Creative and versatile ways to use the slow cooker

Katie Workman
Associated Press

Just because some recipes are easy doesn’t mean they can’t be exceptional.

Slow cooker recipes have come a long way since inventor Irving Naxon sold his patented “Naxon Beanery” heating container device in 1971 to Rival Manufacturing, who rebranded it the Crock-Pot.

Over the years, recipes have gotten more and more creative. While countless simple — but still tasty — recipes abound, the home cook isn’t reliant on adding a packet of onion soup to a roast anymore.

In “Slow Cooker: 500 Recipes” (Hamlyn, $19.99) author Sara Lewis gives us inspirations for desserts, snacks, preserves and even drinks that can come from the humble slow cooker.

A bubbling French onion soup results in tender, caramelized onions and bubbling melted cheese.

If you’re pressed for time (and the odds are high that you are if you’re considering the slow cooker for the evening meal) “5 Ingredients or Less Slow Cooker Cookbook” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25) may be more your speed. But just because the ingredients are few doesn’t mean the flavors aren’t complex. There are recipes for soups, stews and casseroles you’d expect, but also for breakfasts, appetizers, fish, and vegetarian dishes.

One of the greatest secret weapon ingredients I know is chipotles in adobo sauce. These are smoked jalapeno peppers that have been stewed in a sauce of tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, salt and various spices, such as cumin, oregano and paprika. The whole thing is sold in tiny cans at just about every grocer.

The easiest way to use these peppers and sauce is to puree the whole thing. I just dump the contents of the can right into the food processor or blender. Then I store the puree in a sealed container in the fridge. Whenever a soup, stew or a chili (or anything that calls for a little touch of smoky heat) needs a little something extra, in goes a tablespoon or two of the puree.

With the slow cooker, the unparalleled pleasure of walking into your home at the end of a long day to be greeted by the scent of a cooked meal is hard to overstate.

In this chili, the slow cooker and peppers join together to turn juicy and moist boneless, skinless chicken thighs into a somewhat spicy and couldn’t-be-easier chili.

Katie Workman has written two cookbooks focused on easy, family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” Detroit News Food Editor Steve Pardo contributed.

Slow Cooker Chicken Chili

From Katie Workman

1 cup chopped yellow onion

2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons pureed chipotles in adobo sauce

28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juices

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

Two 15 1/2-ounce cans black beans, drained

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 scallions, trimmed and chopped

Juice of 1 lime

Kosher salt

Shredded cheddar cheese or Mexican cheese blend

Sour cream

In a large slow cooker, combine the onion, carrots, garlic, chipotles in adobo, tomatoes, chili powder, cumin and beans. Stir to combine, then add the chicken and stir again. Cook in the slow cooker on high for 4 to 6 hours, or low for 6 to 8 hours. Stir in the scallions and lime juice just before serving. Taste, then season with salt. Serve with shredded cheese and sour cream on the side. Serves 8.

Per serving: 410 calories; 12 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 27 percent calories from fat); 29 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 175 mg cholesterol; 910 mg sodium; 44 g protein; 9 g fiber.

Smoked Sausage and Beans

From “5 Ingredients or Less Slow Cooker Cookbook”

2 cups dried pinto or white northern beans, sorted, soaked overnight, and drained

1 (10-ounce) package smoked turkey sausage, sliced

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with Italian seasoning

5 cups vegetable or chicken broth

Use a 4- or 6-quart slow cooker. Place the beans in a large pot of water to cover by 2 inches, and let soak overnight. Add the drained beans to the insert, and then the sausage slices. Pour in the tomatoes, and stir in the broth. Cover and cook on Low for 8 to 10 hours, or until the beans are bite-tender. Serve in a wide-mouthed bowl. Serves 6.

Per serving: 167 calories; 4 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 21 percent calories from fat); 22 g carbohydrates; 4 g sugar; 22 mg cholesterol; 540 mg sodium; 12.5 g protein; 6 g fiber.

Fried Rice

From “5 Ingredients or Less Slow Cooker Cookbook”

2 to 3 cups cooked rice

1 cup fresh or frozen chopped vegetables

1 cup diced cooked meat (chicken, beef, pork, or a combination)

2 tablespoons soy sauce (I use gluten-free)

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Use a 4-quart slow cooker. Add the cooked rice, vegetables, and meat to the insert. Stir in the soy sauce, butter, and pepper. Cover and cook on Low for 3 to 4 hours. Stir well before serving.

