TORONTO - Food spooned out of a slow cooker that is crunchy, colourful and flavourful may seem like an impossibility, but Sally Vaughan-Johnston says she has some tricks to achieve just that.
While testing the 200 recipes that make up the "Best of Bridge Slow Cooker Cookbook," the newest member of the Best of Bridge Ladies publishing phenomenon discovered that adding certain finishing touches can elevate a dish from mushy and unappealing to delicious.
In the last 15 minutes or so of cooking, stir in the vegetables that only need enough time to heat through, such as corn, peas, edamame beans, sugar snap peas, spinach and red bell peppers, items that you want to retain crunch or texture, and crank the heat up to high.
"They heat right through, but they've still got that lovely crunch and colour," Vaughan-Johnston said.
She also adds other last-minute pick-me-ups, such as fresh herbs, or something acidic such as balsamic vinegar or lime or lemon juice, or a bit of extra heat such as jalapeno pepper.
"People think the longer you cook it, the more flavourful it becomes," Vaughan-Johston said. "Actually that's not necessarily true when you're using any kind of moist heat such as a slow cooker or braising.
"The longer you cook it, the flavours can become faded, in fact, which is why people often think with slow cooker food that everything tastes the same."
"Sally has mastered crunchy, and crunchy and slow cookers are not synonymous," said Mary Halpen, one of the original Best of Bridge Ladies.
Best of Bridge Publishing was founded more than 35 years ago, when the original eight women came up with an idea to compile the recipes they enjoyed after their bridge games into a cookbook. They haven't looked back, despite a warning from the bank manager who approved their first loan that they wouldn't remain friends if they also worked together.
The women proved him wrong and went on to publish 12 popular books. A recent decision to hang up their aprons was re-evaluated after Robert Rose Publishing Inc. put together a proposal to continue their legacy and Vaughan-Johnston, a former Edmonton Sun food editor who was just wrapping up her chef training, was accepted as a Best of Bridge Lady.
"Sally gets us," said Halpen, who was in Toronto on her last promotion tour.
"I have that same kind of irreverent approach to life and I'm definitely down to earth and that's them," Vaughan-Johnston said when the two dropped by The Canadian Press offices. "There's no airs and graces about Best of Bridge recipes and there's no airs and graces about me.
"I love food and I love good food and I sometimes have to distance myself from the chef part of it because I don't want to come across as cheffy-weffy. First and foremost, I'm a mom who loves to cook too. I know what it's like to be a busy working mom and want to get food on the table."
This is the first time they've done a book on an appliance or a single subject.
"Half of the recipes in the book are Best of Bridge recipes that Sally has reconfigured to work in a slow cooker and the other half are all new recipes developed by Sally," said Halpen, who lives in Calgary. The other Bridge Ladies appraise and critique them.
There are a lot of recipes in the book outside the sphere of soups, stews and casseroles.
There's a chapter on desserts. "That surprises a lot of people," she added. "You can make, in the slow cooker, a lot of those old-fashioned desserts, such as fruit cobblers and upside-down fruit puddings, rice pudding, fruit crisps even, and they just do really well in the slow cooker because it's a moist heat. They kind of resemble the steamed puddings that Grandma used to make."
A trick to prevent sogginess "is to lay a tea towel over top of the slow cooker before you put the lid on because that traps the moisture that would normally collect on the underside of the lid and fall on top."
She said the gentle heat of slow cooking makes the appliance a natural for baked pasta dishes like lasagna and cannelloni.
"How many times have you made a lasagna in the oven and it's come out all crunchy on top and dried out in the middle? That doesn't happen in the slow cooker."
You can make delicious caramelized onions in four to six hours in the slow cooker. At the stove you have to be constantly stirring and watching them. They can be used in dips and French onion soup and on top of flatbread, pizza and brie.
Vaughan-Johnston offers tips in the chapter Slow Cooker 101, including how to buy the appliances and the bonus of preparation.
People often say they just want to throw food in the slow cooker before heading out in the morning. You can do that, but it won't be as good as it could be, Vaughan-Johnston cautioned.
Root vegetables take longer than meat to cook in a slow cooker, so cut them into 2.5-centimetre (one-inch) pieces.
The night before, chop onions and saute them or cook them in the microwave for three or four minutes. Slice meat and refrigerate it separately from the onions. Measure out liquids and open the can of tomatoes.
"Then just pop it all in there in the morning and be on your merry way," Vaughan-Johnston said.
Best of Bridge, www.bestofbridge.com
Robert Rose Inc., www.robertrose.ca