minutes, or until the onions begin to soften. Transfer the contents of the pan to the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker, and stir in the Tabasco sauce.

In the same skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and brown the chicken on all sides, a few pieces at a time, transferring the browned chicken to the slow-cooker insert. Pour the broth and lemon juice into the skillet, bring to a boil, and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the liquids to the slow-cooker insert. Cover the slow cooker and cook for 3 hours on high, or 5 to 6 hours on low.

Carefully remove the chicken from the slow cooker with tongs or a large spatula. Skim off any excess fat from the sauce and stir in the olives, lemon rind and cilantro. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper if needed. Return the chicken to the slow cooker. Serve the tagine from the slow cooker with rice or couscous.

<em> You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com</em>