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Crock-Pot cooking evolves as more recipes join classics
In the fall people move from the grill to the slow cooker which has classic recipes and newer ones being adopted to the slow method all the time. This is a slow-cooker chicken chili. - photo by Kathleen Galligan

Slow-cooker cooking is a rite of fall.

As the cooler weather hits, folks are less inclined to use the grill and more inclined to turn to that versatile vessel that saves time and effort.

According to Jarden Corp., which owns Rival and the Crock-Pot brand, 86 percent of American households own a slow cooker.

The appliance is ideal for making soups, chilies or stews. You can even make oatmeal overnight so breakfast is ready when you wake up.

And you can use the slow cooker simply to keep things warm - ideal for potlucks or buffets.

In "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook" (Harvard Common Press, $16.95), authors Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann write that a slow cooker "allows for the most basic of foods to be cooked to perfection."

The trusty slow cooker (most of us call it a Crock-Pot, which is a trademarked name from Rival ) is 39 years old and keeps getting better with age - thanks to evolving techniques and more recipes packed with flavor or international flair.

For Jonathan John, 55, of Monroe, Mich., the slow cooker's appeal lies in its convenience and versatility.

"You can get everything done in the morning and leave it all day to cook, and you've got a meal," says John. "In my opinion, the longer you leave it the better it gets."

John also likes that slow cookers offer affordable ways to make a meal, especially with meats.

"You can use lesser or inexpensive cuts of meat, slow-cook them and it tastes just as good as the more expensive cuts," he says.

John likes to experiment with his slow cooker, using different cuts of lamb, making a lot of Indian curries and cooking beef with his own barbecue sauce.

But the England native also uses his slow cooker for familiar comfort dishes - such as John's Beef Stew with Wine, a dish that Mum used to make.

"My mother used to make it with Guinness Stout, but I like the wine," says John. "You can serve this over noodles or rice or garlic mashed spuds."

A key to John's beef stew is to brown the beef in bacon fat to sear it.

"Nicely browned beef means you keep more moisture in the beef," says John. "And the more moisture while it's cooking, the better."

It's those tricks - like browning the meat or chicken or pork, sauteing vegetables or adding them at the right time that make slow-cooker meals more appealing and flavorful.