The genesis of Karen Bellessa Petersen's new cookbook began when she decided to pull out her slow cooker one day.
"I rarely used my slow cooker because I really only had one good recipe," said the 31-year-old Woods Cross resident. "The next day, I decided to try something else." This "experiment" went on for seven days. She realized she liked the freedom that came from having at least part of dinner completed early in the day instead of "wrestling with two cranky, hungry children while cooking at 5 p.m."
The thought came to her: "I wonder if I could do this for a year. At the end of the year I could compile the recipes into a cookbook."
Her family encouraged Karen to track her progress on a blog, found at www.365daysofcrockpot.blogspot.com. (Think of writer Julie Powell's cooking and blogging experiment chronicled in the book "Julie & Julia," but substitute slow cooking for Julia Child's complicated French cuisine.)
Petersen said the blog kept her going, or she would have quit on day 47. She completed the year's worth of slow cooking and published the book "365 Days of Slow-Cooking" (Covenant Communications, $25.99).
Karen is a stay-at-home mom with two children, ages 3 and 6. She graduated in 2002 from Brigham Young University, where she majored in community health education.
The Daily Herald asked Petersen some questions about her slow-cooking experiment.
Q: What inspired you to cook for a year with a slow cooker?
A: I loved the idea of having dinner done early in the day. It gives so much freedom to know that dinner is already done. The response of the many moms, cooks and blog followers amazes me. They can't wait to see what I'm cooking next and what recipe will be easy and tasty enough to add to their family's repertoire.
Q: How did the experiment affect your family?
A: My husband really enjoyed my experiment. It meant that he got a good meal most days of the week. Whenever I ask him what he wants for dinner he always says, "Something yummy in the Crock-Pot." My kids are used to me cooking new things all the time in the Crock-Pot. They are fairly willing to at least try a bite of whatever I make. The biggest challenge I've faced, though, is cooking food that my family will eat happily.
Q: Where did you find the recipes used in your book?
Q: At first, I didn't know what the heck I was doing. I followed recipes to the "T." As soon as I got my feet under me and felt a little more comfortable, I was able to vary recipes and make up recipes on my own.
I find inspiration for recipes everywhere: Pinterest, cookbooks, the Internet, restaurants, my pantry, etc. I'm constantly looking for recipes and ideas to pull together a menu for the next week.
Q: How often do you prepare slow cooker meals these days?
A: I still blog new recipes about three to four times a week. So I pretty much use it at least that many days a week. I feel like it's the only way to cook.
Q: What's your favorite slow cooker dish?
A: I've done so many that it's really hard for me to name just one. In the cookbook there is a little symbol by my favorite recipes. Some of those are Garlic Lime Chicken, Tomatillo Chicken Tacos, Cranberry Raisin Steel Cut Oats, Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes, Wheatberry Salad and Coconut Thai Soup.
Q: How many slow cookers do you have, how many do you use at one time, and what sizes do you recommend?
A: I have nine slow cookers. I usually have at least one or two on the counter at one time.
I've cooked for groups of people, and at those times I use most of my slow cookers. I like a smaller size (3 quart) for dinner for my family. I use that little slow cooker for 90 percent of what I do. When I'm making a large amount of something I'll use a 6 quart.
Slow cooker recipes are written as if your slow cooker is at least half full. So using a large slow cooker isn't something I usually do since foods cook too fast and don't turn out as well.
I think a lot of people make that mistake -- using a really large slow cooker for 2-3 people.
Q: What's your next project?
A: I continue to blog three to four times per week. I am developing new recipes all the time. I hope to put together another cookbook in the future.
Slow cooker tips
The Daily Herald asked Karen Bellessa Petersen, author of the new cookbook "365 Days of Slow-Cooking" (Covenant Communications, $25.99), to share a few tips for using a slow cooker. Below she shares information that originally ran as a post on her blog, www.365daysofcrockpot.blogspot.com.
Karen's Tips for Slow Cooking
As far as I'm concerned, slow cooking is the only way to cook (at least most of the time). It saves time, can be very versatile, frees up oven space, is great for busy families and serving in shifts, can save money and is energy efficient. Also, the slow cooker doesn't warm up your whole kitchen when it's hot outside. Slow cookers are a great way to simplify your life and to give you more time to spend with those you love. Clean up and prep is fairly easy, and your family will love the new recipes that you try.
Here are some tips that I've found very helpful:
When picking a slow cooker
• Oval slow cookers cook more evenly and can fit oddly-sized cuts of meat.
• Buy one with a removable insert to make clean up a cinch.
• If you're going to be out of the house, buy a slow cooker with a timer that can automatically switch to warm after the cook time is up.
• Buy a slow cooker according to the size of your family. The crock should be at least half filled for best results. When cooking soups or stews, leave a 2-inch space between the top of the crock and the food so that the recipe can come to a simmer.
