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Book Review: Slow Cooker Winners by Donna-Marie Pye

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As I have previously mentioned, when my mother gave me a slow cooker one year ago, it transformed my culinary life. But when I first opened the Christmas wrapping, she had to explain to me what the purpose of this 1970s throwback was. Since I knew nothing about slow cooking, I proceeded to visit bookstores, perusing dozens of cookbooks in the surprisingly plentiful slow cooker section.

In all of my extensive searching, Slow Cooker Winners: 300 Easy and Satisfying Recipes by Donna-Marie Pye is one of the more exciting cookbooks for slow cookers I have encountered. Sure, it may not be the prettiest, with the glossiest pages, but what Slow Cooker Winners does provide is a recipe for almost every classic dish, reimagined in an inventive, delicious, and oftentimes completely surprising way.

Donna-Marie Pye knows her slow cookers, having had a meaningful relationship with them for over ten years, and the book opens with a breakdown of the slow cooker and useful tips to optimize the results of these recipes, such as using less tender meats, or whole herbs and spices. On every page of the book, there are additional helpful tips in the margins concerning ingredients, preparation, and serving. She even includes a very useful section on adapting conventional recipes for the slow cooker (with the equally useful following sections on food safety and understanding the limits of a slow cooker).

The first section covers Breakfasts, Breads and Beverages. I have personally never considered using my slow cooker for any of these categories, but I will now, given recipes for delicacies such as Overnight Blueberry French Toast and Mary’s Australian Ginger Beer. The idea of cooking your breakfast overnight and waking up to the sweet smell of Baked Apple Breakfast Cobbler is something I could definitely get on board with. And, as we are in the midst of the holiday season, entertaining with a big Crockpot of Hot Spiced Pumpkin Pie Latte seems like it would be a crowd-pleaser, and certainly cheaper than buying 20 of them from Starbuck’s.

The next section, Appetizers, Dip and Spreads, contains many gourmet dishes that, again, I would never have imagined could be made in the slow cooker. Rosemary Roasted Pecans, Cranberry Baked Brie, Goat Cheese Crostini with Fig Compote, Old-World Beer and Cheddar Fondue; the culinary sky is the limit with ten dollars worth of cheese and your trusty slow cooker. And, while I am completely satisfied with outstanding cheese dishes, for those of you who desire more of the animal, Pye suggests Moroccan Lamb Meatball Pouches, Red Thai Curry Wings, and Spanish Chorizo Dippers with Garlic AÏoli. She even has tips on storing preserves (yes, there are recipes for that in here, too!). Sure, many of these recipes, such as Roasted Garlic and Red Pepper Hummus, require some preparation outside of the slow cooker (a food processor in this case), but with such delectable fare, who cares?

Now we come to the Soups and Stews, both extensive sections, because these are such logical things to make in a slow cooker. Many of the recipes in this book are innovative, such as Adobe Sweet Potato and Chile Soup, Thai Shrimp and Squash Soup, and Sweet-and-Sour Moroccan Lamb Soup. But you also have interesting twists on the classics: Enjoy minestrone? Why not try Mexican Minestrone with Cornmeal Dumplings? Love chowders? Pye includes Coastal Fish Chowder, Manhattan Red Clam Chowder, Scallop and Corn Chowder, and even Edamame and Chicken Corn Chowder. There are also some delicious, non-slow cooker recipes for accoutrements, including Southwest Cornbread, Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits, and Cumin Croutons. There is an entire section on Chili and Beans, with such options as White Bean and Toasted Cumin Chili with Lime Cream, Canadian Maple Turkey Chili, and East-West Fruit and Nut Chili (plus the more run-of-the-mill recipes). The section also includes tips on cooking with dried, instead of canned, beans.

The next section, Vegetarian Mains, has everything from Chunky Vegetable Paella and Eggplant Parmesan, to the more exotic and intriguing Pumpkin and Spinach Lasagna and Barbecue Tofu Sandwiches. The Seafood chapter has delicious and just-exotic-enough comfort food, such as Brazilian Fish Stew or Indian Fish Curry, but also some dishes that would be at home in a high-end restaurant, such as Linguine with Seafood Puttanesca Sauce and Spicy Mussels and Chorizo (complete with instructions on how to clean mussels).

