Standing beside the kitchen counter of her Dunwoody, Ga., home, author Cynthia Graubart lifts two plastic bags from a slow cooker, an appliance with which she has had a long-simmering on-again, off-again affair.
First there was the avocado-green Rival brand slow cooker that she pilfered from her mother to take to college in the early 1980s, only to discover it made too much food and was a pain to clean. Then came the 6-quart cooker she used to make dinners for her husband and two children. After her son and daughter left for college, the empty nester didn’t banish the slow cooker, but she often found she had too many leftovers.
Behold the 3 1/2-quart slow cooker. This smaller device was the inspiration for her new book, “Slow Cooking for Two: Basics, Techniques, Recipes” (Gibbs Smith, $19.99), which hit stores just as she was savoring the 2013 James Beard Award she won for “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” (Gibbs Smith, $45), co-authored with her longtime friend and collaborator Nathalie Dupree.
Though the slow cooker has long been the province of the earthy cuisine of stews and soups, Graubart imbues her pot with surprising versatility. While you expect recipes for turkey chili, hot cheese dip and chocolate fondue (and indeed, they are here), Graubart also includes ingenious and inventive applications.
She even devises a way for the slow cooker to work like an oven. She “bakes” banana bread in mini-loaf pans perched on a cookie cutter or Mason jar ring. Ramekins of vanilla custard are firmed in a bain-marie. Salmon is steamed in foil.
“It’s the best device for cooking something unattended, and that’s a really liberating thing,” says Graubart, who rediscovered the slow cooker while working on the voluminous “Mastering.” But the family-size recipes were often too much for her and her husband, Cliff. So she scaled them back.
For larger gatherings, many of her recipes can easily be doubled. (However, because slow cookers retain so much moisture, she generally suggests increasing the liquid only by half when cooking twice as much.)
To save time, Graubart also came up with a genius plan for cooking two meals at once. She uses plastic slow-cooker liners (available in the grocery store alongside the sandwich bags and aluminum foil) to make two dishes simultaneously. Bottom round roasts, flank steaks, pot roasts and pork tenderloins are sliced in half, placed in separate liners with the remaining ingredients and cooked in the same pot. One dish is meant to be eaten at once, the other saved for later.
This brings us back to the plastic bags that Graubart is gingerly untucking from her slow cooker, taking care not to spill the liquid. Inside Liner No. 1 is Lime Pot Roast, a variation of Dupree’s classic lemon-lime pot roast, which here calls for lime zest and juice, tomatoes, garlic and not much else. Inside Liner No. 2: Vinegar-Braised Pot Roast, seasoned with balsamic, rosemary and strong coffee.
While it’s smart to freeze a meal for later, imagine putting both these gorgeous pot roasts out for company. I plan to do just that, using a ginormous, three-sectioned platter that once belonged to my mother – with mashed potatoes in the middle. Add a salad or sauteed greens, and I’m done.
Since the dinners are cooked in separate bags, you may also mix and match proteins: perhaps a roast in one liner, a tenderloin in another. The double-dinner concept has been so well received that it has spawned a sequel: Graubart is now finishing up “Slow Cooking for Two: Double Dinners,” due out from Gibbs Smith in the spring.
“My sister went to Wyoming this summer,” Graubart says. “She packed her slow cooker and the book, and she said coming in from hiking and having the meal ready was fantastic.”
Perhaps she oughta name that slow cooker Old Faithful.
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