Kitchen Focus

It's hard to find good home-cooking these days. I suppose a big reason for that are the busy schedules we tend to keep nowadays. If you're not putting in extra time on the job, you're running from soccer practice to violin recitals and everything in between. People used to be around the house, if not in the kitchen, to keep an eye on a slow-simmering pot of soup or crock of baked beans.

While the days of spending hours babysitting a pot of stew or chili are probably in the past, that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy a bowl of these ultimate comfort foods ... and even in the middle of the week! How can that possibly be the case? Why with the help of your trusty slow cooker, of course! (You do own one of these kitchen blessings, don't you?)

The slow cookers of today are wonderful appliances that apply a slow, even heat to a vessel filled with yummy ingredients that become even yummier when simmered for hours. Modern models include everything from timers that will automatically switch the appliance to a KEEP WARM setting to computerized models that will even tell you what to put in them! Of course, the most important features to look for are a stoneware vessel (it holds and distributes heat the best) that's big enough for your family's needs and at least two settings -- LOW and HIGH -- although a KEEP WARM setting can be very helpful if you're one of those people that tends to get stuck at the office.

The basic recipes for slow cooking consist of putting together a bunch of items, covering the pot and ignoring it for hours while it does the cooking for you. Of course, there are some steps that can be taken to make a good recipe great. Because slow cookers use moist heat to do the cooking, meats and other ingredients will not brown in a slow cooker. Therefore, it's often nice to brown meat prior to adding it to the pot. A newer slow cooker model actually allows you to brown your ingredients right in the pot prior to setting it on the warming unit -- thus eliminating one more dirty dish! Also, the order in which you place your ingredients can be important, especially when combining slower cooking ingredients, like potatoes, with quicker cooking ingredients, like onions. The lower in the pot you place an ingredient, the more heat it will absorb ... so put those potatoes in first! Finally, since the pot will be covered for the duration of its cooking time, a relatively small amount of liquid will be necessary to ensure a moist dish. A pot of chili simmering on the stove may need over twice as much liquid as one cooking in a slow cooker!

With these tips in mind, I'm also offering you a great recipe to take full advantage of your slow cooker and give you a chance to savor some of the flavors associated with the winter season as it gives way to spring. With a great meal like this hearty beef stew waiting for you at the end of a busy day, you might just smile the next time you think of winter ... as long as you have a slow cooker to help you through this season and the next!

Country Beef Stew

Tender chunks of beef and vegetables are the perfect comfort food when swimming in a savory gravy that's been cooking all day long.
  • 4-5 medium potatoes -- washed and cut into 1" chunks
  • 3 carrots -- peeled and cut into 1" lengths
  • 1 celery rib -- washed and cut into 1" lengths
  • 2 T. cornstarch
  • 1 envelope onion soup mix
  • 2 lbs. beef stew meat
  • 2 T. canola oil
  • 1 medium onion -- coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 c. water
  • 1-2 T. grainy mustard

Place the prepared potatoes, carrots and celery in the bottom of a slow cooker, placing the potatoes down first and ending with the celery.

In a large bowl, combine the cornstarch and onion soup mix. Toss the stew meat with the cornstarch mixture and brown in two batches in a large skillet, using one tablespoon of oil for each batch. When the meat is browned, place it over the vegetables in the slow cooker. Layer the prepared onion over the top of the beef.

Add any remaining cornstarch mixture to the skillet and add the water and mustard. Stir to remove any browned bits in the pan and carefully pour the liquid over the contents of the slow cooker.

Cover the cooker and set on the HIGH setting for about 6 hours or the LOW setting for about 10 hours. Mix thoroughly before serving.

  • Yields: 8-10 servings
  • Preparation Time: 20 minutes hands-on plus 6-10 hours unattended cooking
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