• For a family of two or three, buy a 2-4 quart. For a family of three to five, a 5-6 quart. For a large family, or for entertaining groups of people, opt for a 7-8 quart slow cooker. If you only own a very large slow cooker and are cooking for a small group, simply place the food into an oven-safe dish that fits inside your slow cooker. Place the dish on the bottom of the slow cooker and cover and cook. This ensures the food cooks the way it is supposed to.
The care and cleaning of your slow cooker
• Simply fill the cooled slow cooker insert with warm, soapy water and let soak. Clean with a soft rag. Don't use an abrasive cleaner or a metal pad, it will scratch the surface.
• If you have stains on your slow cooker simply fill up the slow cooker with water and add in 1 cup of white vinegar. Cover and cook on HIGH for 2 hours.
• The ceramic insert in a slow cooker can crack if exposed to abrupt temperature shifts. Make sure it is cooled before placing it in a cold sink. Don't put your slow cooker on top of the stovetop or in the microwave. Read your slow cooker manual to see if it is microwave safe.
• Spray the inside of the slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray to make cleanup easier. Or, for easier cleanup, use slow cooker liners.
How it works
• The slow cooker uses an indirect heat and doesn't scorch! You don't need to stir, unless the recipe specifically states to do so.
• Don't lift the lid (especially for the first 2 hours). Every time the lid is lifted, the built-up steam escapes and it adds 20-30 minutes to the cook time.
• The slow cooker uses moist heat to cook the food and is best for less-tender cuts of meat. Look for cuts of meat with lots of connective tissue. The simmering and steam converts the collagen to gelatin and food becomes fork tender.
• Look for inexpensive cuts of meat. No need to buy the more expensive cuts. Some great cuts of meat for the slow cooker are:
-- Chicken on the bone or boneless, skinless chicken thighs (chicken should only cook on LOW for 4-6 hours total). If you end up using boneless, skinless breasts (which I don't recommend) be very careful on the cook time (3 or 4 hours). They don't have enough collagen or fat and they dry out quickly.
-- For beef look on the label for the words "pot roast" or "simmering." Most cuts work from the chuck or shoulder: boneless beef chuck eye (or just chuck) roast, top- or bottom-blade pot roast, cross-rib pot roast. You also can use brisket, short rib or lean ground beef. Many recipes call for stew meat. I prefer to make my own. Not only does it save money, but you also ensure that the meat is all from the same cut and so it cooks evenly. My favorite is using a chuck roast and cutting it into 1-inch cubes.
-- For cuts of pork, look for country-style ribs, picnic roast, shoulder blade (butt) roasts or pork steaks.
When food becomes runny
There is no chance for liquids to condense in the slow cooker. Condensation constantly drips onto the food and makes it more runny. Some ways to thicken sauces are:
• Remove lid and cook on HIGH for the last half hour of cooking time.
• Add in 1 tablespoon of cornstarch mixed until smooth with 1 tablespoon of water and cook on HIGH without the lid for 30 minutes or so.
• Add 1-2 tablespoons of quick-cooking tapioca in with the sauce at the beginning of the cook time.
• Dredge any meat in a quarter cup of flour before adding it to the slow cooker.
• Lastly, you can make a roux on the stove or you can transfer the liquid to a saucepan and reduce it on the stovetop.
• Flavors become bland and muted after cooking all day. Make sure to salt and pepper to taste and add in additional spices to taste before serving!
Get to know your slow cooker
• Every slow cooker cooks differently! Get to know your slow cooker and how to adjust the recipe cook times according to how fast or slow your cooker cooks.
• If you want to test to see if your slow cooker is cooking too hot, this is how you do it: Fill your slow cooker two-thirds full with room temperature water. Cover and cook on HIGH or LOW for 6 hours. (Some cookers run hotter on low and some cookers run hotter on high, so you many want to test both settings). Use a thermometer at the end of the 6 hours. The water should be 195-205 degrees. If is much higher (or lower) than that, you will have to adjust the recipe cook times to fit your slow cooker.
• If you want to reduce grease and fat, make sure to trim any fat from meat before adding it to the slow cooker.
• Brown any meat and drain grease beforehand.
• If cooking meat with a high fat content, place thick onion slices underneath so the meat will not sit on (and cook in) the fat, or use a small rack that fits inside your cooker.
• Let food rest at the end of cook time without the lid for 10 minutes. Spoon off any grease that raises to the top.
The foil collar and foil sling
• Most slow cookers have a hotter side that can cause casseroles and other dense dishes like meatloaves to burn. Line with a foil collar: Layer and fold sheets of heavy duty foil until you have a six-layered foil rectangle. Press the collar into the back side of the slow cooker insert; the food will help hold the collar in place during cooking.
• For recipes that you want to lift out of the insert intact, like lasagnas, breakfast casseroles, meatloaves and some desserts, make a foil sling. Line the slow cooker insert with a foil collar. Then fit two large sheets of foil into the slow cooker, perpendicular to one another, with the extra hanging over the edges of the cooker insert. Before serving, these overhanging edges can be used as handles to pull the dish out fully intact.