The wind chaps my face as I struggle with the key. A bag of groceries weighs down my shoulder. Jiggle, jiggle — c'mon! I pull off my glove (didn't I oil this lock?), turn once hard and ... CLICK! The door swings in, and ahhh ... a warm waft of beef and wine and garlic wraps itself around me like a blanket.
The best thing about cold weather — and perhaps the only good thing about winter — is walking into a toasty house where the slow cooker has been going all day.
I got my first slow cooker maybe 15 years ago, a hand-me-down from my mom, who I think had gotten it using airline miles that were about to expire. It was ugly. It was big. It was white and round, with cornflower-blue designs meant to evoke Dutch porcelain. What went into it wasn't much better. The slim instruction booklet also contained recipes, which I read and then dutifully began following: open a can of chickpeas, open a can of tomatoes, open a can of, I think, Veg-All — processed carrots, peas and beans.
I peered into the souplike mess. "Ew," said my then-boyfriend (now husband) over my shoulder. "Are we going to eat that?"
We did eat it. But it was years — and years and years and years — before I hauled out the slow cooker again.
The slow cooker was born in 1971, when the Rival company transformed an electric bean cooker by adding handles and a steel casing, and expanding the appliance's repertoire of ingredients. Driven by a recession-minted desire to conserve energy — remember gas lines? — and to save money, Rival's "Crock-Pot Slow Cooker" became a popular way to tenderize inexpensive cuts of meat using little electricity. More women were heading to work in the '70s, and the idea that dinner could be ready when you walked through the door appealed to anyone who couldn't bear the thought of cooking after a full day at the office.
Long, low, moist cooking isn't new. And it isn't particularly American. In parts of India, cooks seal a heavy-bottomed pot with dough and let rice or meat braise over a low flame for many hours, basking in nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and other spices. In Greece, a traditional lamb preparation involves cooking it in an underground oven sealed with mud. Ditto for Hawaii, where locals still celebrate weddings and a baby's first birthday by roasting a pig in an imu, an underground oven heated by rocks and kept moist with banana leaves. Moroccans slow cook meats in a tagine, a clay pot whose conical shape recirculates the juices, just like in an American slow cooker.
I'm not sure exactly when I rehabilitated my slow cooker, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with becoming a mom and realizing that I no longer had seven hours to stay put and make sure whatever I was braising or simmering didn't set the house on fire. Then I discovered that you could put anything into the slow cooker — meat bones, onion stubs, flaccid carrots, flat beer, forgotten scraps excavated from the freezer — and it would produce actual food. Like, real, honest-to-goodness, delicious soup or stew. Today I own two: one family-sized, and one gorgeous, stainless-steel programmable dinner-party sized. I gave the old white one to a friend in an evangelical frenzy (I kind of want it back).
Slow cooker usage is booming, according to Jarden Consumer Solutions, which now owns the Crock-Pot brand, the most widely used slow cooker. Roughly a dozen companies manufacture slow cookers, and Crock-Pot alone offers a jumble of them: 3-quart, 4-quart, 5.5-quart, 6-quart, 7-quart, programmable, portable, patterned, customizable with pictures of your kids. For the past two or three years, says Jarden spokeswoman Tricia McKenzie, people have re-engaged their slow cookers, exchanging recipes online and creating social media and Facebook pages that are odes to the appliance. Hard economic times and a focus on eating healthfully and locally are probably driving the trend, but it's also likely that a new breed of slow cooker cookbooks that require knives instead of can openers have brought it back to the countertop, and changed what many of us put into it.
It's true that I often use my slow cooker the way others use a compost bin, tossing in compatible food scraps and working with whatever comes out. But I have also embraced its potential to make everything from Indian dhal to Mexican mole better and with less hassle and cleanup. Some people even make cakes and puddings in their slow cookers.
The best slow cooker recipes require at least a little effort, some browning or sweating of vegetables. I have seared bison short ribs and caramelized onions, then let the slow cooker turn them into exquisite dinner party fare. I have prepared phodni — spiced oil used in Indian cooking — and stirred it into slow cooker dhal creamier than anything I've ever made in the pressure cooker. I have even made a cassoulet with duck legs and sausage that was so good, a French friend who grew up hating the dish ate two helpings.
But the best part, the part that gets me every time, is still opening the door and being welcomed home, where dinner is (nearly) on the table.