Friday, October 02, 2009

Cookbooks: Slow Cooker Comfort Food and Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever

There’s certainly not much less cool than slow cooker cooking. A combination of things. First you start with the name. Crock pot. A brand name, sure, but one that’s stuck like a Xerox copy. Like Tampax. Like Coke. You show someone that deep, electric vessel -- especially if that someone is of a certain age -- and you can say “slow cooker” until your face is blue, but they’re gonna call it something else; that’s just how it will go.

“My concept of comfort food is warm and welcoming and provides a sense of sustenance,” writes Judith Finlayson in Slow Cooker Comfort Food (Robert Rose), “a kind of culinary haven in a heartless world.”

Finlayson is the slow cooker queen. She is the author of The Healthy Slow Cooker. 175 Essential Slow Cooker Classics, The 150 best Slow Cooker Recipes and others. Slow Cooker Comfort Food itself contains 275 “soul-satisfying recipes.” If it can be said about slow cooking, Finlayson has said it, maybe even a couple of times in different ways.

This latest book is large and friendly. A color guide on each page lets readers know if the recipe is “entertaining worthy,” “vegan friendly,” “vegetarian friendly” or suitable for halving. The type is large and the recipes are easy to follow. The food styling and photography is, unfortunately, not that great. In fact, some of this food looks awful: homogenous and bland in some places; too glossy and overly manipulated-looking in others. And while, yes: a lot of this food sounds comforting, some of it just has no business being done in a slow cooker. I don’t understand the sense of poaching quinces for eight hours when a similar effect could be accomplished in minutes -- and not a lot of them -- on top of the stove. Ditto all of the dips with shrimp and/or crab. Please: nothing with either of those delicate meats should be allowed anywhere near a slow cooker. Ever.

Many, many of these recipes, however, are of the type that slow cookers were intended for: the type of low maintenance, high return dishes working families most need. Just a few of these: Moroccan-Style Lemon Chicken with Olives; Simple Soy-Braised Chicken; Corned Beef and Cabbage; Old-Fashioned Beef Stew with Mushrooms; Pinto Bean Chili with Corn and Kale.

In Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever (Chronicle Books) veteran cookbook author Diane Phillips takes a different approach. “Whenever I look at my slow cooker,” Phillips writes, “I think of the lyrics to that old Sinatra standard, ‘I’m not much to look at, nothing to see,’ but upon closer inspection the slow cooker is like the girl in high school who everyone said had a nice personality.”

That said, Best Slow Cooker is by far the more attractive of this particular pair of books. The type is not as large, and the pages are not as shiny but the design is completely contemporary, as is the approach to recipe description. Instructions are not needlessly wordy. As a result, even complicated recipes appear more simple. That said, does anyone really need 400 slow cooker recipes? There are definitely some good ones here (I especially loved the Chicken, Artichoke, and Mushroom Casserole and the Pork Tenderloin Osso Bucco-Style is practically genius) but, as with Finlayson’s book, after a while it seems like a bit of a reach. An artichoke spinach dip that spends two to three hours in a slow cooker? Who would even want that? It just seems contrary to everything slow cookers excel at.

All of that said, if you have an interest in slow cooking or the kind of lifestyle that could benefit from this type of culinary intervention, either of these books would serve very well. Both books include many very good recipes along with the silly ones. And both books talk about slow cook rationale as well as why and how to do it. As well, both authors take a very different approach to their topics even if, in some ways, they end up at a similar place. In fact, the recipes are varied enough, if you’ve the means, you might reasonably opt not to make it a competition at all. Perhaps you don’t have to decide between them: in the end, you might decide you want both.

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