Per serving (chicken): 329 calories; 12 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat; 32 percent calories from fat); 42 g carbohydrates; 2 g sugar; 105 mg cholesterol; 598 mg sodium; 12.5 g protein; 1.5 g fiber.

Baked Goat Cheese with Tomatoes and Garlic

From “5 Ingredients or Less Slow Cooker Cookbook”

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

6 garlic cloves, chopped

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

8 ounces goat cheese

2 cups cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Use a 4- or 6-quart slow cooker with an oven-safe dish inserted. Spray the baking dish with cooking spray and place it into the slow cooker. In a small mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, garlic, and lemon juice. Spread half of the cheese mixture into the prepared baking dish. Pinch the goat cheese into 1/2-inch pieces and sprinkle on top of the cream cheese mixture. Place half of the tomato pieces on top of the goat cheese, and layer on the rest of the cream cheese mixture. Top with the remaining tomato pieces, and sprinkle the salt and pepper on top. Cover and cook on Low for 3 to 4 hours or on High for about 2 hours. The dip is finished when it is hot and bubbly and the tomato skins have wilted. Serve with crackers or bagel chips. Serves 8.

Per serving: 224 calories; 16 g fat (11 g saturated fat; 64 percent calories from fat); 10 g carbohydrates; 7 g sugar; 47 mg cholesterol; 436 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Caramelized Onion Soup

From “Slow Cooker 500 Recipes”

1 ounce butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound onions, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon caster sugar

2 tablespoons plain flour

8 fluid ounces brown ale

1 1/4 pints beef stock

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper

Cheesy croutons

8 slices of French bread

3 ounces mature Cheddar cheese, grated

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Preheat the slow cooker, if necessary. Heat the butter and oil in a large frying pan, add the onions and fry over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until softened and just beginning to turn golden. Stir in the sugar and fry for 10 minutes, stirring frequently as the onions begin to caramelize and turn a deep golden brown.

Stir in the flour, then add the ale, stock, bay leaves and Worcestershire sauce. Add a little salt and pepper and bring to the boil, stirring. Pour into the slow cooker pot, cover with the lid and cook on low for 4–5 hours or until the onions are very soft.

When almost ready to serve, toast the French bread slices on both sides under a preheated medium grill. Sprinkle with the cheese and drizzle with the Worcestershire sauce, then grill until the cheese is bubbling. Ladle the soup into shallow bowls and float the croutons on top.

For French onion soup, fry the onions as above and stir in the flour. Replace the ale with 8 fluid ounces red wine and add with the stock, bay leaves and salt and pepper, omitting the Worcestershire sauce. Continue as above. For the croutons, toast the French bread, then rub one side of each piece with a cut garlic clove, sprinkle with 3 ounces grated Gruyère cheese and grill. Serve as above. Serves 4.

Per serving: 464 calories; 21 g fat (9 g saturated fat; 41 percent calories from fat); 51 g carbohydrates; 12 g sugar; 37 mg cholesterol; 799 mg sodium; 16 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Rioja-Braised Lamb with Olives

From “Slow Cooker 500 Recipes”

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 lamb shanks, 3 pounds in total

2 red onions, cut into wedges

4 large garlic cloves, halved

1 1/4 cups Rioja or lamb stock

14-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon redcurrant jelly

3 rosemary sprigs

1 cup mixed pitted olives

Salt and pepper

Preheat the slow cooker if necessary. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet, season the lamb shanks, then add them to the pan and brown on all sides. Lift them out of the skillet and put them in the slow-cooker pot with the meatiest parts downward.

Add the remaining oil and onion wedges to the skillet and fry for 3 to 4 minutes until just beginning to color. Add the garlic, wine or stock, tomatoes, redcurrant jelly, and rosemary. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil, stirring.

Scatter the olives over the lamb, then pour over the hot onion mixture. Cover with the lid and cook on high for 5 to 6 hours until the lamb is very tender.