The poultry section is again extensive: almost 30 recipes just for chicken and turkey. Since it is Thanksgiving time, I will mention that Pye praises the slow cooker as the best way to make stuffing, and her recipe for Chicken with Sourdough Mushroom Stuffing is definitely one to try. But I am even more fascinated by the recipes for Fennel and Pear Chicken Thighs, which seems to be similar to Moroccan Tagine (actually there is also a recipe for Moroccan Chicken), something called Bollywood Chicken Loaf with Chutney Glaze, which seems to be an Indian-flavored meatloaf, and the Turkey and Cranberry Cobbler, which simultaneously contains all sorts of vegetables and puff pastry.

The Beef and Veal chapter is just as long, as diverse, and as phenomenal. Continuing my interest in odd culinary pairings, you have Braised Brisket with Cranberries and Sheila’s Mother’s Coffee Pot Roast. Again, some of the dishes rival gourmet restaurants: Veal and Leek Ragoût in Herbed Popovers or Braised Pot Roast with Caramelized Vegetables. At the same time, there are great, unhealthy, homey comfort dishes, such as Slow Cooker Steak with Creamy Red Wine Gravy, Philly Cheese and Beef Casserole, or Family-Style Chili Mac and Cheese. The added benefit of any slow-cooker meat recipe is that you can buy cheaper cuts, but still end up with incredibly tender meat.

I am turning into a broken record with my delight in each chapter, but I could say all the same accolades for the Pork and Lamb section. My top picks here would be Roast Pork Loin with Port and Fig Sauce, BBQ Pork Sandwiches with Five-Vegetable Slaw (an example of how the extra side recipes add a lot to this book: this is the best sounding slaw recipe I have ever seen), and Mediterranean “Pulled” Lamb with Mint Vinegar (and Greek-Style Couscous as the accompaniment). Having spent a year in Montréal, I am especially pleased that the Canadian roots of the Robert Rose publishing house shine through in a recipe for Pork and Potato Poutine.

A chapter on Sides and Grains covers such dishes as Apricot-Glazed Carrots, Triple-Pepper Corn Gratin, and Saffron Risotto. This is nice, as many slow cooker cookbooks do not have many vegetarian options. The next section makes suggestions for Big-Batch Dinner for a Crowd; much of it is the kind of food you would serve for a football watch party, with the surprising inclusion of an interpretation of a dish I have longed to make, Polish Pierogies with Caramelized Onions. In fact, Pye also tells you how to make Baba’s Russian Mennonite Borscht, which I imagine would be quite good with it (if you have two slow cookers).

Slow Cooker Winners has two sections that I have seen in other slow cooker cookbooks, but that is something, as a single lady, I especially love: Meals for Two and Double-Duty Dinners. The first section has recipes designed for smaller slow cookers and includes a page on small portion tips, such as how to store ingredients in the freezer. Whoever first started writing “Cook Once, Eat Twice” recipes for the slow cooker was a genius. The second section features recipe pairs: the first for a slow cooker meal, and the second for a non-slow cooker meal that uses the first as an ingredient for a different dish. For example, there is Thai Chicken Noodle Bowls and Thai Chicken Pizza; Adobo Barbecue Turkey Thighs and Amazing Turkey Enchiladas; Greek Lamb Roast Dinner and Warm Lamb Gyros with Tzatziki. In fact, this may be my favorite section, because I end of eating a lot of leftovers, and identical meals can get boring, but I hate to waste food. Double-Duty Dinners offers the perfect solution.

But the last section really takes the cake: Desserts. I have never thought that I could produce such amazing desserts in a slow cooker, but Pye includes decadent and surprising recipes here: Green Tea-Poached Winter Fruits, Peach and Blueberry Cobbler with Spiced Pecan Topping, Warm Chocolate Lava Cake; even Elephant Ears with Hot Caramel Sauce and Ginger Crème Brûlée! In a moment of epiphany, I realize that I can cook the first Double-Duty Dinner dish one night, and the next night use my slow cooker to prepare one of these desserts while I dress up the leftovers with the second recipe from Double-Duty Dinners. I am incredibly excited.

Without a doubt, I see Slow Cooker Winners becoming one of my go-to cookbooks for everyday meals and unusual dishes to awe guests when entertaining. Of course, I look forward to preparing all of the recipes I have mentioned here, but there are so many (300, in fact), that there are dozens more I could not even mention, complete with non-slow cooker side dishes, that I am equally eager to try. This is a book that will stand the test of time, and I am sure that I will come back to the recipes contained in these pages year after year, with great pleasure.

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About Kerri Shadid