When ready to serve, pour the liquid out of the slow cooker into a saucepan and boil for 10 minutes until reduced by half. Put the lamb into shallow bowls lined with some runny polenta flavored with butter and Parmesan cheese or mashed potatoes, if liked, spoon over the onions and olives, and serve with the Rioja sauce.

For Rioja-braised chicken with olives, substitute a 3 lb roasting chicken for the lamb shanks and cook as above, with the chicken cooked breast-side down in the liquid, until the chicken is cooked through and the juices run clear when the thickest parts of the leg and breast are pierced with a sharp knife. Serves 4.

Per serving: 621 calories; 28 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 41 percent calories from fat); 20 g carbohydrates; 8 g sugar; 200 mg cholesterol; 800 mg sodium; 69 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Fragrant Spiced Chicken

From “Slow Cooker 500 Recipes”

3 pounds roasting chicken

1 onion, chopped

1 1/2 cups sliced carrots

3-inch piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced

2 garlic cloves, sliced

1 large mild red chile, halved

3 large star anise

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

2 pints boiling water

Small bunch of cilantro

3 ounces snow peas, thickly sliced

5 ounces bok choy, thickly sliced

Salt and pepper

7 ounces dried egg noodles, to serve

Preheat the slow cooker if necessary. Place the chicken, breast-side down, in the slow-cooker pot. Add the onion, carrots, ginger, garlic, chile, and star anise and spoon over the soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar. Pour over the measurement boiling water.

Add the cilantro stems, reserving the leaves, and season to taste. Cover and cook on high for 5 to 6 hours or until the chicken is thoroughly cooked and the meat juices run clear when the thickest parts of the leg and breast are pierced with a sharp knife.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and keep warm. Add the snow peas and bok choy to the pot, cover again, and cook for about 10 minutes or until just wilted. Meanwhile, cook the noodles following the package instructions, drain well, and divide between 4 bowls.

Carve the chicken into bite-sized pieces and arrange on top of the noodles with the reserved cilantro leaves, then ladle over the hot broth and serve.

For Italian-spiced chicken with pesto, put the chicken into the pot with 1 chopped onion, 1 3/4 cups sliced carrots, 2 sliced garlic cloves, 1 sliced fennel bulb, and 1 sliced lemon. Pour over the boiling water as above and replace the cilantro with a small bunch of basil. Use 3 diced tomatoes, 5 ounces chopped broccoli raab, and 2 tablespoons pesto sauce instead of the snow peas and bok choy. Cook 8 ounces fresh tagliatelle in a large saucepan of lightly salted boiling water following the package instructions until just tender and serve with the chicken. Serves 4.

Per serving: 802 calories; 35 g fat (10 g saturated fat; 39 percent calories from fat); 51 g carbohydrates; 11 g sugar; 238 mg cholesterol; 1,268 mg sodium; 68 g protein; 5 g fiber.

Pork Stew with Sweet Potatoes

From “Slow Cooker 500 Recipes”

Low-calorie cooking oil spray

1 pound lean pork, cubed

1 onion, chopped

1 3/4 cups sliced white mushrooms

2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon granulated sweetener

1 cup thinly sliced carrots

2 celery stalks, thickly sliced

3/4 pound sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/4 pound shredded curly kale

Preheat the slow cooker if necessary. Spray a large skillet with a little low-calorie cooking oil spray and place over high heat until hot. Add the pork a few pieces at a time until all the pork is in the pan and cook for 3 minutes, stirring. Add the onion and cook for a further 2 to 3 minutes until the pork is golden.

Stir in the mushrooms, then add the stock, tomato paste, and soy sauce. Add the chili powder, allspice, cinnamon, and sweetener, season to taste, and bring to a boil, stirring.

Place the carrots, celery, and sweet potatoes in the slow-cooker pot, then pour over the pork and sauce. Press the meat into the liquid, cover, and cook on low for 8 to 9 hours until the pork is tender.

Stir the stew, then add the kale. Cover again and cook on high for 15 minutes, then spoon into bowls and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Per serving: 330 calories; 10 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 27 percent calories from fat); 28 g carbohydrates; 10 g sugar; 70 mg cholesterol; 870 mg sodium; 32 g protein; 5 g fiber.